The next John Williams score that we look at for #Johnuary is Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Williams was nominated for the Oscar for both Star Wars and Close Encounters in the same year. He won for Star Wars. I bet he wishes one of them fell into the following year’s awards.

After his two-note leitmotif from Jaws and also his Imperial March from Empire Strikes Back, I’d say that the five-note leitmotif, used for talking to the aliens in this film, is his third musical leitmotif that has made its way into popular culture. Interestingly though it was something that Williams found incredibly difficult to create. He kept suggesting they made it a seven or eight note motif but Spielberg was adamant that it be five notes, as it represented the five letters of the word ‘hello’. Williams supposedly went through hundreds of versions but neither he nor Spielberg could decide on one they were both happy with. In the end Spielberg picked one out of frustration and it ended up being the one that was successful and is so engrained in popular culture today.

The full score is a very interesting one. When looking at the track listings there are actually a lot of tracks in this soundtrack. A lot of it, particularly in the first third of the film is relatively atonal and is to set atmosphere while the mystery of the aliens pervades. As such it’s not really the kind of score that you would just sit down and enjoy, although other versions have been recorded which are more ‘suites’ for listeners to enjoy. There is an interesting mixture throughout of themes representing very different subjects of mystery, military and aliens.

“Let there be Light” is a cool opening. About 30 seconds of atonal, ethereal noise followed by a sudden flash of harmony from the full orchestra, to coincide with the films titles. There are some lovely uses of a choir in tracks like “Forming the Mountain” and particularly “TV Reveals”. I think this use of choir is clever. Adding this human element, but using it in a mysterious way in places, in a film about alien contact brings out interesting emotions.

It’s a score that is beautiful and fills you with awe. It’s not filled with tracks that you will be humming for the rest of the day though.

Here is the film excerpt with the five-note leitmotif.

And here is the full score playlist.