John Williams turns 90: my 25 favorite Star Wars musical pieces from the master

John Williams turns 90 years old today.

It is nearly impossible to overstate just how massively influential Williams is in the Star Wars universe, as the greatest film composer to ever live has provided the score to all nine saga films, a theme for Solo and Galaxy’s Edge, and more. Without Williams, I am extremely confident in saying that Star Wars would not be anywhere near what it is today, and few people were more directly responsible for making Star Wars a hit all the way back in 1977 than him.

And, of course, that’s all in addition to his brilliant career that has seen him do the scores for Jaws, Indiana Jones, Superman, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Harry Potter, and much more (including the Olympic theme). He has been nominated for 52 Academy Awards, second-most of any individual in history behind only Walt Disney.

His scores for six of his nine Star Wars films were nominated for Best Original Score at the Academy Awards, and George Lucas was right when he called Williams “the secret sauce” of Star Wars. There are so many themes that are instantly recognizable, and I love listening to them. I don’t mean to brag, but at least according to Spotify, I’m one of the most frequent listeners of John Williams in the world each year, and so I thought I’d make a list of my 25 favorite Star Wars pieces from the legend. This might be the hardest article I’ve had to write! And instead of trying to rank them, I’ve just grouped them by film, in the order of when that movie released.

If nothing else, this is just a reminder of how many amazing pieces of music John Williams has written for Star Wars. He’s the best.

Star Wars main theme (A New Hope)

It doesn’t get much more iconic than this one. The main title of the franchise, which immediately sweeps you up into this epic story from the very beginning of each saga film, also serves as a main theme for Luke Skywalker and is among the most iconic and instantly recognizable themes in all of film history.

The Force theme (A New Hope)

Another one of the most iconic and influential themes in Star Wars is the Force theme, which has become one of the most common recurring motifs in the entire saga. It shows up often, and when it does it always adds to the scene and adds an emotional weight and thrill to things. The fact that this theme alone can carry so much storytelling weight should tell you all you need to know about it – just look at the Binary Sunset if you need proof.

Princess Leia’s theme (A New Hope)

One of the best Star Wars characters deserves one of the best themes, and that’s the case with Leia. The theme manages to capture the elegance of this noble princess who is also a formidable fighter and a courageous leader. Williams conveys the grace and courage of the saga’s strongest character in a beautiful way.

Cantina theme (A New Hope)

This one’s totally different than the others we’ve mentioned, but that’s part of why it’s so brilliant. The cantina theme that plays when the heroes meet in the Mos Eisley Cantina is instantly catchy, and it manages to do a considerable amount of worldbuilding all by itself as we get used to this galaxy far, far away.

The Throne Room and End Title (A New Hope)

The first Star Wars film is filled with thrilling heroic themes, but it ends with another one, as the heroes are celebrated in the Throne Room on Yavin IV following the destruction of the Death Star. This leads us directly into the end credits, the beginning of which is another staple of Star Wars.

The Imperial March (The Empire Strikes Back)

This very well might be Williams’ most iconic theme from all of Star Wars, and that’s saying a lot. Often synonymous as Darth Vader’s theme, the Imperial March is a menacing and foreboding motif that has been used throughout the saga all over the place. It’s the first theme we hear after the opening credits in Empire, but its full reveal is saved for a bit later when we discover the true might of Vader’s fleet. I’m especially partial to some of the ways that it’s used in Return of the Jedi, too.

Yoda’s Theme (The Empire Strikes Back)

How do you capture one of the greatest and wisest Jedi Master through a musical theme, especially when said Jedi Master is a strange, tiny puppet living on a remote swamp world? Ask John Williams, because he managed to do it perfectly. Yoda’s theme is a peaceful yet heroic exploration of the Force and its surrounding all living things.

The Asteroid Field (The Empire Strikes Back)

A rolling adventure deserves a bombastic theme to match, and Williams delivers that with the asteroid field theme. Han Solo and the rebels are desperately on the run and trying to escape Vader and the Empire, and that results in a dangerous ride through an asteroid field – and Williams accompanies this perfectly with a frantic musical piece that fires on all cylinders as the audience stays on the edge of their seats, enjoying the ride.

Han Solo and the Princess (The Empire Strikes Back)

The love theme for Han and Leia does some great storytelling, and Williams and George Lucas use it perfectly throughout the movie – their actions on-screen are complicated and they’re arguing and bickering, but the music betrays how they really feel about one another. They’re falling in love, and Williams is telling us before anyone else does. It’s both brilliant and beautiful.

The Battle in the Snow (The Empire Strikes Back)

The Battle of Hoth is one of the cooler battles in the Star Wars saga, with the Imperial walkers marching on the base, the snowspeeders flying out to meet them, Luke’s heroics, the rebels trying to evacuate, etc. And Williams delivers a tremendous suite that fits the occasion.

Luke and Leia (Return of the Jedi)

This theme is beautiful and poignant, accompanying one of the more intimate and heartwarming scenes in the saga, as brother and sister talk on Endor. Williams weaves together Leia’s theme with Luke’s as we see the siblings interacting on-screen. The way he utilizes this once again in The Last Jedi just makes it even better.

Parade of the Ewoks (Return of the Jedi)

These furry little murder-beasts can take on the Empire, and they also have quite the fun theme as well. The Ewoks theme captures the energy and festivities of this tribe of seemingly harmless creatures – but who pack quite the punch.

