Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or in the U.S., Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) was the first in the series of seven fantasy novels that chronicle the adventures and coming of age of J. K. Rowling’s famed boy wizard, Harry Potter. Released in 1997, the novel ignited the imaginations of countless fans and the seven novels together have sold over 450 million copies to date, making Harry Potter the best-selling book series in history.
The Harry Potter films have continued the success of the franchise, collectively earning over $7.7 billion at the box office. John Williams scored three films in the series starting with the first, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (or Sorcerer’s) Stone. Of the several themes Williams composed for the film, the most prominent is “Hedwig’s Theme”. Although this theme may originally have been intended only for Harry’s pet snowy owl named Hedwig, its pervasiveness throughout the film captures much of the general air of mystery and wonder that a child like Harry would feel in becoming part of a world filled with wizards, witches, and magic.
The concert version of Hedwig’s Theme actually incorporates two themes: Hedwig’s Theme and the Flying Theme (or “Nimbus 2000”, the name of Harry’s broomstick). Hedwig’s Theme breaks down into two closely related sections I simply call A and B. In this audio clip, A is heard from the start, B begins at 0:17, A appears again at 0:45, B at 1:01, and A once more at 1:18:
Below is my film music analysis in which I take a look at some of the musical techniques Williams uses to convey the feeling of magic and mystery associated with the world of Harry Potter.
The A Section
Probably the most distinctive feature of the first A section is its orchestration. It opens with a solo that combines synthesized and real sounds of the celeste, a keyboard instrument whose keys strike metal bars that sound like small bells. Because the celeste is not exactly an everyday instrument, it has something of an ethereal sound, all the more so in Hedwig’s Theme since the sound is electronically manipulated and therefore literally unreal. But at the same time, the celeste is associated with the imaginative world of children primarily through the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker, whose fanciful creatures are presented through a young girl’s dream.
Harmonically, Hedwig’s Theme is essentially in the key of E minor, but the chord progressions are anything but typical for a minor key. As shown in the example below, the first two bars of the theme outline the E minor chord, and the bass extends the E into bar 5, all of which clearly establishes the key. But in bar 6, we get a very strange chord:
Taken together, the notes of bar 6 are B-D#-F-A#, which is similar to E minor’s dominant seventh chord, B-D#-F#-A. Had Williams given us the actual dominant seventh, the music would have been within the realm of the ordinary. But by substituting F# with F, and A with A#, he instead creates a chord that cannot be fully explained, much like the workings of a wizard’s magic.
As shown in the example below, bars 9 and 10 of the theme return to the original E minor chord along with the same opening melody. But in bars 11-12, the music suddenly heads in a new direction, sounding out three more minor chords that bear no relation to one another. The resulting sound isn’t just unusual. Since the progression is inexplicable, it creates an aura of wonder as well, a perfect musical accompaniment for a world of magic and mystery. Indeed, Williams even writes “Mysterioso” at the start of the score.
Williams has used a series of minor chords before to accompany similarly mysterious circumstances: the opening scene of E.T., when the aliens are collecting samples of the Earth’s plant life and we are unsure at this point whether or not these aliens are friendly, and in Raiders of the Lost Ark as the theme for the Ark itself, whose divine source of power is shrouded in mystery. Hear these two passages below (from the start of each clip).
From 0:30 in this clip:
From the start of this clip:
In Hedwig’s Theme, after the string of minor chords, Williams ends the section with two chords (see above musical example). Most themes or sections of themes usually close with two cadence chords: dominant and tonic, in that order. In Hedwig’s Theme, we do end on the tonic (in the last bar above) but the chord preceding it is not the dominant, it is the dominant of the dominant, which leads us to expect the dominant chord next. Instead, Williams heads straight into the tonic. This ousting of the usual dominant chord shifts the sound of the cadence out of the ordinary world and moves it into the realm of the strange and ethereal.
Below is the melody for the entire A section of Hedwig’s Theme, which itself divides into two phrases.
