Star Wars as Sonata Form

I am a pretty big nerd. This fact is not lost on my students. A few times a year, including today, I get to dust of my, by which I mean my friend Matthew Schoendorff’s, comparison of sonata allegro form to the original Star Wars trilogy. It goes a little something like this…

For the non-music nerds out there, sonata allegro form is a basic three-act structure. The beginning, the exposition, introduces a theme in the home key, transitions to a new key, then presents a second theme or two in that new key. The middle, the development, takes all of the ingredients from the Exposition, and puts them in a musical blender, often with complex, interesting, and dramatic results. The final section, the recapitulation, brings back all of the elements of the exposition, with an added sense of resolution, as all themes are now in the home key.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) is the exposition. It starts with Luke (the hero/ first theme) on his home planet of Tatooine (the home key). With the help of his friends, Luke leaves Tatooine to go on an adventure aboard the Millennium Falcon (the transition). The Falcon accidentally brings the gang to the Death Star, where they meet Darth Vader (new key, the villain/ second theme). Like most villains, Darth Vader is bigger (a longer theme) than the Luke, the hero (shorter first theme). Even as a musical idea, Luke is a little short for a storm trooper. By the end of the movie, the Death Star has been destroyed, but our villain has lived on to fight another day. Also, Chewbacca doesn’t get a medal. Let’s call that the codetta of the exposition.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is the development section of the trilogy. In the development, a composer takes the musical ideas introduced in the exposition, and chops them up into all sorts of new and interesting combinations. In Empire, all of the characters we met are scattered across the galaxy, in various forms of danger, ending with the biggest cliffhanger in movie history. The end of the development section in sonata form typically ends with the arrival on the dominant chord, the ultimate musical cliffhanger.

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) is the recapitulation. It has all of the same component parts of A New Hope: it starts on Tatooine, where Luke and Leia have to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hut, and the basic plot includes Luke and his friends destroying another Death Star. The fundamental difference, though, is that by the end of the movie [SPOILERS], Darth Vader is no longer on the dark side (the new key). He has joined the same side (home key) as Luke. That the “good” key defeats the “evil” key is the fundamental characteristic of sonata form, and is on clear display in this trilogy. Also, the Ewoks throw a party. Let’s call that the coda. Nub nub!