The 10: Best Music

Welcome to The 10, a feature where’s editorial staff huddles to discuss — in a committee — various topics relating to a galaxy far, far away. Today, we pick the top John Williams compositions of the Star Wars films.

Note: This list is based on the tent-pole symphonic music (thus, no cantina band, “Jedi Rocks,” etc.) found on the official soundtracks of the Star Wars films. We opted to count only the primary composition, and not alternate arrangements or reworkings — for example, “Yoda’s Theme” is used in various places and arrangements in both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but we based our voting only on the main piece.

10. “Across the Stars,” Attack of the Clones

Across the Stars

The most memorable piece of music composed for Attack of the Clones, which manages to sound like a lost classical masterpiece yet still very Star Wars. A grand, romantic work, “Across the Stars” succeeds on numerous levels — its melody hits a balance between melancholy and a feeling of longing, and the powerful use of strings conveys what the forbidden love between Anakin and Padmé means for both characters and the galaxy. The idea of a Star Wars love song or composition seems almost impossible, but John Williams pulled it off with aplomb.

9. “The Emperor Arrives,” Return of the Jedi

The Emperor Arrives

Accompanying our first real look at the Emperor as he arrives on the Death Star in Return of the Jedi, there is no life or punch to this composition, compared with the iconic “Imperial March” or other Empire-centric music. The melody here is simple, dark, and foreboding, driven by — for the first time in Star Wars — a male choir, adding a new aural color to Star Wars. The piece would be revisited at the film’s climax, and appear in different arrangements throughout the prequel trilogy. Utterly haunting, “The Emperor Arrives” is the sound of the dark side.

8. “The Asteroid Field,” The Empire Strikes Back

The Asteroid Field

John Williams’ Star Wars music is as much about emotion and mood as it is technical ingenuity of the composition, and “The Asteroid Field” is a perfect example. Primarily a brass piece, it has a frantic pace, accomplished through rising and falling notes that give the music a roller coaster-like feel (which is probably why it worked so well in Star Tours). It matches the chaos that you’d imagine navigating an asteroid field would yield — and the serene turn that the piece takes when the sequence ends is an almost magical payoff.

7. “Battle of the Heroes,” Revenge of the Sith

Battle Of The Heroes

As the soundtrack to the Anakin versus Obi-Wan duel from Revenge of the Sith, “Battle of the Heroes” is one of the Star Wars saga’s most important compositions. Combining a choir, staccato brass, and lush strings, the music is rich and full, but has a solemn yet anxious tone. It’s unique from other “duel” music in the films, but also recalls certain aspects of older pieces — the vocals from “Duel of the Fates,” the stinging brass from Luke versus Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back — giving the sequence the weight it deserves.

6. “Princess Leia’s Theme,” A New Hope

Princess Leia's Theme

Debuting in A New Hope but recurring in The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Revenge of the Sith, “Princess Leia’s Theme” has emerged as one of the most recognizable music passages in all of Star Wars. Both gentle and sweeping, the string-driven arrangement stands alone in Star Wars music by dialing back the energy and faster rhythms of the action scenes. Only “Across the Stars” comes close to the wonder of this track; and when you think of Leia, you probably hear this composition in your head — a true testament to its power.

5. “Yoda’s Theme,” The Empire Strikes Back

Yoda's Theme

If “The Emperor Arrives” is the sound of the dark side, this is the sound of the light side. Strings build from a whisper to a multi-layered crescendo, but always with a benevolent air. The music here is calm but confident, and strong but not aggressive — essentially, it mirrors what Yoda says a Jedi must be. To illustrate how brilliant this composition is, note its use in the sequence where Yoda lifts Luke’s sunken X-wing from the Dagobah swamp, where it’s stirring and powerful; then see Yoda’s death scene in Return of the Jedi, where the same melody becomes purely gentle. Amazing work.

4. “Binary Sunset,” A New Hope

Binary Sunset

One the most iconic pieces of music in Star Wars, period. For many, the scene in which Luke gazes at the setting suns of Tatooine is what makes Star Wars — but maybe more than any other sequence in all six films, the music is essential. The image of the setting suns conveys the passage of time; Luke is getting older, and there are things he wants to experience and do. There is an entire galaxy awaiting him. Williams’ music again builds and builds, conveying all the longing inside of Luke, and all the promise he has — but it’s also tinged with sadness. For such a short piece of music, its impact is even more impressive.

3. “Duel Of The Fates,” The Phantom Menace

Duel of the Fates

The most unique track of the prequel trilogy, and one of the best pieces of music found in any Star Wars film. Employed during the climactic Darth Maul/Obi-Wan/Qui-Gon duel of The Phantom Menace (and also during Anakin’s search for his mother in Attack of the Clones), “Duel of the Fates” features a choir almost throughout, punctuated with hits of brass and strings, a tempo that slows then quickens, and a wall of sound that grows and grows. What’s most interesting is that the piece feels neither like a good guy or bad guy theme — it’s complex, with dark and light sounds pulling back and forth, not taking a side. As such, there’s really nothing else like it in the saga.

2. “The Imperial March,” The Empire Strikes Back

The Imperial March

Signifying the might of the Galactic Empire, “The Imperial March” is an ominous work that has become possibly the most popular music in Star Wars; as a symphonic leitmotif, it is one of the most successful ever. “The Imperial March” is used throughout The Empire Strikes Back (first heard in its full arrangement with the reveal of the Imperial fleet) and Return of the Jedi, and is featured at points throughout the prequel trilogy. But like other great Star Wars tracks, it’s versatile — note Darth Vader’s death scene, in which it’s played only on a harp and sounds more like a lullaby. Still, the full version, with its dark melody and driving militaristic rhythm, is instantly recognizable, and remains a classic today.

1. “Main Title,” A New Hope

Star Wars Main Title

“Main Title” is synonymous with Star Wars, and for good reason. It opens every Star Wars film with an explosion of sound, and is also used throughout the saga as an overall theme. Williams has said that he wanted something with an “idealistic, uplifting but military flare to it,” and “Main Title” is just about perfect — it’s entirely hopeful and energizing, filled with sweeping brass and strings and an innately hummable melody. Right from the beginning, you know that you’re in for a romantic adventure, and it never feels forced or disingenuous. One of the all time great themes in film.

That’s it. What do you think? Did we nail it? Are we out of our minds? Did we overlook something? Let us know in the comments below!

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