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The Force 40, Part 1: A Bracket of the Absolute Best Star Wars Music

It’s one of the best times of the year for fans of college basketball: March Madness! With the men’s and women’s college national championship tournament in full swing, everybody’s got that bracket fever.

March Madness brackets are a big deal—millions of people create them (even President Obama, who still has a chance at his bracket being right), at least $8.5 billion dollars are bet on them every year, and even my own students have a chance to win a giant bag of candy if they win my annual classroom bracket challenge.

But the weird and indescribable joy of filling out a bracket (and then defending your picks, rejoicing in victory, and sobbing over your bracket’s inevitable destruction at the hands of fate, Cinderella teams, or 99-year-old team chaplain Sister Jean) isn’t restricted to college roundball.

Behold, my friends: the FORCE FORTY! It’s the March Madness Star Wars Soundtrack Edition! 

After all, brackets help us all celebrate that one shining momentfor the winning team; why can’t one of John Williams’ amazing compositions win the same lofty prize? First, some guiding thoughts. 

  • There are no conferences or divisions. There are too many ways to divide the music, and I want to have a little sanity left at the end of this.
  • There are 40, not 64, spots for this tournament. 32 spots is way too small, but there’d be a lot of bloat in a field of 64. 
  • Each piece’s seeding, or overall ranking, is based on its melody, importance to the film(s), and musical beauty. The #1-10 seeds are the “strongest,” while lower-seeded pieces will have to overcome their low rankings by beating out the better pieces in head-to-head competition.
  • Each piece is annotated with its corresponding film (ANH = A New Hope, ESB = Empire Strikes Back, ROTJ = Return of the Jedi, TPM = The Phantom Menace, AOTC = Attack of the Clones, ROTS = Revenge of the Sith, TFA = The Force Awakens, TLJ = The Last Jedi).
  • I’ve made a Spotify playlist with all our competitors (even arranged in their seeding order), so hop in!

The Force Forty

Check out the first round matchups for the Force Forty on the bracket above. Now let’s take a look at our competitors. Each has an accompanying nugget to chew on going into the tourney. The seeding is inarguably correct, 100% scientifically accurate, and totally unbiased.

