Modal Interchange and Semantic Resonance in Themes by John Williams


  • Tom Schneller Ithaca College



John Williams, film scores, harmonic analysis, mixed modes, semiotics


This article examines the semantic properties of several characteristic triadic shifts in the film and ceremonial music of John Williams. These shifts result from particular modal inflections in major keys, which include the mixolydian subtonic (associated with the heroic and/or patriotic), and the lydian supertonic (associated with magic, wonder and flight). My aim in examining Williams’ use of mixed modes is both to gain a more precise understanding of one particular aspect of his style, and to place it into the larger context of the musical tradition in Hollywood.

Author Biography

Tom Schneller, Ithaca College

Lecturer, Music History


Bribitzer-Stull, Matthew. 2012. From Nibelheim to Hollywood: The associativity of harmonic progression. In The legacy of Richard Wagner: Convergences and dissonances on aesthetics and reception, ed. Luca Sala, 157-183. Lucca: Turnhout.

Brode, Douglas. 2012. Cowboys in space: Star Wars and the western film. In Myth, media, and culture in Star Wars: An anthology, ed. Douglas Brode, 1-11. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Buhler, James. 2000. Star Wars, music and myth. In Music and cinema, eds. James Buhler, Caryl Flinn, and David Neumeyer, 33-57. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.

Burgoyne, Robert. 1997. Film nation: Hollywood looks at American history. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Cooke, Mervyn. 2008. A history of film music. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Everett, Walter. 2004. Making sense of rock’s tonal systems. Music Theory Online 10, no. 4. Accessed December 14, 2014.

———. 2008. The foundations of rock: From “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” New York: Oxford University Press.

Hellman, John. 1997. The Kennedy obsession: The American myth of JFK. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hickman, Roger. 2011. Miklós Rózsa’s Ben-Hur: A film score guide. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Kalinak, Kathryn. 1992. John Williams and The Empire Strikes Back. In Settling the score: Music and the classical Hollywood film score, 184-202. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Kord, Susanne and Elisabeth Krimmer. 2011. Contemporary Hollywood masculinities: Gender, genre, and politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lakoff, George. 2010. Moral politics: How Liberals and Conservatives think. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Larson, Randall. 1985. Musique Fantastique: A survey of film music in the Fantastic Cinema. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

Lehman, Frank. 2012. Reading tonality through film: Transformational hermeneutics and the music of Hollywood. PhD diss., Harvard.

———. 2012. Music theory through the lens of film. The Journal of Film Music 5, nos. 1–2: 179-198.

———. 2013. Transformational analysis and the representation of genius in film music. Music Theory Spectrum 35, no. 1: 1-22.

———. 2013. Hollywood cadences: Music and the structure of cinematic expectation. Music Theory Online 19, no. 4.

Lerner, Neil. 2004. Nostalgia, masculinist discourse and authoritarianism in John Williams’ scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In Off the planet: Music, sound and science fiction cinema, ed. Phillip Hayward, 96-108. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lissa, Zofia. 1965. Ästhetik der Filmmusik. Berlin: Henschelverlag.

Locke, Ralph. 1991. Constructing the oriental “other”: Saint-Saens’s Samson et Dalila. Cambridge Opera Journal 3, no. 3: 261-302.

Malamud, Margaret. 2009. Ancient Rome and modern America. Malden, MA and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

McBride, Joseph. 2010. Spielberg: A biography. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

McLucas, Anne Dhu. 2012. The continuity of melos: Beginnings to the present day, The Journal of Film Music 5, nos. 1–2: 15-28.

Monelle, Raymond. 2006. The musical topic: Hunt, military and pastoral. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Murphy, Scott. 2006. The major tritone progression in recent Hollywood science fiction films. Music Theory Online 12, no. 2.

———. 2014. The tritone within: Interpreting harmony in Elliott Goldenthal’s score for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. In The music of fantasy cinema, ed. Janet K. Halfyard, 148-174. Sheffield and Bristol: Equinox.

———. 2014. Transformational theory and film music. In The Oxford handbook of film music studies, ed. David Neumeyer, 471-499. New York: Oxford University Press.

Neumeyer, David. 1995. Melodrama as a compositional resource in Early Hollywood sound cinema. Current Musicology 57: 61-94.

Pisani, Michael V. 2014. When the music surges: Melodrama and the nineteenth-century precedents for film music style and placement. In The Oxford handbook of film music studies, ed. David Neumeyer, 559-582. New York: Oxford University Press.

Plebuch, Tobias. 2012. Mysteriosos demystified: Topical strategies within and beyond the silent cinema. The Journal of Film Music 5, nos. 1–2: 77-92.

Ramos, D., J.L.O. Bueno, and E. Bigand. 2011. Manipulating Greek musical modes and tempo affects perceived musical emotion in musicians and nonmusicians. Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research 44, no. 2: 165-172.

Sadoff, Ron. 2004. Composition by corporate committee: Recipe for cliché. American Music 22 (Spring): 64-75.

Schneller, Tom. 2014. Sweet fulfillment: Allusion and teleological genesis in John Williams’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Musical Quarterly.

Simels, Steve. 1977. Star Wars: The soundtrack. Stereo Review 39: 5.

Straehley, Ian C. and Jeremy L. Loebach. 2014. The influence of mode and musical experience on the attribution of emotions to melodic sequences. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain 24, no. 1: 31.

Stubbs, Jonathan. 2013. Historical films: An introduction. New York and London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Tagg, Philip. 1979. Kojak: 50 seconds of television music. Towards the analysis of affect in popular music. Göteborg: Musikvetenskapliga institutionen vid Göteborgs universitet.

———. 2014. Everyday tonality II: Towards a tonal theory of what most people hear. New York and Huddersfield: The Mass Media Music Scholars’ Press.

Tagg, Philip and Bob Clarida. 2003. Ten little title tunes: Towards a musicology of mass media. New York: Mass Media Music Scholars’ Press.

Taruskin, Richard. 2005. Music in the early twentieth century, vol. 4 of The Oxford history of western music. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 2010. Music in the nineteenth century, vol. 3 of The Oxford history of western music. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Temperley, David and Daphne Tan. 2013. Emotional connotations of diatonic modes. Music Perception 30, no. 3: 237-257.

Vincent, John. 1951. The diatonic modes in modern music. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Walser, Robert. 2013. Running with the devil: Power, gender, and madness in heavy metal music. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Webster, Jamie Lynn. 2009. The music of Harry Potter: Continuity and change in the first five films. PhD diss., University of Oregon.

Whitmer, Mariana. 2012. Jerome Moross’s The Big Country: A film score guide. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Williams, John. 1978. Interview by Derek Elley, “John Williams,” Part I. Films and Filming 28 (July/August): 20-24.

Williams, John. 2007. Undated backstage interview. Posted by narutosaiyans (May 27). Accessed December 14, 2014.

———. 2011. Interview by Jo Reed. A conversation with John Williams. NEA Podcasts. Accessed December 14, 2014.

———. 2012. Interview by Tommy Pearson, John Williams at 80: A Classic FM Interview Special. Classic FM (August 27).



How to Cite

Schneller, T. (2015). Modal Interchange and Semantic Resonance in Themes by John Williams. Journal of Film Music, 6(1), 49–74.