John Williams: The Imperial March


John Williams was born in 1932 and his career has since spanned over six decades. He was raised in New York by musical parents, who were active jazz musicians. By 1948 the Williams family had moved to LA where Williams later attended the University of California, reading for a degree in composition. As a skilled pianist, Williams has always been an active musician, but his scoring for screen started whilst he was at university in the 1950s. His style has been heavily influenced by large-scale 19th Century Romantic orchestral music from composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Today, Williams’ style is known as ‘neo-romantic’ as it encapsulates the expressive tendencies of Romantic music, within a more modern framework.

Williams was recommended by Stephen Spielberg to compose for a new ambitious space epic film in 1977; the now incredibly famous Star Wars. He submitted a grand orchestral score for what is now known as Luke’s Theme, and was asked to compose the whole film score for the franchise. The score won an Academy Award for ‘Best Original Score’, and it also remains the highest grossing ‘non-popular’ music recording of all time. Williams returned to do the score for The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, and again, these scores all earned him Academy Awards. There are so many recognisable pieces within the Star Wars scores, such as “Yoda’s Theme”, “Princess Leia’s Theme” and “The Imperial March”. For the purpose of this blog I shall be focusing on one of my favourite pieces from Star Wars, “The Imperial March”.

The Imperial March was premiered three weeks before the opening of the film (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back). It was performed by the fantastic Boston Pops Orchestra, where Williams was an official conductor-in-residence. The piece has received some of the most positive feedback on any film score produced thus far. It is a fantastic example of Williams’ compositional use of Leitmotif (a recurring theme associated with a certain character or event happening within the motion picture). Also known as “Darth Vader’s Theme”, this piece is usually played upon the entrance of Darth Vader. Parts of this piece have been taken and varied in other pieces and films within the Star Wars franchise.


The Music

The piece begins, not with the main theme, but with the tempestuous accompaniment that is incredibly engaging to the ear. Just this alone sets up what traits this character may have when they seem. I find just the rhythm at the start is enough information for the listener for what may happen next due to its foreboding demeanour. Interestingly, the march is in 4/4, however the motif is written so that it sounds like the bar speeds up throughout. This will be due to the placement of triplets within the bar.

There is a feeling of aggressive force throughout this motif as it has to reach the end of the bar before repeating again. Also, with all the pitched instruments playing here (i.e: strings, timpani, horns), it brings a lot of darkness into the lower registers, which gives the feeling of an evil presence.

In terms of harmony, it is unsure what key the work starts in as it’s just a repeated note. However, on the fourth beat the triplet turns into a chord of Eb-F#-Bb, which point towards the tonality of G minor. With it being in the minor mode it brings even more emphasis on the darkness of this work. This then clashes with Williams’ use of dissonance within the triplets. Here Williams uses dissonance to create a certain atmosphere before the main theme begins. There is a very militaristic sound in just these accompanying bars, which sets up the main motif in a very strong manner.

The famous melody that pervades the rest of the work is laid firmly within the 4/4 time signature. The march emphasises the strong beats, whilst also utilising dotted rhythms. This motif is predominately played by the trumpets and trombones (with them both playing in their mid-low registers), with this creating and sustaining the menacing feel within the music. The choice of these instruments also compliments the military implications within the piece. Again, Williams emphasises the dark atmosphere of the work by using a nearly complete set of minor chord progressions throughout. Distortion has been used within some of the chords used here and that can be heard through the dissonance within the chords. Usual chords have been adjusted up a semitone to create a distorted version (namely iv and v chords).

The shape of this melodic frame can be explained into 5 shorter ideas:


  • The first is the first motif heard, it leaps in a downward direction, with the aid of dotted rhythms
  • The second idea starts a fifth higher than the first. It falls from a greater height, and then repeats the last dotted rhythm of the first idea
  • The third uses octave leaps and chromaticism to ‘fall back’ into the dark first motif
  • The fourth idea is completely chromatic and slowly descends into the fifth motif
  • The fifth and final idea here is the only motif that rises and then quickly descends back to a very similar phrasing as that of the first idea


The work takes many twists and turns, however the impending foundation always remains. There are some very climactic moments which quickly fizzle into quiet woodwind sections. These parts are always interjected by the brass with the main motif, which shows the impending doom and confident nature of this particular character. An interesting hint to another key by use of chromaticism, which then falls back into the home key of G minor creates a very intense explosion of sound.

The main motif is repeated throughout the work, with the percussion and lower-pitched instruments always playing some sort of triplet-driven foundation accompaniment. The ending is very interesting as the trumpets play the main motif, but an octave higher, whilst the trombones play a descending chromatic sequence, which often clashes very abruptly with the trumpets. The work ends with the ensemble playing very fast triplet-semiquaver motifs, whilst the strings play a whirling figure up to the final triplet sequence. The march ends with all parts playing this motif and the crash cymbal marking the end of the piece.


Final Thoughts

The Imperial March is such an iconic piece of music that is known by so many people, and is perhaps one of the most famous pieces within the Star Wars franchise.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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1 Comment

Ian Horton · 24th December 2017 at 5:06 am

I love music and have an eclectic taste from classical to contemporary, Some exceptions are rap and heavy metal. I’m not a musician and can’t read music (Unlike, I believe, Paul McCartney, who can’t read/write music BUT is a great musician and composer) but enjoy a good tune regardless of style (with exceptions, above)

Just so you know, I’m on the wrong side of middle aged. In the late 1970’s I was still in my 20’s when Star Wars came. out

And I agree whole heartedly about John William’s scores for the Star Wars franchise of movie(s). They are, amongst other movie composers and compositions, the “classical” music pieces of the 20th/ 21st century that will played and praised by the generations to come. I don’t regard movie scores as any less impressive than Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores and associated dance choreography. But the dance is only enjoyable, in my opinion, because of the music. The dance without the music would be, again in my opinion, unbearable. Movies without music scores are much the same.

And , as you’ve written, characters in the Star Wars films, and other films, have their own “theme”. Immediately recognisable, evocative, supportive and complimentary to what your are looking at one the screen. And, of course, almost since day one of the silent l movies it was recognised there had to be some sort of audio accompaniment to the action.

Many years ago, not so much in a galaxy far, far away but in the antipodes, I was listening to another piece of classical music that had also been used in the Disney movie, “Fantasia”, That piece was “The Sorcerers Apprentice”. A particular segment, phrase, a sequence of just a handful of notes jumped out at me. I’d heard them before. It was in Star Wars and it was to do with the association of Vader to Luke, The master (Sorcerer, Vader) and the apprentice (Luke).

Still with me? Here’s why I’m on your site. I searched on google “connection Sorcerer’s Apprentice symphony to Star Wars musical score” and your website came up. “John Williams ‘The Imperial March’ from Star Wars: Did Somebody Say…Star Wars?”. I was hoping to see a confirmation of what I thought to be correct.

Am I wrong? As a nod to Dukas’ piece, did John Williams make the association and use these few notes. I don’t believe I am wrong. I can’t pinpoint in either the movie score/scene or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice where the “phrase” appears, but it’s there and quite obvious when you hear it. Or maybe not so obvious.

If you haven’t picked it up previously, listen to both the soundtrack and Dukas and, perhaps, let me know one way or the other.

By the way, I found your article very interesting. The technical bits eluded me but I got the gist.

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