‘Jaws’: Steven Spielberg Laughed at John Williams’ Iconic Theme Music When He First Heard It

by Allison Hambrick

Iconic director Steven Spielberg revealed he thought composer John Williams was playing a joke when he first shared the theme for Jaws.

“I expected to hear something kind of weird and melodic, something tonal, but eerie; something of another world, almost like outer space under the water,” the West Side Story director explained in a Jaws DVD featurette.“And what he played me instead, with two fingers on the lower keys, was ‘dun dun, dun dun, dun dun.’ And at first, I began to laugh. He had a great sense of humor, and I thought he was putting me on.”

Once he heard why Williams chose to score the film with such a simple-yet-memorable theme, he couldn’t help but agree that the them was perfect.

“It suddenly seemed right,” Spielberg said. “And John found the signature for the entire movie. I think the score was responsible for half of the success of that movie.”

Williams also opened up about the iconic score. His idea was to compose music that matched the action onscreen. The Academy Award-winning composer explained: “You could alter the speed of this ostinato [a repeated musical rhythm]; any kind of alteration, very slow and very fast, very soft and very loud. There were opportunities to advertise the shark with music. There are also opportunities when we don’t have the music and the audience has a sense of the absence.”

He then clarified that the music was intended to heighten the anxiety of scene through conditioning the audience.

“[Viewers] sense the absence because they don’t hear the ‘dun dun’ because you’ve conditioned them to do that,” Williams said.“The absence of the music cue leaves viewers shocked when the shark pops up out of the water.” 

Music Experts Reflect on Legacy of John Williams

It’s that creativity that made John Williams such an iconic composer. His works ranging from Jaws to Star Wars to Schindler’s List and so many others are all considered film classics. In fact, Williams, who celebrated his 90th birthday on Feb. 8, inspired many classical musicians through his work. A few of them paid tribute to Williams on his birthday.

“Looking back they still hold up,” said violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. “All these characters [are] elevated by his inventiveness. Usually, you would go to the cinema to see the actors. I would go to hear John Williams’s music.”

Another musician, the London Symphony Orchestra’s first violinist Maxine Kwok, insisted that critics were wrong about Williams. His compositions are unique and entertaining.

“As we reach his 90th birthday, I think the people who just go: ‘Oh, they all sound the same,’ just can’t justify it any more,” explained Kwok, who onlyjoined the LSO because it performed the Star Wars score. “You can play the first two bars of Superman, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and ET and people recognise them instantly. They are all different but by the same man.”