Music Matters: Jaws (Steven Spielberg 1975)

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Neil Mitchell dips a tentative toe in the water as one of the most famous theme tunes in movie history runs through his mind.

Duun dun…duun dun…dun dun dun dun…you’d be hard pressed to find anyone – cinephile or casual movie viewer – that doesn’t instantly recognise John Williams’ theme tune to Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975). The winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Dramatic Score, the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score, the BAFTA Award for Best Film Music and the Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media, Williams’ complete work is currently ranked as the sixth greatest American movie score of all time by the AFI (American Film Institute). While the work as a whole is, rightly, celebrated as a masterpiece, it’s the theme tune itself that has been firmly embedded into the collective cinematic consciousness.

A simple ostinato of bass notes – E and F – played on a tuba by Tommy Johnson, a veteran of 2,000 film soundtracks by the time of his death, the Jaws theme conveys a growing sense of tension and danger. Ominous and repetitive, it is a vital part of the film’s success, Spielberg himself readily admitting that without the theme Jaws wouldn’t have been half as memorable. Williams saw his theme as ‘grinding away at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable.’ It is a primal, threatening piece that has since become a benchmark for movie scores dealing in suspense, evoking as it does the quickening of respiration or a heartbeat.

Building in speed as the shark moves in on its unsuspecting prey, the viewer is fully aware of the deadly force of nature about to be unleashed. The moments of silence after the shark attacks are integral in highlighting the power of Williams’ theme, that all-encompassing, brooding sound replaced by a deathly hush. The sound rises from the depths, then retreats, as the shark does. The theme is as minimalist as the shark is single-minded, they become symbiotic – the former signifying the presence of the latter, the latter driving the former to its climax. The theme and the shark act as one – uncomplicated, fully focused and lethally effective.

Recalling elements found in the work of the late, great Bernard Hermann, the Jaws theme, and the score over all, fully kick-started the composer’s awards laden career, one that has taken in the Star Wars and Indian Jones franchises, E.T., Superman and Jurassic Park among many others.

Go Further – Read more about the career of John Williams here

About the author

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, Neil Mitchell is the editor of The Big Picture magazine, the London and Melbourne editions of the World Film Locations series and co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Britain. His monograph on Brian De Palma's Carrie will be published in September by Auteur Publishing as part of its Devil's Advocates series. Neil contributes to Total Film, Electric Sheep, Eye For Film and New Empress, is the host of The Fourth Wall blog and can be found chatting away on Twitter under @nrm1972.

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