John Williams’ Compelling Idea

Steven Spielberg was expecting something “weird and melodic.” Maybe eerie. Other worldly.

Instead, John Williams sat down at the piano in his studio and with two fingers played Mr. Spielberg two bass notes: E-F-E-F-E-F.

Sometimes softer. Sometimes louder.

Mr. Spielberg was not without hesitation. Actually, he outright laughed. Mr. Williams had a terrific sense of humor. The composer was putting the director on. This was a big, complicated movie being scored here.

But the composer wasn’t putting anyone on. He was serious about this score idea. The repeated bass notes were “so simple, insistent and driving,” he believed, that they seem “unstoppable.”

He played it a couple more times for Mr. Spielberg. Okay, the director finally said, let’s try it.

It took Mr. Williams two months to write the whole 50-minute score for Jaws. On average, he says, it takes him one day to write one minute of music.

The score was played by a 73-piece orchestra. But those two notes – E-F-E-F-E-F, what they called the ‘shark motif’ – were played by just 19 instruments: Eight cellos, four trombones, six basses, one tuba.

The music was responsible for half of Jaws‘ success, Mr. Spielberg would later say without hesitation.

And it wasn’t weird or melodic. Or big or complicated. It was just two unstoppable bass notes. What Mr. Williams “thought was the most powerful thing, which is to say the simplest.”

Mr. Williams’ powerful E-F-E-F-E-F thing won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award and a Grammy.

“Like most ideas,” the composer says, the simplest are “often the most compelling.”

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