Palpatine's Music Spreads Just as Far as his Influence in the Skywalker Saga
Updated: Apr 5
This article is a collaboration between SWE Writers Jacob L. and Levi N.
Major spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker are included in this article.
The motifs that repeat throughout John William's vast Star Wars soundtrack always fit with a well-placed idea, but one piece that seems to fall through the cracks is Emperor Palpatine's theme. A theme that shifts forms throughout its major appearances, this particular set of music can go unnoticed in some of its most prominent moments. While generally being thought of to represent Palpatine and his plain evilness, his music can come to represent many other things either in the camp of evil or something else entirely unrelated to the hatefulness of the dark side. To take a deeper analysis into the different meanings behind this motif, an exploration will need to be extended into not only his main theme but also the distorted, unrelated, and entirely opposite pieces that William's brings to these movies that tie into the question of how far Sheev Palpatine's influence is spread throughout this saga.
Rey's theme is fascinating because musically, it can fit into or be modulated to complement almost any theme in the franchise. That's somewhat true of any theme (musically, it isn't very difficult to modulate and distort musical elements to make anything fit with anything), but was fascinating while trying to figure out if Rey is connected to anyone in particular. The equally fascinating thing is that the only other theme in the franchise that shares a similar trait (and is often utilized in such a way) is The Emperor's theme. Both themes are moldable, both have chord structures that offer a lot of opportunities to distort or hide or modulate or recombine, both can fit sneakily into other musical moments. When first heard at the beginning of the trilogy, the mystery of who Rey's parents are is encapsulated by the theme's ability to go with numerous other themes. By giving both hers and Palpatine's theme this distinct ability, Williams in turn also makes them even more in common than the rest and leads to the revelation of Rey's ties with Palpatine.
The celebration theme at the end of The Phantom Menace is jubilant and fast and very major. However, if you slow the music down and lower it and change it to a minor key and BAM you have the Emperor's theme. This shows a few things: Palpatine's involvement in how the whole war is started and his gaining of power, the fact that Palpatine is also celebrating despite having more nefarious undertones than the wholesome celebrations of the people of Naboo, and the fact that the celebration is - in actuality - false hope. Palpatine's plan is going perfectly and he will eventually gain control. John William's ability to hide something simply by making it a fanfare is astounding.
The throne room scene in The Last Jedi with Snoke seems to be the most out of place moment for an appearance of Palpatine's theme when it first released back in 2017. Despite being a moment of evil and dominance by the dark side, these moments tend to include more broad musical themes outlining hatred. Palpatine's theme is usually reserved for scenes having to do with either his direct involvement or outside influence. It is quiet and subtle and lasts for an incredibly short time. This mystery is solved almost out of the gate in the opening of The Rise of Skywalker when we find out that Snoke was secretly the agent of Palpatine himself. While the motif's involvement in this scene was probably meant in some other way, this revelation helps to view the scene in a different light and tie another plot of Palpatine directly to his music.
The Emperor's theme is roughly set in the key of g minor. However, it doesn't have a particular set mode, making the piece feel like it doesn't have a home base. This results in the listener feeling uprooted, uncomfortable, and uneasy. Its harmonies are based on an octatonic (almost chromatic) scale. This compounds the feeling of unease and eeriness. The deep bass and choral methods of performing the theme reinforce these ideas. The deep bass tones create an almost subliminal terror in the listener and the choral tones denote religiosity, power, and reverence. Additionally, these notes are not blared, they are not screamed, they are quiet and denote ease of power. All of these aspects reflect the character of Sheev Palpatine. He commands power, manipulates all he comes in contact with, and works to control the entire galaxy.
Throughout the decades and for many more to come, Palpatine’s theme has struck terror and spread fear throughout many listeners. The way Williams is able to transform its structure and musical components so well as to bring joy and hope where there was once evil proves how music isn’t as one dimensional and simple as it seems when watching it on the big screen or listening to it on your phone. Music is a complex matter that can be shifted to mean a whole different point even if only a few notes are spread out elsewhere. The true beauty of Palpatine’s theme is that it shows the many possibilities that only a single motif can bring.