In new book, ‘Star Wars’ leitmotif-collecting Tufts professor explores wonder in film music

A scene from “Solo,” which was scored by John Powell.
Lucasfilm Ltd.
A scene from “Solo,” which was scored by John Powell.

CAMBRIDGE — Tufts University assistant professor of music Frank Lehman estimates he’s probably seen each “Star Wars” movie between 10 and 15 times, and listened to the soundtracks hundreds of times. Being a fanboy, it turns out, is part of his job.

“As a scholar, my No. 1 hope is to reach as many people as possible and speak to their musical experiences,” Lehman, whose work zeroes in on film music, said in an interview. “In this day and age, when musical access is so high but so fragmented and diverse, to have something that’s relatively universal as ‘Star Wars’ . . . I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say, at least in America, if you stop the average person on the street and ask them to hum a theme from ‘Star Wars,’ they’ll be able to do that.”

A native of Needham and alumnus of Harvard University, Lehman maintains a catalog of every single leitmotif and theme used in the “Star Wars” saga, from the bombastic Imperial March to the skittering faux-Baroque battle music that underscores Admiral Akbar’s shout of “It’s a trap!” in Episode VI. 


And in his new book, “Hollywood Harmony: Musical Wonder and the Sound of Cinema,” Lehman draws on examples from “Star Wars” and other epic movie scores, such as Howard Shore’s soundtracks to the “Lord of the Rings” saga. The book explores the practices that separate film music from concert works, the techniques composers use to send shivers down listeners’ spines, and what it means when something “sounds like film music,” which, Lehman recalled, was not typically used as a compliment when he heard it as a composition student.

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It’s a rewarding read, but not what anyone would call an easy read: If you pick it up, you might want to have a piano at hand to plink out the passages, or at least have Oxford University Press’s companion Website of musical examples in front of you.


Q. Most of our readers don’t have an advanced knowledge of music theory, and your new book draws on a branch called neo-Riemannian theory in particular. Explain that like I’m 5 years old.

A. For a very long time in the history of conceptualizing music, we have primarily focused on musical objects like chords, intervals, melodies. I don’t think that music is necessarily heard in that way. It’s in time. It’s based on relationships rather than unmoving successions of objects like chords. So in the 1980s and 1990s, in the discipline of American music theory, there was a shift that occurred away from the solid-object-state view of music and musical processes and towards ways of tying together musical phenomena that were much more grounded in listener psychology.


Q. What are some devices that composers can use to cause feelings of wonder and frisson? Do composers try to cause frisson in the film scores you research?

A. I think they do! . . . Absolutely, composers are going for these effects where people are almost involuntarily led to have goosebumps. It takes a real musical know-how to write these sorts of devices. The one that I emphasize in the book is harmony, the chromatic connection of different chords, and the play of expectation that comes along with those things. But you don’t even necessarily have to rely on pitch. Volume will do it. Timbres, particularly voices.

Q. Do you think that there might be an element of snobbery at play when people use “sounds like film music” as an insult?

A. I’ll say this: I don’t think that film music clichés would have gotten to that level had they not worked in the first place. They rely on the greatest amount of dramatic and aesthetic intelligibility as possible. So they’re guaranteed to elicit the sort of emotions that the filmmakers want. 

The leitmotif technique: It wasn’t as though John Williams invented that. It wasn’t something that had totally disappeared, and on its own it’s not a particularly complicated maneuver. A big part of this is how effective [leitmotifs] are. If they weren’t successful, composers would stop using them and move to something else.


Q. Let’s talk about your catalog of “Star Wars” leitmotifs: I saw you just updated it to include “Solo.”

‘If [leitmotifs] weren’t successful, composers would stop using them’

A. I found it fascinating to see what a non-John Williams composer does with Williams’s style and his themes. It’s an artistic success in a lot of ways. Williams provided John Powell with two leitmotifs for Han Solo, and it gave Powell cachet to say “This is going to be in the sound world because these are Williams’s themes that I’m working with.”

But the vast majority of the score sounds more like John Powell. It has interesting percussion and orchestration. The sense of harmony is really sophisticated. There’s a heaviness to his writing, which I think is kind of welcome. Powell is a little old-fashioned in this context.

Zoë Madonna can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @knit
. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.