JAWS at 45

© 1975 Universal Pictures

Revisiting one of the true classics from the Spielberg/Williams collaboration and its profound impact on the collective memory on two generations of moviegoers and film music lovers

by Maurizio Caschetto

What are the odds that just two notes a semitone apart would become synonymous of terror, fright and sheer primal fear? This wasn’t Steven Spielberg‘s idea when, back in 1975, he showed a cut of Jaws to his composer John Williams and told him his own ideas about the musical needs of the movie.

“When [John] finally played music for me on the piano, he previewed the main Jaws theme… I expected to hear something kind of weird and melodic, tonal but eerie, [something] of another world, almost like inner space under the water. And when he played instead with two fingers on the lower keys [hums] dun-dun… dun-dun… dun-dun-dun-dun… at first I began to laugh. I thought he had a great sense of humor and he was putting me on. And he said, “No, that’s the theme to Jaws!”. I said “Play it again”, and he played it again, and again… and suddenly it seemed right. John found a signature for the entire movie.” [1]

Before exploring why such a deceptively simple musical solution became an iconic element able to define the entire film, it’s important to give some context on the genesis of this movie and its musical score.

Steven Spielberg with the infamous mechanical shark, a.k.a. “Bruce” © 1975 Universal Pictures

“The Shark is Not Working!”

The history of the making of Jaws has become the stuff of legend. Any serious movie fan has probably immersed into the many stories that characterized the troubled production of the film through various books, articles and documentaries since basically the release of the film itself. Carl Gottlieb, the film’s credited screenwriter, kept a detailed journal throughout the production which would later be published as a book called The Jaws Log. Like the movie, it became a best-seller and one of the true Bibles for movie fans. Rarely the making of a film turned as exciting, suspenseful and unpredictable as the story depicted on screen. Gottlieb chronicles the various ups and downs, twists and turns, joys and sadnesses the whole crew experienced during the production of Jaws with down-to-earth honesty and even a dash of dry humor. Among the issues the crew faced during filming were the technical bugs that plagued the huge mechanical shark built by special effects wizard Bob Mattey (responsible for the legendary “Giant Squid” in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). The big piece of expensive prop was a true novely in terms of mechanical effects and the crew was unprepared to deal with such complex hydraulic machine that had to work in the salty waters of the open sea. The shark didn’t work as planned most of the time, creating long breaks during filming and delaying the original production schedule, which was already put at stress for Spielberg’s choice to film in the open sea to give the movie a proper realistic look. To circle around the issue, the young director turned to the lesson of Alfred Hitchcock (which he already applied brilliantly in his feature debut, Duel) and rewrote entire sequences together with Gottlieb to create a more suspenseful approach based on what isn’t shown on screen, orchestrated through clever camerawork, blocking and direction of the actors. The audience doesn’t see the shark for most of the duration of the film, but feels its presence constantly thanks to an inspired usage of all the cinematic techniques at Spielberg’s disposal, brilliantly highlighted by Verna Fields’ inspired editing. The film’s one big issue turned as one of its truly remarkable strengths, which would definitely be enhanced by the immortal music score by John Williams.

Birth of a Legendary Collaboration

Much has been written over the course of the years on the importance and the substance of John Williams’ score for Jaws—it’s certainly a benchmark in the history of film music and one of the true highlights of the entire Spielberg/Williams partnership. The director said many times that the film wouldn’t be as successful as it is without Williams’ stirring score. However, it’s almost educational to look back at how director and composer collaborated to arrive at the end result, which is the perfect synthesis of an artistic relationship based on mutual trust, respect and shared artistic and aesthetic vision. To comprehend even better what this means in the overall scope, it’s important to take a step behind and go back to the first Spielberg/Williams collaboration.

