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Star Wars: The Force Awakens – a sound fetishist’s guide to the trailer and beyond

The real force of Star Wars is to be found in its music, an aural cocktail of orchestral pieces punctuated with lightsabers, hyperspace leaps, and a hint of droid. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – a sound fetishist’s guide to the trailer and beyond

You may have noticed that the final trailer for the upcoming Star Wars instalment, The Force Awakens, has been released, and that fans globally are experiencing convulsions of mythopoeic anticipation.

Movie ticketing websites have collapsed under the weight of advance sales, and – as the first instalment to arrive in the fully developed social media age – fan frenzy has entered the realm of hyperspace.

For all the speculative commentary as to what the trailer reveals plot-wise, the true “force” of the trailer is surely located in the various sounds that infuse this perfectly constructed teaser.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer.

Wisely tapping into the raw power of orchestral score and sound design that anchored the original Star Wars trilogy, director JJ Abrams aims for our ears in finding the surest route to an emotional reaction.

‘Search your feelings …’

The trailer opens with the understated novelty of solo piano, a rarity in the Star Wars soundworld – four intimately enigmatic chords, poised above a shimmering acoustic spaciousness, musically matching the cavernous vault of the mysterious visual setting.

The austere opening is only the pointy end of a narrative wedge shape – as characters are introduced, so too does the music develop. The piano chords are repeated lower, then lower again in a full orchestral arrangement unleashed by timpani, as the villainous Kylo Ren is revealed.

When the action and dialogue turns to the past, the music follows, as Han and Leia’s Love Theme from the original trilogy surfaces, followed by a magisterial arrangement of the portentous Force Theme (which has here acquired a soaring choral accompaniment).

A crescendo to an unresolved climax follows, a pregnant pause, then a glowing, soft, and slumberous statement of the march generally known as the Star Wars theme, but also associated with Luke Skywalker as a symbol of hope.

Abrams makes sure we get a healthy dose of iconic Star Wars sound effects along the way – tie fighters especially, but also lightsabers, a hyperspace leap, and a hint of droid.

This backward-looking aural cocktail works so powerfully thanks to the original conception George Lucas had for the world of Star Wars in the original trilogy – a story he wanted to tell in the form of a “Space Opera”.

Tie Fighter sound effects.

‘An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age …’

After the gorgeous excesses of Hollywood’s lush musical scores through the 1930s and 40s, overly grand orchestral scoring took a back seat until Williams revitalised the neoromantic approach in the 70s. Star Wars’ epic musical canvas suited the operatic aspirations of Lucas.

In resurrecting the older Hollywood aesthetic, a fascinating musical device came forcefully back into play – leitmotif.

Most famously used by Richard Wagner in his late 19th century gesamtkunstwerk (“total art work”) operas, leitmotif had subsequently and ostensibly been a favourite tool of Hollywood composers throughout the 20th century.

Leitmotif, insofar as classic Hollywood tended to use it, involves a shortish but distinctive and consistent melodic idea that can be called on repeatedly throughout a soundtrack to signify a person, place, thing, idea or emotion.

Wagner’s use of leitmotif was significantly more complex than was generally the case in 20th-century Hollywood, but Williams’ use of it came close to Wagner’s more texturally organic and mutable approach.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Australia

Most importantly, both Wagner and Williams weave leitomotif into the musical texture as a means not only of storytelling, but of giving the story mythological proportions – suggesting a world of ideas and emotions beyond the corporeal.

Famous melodic and harmonic ideas such as the Love Theme, the Force Theme, Luke’s Theme – all are capable of subtle and relatively sophisticated manifestations and variations throughout the films.

These recurrences and variations of leitmotifs build the interior emotional core of the Star Wars universe’s mythos.

Star Wars: Imperial March.

Lucas’ desire to delve into the past for musical inspiration fits well with the overall narrative of the trilogy – a hearkening to pre-modernity, a rebellion against the Death Star as the ultimate manifestation of coldly inhuman technological supremacy.

The desire to preserve a natural order, despite the inevitability of progress, is also observable in the way in which Lucas asked the Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt to create sound effects “organically”.

‘Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them …’

Burtt’s mission was to generate organic sound effects by prioritising the natural, physical, (non-electronic) world as the source for the vast majority of effects. Burtt’s Star Wars library contains more than 5,000 such samples.

The famous tie-fighter swoop is actually a sampled elephant roar, distorted electronically. Chewbacca’s expressive groans are a carefully composed mix, courtesy of a Walrus, bears and a number of other animals, some sick at the time of recording. The iconic Storm Trooper laser is the sound of a hammer, banging on thick metal cable. And perhaps most mythic of all – the storied lightsaber is no fancier than a sampled projector motor combined with TV picture tubing feedback.

Lightsaber sound effect.

Even the electronic droid-speak of R2D2 is 50% human vocalisations and whistles, courtesy of Burtt himself.

Surely this fastidious commitment to the sourcing of “organic” sounds partially underpins the successful sound design – a faint sense of familiarity or recognition grounding the effects in the viewers’ subconscious.

But it’s also interesting to note the mythic qualities these sounds have taken on over time, rivalling, in a sense, the role of Williams’ score.

‘That’s no moon, it’s a space station …’

Williams’ Force Theme, for example, acts not only as a calling card for the idea of The Force, but also fills the mythic void that religious themes occupy in other origin stories.

Similarly, the strangely sing-song sound of Chewbacca holding forth not only signifies Chewbacca speaking, but over time, has come to evoke mythic archetypes such as the unconditionally loyal friend, travelling companion, perhaps even the faithful pet.

Chewbacca sound effect.

R2D2’s bips and bleeps not only communicate the droid’s thoughts and feelings at any given moment within the story, but also engender inexplicable emotional reactions in many viewers. The “music” of those sounds hints at a mythic child figure – playful, slightly mischievous, vulnerably diminuitive, yet central to the action in so many origin stories.

These sounds, and others (such as lightsabers, and Vader’s breathing), function like leitmotifs; not only signifying the immediate character, thing or emotion present in the story, but also some archetypal character or idea beyond the here and now.

In this way, the sound effects help create the mythic qualities of Star Wars alongside the musical score itself – an aspect of the films that certainly counts as ground-breaking, and worthy of celebration.

‘The Force is strong with this one …’

Long after the dizzying and dazzling visual imagery of a Star Wars film fades from our retinas, the very hint of the Imperial March still has the power to create visceral tension, the Force Theme can overwhelm, and the Star Wars Theme itself can inspire hope and determination.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Australia

Similarly, the sounds of R2, Chewbacca, lightsabers, tie-fighters and countless other creatures and objects are some of the first things that spring to mind when we think about Star Wars, deeply embedded in our psychological relationship with the story as they are.

Lucas was determined to make the soundtrack utterly integral to the Star Wars experience, and by any objective measure he succeeded.

So let’s watch and re-watch this tantalising and stirring trailer, accept our geeky devotion to this mythic Space Opera, and acknowledge the role music and sound plays in reaching something fundamentally human inside of us, even as it helps tell such an improbable story.


Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens December 17.