The Emperor (Return of the Jedi)

Emperor Palpatine shows up on-screen, in-person, for the first time, and Williams gives him an eerie motif that will become a staple of sorts throughout future storytelling – including in unexpected places, like the seemingly triumphant end of The Phantom Menace.

Duel of the Fates (The Phantom Menace)

Ok, who needs any explanation here? The theme accompanying the epic lightsaber duel between Jedi and Sith is one for the ages, and it instantly became a fan favorite.

Droid Invasion theme (The Phantom Menace)

As the Trade Federation army begins descending to the planet surface on Naboo, we hear the Droid Invasion march, which is a fitting march in a franchise that had an iconic Imperial one too. We hear it pop up later as the droid army prepares for battle against the gathered Gungans, and again at times throughout the prequels.

Across the Stars (Attack of the Clones)

Star Wars doesn’t feature many love themes, but when it does, it’s a home run. The love theme for Han and Leia is one of Williams’s best, and the love theme for Anakin and Padmé is every bit as good, if not even better. Across the Stars is hauntingly beautiful, foreshadowing the tragedy to come yet perfectly encapsulating the love these two heroes share.

Battle of the Heroes / Anakin vs. Obi-Wan (Revenge of the Sith)

What happens when the two main heroes of the prequel trilogy face off in a showdown that had been anticipated for decades? John Williams just turns in one of his best pieces of music, one that manages to rival in every way the incredible duel theme that came two films earlier. Utilizing elements from Duel of the Fates while delivering a brand new score, Williams hits another home run with this one. Though that’s no surprise at this point.

The Scavenger / Rey’s Theme (The Force Awakens)

I’ll be honest and say that this is my personal favorite theme from everything John Williams has written, which is saying a lot. Rey’s theme is absolutely beautiful, and I can never get enough of listening to it – and when I’m mentioning Rey’s theme here, I’m not just meaning the title on the soundtrack that bears this name but every occurrence of her theme (such as “The Scavenger,” which might be my favorite of them all). It’s notable how Williams expands on this theme to tell Rey’s story, taking her from a lonely scavenger to heroic Jedi – all of which is immediately recognizable by her theme.

March of the Resistance (The Force Awakens)

The last hope standing against the First Order is the Resistance, and John Williams gives them a theme to match. It’s fun, it’s heroic, it’s confident, it’s hopeful.

Kylo Ren’s theme (The Force Awakens)

Kylo Ren’s theme is very fitting of the character, and it took a little while to grow on me. But the way that Williams uses this to further explore Ren’s character while presenting him as an ominous yet conflicted villain is fantastic. Making it even better is the way Williams uses the same theme, yet done in a different tone, to illustrate the redeemed Ben Solo’s heroics, which is a masterful piece of storytelling. Kylo’s theme is a fitting one to carry throughout his story, both as Kylo Ren and as Ben Solo. (And as a bonus, listen carefully to ways in which Ludwig Göransson seems to echo this theme subtly in Grogu’s theme and other motifs from The Mandalorian, connecting Luke’s students.)

The Jedi Steps and Finale / Ahch-To Island (The Force Awakens / The Last Jedi)

I’m cheating here and including two tracks from two different movies, but they do go together, and taken together they encompass one of my very favorite Star Wars pieces to listen to, bar none. The Jedi Steps at the end of The Force Awakens, as Rey journeys to find Luke Skywalker, is beautifully hopeful and heroic, and then it flows right into the Force theme and the credits – but elements of it are picked up in Ahch-To Island, which encompasses this and other familiar themes (like Rey’s theme) to perfectly accompany the beautiful scenery and engaging story. Ahch-To Island, actually, has been the song I have listened to most in each of the last four years.

Fun with Finn and Rose (The Last Jedi)

I think this theme often gets overlooked, especially compared to most of the others on this list, but it’s a lot of fun and balances Finn and Rose perfectly. These two heroes are in vastly different situations when the movie starts, but they wind up teaching each other (especially Rose teaching Finn) quite a bit as it goes on.

The Spark (The Last Jedi)

I don’t need to say anything here: this instantly iconic theme is perfect for the return of the greatest Jedi Master. Just put it on repeat and thank me later.

The Adventures of Han Solo (Solo: A Star Wars Story)

Here’s a curveball, because it doesn’t even come in a movie that John Williams did the score for! Surprisingly, Williams had never done a theme for Han Solo (unlike for the other heroes such as Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa), so when Lucasfilm decided to do a movie about Han, they brought back John Williams to write a theme for him, while John Powell provided the rest of the score. And Williams delivered, as did Powell – and Powell’s use of this theme throughout the movie really helps highlight just how good it really is.

The Rise of Skywalker (The Rise of Skywalker)

There’s just something about this titular track that conveys the sense of hopeful belonging, perfect for underscoring how the Resistance heroes have grown close to each other and highlighting one of the themes of the movie: they go together. It’s amazing how often this is true in Star Wars (again, that’s why Williams is the master), but the theme is utterly perfect for the film.

Honorable Mention:
  • Anakin’s Theme (The Phantom Menace)
  • Grievous’s theme (Revenge of the Sith)
  • Anakin’s Dark Deeds (Revenge of the Sith)
  • Anthem of Evil (The Rise of Skywalker)
  • Galaxy’s Edge Symphonic Suite (Galaxy’s Edge)

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