ET: The Extra-Terrestrial

A Brief Guide to its Musical Themes and Some Suggestions as To Their Origins
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.8/No.32, 1989
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven


Craig Anderson’s letter In CinemaScore #15 (p.30)* raises once again that tired old question: just how original is an Original Soundtrack? I was initially dubious at Craig’s suggestion that John Williams had “lifted almost intact” his score for E.T. from Howard Hanson’s Romantic Symphony (it couldn’t be the other way around, as Craig allowed: the Symphony was written in 1930).

However, having recently learned that Steven Spielberg used some of Hanson’s Symphony as a temp track while editing E.T. (see American Cinematographer, January 1983), I was not so sure, and promptly bought myself a copy of Hanson’s work. [A recent edition, with Leonard Slatkin conducting the St. Louis Symphony, EMI CDC-7 47850 2].

Admittedly, the opening and closing of the 3rd Movement do have a superficial similarity to moments in Williams’ score for E.T, but try as I might, I just couldn’t hear any “familiar tune wafting out of the speakers” or “subtle alterations” as Craig Anderson claims to have done.

So one can only assume that Craig found the two works to be similar in emotional content rather than thematic content. Both share a lush Romantic orchestral sound, and moments of high drama interspersed with more lyrical passages, but the same could be said of thousands of musical works – not just Hanson’s Symphony and Willams’ E.T. Indeed, if I had to pin a film composer onto Hanson’s Romantic Symphony I would have said Korngold.

The suggestion that the theme from E.T. is derived from Les Baxter’s song “Joy” must also be refuted. Williams did, in fact, derive his E.T. theme from somewhere else, but from a source much closer to home, as we shall see.

Let’s take a short journey through the various musical motifs that add so much to Steven Spielberg’s film, and in so doing, perhaps we’ll be able to shed some light on the creative processes of a major film music composer. I warn you now that I’m not about to let objectivity get in the way of what I consider to be among the most brilliant film scores yet conceived.

Its brilliance lies in:

a) Its total effectiveness – can you imagine how farcical and ponderous E.T’s ascent into his spaceship (it takes a full 90 seconds) would be, if it were viewed without the music?

b) Its sublime beauty – for example, the impressionistic cue that wafts E.T. and Elliot to sleep on their first night together, and which, maddeningly, does not appear on the soundtrack album (although it is akin to the concert arrangement track “E.T. and Me”). Williams has not written music so exquisitely dreamy since the Fortress of Solitude scene in SUPERMAN.

c) Most important – the incredible variety that is achieved through such simple unity. This will become clearer as we examine the numerous themes.


This is what I call the “E.T.-as-alien” theme. It is heard whenever the other-worldly nature of E.T. is given emphasis in the film. If any of the motifs had to be dubbed the Main Theme, this should be it. It both opens and closes the film and the soundtrack album – ethereal solo flute at the beginning; triumphant full orchestra at the end. It is also the root from which all the other themes grow. (For ease of comparison, all the thematic examples have been put into the same key).

Note especially the Initial leap from C to G, which is shared by all the themes and accounts for much of the score’s unity. This interval of a perfect 5th is the most basic harmonic relationship after the octave. Interestingly, it is also the interval that all the extraterrestrial botanists emit to each other when startled by an owl in the early moments of the film, They are soon to be startled by a much more serious danger – the character Keys and his posse:

ET Example 1


This menacing theme can be heard most prominently in the album track, “Abandoned and Pursued.” In the final scene of the movie, however, Keys is no longer a threat, having more or less become a Good Guy, and if one listens carefully to the album track, “Adventure on Earth”, one will hear this theme for the last time in a gentle, major key version. The third major motif is heard for the first time when Elliot cycles through the forest, searching for signs of whatever-it-as he saw the night before. We could call this one the Cycling theme although later on in the film, it takes on the added connotation of evading Keys and the authorities.


Clearly, this theme springs directly from our E.T.-as-alien theme. Not only is Elliot searching for E.T., but the music too seems to be trying to grasp the same C-G-F# outline as E.T.’s theme. The motif is developed immediately afterwards to become what we may as well call Cycling, Part 2.


This features once again the rising and falling fifths (C-G-F#-B), together with a little ornamental semitone (4a) taken directly from the E.T.-as-alien theme (la). These two cycling melodies make up the album track entitled “Over the Moon”, another concert arrangement which actually has Cycling Part 1 arising out of Part 2. The two themes are used extensively in further variations in the track, “Adventure on Earth.”


