What does the music at the end of The Force Awakens mean?
Music has always been one of the most important elements in cinema, but more so in Star Wars than most films. John Williams, the legendary composer behind so many movies, makes use of a technique called a leitmotif throughout the series of films. What this means is he creates a tune or melody for certain characters or places. These melodies are then found throughout the film, altered or intermingling with each other in a way that could let us know what’s happening in any scene even without the images. You could write a book about the music in Star Wars (and I’m sure people have), so I’ll focus on just one scene — the ending of The Force Awakens. Listen along with Spotify or Apple Music (below) or wherever you get your music from.
The tune starts of very softly, with just a vibraphone, and other instruments are gradually introduced. This first section is in a minor key, which helps to build at atmosphere of mystery to the start of Rey’s journey. What’s especially interesting is that most of the notes played, including the melody, avoid the 3rd note that lets us know if a song is major or minor. This further adds to the slight sense of unease. As Rey climbs up the slopes of the island, the music gradually crescendos. As the first melody repeats itself, this time an octave higher and played by a flute rather than cello, Rey reaches the man who will help her first steps to become a Jedi.
It’s at this point we reach the second section of the song (at 58 seconds in). A hooded figure is standing in front of Rey, who reveals himself to be Luke Skywalker, and the music takes a much darker turn. While up until now the orchestration had been mainly woodwind and strings, the brass section now starts to play. The much more forceful sound they provide us with some useful clues, but the notes they play tell us even more.
Listen to the melody at 58 seconds in. Now listen to the first few seconds of another familiar Star Wars tune. The tempo is different, but the notes are the same, linking us back to moments of the dark side in previous films. Why, when Luke is finally revealed, do we hear the music of the dark side, of Darth Vader?
The song now returns to our original melody (at 1:10 in), this time played by the brass instruments, giving the darker, more forceful timbre to the music as Rey and Luke are finally face to face. Rey begins to reach into her bag, and the music begins to fade. At this moment, another familiar song begins to play (1:38) — Binary Sunset. This track first appeared in the original Star Wars, when Luke is looking out to the deserts of Tattooine at the start of his journey to becoming a Jedi Master. This motif, representing the light side, acts as a counterbalance for the dark section moments ago, and reflects the theme of balance between light and dark in the film itself. Now the melody races up the scales for Rey at the beginning of her own journey, reaching a crescendo before breaking into the familiar Star Wars closing credit theme and the end of the film.