Steven Spielberg and John Williams

John Williams and Steven Spielberg first met in 1973, when the director was looking for a composer to score his theatrical debut film The Sugarland Express. An avid film music aficionado himself, Spielberg became aware of John Williams thanks to a film score from a few years earlier—The Reivers, composed by John Williams for the 1969 film by Mark Rydell starring Steve McQueen. As Spielberg recollected in 1983:

“It’s a fantastic score. It took flight… had wings. It was American, a kind of cross between, perhaps, Aaron Copland and Debussy. A very American score!” [2]

After a now-legendary meeting in a fancy restaurant in Beverly Hills, Williams accepted to score the film. Spielberg had very clear ideas about the type of score he wanted:

“I called him up and told him I just finished The Sugarland Express and wanted him to take a look. I expected John to write a real symphony. John said ‘You’re going to hurt the movie if you want me to do The Red Pony or Appalachian Spring. It’s a very simple story. The music should be soft. Just a few violins. A small orchestra… maybe a harmonica'”. [3]

The young director was at first kind of put off by the composer’s suggestion, as Spielberg admitted later with a smile:

“I’d really wanted eighty instruments. And Stravinsky conducting! Johnny talked me out of that concept and got me to believe the score should be gentle. Almost cradle-like. And so we began a very prosperous collaboration, I think, for both of us.” [4]

This type of almost laidback attitude from a then-young director who was already firing on all cylinders in terms of artistic vision and authorship is revealing of the amount of trust he immediately put on his partner composer. Instead of imposing his own vision, Spielberg listened to what the composer had to say. The partnership was a match made in heaven on many levels, but this also speaks about the high level of confidence and kinship that would later became exemplary of their successful director/composer relationship. In 2011, Williams summed all this up in a very concise way:

“In the forty years we worked together, [Steven] never said once ‘I don’t like that’, or ‘This won’t work’, or ‘We need to do something else.’ […] He has enjoyed everything that I’ve done, as I have with him. I may say to him, or he may say to me, ‘Maybe let’s try something else, it might be fun!’. But he has enjoyed everything, even the mistakes. One of the thing that makes the collaboration work is the ability to be unguarded enough to make the mistakes you need to make—not to compete with each other, not try to impress each other, and just to have fun with it. That unbuttoned trust is the essential thing. If it’s there, in the chemistry of the personalities, a lot of fun can be had working together.” [5]

A Shark, Two Notes

After The Sugarland Express, Williams signed to work again with Spielberg for his next project. As specified in the quote opening this article, in the director’s mind the music would have to enhance the eerie, almost supernatural character of the story, but also accompanying the adventurous side. In The Jaws Log, Carl Gottlieb writes:

“John […] was the first person to see the work print outside the studio-executive level. He liked it and immediately got into deep discussions with Steven as they discussed how the music should be approached. They agreed that it was a film of high adventure, and Johnny went to the classic movie scores of the past for a close listen, with Steven playing Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams albums in his office every day, looking for analogies to what he felt should be the themes.” [6]

Spielberg and film editor Verna Fields used a variety of selections as a temporary music track during the editing. Among them, they used the opening piece from John Williams’ score for the 1972 Robert Altman’s film Images. The uneasy, uncertain tones of the music would have contrasted the horror of the man-eating beast and make it look like a mythological creature emerging from the depth of the abyss. As Spielberg himself told during a masterclass meeting hosted by the American Film Institute in 2011, the reaction of the composer was again of a different point of view:

“When I showed John a cut of Jaws, […] I had temped the movie, I had put temp music into the picture, and I used one of John’s movie scores from his Robert Altman collaboration […] called Images. And because I felt that music was viable, and it was disturbing, and it would make the shark seem like an intellectual (laughs) I was […] trying to make something greater, and more important, that it was ever supposed to be. I was in Hawaii […] when John called me having seen the cut, and John said “Oh, darling boy, no, no, no… it’s a pirate movie! It’s a shark and survivors! Images is not the right sound for this. Let me work something up and I’ll present it to you when I’ve found the music.'” [7]

