Who Will Cast the First Stone Against John Williams?

It’s not uncommon to hear people say (and maybe you’re one of them) “oh, that [John Williams/other famous composer] is so unorignial!  He just steals from other composers!”

I have a dirty little secret:  we all do in some way.

Does that make us all hacks and charlatans?  Hardly.

The reality is, there simply isn’t anything genuinely “new” left.   Any possible way you can think of to deploy musical sounds has already been thought of in some manner….

Read the rest (and much more) in my book Writing and Living in the Real World: Advice for Young Composers



  1. Interesting comments. My high school band director boldly claimed one day that musicians were thieves! Three schools in our district had a “run- on” that their marching band did and all directors were from San Jose State. We as students were moaning about how they “stole” our thing- probably the other school’s students were saying the same thing too.
    I have always point out to general music classes that composers hear other forms of music by other composers and fit what they have heard into their own music. This concept has worked for me, for years and kept students engaged. I did a lesson “Romantic to Williams” in front of my principal and he was astonished.
    D. Moore

  2. Postmodernism is old hat. We’re beyond that. So is fusion. Your list isn’t exhaustive but it’s also not comprehensive. The quest for originality is pointless because it focuses on the composer as creator-innovator, not as explorer-discoverer (which is the true role). Even in the last decade we’ve heard music that stands as a new, definitive style. If music being derivative is the issue, then consider that all music is born of the music that came before it. All. The very notion that someone can “steal” your music infers that you own the music.

    Joe Public expects “new” work, and loves “the creator”, but can’t necessarily identify a copy so doesn’t bat an eye at it. I’ve not heard Williams criticised for plagiarism, though. Zimmer, on the other hand, has been sued for plagiarist methods. There’s a difference between reference/tribute/homage and making money by claiming ownership. That’s what ownership and the quest for originally are really driven by – the lust for money & adoration.

    Move from acting as creator to acting as explorer and you’ll find new things appear of their own volition.

    1. I don’t necessarily disagree with your views (and neither does the thesis of my article for that matter). I hold that the “explorer/discoverer” role you describe is exactly the embodiment of the new postmodern zeitgeist for the artist. Since “creator/innovator” is no longer practical (the bailiwick of the modernist age, really) we’re now charged with finding new things to say with the tools that have already been forged for us.

      You mention music in the last decade being definitively “new.” In what sense is it something that hasn’t, broadly speaking, been pioneered? In any case, I would be curious to know what pieces you’re referring to.

  3. My (major) point was questioning whether questioning originality is even worthwhile, or if it ever was. The popularist ideal of the creator-artist has long been a fallacious one, but it endures (particularly in the West). The explorer/discoverer has always been the actual role. Everything is pioneered and has its origins somewhere. Everything. The presentation of that truism as an idea or ‘thesis’ for consideration is what had my eyebrow raised. My other point was that postmodernism is not a new perspective/philosophy/movement. You’re at least 60 years off the mark there. It remains contemporary but only barely. Electric guitars were used alongside symphonies in the late 1960s. (Postmodernism is also, incidentally, far more complex than the basic idea of incorporating or referencing ‘other’ or historical material.)

    I didn’t say that the music is definitively new,but, rather, that new definitive styles (i.e. definitions of form, method, content, etc. which are consistent enough to categorise and identify a piece music) have emerged. For example: dubstep. Like everything, it has its origins and pioneers in previous styles (2-step, garage, breakbeat) but is the result is consistent, and different, enough to warrant its recognition as a new, definitive style. I do get the sense that you are particularly concerned with serious/art/concert music (a rather pre-postmodern position, if you ask me), and in that regard I can only suggest that the field of contemporary composition is no longer accessible or consistent enough within its own arena for anything new to emerge and find momentum. But, again, that has never actually been the goal…

    1. I see what you mean now and I think we’re mostly in agreement. Perhaps I wasn’t being too clear myself, and, if that’s the case, I apologize.

