John Williams

Composer John Williams

Composer of the most instantly recognizable and popular film music in Hollywood history, and one of the most honored American classical composers.

Vital Statistics
February 8, 1932, New York City (Flushing)
20th-21st Century
Performed As:
Conductor, pianist
During Lifetime:
The old Hollywood studio system gave way to the "auteur" system. Classic film music experienced a renaissance, with a return to traditional scoring techniques, a movement led by Williams.
Biographical Outline
  • Early training, 1940-50: The son of jazz drummer Johnny Williams, he begins studying piano at age eight, and takes lessons with jazz pianist and arranger Bobby Van Eps after moving to Los Angeles.
  • College stint, 1950-52: He studies composition at UCLA with Arthur Olaf Anderson and privately with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.
  • Air Force, 1952-4: He works as an orchestrator for the Air Force Band while serving in that military division.
  • New York to Hollywood, 1955-58: He studies piano at Juilliard (1955-56), and works as a jazz pianist and session musician. Back in Hollywood, he begins a career as a studio pianist and orchestrator.
  • Moving up the ranks, 1958-72: He starts scoring films and television. He also arranges four albums for the singer Frankie Laine (the last in 1963) and serves as his bandleader. Williams wins his first Oscar (Fiddler on the Roof, 1971) and grabs attention with his score for The Poseidon Adventure (1972).
  • Adventure film series, 1972-75: After the success of The Poseidon Adventure, Williams scores a series of action-adventure films, such as The Long Goodbye (1973), The Sugarland Express (1974), Earthquake (1974), The Towering Inferno (1974), and The Eiger Sanction (1975).
  • Association with Stephen Spielberg 1970s-present: Williams first works with director Stephen Spielberg on The Sugarland Express, but the success of Jaws (1975) cements the relationship, beginning a long collaboration that yields a string of blockbusters. In all, the Spielberg-Williams partnership has produced almost 50 films.
  • Association with George Lucas, 1977- 2005: Spielberg introduces Williams to George Lucas, and the two collaborate for the first time on the epochal Star Wars (1977). Williams composes the music for all the sequels and prequels for this franchise, from 1980 to 2005.
  • Top Gun, 1980-2005: He is recognized as the biggest name in film music and works on dozens of projects culminating in 2005, with the release of four movies with his music: Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, War of the Worlds, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Munich. He also serves as conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, from 1980 to 1993.
  • Grand Old Man, 2005-present: Williams cuts back on film work, scoring Spielberg's films and little else. He produces more concert music, and conducts his music with several orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic.
Fun Facts
  • How many?: 94 films have been released with original scores by John Williams. By the end of 2011, with the release of The Adventures of Tintin, and War Horse, that number will reach 96, and in 2012, Lincoln will be the 97th. That doesn't include made for TV films or adaptations: If those are included, the tally is already over 100.
  • Pianist: Williams recorded the piano part in the original recording of the Peter Gunn theme (1958) and the pianos solos in The Apartment (1960), as well as doing some orchestration work on the film.
  • Family: Williams has three children by his first wife. One of them is Joseph Williams, a former lead singer of the pop band Toto. Father and son collaborated on a song in Return of the Jedi that was later replaced.
  • Spielberg: Williams has scored all but two of Spielberg’s films: the exceptions are Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983, score by Jerry Goldsmith) and The Color Purple (1985, score by Quincy Jones).
  • Awards: Williams has been nominated for 47 Academy Awards, winning five (one for his arrangements for Fiddler on the Roof.) He is the most nominated composer in history, tied with Alfred Newman, and the second most nominated person, behind Walt Disney (59). He has appeared in more than one category or for more than one film in 13 Academy Awards ceremonies. He's also won four Golden Globes, seven BAFTAs, three Emmys, and 21 Grammys. He's an inductee to the American Classical Hall of Fame and a Kennedy Center honoree, and he won a Classical Brit award in 2005 for his four scores of that year. In 2010, he was awarded an American National Medal of the Arts.
  • R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Williams resigned from his Boston Pops position in 1984, after some musicians in the orchestra booed one of his new compositions. Williams was uncomfortable with the lack of discipline and respect the orchestra was showing, but after some diplomacy took place, apologies were issued and Williams resumed his post.
  • Television: Williams has composed official themes for the 1984, 1988, 1996, and 2002 Olympics. And he has written theme music to many television news and sports programs, including The Today Show, NBC Nightly News, and Meet the Press.
  • Outside the "industry": Yo-Yo Ma and Williams are frequent collaborators; there is even a recording titled Yo-Yo Ma Plays the Music of John Williams.
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music

Historians often cite Williams as the composer who re-introduced classic Hollywood film music techniques to a generation of moviegoers. But that understates the scope of his achievement. Williams’ best-known scores are cultural reference points as instantly recognizable as the iconic images from these films.

  • Motives: Williams uses the technique of recurring motives (a procedure film composers derived from the operas of Richard Wagner.) The motives accumulate significance as the movie goes on and foreshadow or recall important ideas or events. Famous examples are the two-note Jaws motive, and the eerie five-note signaling motive in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
  • The "Old Hollywood" connection: Williams scores almost every minute of a film, providing a musical continuity to match the visual one. His full, Romantic orchestration is another legacy of his teachers from old Hollywood, like Conrad Salinger. He also apprenticed with film music greats Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman and Franz Waxman.
  • In his own words: "It was not music that might describe terra incognita but the opposite of that, music that would put us in touch with very familiar and remembered emotions, which for me as a musician translated into the use of a 19th century operatic idiom, if you like, Wagner and this sort of thing. These sorts of influences would put us in touch with remembered theatrical experiences as well, all western experiences to be sure." -- on Star Wars, interview in Film Score Monthly, 1997.
  • Best-known Films: Jaws, the six Star Wars films, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, and the first three of the Harry Potter films.
  • Less familiar but excellent: The Reivers, Empire of the Sun, Nixon, Catch Me if You Can, and Memoirs of a Geisha.
  • Concert Music: Although Williams is best-loved for his film music, he is also a prolific composer of concert music. Recent recordings include Duo Concertante for Violin and Viola (2007), Sinfonietta for Wind Ensemble (2005), Come on Children, Let’s Sing (2004 re-release), Heartwood: Lyric Sketches for Cello and Orchestra (2002), Call of the Champions (Olympic Theme, 2002), Elegy for Cello and Orchestra (2002), Three Pieces for Solo Cello (2000), and Treesong: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2000).
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