While the first five bars are entirely in the key of E minor, the sixth bar introduces a note foreign to it— F natural, which is the lowered form of scale degree 2. As we saw, this note is part of the strange dominant-like harmony of the bar, but at the same time it also creates odd-sounding intervals in the melody. With the previous D# the F takes the minor third we would have had and “squashes” it into a diminished third, and with the following B it “squashes” a perfect fifth into a diminished fifth (or tritone). These same intervals are also heard at the end of the A section in bars 13-15, now with an extra intervening note:
Both of the A section’s phrases therefore end with these strange intervals, which helps impart an air of mystery to the theme.
Another note foreign to E minor that Williams introduces is A#, the raised fourth scale degree (#4), which first appears in the melody in bar 13. Notice that this note comes a half step (or semitone) down from the preceding B, which is scale degree 5. This kind of semitone motion from 5 to #4 in a minor key is another musical feature that has associations with mystery. Saint-Saëns’ famous piece, “Aquarium” from Carnival of the Animals, is a prime example. The melody’s swaying back and forth from 5 to #4 in minor certainly creates a strange and mysterious aura (from the start of this clip):
And even in film, in the well known theme for “Harmonica” from Once Upon a Time in the West, motions from 5 to #4 and back to 5 in a minor key create an appropriate sense of eerie mystery for a character about which the audience and other characters in the film know so little about (hear from the start of this clip):
I would also point out that the melody of the A section uses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, and so in an abstract way could indicate that wizards and witches can inhabit both the non-magical world of muggles (or non-magical folk, as represented by a “normal” E minor scale) and the supernatural world of magic (as represented by all the other notes outside the E minor scale).
Rhythm and Meter
Many of Williams’ themes for blockbuster action films are marches, which are always set in a two- or four-beat meter. Hedwig’s Theme is different, however, because it is set in a three-beat meter, which creates an entirely different feel. In the moderate waltz-like tempo of the theme, the three-beat meter evokes a feeling of elegance and grace that befits a wizard’s ability to get out of many jams quickly and easily with, for instance, the simple casting of a spell. But at the same time, this triple time creates a lightness and buoyancy in the music, a floating quality that captures the feeling of taking to the air, as wizards so often do.
The B Section
The B section of Hedwig’s Theme shares many of the musical features of the A section: it is exactly the same 16-bar length, it retains the same orchestration in the celeste, and it closes with virtually the same 6-bar passage. Here is the entire B section:
But there are some significant changes in the B section as well. For example, the harmonies at the start of bars 20 and 22 are from a family of chords known as “augmented sixths”, which tend to have an unearthly sound when paired with a sustained tonic note (pedal point) in the bass, as here. Again, Saint-Saëns’ “Aquarium” is another well known example of this.
The melody of the B section differs from that of the A section in that it does not sound the tonic of E minor until the very last note, instead hovering mainly around its dominant note. Since the dominant is the fifth note of the scale, it is, in a sense, “high up” from the “ground” tonic note with which the theme began. Williams’ avoidance of the tonic therefore gives the theme a feeling of being suspended in the air like a wizard on his broomstick.
Repetitions of Hedwig’s Theme
Both the A and B sections are repeated, then the A is stated one last time before the piece moves into the “Nimbus 2000” theme. With the first repetition of A, Williams adds a prominent figure of rapid scales in the strings, harp, and celeste that paints a more vivid musical picture of the sorts of aerobatics that wizards, witches, and their owls engage in. The last repetition of the A section continues this rushing figure in the strings but now sounds the melody more powerfully in the French horns. In the Harry Potter films, this strong scoring of the melody in the horns is appropriately associated with views of the Hogwarts School, which is housed in an impressive and imposing castle.
Hedwig’s Theme is one of the more flexible themes in Williams’ oeuvre as it does not represent a single specific character or thing the way, say, the Imperial March represents Darth Vader and the Empire. Instead, Hedwig’s Theme seems to represent the world of wizards and magic more generally. But even so, because the theme is usually heard in the films when Harry is the focus of attention, it may well be thought of as mainly representing the magical world as seen through Harry’s eyes. This would explain the childlike sense of wonder heard in the ethereal sounds of the celeste, as well as the features that suggest strangeness, mystery, and the magic of flight. Thus, as we have seen throughout this series of posts, Williams creates his effect by aligning many different aspects of the music towards a common expressive goal.