Exploring rhythm in John Williams’ music (pt.1)


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This post was brought to you in collaboration with our partner site Behind the Score. Discover the Harmony Secrets of Modern Film and Video Games.

Exploring rhythm in John Williams’ music (pt.1 – Switching time signatures)

Throughout this website, we have primarily focused on discussing harmonic concepts in music composition. While a solid understanding of harmony is undoubtedly crucial, it is equally important to recognize that a harmonic idea, without strong rhythmic support, can quickly become uninteresting and stagnant. On the other hand, even a song with a simple harmonic structure can shine when combined with intriguing rhythms.

In this three-part blog series, we will explore some fascinating rhythmic techniques commonly employed in the music of John Williams. John Williams, a musical genius, not only excels in employing harmonic devices but also showcases his expertise in employing captivating rhythmic tactics that truly elevate the music. These techniques may appear simple, but they play a crucial role in making his music stand out as unique and interesting.

We will delve into many examples of his possibly most well-known musical compositions throughout the series. Additionally, we will conduct A/B comparisons to understand how the music would sound without the implementation of these rhythmic devices.

Switching Time Signatures

Altering the time signature in a composition can have a profound impact on the music’s flow. In the realm of writing music for films and video games, where the music interacts with the dynamic environment, changing time signatures can serve as a powerful tool to effectively respond to the situation and enhance the excitement of the music. While changing the time signature itself is a simple task, the true challenge lies in maintaining a musical transition without disrupting the overall flow of the music.


Due to copyright issues, all audio and scores displayed on this page are alternative versions or recreations of the original content.

In this post, we have chosen to omit some of the instruments from the score to place a greater emphasis on the rhythmic aspect of the music.

Example (1-A) Journey To the Island Theme,” Jurassic Park (1993) (Original)

Mock-up with Original time signature

In Example (1-A), two extra beats were added in measure 4 when the time signature changed from 4/4 to 6/4. This adjustment was made to allow the theme to gradually develop in measure 4. The additional 2 beats help lengthen the measure, creating a prolonged moment and providing a smooth sustained note before reaching the climax of the song.

Example (1-B) Journey To the Island Theme,” Jurassic Park (1993) (Mock-up without the time change)

Mock-up without the time change

Example (1-B) is a reworking of Example (1-A) without the transition from 4/4 to 6/4 in the middle. While the transition in Example (A) from 4/4 to 6/4 was not overly drastic, it provided a temporary departure from the constant 4/4 phrasing, making the rhythmic flow of Example (A) less predictable for the listeners.

Example (2) “Fawkes the Phoenix Theme,” from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

MM. 1-6 (WWs & Pn.)
MM. 7-22 (WWs & Pn.)

Measure 6:

In this slow-paced 6/8 waltz rhythm, there is a brief switch to 9/8 time signature in measure 6. In this measure, the melody is extended by three 8th notes, and two dotted quarter note melodies are inserted into a single measure.

Typically, a change in time signature within a song brings a shift in rhythmic emphasis. However, in this example, there is no excessive emphasis on the first beat of each measure, and the song maintains a flowing 6/8 feel. Notating measure 6 as 6/8 instead of 9/8 is acceptable, while measure 10 can be notated as an extended measure of 9/8 without any issues.

Measure 15-18:

As the song progresses, there is another change in time signature from 6/8 to 9/8 between measures 15 to 17. In these measures, the melodic phrasing is structured more firmly in 9/8 figures, creating a less noticeable 6/8 sound until it smoothly transitions back to 6/8 in measure 18.

Example (3-A) “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme),” from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Mock-up with the original time signature

3-A is a mockup of perhaps the most famous movie theme of all time. In this excerpt, the song briefly switches from 4/4 to 2/4 at measure 2. As the 2nd measure is cut in half, the remaining Horn’s melodic motif (①) is separated by a barline and continues as the new phrase of the strong, accented by the first beat from measure 3.  Measure 3 to measure 4, the motif (lower A note) is sustained for another 2 measures, now there’s plenty more room for other instruments to support to and raise the excitement. The effect of this simple, yet clever transition can be compared to our own mockup of the same music without the time signature changes in 3-B.

Example (3-B) “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme),” from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Mock-up without the time change

EXAMPLE (4) “Flying Theme,” from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

In Example (4), the music remains in 2/2 time signature for the first 8 measures and then switches to 3/2 starting from measure 9. The transition between time signatures is executed smoothly as the melody, regardless of the time change, is consistently phrased using half notes. This ensures that the pulse of the music remains uninterrupted. Once the time signature shifts to 3/2, the rhythmic support aligns with the new time signature, resulting in a more distinct rhythm.

That’s it for this episode! In our upcoming series, we will dive deeper into even more intriguing rhythmic devices used in the music of John Williams. Topics include accent displacement, metric modulation, and more. Get ready for an exciting exploration! Stay tuned for more!

[Study Pack]

This post was brought to you in collaboration with our partner site Behind the Score. Discover the Harmony Secrets of Modern Film and Video Games.