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'Jaws': The Score That Changed Hollywood

Ty Sheedlo |
July 15, 2015 | 11:14 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Jaws at Universal Studios (via Wikimedia)
Jaws at Universal Studios (via Wikimedia)
This past month marked the 40th Anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” The film follows police chief Martin Brody as he hunts the shark that terrorizes a peaceful beach community. It is a thrilling story bolstered by Roy Scheider’s leading performance and tense, sure-handed direction from Spielberg.

“Jaws” was a financial and critical success, breaking box office records and garnering a Best Picture nomination in 1975. The film changed the landscape of Hollywood, becoming the first ever “blockbuster.”

But what is it about the film that is so iconic? How did it make such a lasting impression on the audiences of the 70s? According to Spielberg, “clearly the score is responsible for half of the success of the movie.” 

READ MORE: 'Shark Week': What's The Big Deal?

John Williams, the composer, was an old friend of Spielberg, and scored his very first film. After the response to his work in “Jaws,” he went on to write the music for “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park,” “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and famously, “Star Wars.” While the aforementioned are phenomenal in their own right, none are so haunting as William’s composition for “Jaws.”

The theme starts with a slow leading tone. This is when the first note is a half-step below the second, “leading” into it. Williams uses F and F# on the cello, deep like the ocean floor. The tempo of those two repeating notes picks up as the shark closes in on its first victim. As the notes reach a crescendo, a cacophony of other instruments join in; the shark attacks.

The score is simple. When Williams first showed it to Spielberg, the director’s response was a laugh. But after playing it several more times, Spielberg saw what Williams had in mind.

The score is the shark; it is what the audience can’t see. As the camera swoops in from the shark’s point of view, bassoons and trombones sound off dissonant minor chords. It gives the audience a feeling of dread, wondering when the shark will strike.

Williams, like all great composers, used the score to tell a story that complements the visuals: the mystery of the depths of the ocean, the unknown terror that it holds. Later in the film, as Brody chases down the shark, the score cuts out. It makes the audience ask where the shark went. The score had always told them when the shark was coming. Then the shark pops out of the water and the score is back. Williams uses the music to lure the audience into a false sense of security. Then he makes them wish they never got in the water.

The theme of Jaws made the film an incredible success, but Williams gives credit where it is due. He believes that the relationship works in reverse. Play the score outside the context of the movie, and it isn’t so extraordinary. In fact, Williams himself has played it in concert, and the response is, like Spielberg’s, a laugh. 

Reach Staff Reporter Ty Sheedlo here



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