John Williams: Theme to Jaws

Context

John Williams composed the soundtrack for teven Spielberg thriller Jaws in 1975. It originally came out as an LP in 1975 and was then re-released on CD in 1992. Various future versions have since been released, including the 25th anniversary DVD, which included the whole 51 minutes of original score that Williams composed. 

The soundtrack won an Academy Award, and was soon ranked as the sixth greatest film score by the American Film Institute. The whole score is popular with film fans, however it was the main theme to Jaws that really pushed this soundtrack past lots of Williams’ contemporaries. The simple alternation between E-F and F-F# has become synonymous with danger. Williams described the theme as: “grinding away at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual relentless, unstoppable.”

The theme, rather unusually, features a tuba as the solo instrument in the first half of the theme. Williams enlisted tuba player Tommy Johnson to play on the score. After looking at the part, Johnson questioned Williams as to why it was written in such a high register, hinting that it would be more comfortable on a french horn. Williams explained that he wanted the solo to be “a little more threatening”. 

Interestingly, when Williams showed Spielberg the ominous theme, he just laughed and assumed he was joking. Williams saw similarities between Jaws and other pirate films of the time, with the theme being described as “primal”. Williams took inspiration from the opening of Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, as well as Claude Debussy’s La mer, and Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. 

Due to its popularity, the theme to Jaws has been extensively commented on from both music and film critics. One commented that the opening fluctuation represents the shark’s heartbeat as it gets closer. Others have likened the theme to the ever-intensifying breathing of the human. Some have even said that although the music builds all sorts of tension, it’s actually the dramatic and sudden cut to silence that speaks the loudest. 

The way the theme is used is interesting because it conditions the audience to associate the theme with the shark. This causes quite the stir at the end at the film’s climax where the shark appears suddenly with no musical introduction.

 

The Music

Opening with the foreboding lower strings motif. The fluctuation between the notes becomes closer as the theme begins to build traction. The angular tuba solo comes out from nowhere and offers a sense of uncomfortable-ness in the music. The orchestra begins to join in as the texture becomes richer. 

Aggressive motor rhythms from the strings are opposed by sweet harp flourishes and woodwind melodies. The small climaxes always come back down to the opening theme, which is persistent throughout. Bold brass accentuate the climax section in the middle of the theme. The theme becomes more manic as more instruments join in. The suspense comes to a head before dying off quickly as a final part of the tuba solo is heard. The lower strings then play the famous theme, gradually getting quieter until…silence.

 

Final Thoughts

John Williams has said that the theme to Jaws is what catapulted his career. The theme is so famous and has been used in a variety of different settings due to its implications. The effectiveness of this simple motif has become one of the most famous film themes ever created. 

 

Be careful in the water…

 

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… John Williams: Theme from Superman

 

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