I’ve always felt kind of bad for the characters in Star Wars. We, the audience, get to watch the spacefaring adventures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo unfold atop an epic orchestral score. John Williams’s musical cues help us feel dread as Darth Vader skulks through the Death Star’s corridors; triumph at the Rebels’ hard-won victories; wonder as protagonists unlock the mysteries of the Force.
But for the characters in a galaxy far, far away, life seems somewhat… quiet. After all, none of this music exists in their universe. They’re not privy to Imperial marches or celebratory fanfares like we are. For a Jedi, saving the galaxy is done without aural accompaniment.
Yet Star Wars is musically rich in more ways than one. For a major film franchise, it boasts an unusually high number of original diegetic (or in-universe) songs. “Cantina Band,” heard in a seedy bar on Tatooine, is probably the best-known of these, but our heroes encounter dozens of other jingles and snippets across all three trilogies. Most of them draw inspiration from real-world styles, manipulating familiar instruments to create something alien. And they give us a glimpse, however brief, into what the music of this universe actually sounds like.
From Coruscant to the Outer Rim, here are a few weird and wonderful songs you’ll find in far-flung corners of the Star Wars galaxy.
Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes — “Cantina Band #1 and #2”
Passing through Mos Eisley? Grab a drink at Chalum’s Catina, home of the baddest smugglers and pirates around. There you’ll find Figrin D’an and his band, the Modal Nodes, laying down a futuristic variant of big band jazz. Williams wrote two swingin’ tunes for A New Hope‘s wretched hive of scum and villainy: the instantly-recognizable earworm simply titled “Cantina Band” and a second, unnamed song that plays when Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi meet Han and Chewbacca. The former was inspired by “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing),” the classic 1930s standard most famously recorded by Benny Goodman. In fact, director George Lucas reportedly used Goodman’s recording as a temp track before Williams delivered his score. Both “Cantina” songs derive their melody from woodwinds and processed steel drums, a pairing that also gives the Canto Bight casino in The Last Jedi a tropical flavor. And because it’s Star Wars, each song has a canon in-universe name: “Mad About Me” and “Dune Sea Special,” respectively.
Max Rebo Band — “Lapti Nek/Jedi Rocks”
Depending on which version of Return of the Jedi you’re watching, you’ll hear slightly different music echoing throughout the halls of Jabba the Hutt’s palace. For the film’s theatrical release, Williams and his son Joseph, the lead singer of Toto, co-wrote a song called “Lapti Nek.” A space-age funk jam, its gratuitous horn stabs and synth bass mimic the danceable R&B popular during the early 1980s. An extended, Tina Turner-esque musical number written by Jerry Hey, “Jedi Rocks,” replaces “Lapti Nek” in the film’s 1997 re-release. While also in an R&B vein, “Jedi Rocks” is fundamentally a blues duet that hearkens back to 1960s soul. Gritty male and nasally female vocals — exaggerated, of course, for an otherworldly effect — add to more organic instrumentation: electric guitar, organ and amplified harmonica. You’ll hear a few other musical tropes swirling around Jabba’s palace, too, including a subdued keyboard piece pulled straight from baroque classical music.
Ewoks — “Yub Nub/Ewok Celebration”
Did I mention that a lot changed in Return of the Jedi between its theatrical release and its digital re-release? Because A LOT changed, not the least of which was the film’s cutesy ending. It’s actually kind of jarring to watch the original cut now, since the final scene on the forest moon of Endor is soundtracked by an Ewok tribal tune lovingly nicknamed “Yub Nub” by fans. A more thematically appropriate, Williams-penned “Ewok Celebration” eventually replaced “Yub Nub,” though you’ll still hear some Ewok drumming and singing in the background. As Brendan Nystedt points out at StarWars.com, however, “Ewok Celebration” blurs the line between source music and soundtrack, since the song can be heard playing during an added multi-planet montage. Either there’s a single galaxy-wide liberation anthem, or the song serves multiple purposes for dramatic effect.
Star Wars loves a good party: three out of the nine films end with some sort of celebration. The earliest of the bunch — chronologically speaking, anyway — is the Gungan ticker-tape parade that closes out The Phantom Menace. Its lighthearted theme, again composed by John Williams, is filled with boisterous percussion, brass and children’s voices. Listen closely, however — it’s actually Emperor Palpatine’s theme set in a major key. Foreshadowing! Even in a seemingly straightforward moment, Williams adds narrative depth by hinting at the darkness to come.
In Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan visits his buddy Dex for help tracking down the elusive bounty hunter Jango Fett. Dex owns a diner that’s like Johnny Rockets in space, and he has this Joseph Williams ditty playing over the loudspeaker. If Chuck Berry ever made 8-bit music, this is probably what it would sound like.
This foreboding vocal track plays during the scene in Revenge of the Sith when Palpatine delivers his endlessly meme-able “Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise” speech. He and Anakin are watching some sort of bubble-themed Cirque du Soleil show. Turns out they’re at a performance of an aquatic ballet called “Squid Lake” (a spoof of the Tchaikovsky classic “Swan Lake”). This ominous track is one of the most interesting in Star Wars, mixing ambient and drone with elements of East Asian throat-singing. It certainly sets a sinister tone for the fateful conversation that begins Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side.
For The Force Awakens, Lucasfilm brought out the big guns, recruiting Hamilton star Lin-Manuel Miranda to co-write new music for Maz Kanata’s castle with director J.J. Abrams. The pair came up with “Jabba Flow,” an easygoing, reggae-infused track. There’s no mistaking Miranda doing his best as a gruff vocalist, but this song features some instruments never heard before in Star Wars‘ diegetic offerings, including flutes and acoustic guitar. The lyrics are in Huttese, the same language Jabba speaks, hence the song’s title.
Plenty of other musical mishmashes litter the Star Wars galaxy; the Clone Wars television series in particular features imitations of vocal jazz, techno and Indian pop, among others. It seems that no matter whether you’re hauling spice near Kessel or moseying down a Jedha side street, you’re never far from a groovy tune.