In-universe Star Wars tunes are a major, if subtle, storytelling component of the saga. Plus, songs like "Jabba Flow" are just really fun.
Music is a very important part of the Star Wars experience, but the way that the saga plays with sound is particularly intriguing to study. Straddling the fence between score and sound effects is source music. Source music is also sometimes called "diegetic music," meaning that it comes from a source in the story like a speaker in a car or a live band. Non-diegetic music would be something that the characters inside the story can't hear, like their own themes and dramatic underscoring.
Even from his early days in film school, George Lucas was fascinated by sound effects. From the disembodied electronic chatter and strange distorted dialogue in his world-famous student film Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB, source sounds become an effective tool in Lucas's world-building tool kit.
An extension of this technique is source music, and American Graffiti exemplifies the use of source music. Without the common thread of Wolfman Jack's radio station blaring throughout the film from radios and cars around town, there is no movie. The highly memorable assembly of songs in Graffiti helped the soundtrack album secure triple-platinum status. So inextricably linked are the songs and the story that George Lucas reportedly conceived of each scene with a particular song in mind.
Generally, source music is treated much more like a sound effect. The saga’s first source music, heard in the Mos Eisley cantina in A New Hope, is a perfect example. Not only does the music change channels from left to right to sound like it’s coming from the same place in every shot, but you also get the crowd reacting to the music, with the cantina patrons reacting when the band plays a new song. In Rogue One, the latest Star Wars film, source music is heard low in the mix during the Jedha street sequences, adding to the busy feel of the depressed, Empire-occupied world.
If you can’t put your finger on some instances of source music in the saga, here’s a mostly-complete list of the memorable tracks from within the Star Wars universe.
Augie's Great Municipal Band
The parade music at the end of The Phantom Menace is the first piece of true source music in the saga, chronologically speaking. Written by John Williams, this piece is an echo of the Emperor’s theme that originated in Return of the Jedi, but set in a major key. It’s a subversive use of melody that once you hear it, you can’t unhear it. Palpatine’s the real victor at the end of the film, and Augie’s playing his tune.
Cantina Band #1/#2
John Williams wrote the songs to have a Benny Goodman-esque feel. That’s not a coincidence, since Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)” is reportedly what was used as a temp track. Mixing plenty of woodwind instruments with some other-worldly processed steel drums, Williams kept it funky to give it that intergalactic vibe. While the first song played in the film is an earworm that many know and love by heart, the second one is mostly featured in the background. Think of it as a Figrin D’an deep cut.
Lapti Nek/Jedi Rocks/Jabba's Baroque Recital/Galactic Dance Blast
John Williams and his son Joseph Williams, second lead singer of Toto, collaborated on the original music that was played by the Max Rebo band in the first portion of Return of the Jedi. George Lucas and Richard Marquand were never quite satisfied with the original song, so it was replaced and an extended musical sequence was added as a part of the 1997 Special Edition releases.
This version of the Max Rebo Band song is known as “Jedi Rocks,” and it was accompanied with an expansion of the Rebo Band, adding in burly Weequay drummers, a Yuzzum male vocalist, and even three enchanting backup dancers/singers into the mix. Jedi Rocks was written and arranged not by Williams, but instead by Jerry Hey. This revamped sequence has arguably more in common with the opening musical number in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom than it does any other Star Wars scene featuring source music.
The other piece of source music used in Jabba's palace is called "Jabba's Baroque Recital," and it plays in the background when Artoo and Threepio are granted an audience with the galactic gangster. Though it's mixed like source music, we're never really given an idea where the music might be emanating from, but I like to think that it's the equivalent of elevator music in the Star Wars universe.
Finally, the reduced-size Max Rebo band plays on Jabba's sail barge, on the way to the pit of Carkoon. This is a song that's hard to find, and I've only found it referred to as "Galactic Dance Blast." The full track seems to be lost in the sands of time, but a copy has been posted online, hashed together by fans from a few sources, including the 1983 documentary From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga.
John Williams composed the celebration song to have a primitive sound and feel, with simple rhythmic instrumentation. This catchy ditty is beloved by fans, but taken in context, it's a bit cutesy. It was replaced with a much more dramatically satisfying Williams composition, but we’ll delve into that a little bit later.
This untitled piece of source music was reportedly written by Joseph Williams. Since Attack of the Clones never received an extended version of its soundtrack, this song may never get released in a clean form. It’s a bouncy song that is a little reminiscent of the music from the cantina, but perhaps a little less musically sophisticated. It’s simply another use of source music as a sound effect, bringing the scene to life by making the location sound like a real diner.
The Force Awakens added its own musical legacy to the saga thanks to the Grammy award-winning genius of musical theater, Lin-Manuel Miranda. This space reggae jam has lyrics written in Huttese, and backup vocals by some guy named Jeffrey Jacob Abrams.
Though these are the major pieces of source music from the saga, there are a couple tunes that blur the line between diegetic and non-diegetic. This has been termed “source scoring” by Earle Hagen, and it’s a kind of combination of source music and dramatic scoring.
For instance, the victory celebration at the end of the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi. Yub Nub was clearly Ewoks singing, but the updated celebration song is shown to echo across multiple planets, making it seem like it’s a little bit less indigenous and a bit more non-culturally specific. Mixed in with the celebration song are moments that line up with Ewoks drumming on stormtrooper helmets, which leads me to think that this is a little more source than anything, but it definitely has all the earmarks of source scoring.
Another piece of music that is a bit baffling to me is a short music cue that plays as Qui-Gon, Jar Jar, and Padmé walk to Mos Espa in The Phantom Menace. Even on the official soundtrack release, you can hear that there’s a simple drum and flute song carrying on the desert air. The question remains whether or not the characters can hear this music. After all, that’s the true test of source music.
Sources: “Diagetic Music, Non-Diagetic Music and ‘Source Scoring" by Mark Richards; The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, J.W. Rinzler
Brendan Nystedt was very afraid of Darth Vader hiding under his bed when he was five years old. Now, he writes reviews of consumer electronics for Reviewed.com. Please follow him on Twitter @bnystedt!