Once again, Spielberg listened carefully to his collaborator’s point of view and let him free to make the picture better than it could ever be in his original concept. The story is representative of the level of true mutual respect both Spielberg and Williams have for each other, but also the sheer joy and fun they always put in everything they do together. Once Williams presented the now iconic main theme for the picture, the director was initially flabbergasted, but soon realized it was the right approach for the film. Williams’ simple idea unlocked the film’s full potential of drama, suspense, adventure and excitement. The Shark Motif is a figuration based on a semitone of E and F, usually orchestrated in the low end registers of the orchestra (basses, celli, trombones and tuba), built on an insistent rhythm (in musical terms, an ostinato) that Williams carefully slows or accelerates always in support of the film’s dramatic needs. In 2015, he told journalist Jon Burlingame:

[It’s] so simple, insistent and driving, that it seems unstoppable, like the attack of the shark. […] I just began playing around with simple motifs that could be distributed in the orchestra, and settled on what I thought was the most powerful thing, which is to say the simplest. Like most ideas, they’re often the most compelling.” [8]

John Williams conducting the orchestra on the “Jaws” recording sessions © 1975 Universal Pictures

Williams also remarked that the theme “is grinding away at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable”. The description is all the more evident in the opening credits of the film, where the menace is born out of the bowels of the Earth in the deep ocean and slowly, but steadily, approaches his next victim.

The musical idea represents the uncompromising, primal character of the beast. Williams’s brilliant scoring modus operandi is perfectly exemplified in the opening scene, where the music enters quietly and almost creepily, with chromatic piano and harp arpeggios punctuated by the low end of celli and basses. The music slowly builds in tension and also in size, and finally launches a violent, Stravinsky-ian orchestral attack. The music becomes relentless as the shark attacking the poor victim before slipping away almost as silently as it appeared.

Every subsequent shark attack scene in the first half of the film follows the same pattern, and Williams carefully and cleverly spots the musical cues to alert the audience when it’s time to get worried, frightened, or relieved—in every occasion, the music literally becomes the character.

The orchestration of the theme is peculiar because, besides the low basses, celli and trombones playing the ostinato, features also a highly chromatic tuba solo, which is quite hard to play. The solo is heard not just in the main title, but occurs many times throughout the picture. On the original film score recording, the solo is performed by Los Angeles studio musician Tommy Johnson, a legend among his musician peers and principal tuba in many other John Williams’ scores until the late 1980s.

Quint (Robert Shaw), Brody (Roy Scheider) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws © 1975 Universal Pictures

Three Men, A Boat and a Fugue

To contrast the primal character of the shark, Williams depicts the adventure of Brody (Roy Scheider), Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Quint (Robert Shaw) going on the hunt of the shark with various musical subjects of highly complex nature. When the Orca sails away from Amity Island’s haven, the three men are accompanied by a jaunty hornpipe-like melody. Taking a cue from the character of fisherman Quint, who often sings on camera an old English ‘sea shanty’ called “Spanish Ladies”, Williams crafts his own spirited sea tune, scored for full orchestra and containing intricate contrapuntal writing. The extended concert-like version of the piece as recorded for the original soundtrack album features virtuoso parts for trumpet (performed by Malcolm McNab) and piccolo.

Once the chase is on, this musical subject turns both heroic and exciting as it accompanies some of the film’s most gripping and exhilarating sequences. Williams deploys a true symphonic mastery, intertwining the various musical motifs and working in perfect synchronization with the film’s mounting excitement, in conjunction with Verna Fields’ top-notch editing. The Korngold-esque fanfares heard during the climax of the barrel chase are probably the utmost example of Williams’ “pirate movie” approach for the film.

“It suddenly becomes very Korngoldian, you expect to see Errol Flynn at the helm of this thing. It gave us a laugh.” [9]

Even if Williams downplays the heroic nature of the piece with humor, the sequence is truly an irresistible piece of filmmaking craft at its finest, where the director and composer form a unified whole like very few others examples in the history of film.

