Questions, Questions, and, More Questions: How to Unpack Musical Genius of John Williams

James Heazlewood-Dale is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Musicology at Brandeis and a BOLLI Lecturer. This essay is based on James’ experience leading “John Williams: The Maestro of the Cinema” at BOLLI in Spring and Fall 2022.

All things good and great start with a question: marriages, summer holiday destinations, and, of course, choice of take-out on Friday nights. Over the five years as a doctoral student in the Brandeis musicology department and four years as a study group leader (SGL) at BOLLI, I have learned that the work of which I am most proud comes from asking the right questions. Questions have become the foundation of every course I have ever designed, every lecture I’ve presented, and, I would even venture, every fruitful conversation I’ve had with a student. When graduate students begin teaching at BOLLI, Avi Bernstein, the BOLLI Executive Director, assigns a painstakingly difficult task: Create a question that your course is trying to answer. Crafting a question that is worthy of interrogation is challenging—It can’t be so small that you can answer it in a brief amount of time and can’t be so big that it is impossible to attempt to answer over the course of 10 sessions, a typical BOLLI term. Whether you’re a veteran SGL, a new SGL, or looking for some inspiration to become an SGL, my aim here is to start revving up your mental engine in order to think about how to ask the right questions when designing a great course.

I have chosen to focus on my 10-week course on John Williams that I gave in Spring 2022 and am fortunate to present also in Fall 2022. In case you’re not a movie go-er, John Williams is the musical mastermind behind film scores, including E.T., Jaws, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Schindler’s List, Superman, and Jurassic Park. As you can see, he has a fairly solid resume as a film composer. While many questions could animate this course, I kept coming back to this one, how does Williams compose music that is so memorable? If I play the first two notes of the “Shark” theme from Jaws, an oscillating low E and F on the double bass, students respond in a way that indicates they’re back in the cinema’s seat watching the film. The music stays with us, and it lingers in our ears despite the absence of the medium’s visual component. We truly have a remarkable composer at work. Another way to frame the question that pervaded this course: how in the course of ten weeks can we unpack the creative process that results in great musical works? This is a common musicological angle by scholars who examine the works of musical giants, including Bach, Beethoven, Scott Joplin, Miles Davis, John Lennon, and Lady Gaga. People have written books and books (and more books) dedicated to dissecting the creative musical output. How on earth am I going to do a decent job of tackling this in 10 weeks? By one of the most prolific film composers in history, no less! 

In order to tackle my goliath of a course-question, I needed to create the stepping stones that would help me and my students reach an acceptable conclusion. Remember my Jaws example? Part of what makes Williams’ output so effective for the film medium is his ability to create simple yet striking musical themes. But how? How are they constructed? When do we hear them? How do they relate to characters, locations, and events? In what ways do they relate to one another to create Williams’ sound as a composer? Session by session, these questions became the basis for my course. 

Once I arrived at questions that could be applied to multiple films, the logical next step was to assign a single film to each session. Now, you may very well ask how we could possibly expect to cover a whole film score in a single session. The answer is that we don’t. Instead, we focus on one or two musical themes—or leitmotifs for all you opera aficionados. One thing you’ll quickly discover watching a film that Williams has scored is that he will only present a few musical themes/leitmotifs, and he’s going to make sure you hear them in the narrative peaks, what film theorists call beats. Think about the “Flying” sequence in E.T. It’s a remarkable moment when Elliot, his friends, and E.T. all fly off into the sunset on their bikes. Williams’s “Flying” theme, the film’s principal theme that we all know and love, is presented in all its grandeur to achieve this precise narrative peak. It’s a tearjerker, to be sure. 

Focusing on one or two musical themes in each session forces students to pay attention to the musical building blocks that will help them address the course-question. I ask them, in what situations do we hear the “shark” theme from Jaws? By asking this question, students begin to pay attention to when particular themes are introduced and occur throughout a film. By doing so, they can begin to associate musical themes with particular characters, locations, and events. The session-by-session focal questions help guide an effective means to interrogate a film’s score; students begin to develop an analytical ability — a musicological-sixth-sense– to identify how John Williams has pieced together a film sound world. Film music is often regarded as an invisible art. A comment I will typically get is that a participant did not notice how the music was framing their experience of the film until they took the course. My course-question, which is supported by clear session-level questions, directs one to lift the curtains off of John Williams’ invisible arm form. John Williams and his scores become an integral part of the narrative, the drama, and the emotion. His genius as a musical storyteller shines through. 

The BOLLI community comprises some of the most intelligent, curious, and thought-provoking individuals I have ever encountered in my seven years living in Boston. They are ready to take on some of the most difficult scholarly challenges we face as graduate students. BOLLI is the perfect opportunity to ask the difficult questions we encounter in our respective disciplines. The questions we craft not only generate engaging content, conversation, debates, and perspectives. They are the foundation on which our course is built and shape the day-to-day, minute-by-minute teaching experience at BOLLI. It is because of the extraordinary intellect of the BOLLI community that discussion can easily veer off in all sorts of directions. If you have a solid grasp of what your course-level question and session-level questions are, you can gauge if it is a direction worth sailing in; your questions will be your compass and map. We can keep our students, our course, and ourselves on track. I’m pleased to say that I still grapple with questions I decided to take on in my John William’s course. They continue to challenge me as a scholar, musician, and teacher. But that’s the joy of asking the right questions: you have enough of an answer that leads you to ask questions, questions, and more questions.