Star Wars is shot with “Orientalizing” stereotypes — patronizing tropes that represent an imagined East, or the Orient, as inferior to the rational, heroic West. Think, for example, of the uniformed conformity of the evil Empire vs. the scrappy (American) individualism of the rebel heroes, the vague Eastern mysticism of the Force and its Shaolin-cum-Samurai practitioners, and the uncomfortable racial stereotypes embodied in the hookah-smoking Jabba and the miserly Watto.
Even those who have noted these prejudices could be excused for not noticing the presence of such tropes in another key element of every Star Wars film: John Williams’s iconic musical score. Williams’s music associates the “good guys” with the grand orchestral style of the European Romantics (think of the beautifully hummable melodies for Luke, Leia and Rey), while the themes for the “bad guys” are expressed in the vocabulary of Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern music.
This may seem incidental or unimportant. But this music reinforces, even at an unconscious level, the primacy of Western culture against an imagined “other” that reproduces harmful prejudices in pop culture that, given the power of mass media, has larger political consequences.
Star Wars builds on a long history of using Eastern music to depict evil on -creen or to convey to moviegoers that they are entering an alien world. It is an established Hollywood technique, going back to such classics as Max Steiner’s music for “King Kong” (1933) and “Casablanca” (1942), and Maurice Jarre’s score for “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962). This way of scoring movies reflects the training of the first generation of film composers, who introduced the tropes of European opera into Hollywood music. Among Steiner’s many influences were Richard Wagner, who popularized the leitmotif (associating a character with a musical theme), and Richard Strauss, whose opera “Salome” about a necrophiliac princess from Judea summarizes all the tropes of Orientalizing music.
Williams, who was born in 1932 and grew up with this generation of composers, epitomizes the Wagnerian approach to film scoring. Each character in Star Wars has his or her own musical identity, a compositional technique Williams also uses to brilliant effect in other franchises, such as “Indiana Jones,” possibly the most famous modern example of cinematic Orientalism.
The practice of hiring white composers to imitate non-Western music when it comes time to introduce bad guys, usually with a European-style orchestra, continues to this day. Film composers such as Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore and James Horner have brought the scoring techniques of Steiner and Strauss into modern film. Even a brief listen to recent tracks such as “Barbarian Horde” from “Gladiator” (2001), “The Bridge of Khazad-dûm” from “Fellowship of the Ring” (2001) or “You Don’t Dream in Cryo” from “Avatar” (2009) shows the continued currency of the Eastern sound.
Perhaps this is why we shouldn’t be surprised that Williams’s Eastern-sounding scores are not just present in the original Star Wars trilogy, but also in the sequel trilogy, including “The Rise of Skywalker.”
This continuing musical practice cannot simply be written off as harmless or insignificant. While film criticism often excludes the soundscape of films in favor of focusing on narrative and visuals, music is just as important a form of representation, especially in Star Wars. Williams’s music is an indispensable part of the universe’s identity. Lucas, in a 1999 interview with the Boston Globe, put it this way: “John’s music tells the story. Each character has a theme that develops and interacts with the themes of the other characters; the musical themes connect the themes of the stories and make them resonate. … The music can communicate nuances you can’t see; it says things the film doesn’t say.”
So what does the music say exactly? In its depiction of evil — at least in the case of Darth Maul, the Sith antagonist of Episode I — the music speaks in Sanskrit. Consider the “Duel of the Fates,” a demonic musical cue written for the climactic battle of “The Phantom Menace.” Its orchestration and melody are emblematic of how Williams uses Oriental sound to represent villainy in all of the Star Wars films. With its assembly of choral forces, the “Duel of the Fates” features a text drawn from the Welsh poem “Cad Goddeu.” The choir, however, does not sing in ancient Celtic, but in Sanskrit, a language sacred to Indian religions and philosophy — picked, according to Williams, because he “loved the sound of it.”
The use of Sanskrit lends the piece an appropriately “alien” feel and conjures atmospheric menace, as best demonstrated in this clip. In these brief minutes, we see evil depicted by Sanskrit chanting (0:17) and solo percussion (0:52). Heroism, on the other hand, is scored to a rousing statement from the orchestra (1:30) and to a quotation from the brass fanfare of Luke’s title theme (1:48).
We see this in other notable elements of the Star Wars films: Tibetan/Tuvan throat singing accompanies Emperor Palpatine, the ultimate antagonist in the series, an orchestration choice Williams repeats in the sequel trilogy for Supreme Leader Snoke’s music.
We learn about the wider world through representations in media: That is the tremendous power of Hollywood. The continuous association of the alien with non-Western music is, by implication, an argument that Western music should be the norm against which all other traditions are judged. This reinforces American identity as being distinctly Western European in sound, even if we have moved past this thinking in other areas, especially in matters of race.
We should also think about who gets to score films in the first place and how those choices contribute to the longevity of this type of music in contemporary filmmaking. Hollywood is slowly beginning to address issues of minority representation in areas such as acting and directing. Yet, music has lagged behind. “Black Panther” (2018) and “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018) may have brought us forward in terms of visual representation, but their original scores, written by Ludwig Goransson and Brian Tyler, respectively, show no improvement from the Orientalizing sound of the past.
The solution is certainly not to blame these composers, but to be more aware of the way music, especially music written for popular media, can shape our understanding of the world. There are plenty of young composers of non-Western descent whose work deserves to be heard and to frame our stories, and there are plenty of established artists, such as Tan Dun, Joe Hisaishi or A.R. Rahman, who could be hired for Hollywood assignments.
Williams’s great talent is to express through music the artistic vision of the director, who ultimately has final say on the music. What does Lucas think of Williams’s musical choices? At the recording sessions for Episode I, when Williams showed him his work for “Duel of the Fates,” Lucas exclaimed: “Sanskrit! That’ll give the fans something to figure out.”
Williams’s music for Star Wars is an aesthetic, if not a political triumph. But ingrained in the soundscape of the films is a worldview that frames villainy as Eastern and heroes as Western. This reflects long-standing prejudices in American society — ones we should seek to excise by promoting songwriters, storytellers and artists who break out of the Hollywood mold. You could say it’s our only hope.