  1. Main Title (ANH)—This wall of blasting brass, ringing triangles, and pounding tympani brings crowds to their feet every time. It’s not uncommon to hear fans applaud this theme in the movie theatre, both for its sheer heroics and all that it represents—nothing else signals the adventure, romance, and action of Star Wars better.
  2. The Hologram/Binary Sunset (ANH)—To many fans, the Force theme contained in this piece is the ur-melody of Star Wars. It’s hard to argue its symbolic strength here; it’s just so dang archetypal! A perennial powerhouse, and one sure to go far in the Force Forty. 
  3. Yoda and the Force (ESB)—The small-statured Jedi Master’s theme—lovely enough on its own—and adds Force theme bridge before building to a climax that gives me chills every time I hear it. No other piece in the tourney epitomizes the need for learning, and the will to carry on when that learning is difficult, more than this one.
  4. Anakin’s Theme (ROTJ)—An intricate piece with many moving parts, all of which add to its gorgeous main melody. This wistful bit of nostalgia is a glimpse of what Anakin Skywalker could have become, but the lure of the dark side, suggested by the hint of “The Imperial March” at the end, proved too great for the young Jedi.
  5. The Imperial March (ESB)—Often called Darth Vader’s theme (despite Vader having a very recognizable motif in A New Hope), this piece is used so often outside a Star Wars context that it stands on its own. An incredibly stacked competitor in the Force Forty. 
  6. Duel of the Fates (ROTJ)—This behemoth spawned a million choreographed lightsaber duels, sold hundreds of millions in toys, and convinced many fence-sitters to give The Phantom Menace a try. Williams took bits from the medieval Welsh poem Cad Goddeu, translated them into Sanskrit (he liked the vowel sounds), and injected the beginning “KO-RAHHHHHHHHHH, RAH-TAH-MAHHHHHH” directly into the collective consciousness.
  7. Rey’s Theme (TFA)—The most recognizable and stirring piece to come out of the sequel trilogy, and a real contender for the championship. The best celeste work in film since “Hedwig’s Theme” from the Harry Potter films, and a flawless sonic representation of the greatest character in the sequels.
  8. Fun with Finn and Rose (TLJ)—A piece that’s a breath of fresh air for a tourney that doesn’t have a lot of strong newcomers. Bursting with optimism, it hearkens back to Williams’ best ‘90s/early ‘00s soundtracks and wouldn’t sound out of place on a Harry Potter soundtrack.
  9. Across the Stars (AOTC)—Moody and passionate, this piece comes into the tourney with a lot of emotions and feelings, most of them based around sand. The melody can play softly or go loud, which gives it serious staying power. 
  10. Princess Leia’s Theme (ANH)—Man, the world needs Carrie Fisher now more than ever. This haunting melody will fool you with its simplicity, and that’s where it’ll get you. It’s that timelessness that ensures that Leia’s theme will always be a top-10 seed.
  11. The Throne Room and End Title (ANH)—Sometimes lovingly labeled, “that one where Chewbacca doesn’t get a medal and that seems problematic to me,” this piece starts like a wedding march. It turns into a gnarly statement of the Force theme before twisting back into the proper wedding march it started as.
  12. Cantina Band (ANH)—The ultimate in shiny sleaze, Figrin D’an’s team of seven Modal Nodes seem like misfits in the Force Forty Tournament. “Surely our competition is above such scum and villainy,” you think to yourself as you furtively hum this tune under your breath. Beware this underdog team. 
  13. Scherzo for X-Wings (TFA)—Good lord, that brass hammering at the beginning. No piece makes you cheer for the Resistance like this one. Scherzo means “a vigorous, light, or playful composition,” but I doubt Poe or Finn would say anything about this piece is playful. A strong finish with the breakdown at the end.
  14. The Falcon (TFA)—Without a doubt the most rhythmic piece in any of the films, and with a time signature—either alternating bars of 3/4 and 5/8 or the stupefying 11/8 (!)—that will challenge the best toe tapper, this piece finally gives one of the most beloved ships in cinema its own theme. I predict big things from this complex and layered competitor.
  15. Han Solo and the Princess (ESB)—The most romantic piece of music in all of Star Wars to me. The star-crossed lovers are perfectly symbolized by the yearning strings, the forlorn French horns, and the sultry harp underpinning it all. This one’ll put you in your feelings without even trying. 
  16. Luke and Leia (ROTJ)—This piece takes Leia’s theme and turns it deftly from a romantic love piece into one based on sibling love. Combined with Han’s realization that Leia doesn’t have a thing for Luke after all—because he’s, you know, her brother—and we have a very strong contender. 
  17. The Jedi Steps and Finale (TFA)—The celesta work throughout belies an incredible strong melody, and a strength that surges the longer the piece lasts. Expect this piece to go deep in the tourney, particularly with a key assist from the Force theme right at the end.
  18. The Droid Invasion and the Appearance of Darth Maul (ROTJ)—While not officially listed anywhere, the Trade Federation theme stated in this piece is one of the most instantly recognizable from the prequel trilogy. Ranks with Williams’ Nazi themes for the Indiana Jones films for great bad guy music.
  19. Torn Apart (TFA)—Definitely the most gorgeous, hopeful, and ultimately heartbreaking piece of music in The Force Awakens, and maybe the entire Star Wars canon. Listen to what could (should?) have been a turning point for Kylo Ren, and Han Solo’s redemption in life, spiral inevitably toward both men’s doom.
