Dah-dum – dah-dum – John Williams’ Jaws

Music May 14, 2010 6 Comments

What’s that sound? Ian Houston Shadwell discusses one of the iconic film soundtrack compositions of the late 20th century…

Whatever feelings you may have for John Williams and his collaborations with Steven Spielberg, there is no denying the visceral effect of his work on Jaws. This is a landmark composition in which he didn’t so much revolutionise the idea of the film score, as perfect it.  A bravura, clanging beast of sound that is in equal parts brutal, sophisticated and terrifying.

And, as good as the soundtrack is as a whole, with its ingenious, if cynical reworking of Russian late romanticism and more particularly the florid modernism of Stravinsky, the whole of the work is particularly memorable for a simple two note theme.  This sinister half step motif, became synonymous with the very idea of the shark.  The theme in a very real sense became what it sought to represent. It overcame the abstract limitations of the form and turned sound into fear. This simple, single, semi-tone step, the smallest interval available in Western music, starkly represented a remorseless and sinister beast. Yet at the same time it referenced  with its heartbeat rhythm the fear of the victim. It was an ingenious device that provided a hugely effective tool for Spielberg, who used it brilliantly.

Yet as successful as this motif is, and deservedly so, the true genius of William’s work lies in how he was able to extend this simple idea, developing ingenious arrangements and orchestrations that develop around the theme, creating an atmosphere of incredible tension.  This was sophisticated writing, imbued with a deep knowledge of orchestral arrangement.

Which brings us back to William’s influences.  One need only a passing acquaintance with Stravinsky’s work to realise that William’s drew heavily on the Russian composer’s work – most particularly, Stravinsky’s seminal ballet, The Rite of Spring. This revolutionary composition, which had infamously caused a riot in Paris on its premiere (though this was prompted as much by Nijinsky’s choreography as Stravinsky’s music), heralded a new era of ugly beauty in which  dissonance becomes a hedonistic, romantic, transcendent force. It drew on many of the themes characteristic to early modernity, particularly primitivism to create a piece of music that featured wildly percussive Dionysian rhythms as its distinguishing characteristic.

Indeed, Stravinsky’s writing  was so intent on breaking the mold of European classical composition that he invested every bar with startling inventions that Leonard Bernstein referred to famously as “having the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities and polyrhythms and whatever else you care to name.”

Williams borrowed heavily from these complex rhythms and dissonances as an inspiration for his own work, the central theme (discussed above) being threaded through with percussive blasts of brass and timpani that are extraordinarily reminiscent of the opening of Stravinskys Rite of SpringThe Adoration of The Earth. (If you like you can do a compare and contrast by listening to the Jaws theme here)

He even went as far as employing the same style of stressed orchestration, forcing instruments out of their regular registers, to make them sound unnatural and strained.

Interestingly, what had once been considered avant garde and treated as fringe esoterica for the academy had now become the central theme of a film that changed the nature of mainstream cinema forever. Indeed as Spielberg himself said – the movie would not have been half as successful without William’s work. The avant garde had arrived at the mall.

In that regard, we can almost understand William’s work as a valedictory postmodern pastiche, taking the terror of the new, as it was experienced in fin de siecle Paris and re-contextualising it as a terror of nature in 1970’s America.  Though, I think it is much more likely that Williams was simply doing the task he had been set with the best tools he had available. Perhaps then we can understand this as a natural movement of the avant garde.  What was once shocking is inevitably assimilated. The power to affect, becoming a useful mode of expression.

In any case, I urge you dear reader, if you have not done so already, to listen to The Rite of Spring, which is as powerful as it ever was and then head down the video store and borrow a copy of Jaws.  No matter how obvious William’s inspiration, his writing is breathtakingly good and that shark still scares the shit out of me….

To get some sense of the effectiveness of his score, you can watch a key scene here, with and without the music.


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Andrew Frost


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  2. Simon666

    Nice piece!

    Re : “Interestingly, what had once been considered avant garde and treated as fringe esoterica for the academy had now become the central theme of a film that changed the nature of mainstream cinema forever” – I guess you can probably trace this back to the 1950s, when the German emigrant avante-garde composers really began to rise up in the hollywood composer ranks, initially through the noir and B-movies, Schoenberg teaching in L.A. at a university with a film school component etc.

    It poses the question – without World War 2 and the particular relocations that it effected, would different tonalities have developed to represent horror and tension in hollywood cinema ?

  3. Low Rumbling Tones

    Oh boy – what if WW2 hadn’t happened? From a cultural standpoint it’s impossible to even begin to imagine what that would have been like for the world. Imagine a strong and dominant French, English and German cinema. No emigre artists in New York and LA – no New York School, no Surrealists in exile, probably no Hollywood as we know it. When people propose counterfactuals it’s usually the political/power angle – culture as know it in the West was born out of the war.

  4. tumbledumble

    No Pollock, Rothco, Motherwell, Greenberg. The Beats all gone, no Howl or On The Road. No Salinger or Catch 22. ……

  5. I can appreciate a clear stylistic link between Williams’s work and Stavinsky’s, but most especially from his 1911 Ballet score for Petrushka (specifically “The Moor’s Compartment”) here (in the early part, before the arrival of the wooden ballerina – try to hear past the oriental theme carried by the oboe)
    Williams’s is a great score to suit a Hollywood film but really there is nothing in it to rival the disorientating unrelenting violence of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring example here

  6. tumbledumble

    Looking at the choreography of Petrushka, Robster linked to, you wonder wether the visions that inspired Stravinsky’s work were more akin to the choreography of violence that is contemporary cinema rather than the petite posturing of ballet.

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