As the hunt becomes more and more dramatic, Williams heightens the tension with a beautiful fugato-like composition to accompany the building of the shark cage and the subsequent final showdown. Fugue is probably the most complex musical form ever invented and Williams uses it to highlight the intellectual side of the three men in their fight against a pure force of nature. If the shark is carrier of the most basic and primal musical idea, the trio of Brody, Hooper and Quint is the vessel of one of the most ingenious invention of the musical mind. As Jon Burlingame noted, “Williams composed a Bach-like piece that both indicated the complexity of the job and the urgency of the moment.” [10]

The piece became one of Williams’ own favourite selections from the score and was subsequently expanded in a fantastic concert version that also includes the “Out to Sea” segment, followed by the shark cage fugue. In this presentation, Williams takes the musical material and creates a fully fledged symphonic piece with a great feeling of “prelude and fugue” in its most classical sense. The composer performed the piece many times in concert over the years and also recorded it with the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1990 for the first volume of his classic Spielberg/Williams Collaboration series.

Quiet After the Storm

As in every mythic tale depicting the struggle of Man vs. Nature, Jaws reaches its climax with the final victory of the man’s spirit against the brutality of nature. Brody turns the tide at the very last moment and fulfills the Hero’s Journey by literally slaying the dragon. Spielberg stages the final scene in pure Melville-like fashion and Williams’s music carries the scene with one last stretch of pure, unadulterated suspense. The victory is celebrated with a noble figuration in the French Horns, and followed by peaceful chromatic piano arpeggios as to depict the quiet after the storm.

Brody and Hooper are the only survivors of the hunt and they can return home accompanied by a slow, peaceful rendition of the hornpipe theme scored for strings, piccolo and trumpet.

When the curtain closes on the end titles, it’s easy to realize how much the primal nature of the film itself, i.e. to scare the hell out of the audience, achieves its goal thanks in large part to John Williams’s classic score. But even more than that, the music helps the film to reach its status of mythological tale. While on the surface it looks like a story about a killer shark terrorizing a small community on an island near the US East Coast, Jaws becomes something much more profound and meaningful on a deeper level. It depicts the eternal struggle of Man vs. Nature and its almost theological implications, much like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It speaks about the courage of human beings, but also their weaknesses and frailties, during a time of crisis and struggle that put a community on the brink of collapse. It talks about who we are as a modern collective society much better and more directly than many sociological analysis. Through their most impeccable craft, Spielberg and Williams take us into this journey and make us feel compelled from the first frame to the last. That shark’s POV shot that opens the film, those two throbbing notes, and all that follows for the next two hours are part of the collective memory of at least two generations of people, and one of the most incredible achievements in the history of films. As Steven Spielberg said in the liner notes of the Jaws original soundtrack album, “The music fulfilled a vision we all shared.” [11]. Even more importantly, Jaws cemented the artistic partnership between Spielberg and Williams. The composer won his second Academy Award (the first for an original score) and firmly established himself on the map as one of Hollywood’s major film composers. The rest, as they say, is history.


[1] The Making of Jaws, documentary by Laurent Bouzereau, Universal Home Video, 1995
[2] Tony Crawley, The Steven Spielberg Story, Zomba Books, 1983
[3] id.
[4] id.
[5] Steven Spielberg and John Williams: AFI Masterclass, Turner Classic Movies, 2011
[6] Carl Gottlieb, The Jaws Log, Harper Collins, 1975
[7] Steven Spielberg and John Williams: AFI Masterclass, Turner Classic Movies, 2011
[8] Jon Burlingame, John Williams Recalls “Jaws“, Film Music Society, 2015
[9] id.
[10] id.
[11] JawsMusic from the original motion picture soundtrack, liner notes, MCA Records MCF 2716, 1975