Spanish Doctoral Thesis on the Music of ‘Star Wars’


For musicologist and pianist Juan Urdániz Escolano, both interact in the first six films of the saga to reinforce the dramatic significance.

Juan Urdániz Escolano, new PhD

The first six films of Star Wars reach “an organic unity, since narrative and music, when interacting, reveal and reinforce the dramatic significance”. By virtue of that, this cinematographic saga can be considered a “work of art”. Juan Urdániz Escolano (born in Zaragoza in 1977), graduated in Piano, Chamber music and Musicology, has come to these conclusions on his Doctoral thesis, defended at Universidad Pública de Navarra (UPNA), about the soundtracks that John Williams composed for the movies created by filmmaker George Lucas.

Juan Urdániz has observed on his Doctoral thesis, directed by professor of the Department of Psychology and Pedagogy Marcos Andrés Vierge, aesthetic and conceptual differences between the classical trilogy (Episodes IV to VI: Star wars – A New Hope, 1977; The Empire Strikes Back, 1980; Return of the Jedi, 1983) and the prequel trilogy (Episodes I to III: The Phantom Menace, 1999; Attack of the Clones, 2002; Revenge of the Sith, 2005).

“The story on the former movies is based on the ‘hero’s journey’, a shared narrative scheme found on tales of different civilizations on various ages -the new doctor describes-. The protagonist, Luke, goes through a process of learning and self-discovery until he reaches maturity. At the end, he manages to vanquish evil and to save his father, not through violence, but through filial love, compassion and faith in goodness. This is shaped by George Lucas following on each episode the pattern of Classic Hollywood cinema, based on three acts and with traditionally-stablished very defined climatic and structural points”.

Alternately, Urdániz considers that the story of the new films is based on “the scheme of greek tragedy, through which unfolds the fall into disgrace of the protagonist, Anakin, who, for his egoism and carving for power, makes the typical pact with the devil”. “Not only he doesn’t achieve what he looks for, but he also loses his identity, becoming Darth Vader, servant of evil. Here, the director displays an arrangement of scenes and sequences much more complex and freer, in the form of sub-episodes of different degrees of action and significant relevance, leading the action towards a major event”, he says.

Different musicalization

According to this research, John Williams also implemented a different process of musicalization on each trilogy, by which there is “a correspondence between narrative and musical structure”.

“In the first trilogy, the layout of musical themes associated with characters and their variation follows the division into acts of the story -explains Juan Urdániz-. It keeps up the style of the so-called ‘great form based on the leitmotif’. In the movies of classic Hollywood cinema, those from the 30s to 50s, the use of musical themes, associated with characters, was used to reflect the change of context, as well as the reestablishment of a recurrent, initial material to avoid dispersion”.

In the first three filmed films of the saga, the compositions deployment corresponds, in each one, to “the ordering existing in each of the three movements of the traditional musical form called ‘Classical Sonata’. “The themes are exposed and subsequently developed or varied with some degree of difference. And that disposition is based, in particular, on the opposition between the musical theme of Luke and those of the villains, among which the ‘Imperial March’ stands out”, he points out.

In return, in the modern trilogy, “the unfolding of music follows the concept of ‘form based on musical numbers’, used in silent cinema circa 1915”. “The most important pieces appeared at the same time as the climatic points of the film”, he says. “Occasionally, there were quotations to one or several main themes, and the rest consisted of fillings by sections of lesser entity. Such deployment of the musical material, in function of an external narrative plan, corresponds with that of the ‘Romantic Symphonic Poem’. In addition, the themes are not fully exposed at the beginning, but their first appearance is partial or in simplified version. In centers of dramatic gravity they are expanded, combined or new musical material of great relevance is incorporated”.

Observing the saga in order of the chronology of the story (episodes I, II, III, IV, V and VI) instead of the realization order (IV, V, VI, I, II and III), the author of the thesis notes a change of paradigm. “To the musical segmentation in the symphonic poem, it follows the elaborate interconnection of the sonata form. In this way, chaos is corrected through order. For all that, John Williams is participant in the construction of the movie, since he goes far beyond the simple reiteration of what is represented in the visual plane, so that the soundtrack participates in the construction of meaning”, he concludes.

Short curriculum

Juan Urdániz Escolano holds Degrees in Piano and Chamber Music at Conservatorio Superior de Música de Navarra, and Musicology at Universidad de La Rioja. Before his PhD at Universidad Pública de Navarra, he studied there a Master in Music Research. Currently he works as teacher accompanying pianist at Conservatorio Superior de Música del Principado de Asturias (Oviedo).

As a pianist, he has participated in concerts and recitals playing solo, as part of several groups of chamber music and accompanying singers and choruses in various cities in Spain, the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom. He has also performed at the clavichord and harpsichord as soloist and member of several groups.

Besides composing the soundtrack for two short films, Urdániz has conducted five operas.


The full thesis can be downloaded here (11MB PDF)