Jaws: How the iconic music turned the film into a monster hit

We all know that iconic ‘Jaws’ music, but just why is it so effective

Sea scares... Jaws (Credit: Universal)That simple alternating pattern of two notes is one of the most iconic pieces of film music of all time and it helped make 'Jaws', which is re-released this week, both a critical and commercial success.

The music provided a blisteringly tense build-up to those horrific shark attacks and it's difficult to imagine the film without that startling soundtrack.

However, it wasn't all smooth sailing for composer John Williams and his ‘Jaws’ music.When Williams first played his idea to director Steven Spielberg, using just the two notes on a piano, the director was said to have laughed in his face, believing it to be a joke.

[Related feature: How movie music makes you cry]

As it turned out, the very simple tune kick-started the career of the movie music man and has since been credited by Spielberg as one of the key elements of the film’s blockbuster success.

The piece was performed by tuba player Tommy Johnson and Williams explained that he wanted the music to "grind away at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable."

We spoke to sound and communication Professor David Machin to find out why the music is so effective.

Machin suggests simple methods such as using “heavy, deep sounds” are instrumental in spooking cinemagoers.  The deep, booming notes of the tuba in Williams’ piece evoke a sense of “danger” and a “looming presence” - crucial for a killer scene.

Williams chose “minor notes close together with little melodic expansion”. This is a slightly more complicated trick used to make the sound feel “restricted and trapped” – much like a fisherman on a boat. 

Machin goes on to explain that the music “suggests emotional confinement or even neutrality from the shark and presents it as a systematic killer”. The inescapable feeling of the famous two-note musical motif adds tension into the scary scenes.

The phrase ‘silence is a virtue’ is never more relevant that in music scores. Machin elaborates: "Williams chose to use the simplest of notes to add a sense of the 'unknown' to the movie. The creepy tones are played out amoungst the silence which presents the suspicion of movement in the water.

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"As the film progresses, the movie makers used this silence vs sound to specifically associate the deep notes with the shark, suggesting to audiences that the next red water scene was imminent."

David Machine's book 'Analysing Popular Music' is out now.

Do you think the ‘Jaws’ music is the best ever? Or what movie music had you hiding behind your popcorn? Let us know below.