This beautiful melody can only be called the Love Theme. It is initially heard when our two protagonists drift off to sleep for the first time, and is given the full treatment in the album track, “E.T. and Me.” Once again – the leap of the fifth; in fact the whole rhythm and shape of the phrase follows very closely that of the E.T.-as-alien theme, even though the two melodies sound totally different. The leap up to G, and then the gradual steps back down to C also make the Love Theme a close relation to “Cycling Part 2” and indeed, to the next new melody to be heard:

ET Example 2


This cue is presumably the one to which Craig Anderson refers in his letter. This is also the cue which has erroneously been called “The Theme from E.T.”, even though, truthfully, it is given no greater prominence than any of the other melodies in the film (this is indeed one of the score’s great strengths). In fact it isn’t fore grounded at all until over half way through the picture. A more accurate title for it would be “Flying” or “E.T.-as-Friend Theme” since it is heard whenever E.T. does something benevolent (as opposed to otherworldly). The sources for this theme are manifold (Les Baxter, are you listening?). Compare the shape and rhythm of the E.T.-as-Friend phrase to that of the E.T.-as-Alien phrase. They are nothing less than musical blood-brothers. Compare 6b with 4b and it’s the same story. There is a third and much more intriguing source to this motif. Look again at Example 6. Now, let’s just drop that last little ornamental note in bar one, and shift bar two up an octave:


The striking similarity between the E.T. theme and that for STAR WARS raises all sorts of questions: Was it conscious? Was it coincidence? Does John Williams keep a scrap book in which he plays around with themes until he gets something he is happy with? Is the E.T. Flying Theme one of those early tries at a STAR WARS theme that he felt was not appropriate to STAR WARS but which he nevertheless stored away for some future use? Is the thematic metamorphosis so evident in E.T. a deliberate, planned thing, or the instinctive result of natural genius? This nitty-gritty of the creative process is a rarely probed area of movie music interviews, but it’s only in shedding light on this area that we will have any hope of laying to rest the question, “Who borrowed what from whom?” Let’s move on now to the second half of the Flying Theme:


By comparing 8a with 1a and 4a, we can see where this melody had its genesis. Note also the cadence at 8b. This is repeated in the next motif, which I call the “E.T. Triumphant” theme:


This stirring melody is heard only twice in the film (excluding its reprise in the End Titles). It is firstly heard from the brass in “Adventure on Earth”, as the boys make their bicycle escape from the authorities; and finally, after E.T. utters his immortal line, “I’ll be right here.” Once again we have the C to G, the stepping downwards (compare 9c with 6c), and the same harmonic and melodic cadence at 9b as at 8b. I’ll provide one last example. As E.T.’s ship rises slowly towards the heavens, the E.T.-as-Friend theme can be heard on top of its own inversion:


There are many such instances of thematic development that would require the study of the full score to examine properly. However, it seems to me that the origins of the various E.T. themes drive more from John Williams’ own work than from outside sources such as the Hanson Symphony or Les Baxter’s song. Such questions aside, the music for E.T. nonetheless destroys once and for all any suggestions that film music is necessarily somehow inferior to “serious” music”.

* Craig Anderson’s letter from CinemaScore #15 (p. 30)

Whilst working madly on a proposal at work some time ago, I was listening with half an ear to a local college FM radio station and all of a sudden I became aware of a familiar tune wafting out of the speakers; the station was in the middle of presenting a classical music program of some contemporary composers and what had attracted my attention was a piece that was obviously the music from E.T.; but as I listened, it was obvious that it wasn’t exactly the music we’ve all come to know, whistle and love… No, it was subtly different in tempo and construction and whatnot, but it was recognizable as John Williams’ score for E.T. I listened and was interested in how this arranger and subtly altered the Williams music to sound different yet the same. So: I sat and concentrated. All the E.T. parts were there, and in their proper order, but they were… ah, different, not glaringly so, but enough to make it almost a separate score. So imagine my startlement when I discovered that it wasn’t a modified score of E.T. at all, but was, in fact Symphony Romantique by Howard Hanson (formerly of University of the Pacific’s music department and currently, I believe, with the Eastman School of Music).

I don’t know if Symphony Romantique was written before E.T. or after. What I do know is that it was played more slowly… the similarities are certainly noticeable by someone who is knowledgeable about film music. Do you (or any of your readers) know anything about this? Has John Williams ever mentioned old Howard? Has old Howard ever mentioned John Williams, or how flattered he was to have the bulk of a major, Oscar winning film score lifted almost intact from him? Or Williams’ comments about having old Howard copy his score for E.T. to use in his Symphony Romantique, And the plot thickens, as I’ve just discovered a news clipping announcing that Les Baxter is suing John Williams, MCA Records and Universal Studios, claiming that Williams’ largely based the theme music for E.T. on the music from his copyrighted 1953 song “Joy”.

I think it was Hugo Friedhofer who said, “A mediocre composer borrows, a great composer steals.” At any rate, I’m sure like to know more about both of these situations.



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