  20. The Arrival at Tatooine and the Flag Parade (ROTJ)—A great way to introduce the childlike sense of wonder that young Ani feels. This piece is a tale of two halves; the ominous and triumphant march that closes it will befuddle more straightforward pieces in the tourney.
  21. The Asteroid Field (ESB)—This is a slightly stronger version of our #22 seed. With its underlying strings keeping the pressure on from below, its soaring trumpet lines that evoke the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy, and a happy twist of Han and Leia’s love theme at the end, this is a real contender for the prize.
  22. Ben’s Death and TIE Fighter Attack (ANH)—The unusual rhythms of the last half of this piece are sure to keep this team in the tournament for a long while. Plus, this zigs where you expect it to zag—despite playing under Obi-Wan’s death, Williams features Leia’s theme instead of the Force theme. 
  23. Augie’s Municipal Band and End Credits (ROTJ)—How weird is this piece? Drums that sound like Williams binged Stomp the night before, a children’s choir singing Emperor Palpatine’s theme in a major key to disguise the menace, fat rips on something that sounds like a didgeridoo, and loooots of coach’s whistle work. A dark horse in this tourney. 
  24. Battle of the Heroes (ROTS)—Did you know that this piece had an official music video that played on MTV? This is much more tragic than its Episode I chorale-and-brass counterpart, but not as instantly memorable.
  25. Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle (TFA)—A really strong showing for one of the key themes of The Force Awakens. Stabbing staccato strings building into a booming statement Ren’s theme, rattles the ribcage for awhile, and then subsides back into the strings. Great bad guy music.  
  26. The Fathiers (TLJ)—A bounding piece that climbs in the brass and falls in the strings. The interludes with Rose’s theme add a rich vein of Jurassic Park-style wonder. *chef kiss* It’s part of an unexpected thread of hope that runs The Last Jedi.
  27. Anakin Defeats Sebulba (ROTJ)—A great medley of themes (Jabba’s, the Force theme, the “happy young Anakin” theme) mixed with some triple-A tension music. Just a solid piece.
  28. The Desert and the Robot Auction (ANH)—This piece earns a spot in the Force Forty for the wheedling oboe melody that could be described as an unofficial theme for C-3PO and R2-D2. It hits that sweet spot of fuss and mischief symbolized by the real heroes of the Star Wars films. Yeah, I said it.
  29. The Starkiller (TFA)—A true piece of romantic classical music, in the sense that the sense of loss is exaggerated to the hilt. The strings weep and swell as we see the First Order’s murderous intentions, and we weep for the lost souls as well.
  30. Canto Bight (TLJ)—Every once in a blue moon John Williams reminds us that in the 1950s and early 1960s he was better known as Johnny Williams, one of the hottest pianists, bandleaders, and jazz arrangers in Hollywood. Samba me down in Canto Bight!
  31. March of the Resistance (TFA)—A bit slow and ponderous for my taste, but a rollicking tune when it builds momentum. This would suit an army thousands strong, but by the end of The Last Jedi the Resistance is just a splinter, a shard of what it once was.
  32. The Emperor (ROTJ)—A melody rooted in anger and sadness, this piece builds to a climax and then descends into silence. It’s a neat audio trick that mirrors what we see happening on the screen (the death of Palpatine).
  33. The Battle in the Snow (ESB)—Who says classical orchestral music can’t be heavy? If Slayer played an arrangement of this song nobody would blink an eye. I’m serious—imagine this piece with shrieking electric guitars, a rumbling bass line, and thundering drums.  I get chills thinking about it.
  34. Qui-Gon’s Noble End (ROTJ)—The name of this piece, and its prominent placement on The Phantom Menace OST, spoiled the movie for 11-year-old Kerry. But how can you hate a piece this sonically diverse? Chants, soaring brass, those trademark xylophone hits for emphasis, meditative interludes, and some hand drums to end it—yes please.  
  35. “Chrome Dome” (TLJ)—A hardcore piece that plays during the fight between Finn and Phasma. The percussion, especially the tympani and low drums, are the perfect finale for this headbanger. Throw it out and watch the mosh pit form.
  36. Passage Through the Planet Core (ROTJ)—The aquatic elements of this piece are what earn it a spot in the tourney. Its wonder-filled chorales have their work cut out for them, though—as Qui-Gon says during this scene, there’s always a bigger fish. 
  37. Zam the Assassin and the Chase Through Coruscant (AOTC)—Some of the best high-tension chase music in any movie, hands down. And where else in Star Wars are you gonna hear an electric guitar lay down a face-melting solo? Check around the 3:20 mark to hear it.
  38. Parade of the Ewoks (ROTJ)—Mischievous, lilting, and of a piece with Williams’ kiddie films of the early 1990s (Hook, Home Alone, etc.), this piece was memorable enough for Williams to include in the medley that plays over the end credits. 
  39. Ewok Celebration and Finale (ROTJ)—Better known as the Ewok ode to victory “Yub Nub,” this piece plays behind the celebratory feast among the trees of Endor at the end of the film. And y’all know those teddy bears totally ate all the stormtroopers. 
  40. Lapti Nek (Jabba’s Palace Band) (ROTJ)—A sizzling slice of hot funk that could easily fit on the B-side of Purple Rain. A real dark horse in this tournament. Its replacement in the Special Edition (the extremely subpar “Jedi Rocks”) is a travesty and crime against good taste.

We have a weekend to mull over these competitors. Listen to them, debate them, but most of all, enjoy them! Come back on Championship Monday (April 8) to see the final bracket and how your favorite piece(s) contend!