With the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi this month, we finally have answers about what's been up with our favorite new characters. But, as the second in part of a planned trilogy, the movie really brought us more questions than answers. As fans scour the newest installment for hints, attention is also being paid to the new score from John Williams. And if you weren't paying close enough attention, you probably missed what The Last Jedi's music revealed about Kylo Ren. This is your official spoilers warning. Stop reading if you don't want them!
Kylo was a main focus of The Last Jedi, with emphasis placed on whether Kylo Ren is good or evil. Throughout the film, the character (played excellently by Adam Driver) tilted back and forth towards the light and the dark side. He had force-enabled conversations with Rey, which looked into his development and why he joined Supreme Leader Snoke. Rey thought she could get him to join her as part of the Resistance, but while he did kill Snoke to save her, ultimately he did not join her cause. The movie ended with Kylo decidedly on the dark side, at least for now.
As it turns out, Kylo's lack of certainty in himself was reflected in Williams' score according to Frank Lehman, an assistant professor of music at Tufts University. Lehman is a musicologist, which often means studying more classical music, but he's been fascinated by Williams' Star Wars music for a long time. In fact, he created a full catalogue of the leitmotifs — i.e. repeating musical themes — in the Star Wars series.
"John Williams gives [Kylo] a surplus of thematic material. It’s not just one theme or two, it’s actually three," Lehman says in an interview with Elite Daily. "The most prominent of them is this defending, growling fanfare, which is over the top in its villainy. It’s almost like it’s overcompensating for his lack of confidence in himself."
The second Kylo theme is "more hesitant," according to Lehman, and it tends to come up around his conversations with Rey. (That said, the more interesting part of the sounds around Kylo and Rey's conversations was "the way the soundtrack pulls back," Lehman says.) The third Kylo theme is a "menacing, chromatic string line" (i.e. a bunch of notes that are really close to each other in a row) that serves as Kylo's "musical calling card."
"[Kylo is] announcing himself, or the music is announcing his presence in this big and bold way, which sometimes feels musically overcompensatory, because, yeah, he’s not Darth Vader," Lehman says. "He doesn’t get this instantly memorable 'Imperial March' theme that’s so famous from the older movies. It’s kind of a wannabe theme."
This is particularly notable because of how badly Kylo just wants to be Vader. Still, per Lehman, "It will never be Darth Vader's theme, which is kind of the point — maybe."
"It’s a tricky game to use musical evidence to come up with theories for what’s going to happen in the future," Lehman points out. But speculation on, well, every and anything is a key part of the Star Wars fandom. And sometimes, the movie's creators mess with fans' predictive assumptions, as with the possible reveal of Rey's parents as nobodies.
Just as cinematic fans were looking for clues into her parentage before The Last Jedi came out, so were musicologists. They were looking for connective themes to point to who Rey's parents were, but the most they could find, according to Lehman, "was that [Rey's theme] was related to and connected to the force theme, which is an obvious thing." That they couldn't find another musical connection there may have pointed to the reveal that there is not a parental connection between Rey and another character.
A similar blow for die-hard fans could've been predicted if they'd listened more closely to the music. Many fans were upset at the lack of background on Snoke and with his quick death. But, Lehman says, Snoke "doesn't even really get a theme" to begin with, "which suggests maybe he’s not really the most important character."
"[Fandom speculation is] very similar to what motivates us as scholars and music theorists and musicologists: the desire to find connections and to uncover buried secrets. It’s fun!" Lehman says.
So with that in mind, I made Lehman speculate about Kylo's future based on the music (it was fun!).
"We get hints at a possible future for [Kylo's] theme, at least, in the very final scene where he’s marching triumphantly through the evacuated rebel base," Lehman explain. "We get a version of his theme, which is a little extended and has this march percussion to it, and a new little extension to the theme."
Previously in The Last Jedi, Kylo's theme had been short, more "like a motto." But in that final scene, Williams let loose with it... and "it just ends up sounding very pompous and full of itself." Lehman predicts that Episode IX, which isn't coming out til 2019, will have a slight time jump, showing Kylo established as a new leader of a new empire.
"So, Kylo gets a more extended version of his theme," Lehman says. "But even then, it can’t quite match up to his predecessor’s music, and I think that was the case with that last little extension in the final scene. It will never quite manage the grand malevolence and memorability of the 'Imperial March,' no longer how hard it strains."
Sadly for us, we have to wait two more years to see if Lehman's predictions come true. Happily for us, the official Last Jedi soundtrack is already available on Spotify to scour for more clues.