John Williams’ “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”: A Cinematic Tone Poem

John Williams’ haunting, ethereal score is integral to the drama of Steven Spielberg’s 1977 science fiction film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In fact, much of the score was written before filming began. In a reversal of the normal process, Spielberg set parts of the film to Williams’ music.

The film blends mystery, terror, and childlike wonder. One of its dominant themes involves the human need to connect and find deeper meaning. It is the music which elevates Close Encounters to the land of metaphor. Atonality (the unknown) and tonality (the familiar and reassuring) are set as striking polarities. Among the score’s motifs are intimations of the Dies irae and the classic song, “When You Wish Upon A Star,” from Disney’s 1940 film, Pinocchio. 

Music is central to the film’s plot. It is through mathematically informed lights, colors, and musical pitches (joined with the hand signals of the Kodály method) that humanity is able to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors. Spielberg described the score’s iconic five-note “Communication Motif” as “a doorbell.” John Williams points out that the motif is left hanging on the fifth note, as if waiting for a response.

In preparation for a concert by the New York Philharmonic, the composer wrote,

Over the years, Close Encounters of the Third Kind has remained one of my favorite Steven Spielberg films. With its depiction of the long-awaited visit of the radiant and loving extraterrestrials, the fascinating premonitions of the little boy, and the five-note musical motif used to communicate with our other-worldly guests, the film offered a rich and unusual canvas on which to present the music.

John Williams’ symphonic suite, recorded by conductor Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic Orchestra (a London-based freelance studio group Gerhardt assembled in 1964), is based on the original soundtrack’s final minutes. It functions as a virtual tone poem—something akin to the symphonic poems of Richard Strauss.

There are echoes of Strauss’ 1896 Also sprach Zarathustra in the deep, rumbling string tremolo and contrabassoon of the opening. Later, there is a distant allusion to Death and Transfiguration, a work Williams would quote even more directly a year later in the 1978 score for Superman. In the music of late Mahler and Strauss, we often get a sense of harmonic struggle, as if the music is in a constant battle to preserve an evaporating tonal center. Something similar takes places here. Near the end of the piece, quotes of the opening of “When You Wish Upon a Star” soar with the passion and aspiration of Strauss’ most searing climaxes.

You will hear other twentieth century musical references, from the micropolyphony of György Ligeti, to the celestial choirs of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloéto the furious, demonic dances of Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, to the sweeping Romanticism of Erich Korngold. In its final bars, Williams’ cinematic tone poem drifts upwards into the sonic heavens, and we are left with the “Communication Motif,” fading away as an eternal cosmic dialogue.

Just as Strauss’ tone poems transcend their dramatic programs, this music seems to stand on its own, independent of its associations as film music:


  • John Williams: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Charles Gerhardt, National Philharmonic Orchestra Amazon
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Directors Cut) Amazon

Photograph: Devils Tower National Monument in northeastern Wyoming, Linda and Dick Buscher

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

4 thoughts on “John Williams’ “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”: A Cinematic Tone Poem”

  1. I am surprised to find this so-called “5-note alien communication motif” in Alexander Mackenzie’s Britannia – A Nautical Overture Opus 52 😅

    • Alexander MacKenzie starts his with first 3 notes, then, the 4th but right at the end of his Overture Britannia, he ends it with the 5-notes motif from John Williams.

      • MacKenzie composed his piece at the turn of 20th century before the joint venture of Steven Spielberg & John Williams 😅 Alien time travel must be at play here!

  2. The reference to Daphnes et Chloé is not so distant.

    A more distant comparison would be the Williams music for the bike chase scene in ET and the Hanson Romantic Symphony final movement. Nothing stolen but so comparable.

    Author: Have you ever hears Jeepers Creepers on the 2nd Movement of the Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos or the Mozart Concerto #21quote that immediately follows it?


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