      I didn’t mean to represent postmodernism as “new” (nor the illustrations I gave). It’s simply presented here as the reality in which we find ourselves. (The article is aimed primarily at folks who might not have been aware of this trend in the arts).

      You’re right also that the public may not suspect that any of this is occurring (seems new so it must be…) and that it may not be all that important to them. I offer it for edification. I think a better-educated audience is a boon for all of us.

  4. Brandon,

    I just stumbled upon this post/discussion via LinkedIn. It’s great to see young composers such as yourself reflecting in this way. There’s a very healthy, ongoing process of revelation and exploration a composer goes through in trying to determine his/her compositional “voice” against the context of music history and aesthetic movements. Straightshooter has a point about us being past Postmodernism (maybe this is Post-Post-modern America?), but your point is well-taken.

    As to the question in the title of your post, and this may sound hyperbolic but I’ll say it anyway since I’ve written about it before, I think it would be hard to point to a composer who is any closer to the J.S. Bach of our age than John Williams. I could defend this argument in many ways, but here I’ll just mention that Williams, like Bach, isn’t so much an innovator as someone who has summarized and synthesized the musical currents of his time at their artistic epitome and in a musical language that is easy to recognize as his own. It’s unlikely that many composers of our day will be celebrated as “masters” in 250 years as Bach is today, but if I had to pin my bet on one composer and one composer only, in my humble opinion there’s no one who even comes close to fitting that bill the way Williams does.

    I occasionally hear criticism about being derivative pointed at film composers in general, of whom Williams may be the foremost representative, but honestly anyone who tries to go down that road and actually investigates his music must realize that there’s so much more to his music in toto – either that or their definition of art music is so narrow that no rational argument would ever pull their head out of the small aesthetic realm of sand it’s in 🙂

    Best regards, Scott Watson

    1. Hi Scott!

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts!

      I like your perspective about Bach and Williams. And it might be useful to point out that Bach wasn’t really celebrated as a composer until a century after his death. Sometimes we don’t appreciate what we have until we have some perspective on it.


      1. Yes, Brandon, and that is a departure from the analogy I’ve made between Bach and Williams to be sure. Despite the world of Western music being much smaller geographically back then, it was much larger in terms of modes of communication. Despite that, Bach did have somewhat of a reputation in his lifetime as a fine organist and singularly talented improvisor. I describe Bach’s interaction with this world in the “Musical Offering” episode of my podcast, WHAT MUSIC MEANS TO ME – found here:

        If you have the opportunity to listen, I hope you enjoy!


  5. Me!
    With John Williams it is a personal matter to me, for despite all I’ll criticize later, his film music played a great role in my wish to write music, to become a composer 15 years ago. The funny thing is, that all started with a misunderstanding – knowing quite well some orchestral music of Tchaikovsky (Romeo & Juliet, Manfred, Swan Lake, 1st Symphony) I’d been pretty sure (11 years old at the time) that the music for the eagerly awaited first Harry Potter movie was – Tchaikovsky! How big was my childish surprise, that the man, who’d composed this beautiful music wasn’t Tchaikovsky, but a guy named John Williams.
    While I still enjoy Williams’ iconic music to Star Wars & Co. I also see now – after 10 years of studying composition on a professional level – that some of it is blatantly stolen. Yes, stolen. Not only inspired by… , but stolen. It turns out, that some of the great Star Wars music was originally written by Stravinsky, Holst ed consortes. As I generally dislike the copyright business, I have no problem with that, I still enjoy his original tunes as well as the Williamsesque Stravinsky etc. – but recognizing him as a genius is way too much. Comparing him in the slightest way to Bach is just ridiculous – again, on a professional basis. I personally don’t listen that much too Bach, but his status is obvious and indisputable. Speaking about contemporary composers, and mentioning John Williams at the foremost is just ignoring lot’s of true masters of composition of his time, to just name a few: Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, Sofia Gubaidulina, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Eugeniusz Knapik, Peteris Vasks, Krzysztof Penderecki, Volker David Kirchner, Michael Dougherty… You might not know them all (because some of them are not that available), as You might name others…

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