The LSO’s connection to the Force has remained strong ever since those early recording sessions in 1977. In fact, some players have suggested they may not even have become orchestral musicians were it not for the music of John Williams, through which they heard the LSO in the first six episodes.

More recently, we have thoroughly enjoyed re-recording John Williams’ iconic themes for adaptation into theme park attractions. Imagine our excitement, then, to be asked in 2018 to perform and record a brand-new theme for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge specially commissioned by Walt Disney Imagineering!

With the Maestro receiving his 25th Grammy this year for the Galaxy’s Edge Symphonic Suite as Best Instrumental Composition, we decided to take a closer look at the how the music for theme park attractions is created, and were thrilled to interview Matt Walker, head of the Walt Disney Imagineering Music Studio, and arranger/conductor William (Bill) Ross.

Why is music so important to the theme park experience?

MW: Music has always been a critical component of our DNA at Walt Disney Imagineering. Music has the power to transcend language and drive the stories we tell throughout our parks to create life-long memorable experiences.

We use music similarly to film scoring, where the music enhances the emotion of the moment. We also use it in live theatre (Disney is the world’s largest live theatre company) – creating an instant visceral response as it takes centre stage either in one of our shows or during a nighttime spectacular. 

We often have an opportunity to create something entirely new based on beloved Disney music. For example, when I showed Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Frozen songwriters) a different take on their song, Let It Go, bringing even more rhythmic drive to the arrangement for this one particular production, they were moved to tears (in a good way!). It was a beautiful experience.

Pictured: Frozen: A Musical Invitation

WR: Music has the capacity to affect our thoughts and emotions in powerful ways. It’s almost a cliché to suggest watching a frightening scene from a movie without the music and discovering how a series of fast moving pictures is usually nowhere near as scary without the music. 

In creating a theme park ride or attraction, music is an invaluable part of the rider’s experience. It can help ensure that we really do feel things like anxiety, terror, curiosity, empathy, humour, attraction, heroic relief, etc. when taking a heart-pounding ride through a haunted forest or experiencing the wonders of a balloon ride over some far away land.  

What style of music do you use for theme park attractions?

MW: Our parks create countless experiences that musically range from solo instruments to powerful vocals to massive orchestral ensembles. Our goal is to always look for the right music to match to the experience we are designing.

For many of our attractions we re-imagine unforgettable moments from our cinematic library, and therefore musically our objective is to continue working with that same palette. We are constantly pushing the envelope as we look and listen for new writers, composers and arrangers to breathe fresh interpretations of our existing music or compose entirely new compositions that reach global audiences.

WR: Orchestral music is particularly effective for a theme park experience in the same way that it is so effective in movies, TV, the concert hall, opera, etc. Our cultural history and the history of music are inseparable, and music has been a vital part of almost all aspects of our cultural experience: religious, political, and social rites and traditions have been infused with music for centuries. The evolution of music and the modern orchestra has been ongoing for many years, and I suspect that evolution will continue.

MW: Of course, in addition to looking for new talent, we get an opportunity to work with the best of the best – renowned artists such as John Williams and the ability to record with organisations like the LSO, where every player is an artist in their own right. What is phenomenal about the LSO is that they bring that same level of performance excellence into the 'controlled' environment of the recording studio, where I feel that same sense of excitement from their very first read-through of our music as I do in the concert hall.

WR: I love working with the LSO! They are musicians who continuously work together as an orchestra. I like to refer to each section of the LSO as a 'matched set', something that comes from the hours and hours of playing together. The brass, woodwinds, strings and percussion… so perfectly balanced! I’m truly humbled every time I step on the podium in front of such magnificent musicians.

When it comes to recording the music, what are your thoughts, Bill, on using a click track?

WR: A click track can be extremely helpful or unhelpful depending on when and how it’s used. It can help pull a group of musicians together very quickly and eliminate ensemble performance issues in tempo driven music, help in venues or studios where it’s hard to hear each other play, or when accompanying rubato performances that have been pre-recorded.

However, a click track can be incredibly distracting when you would like the tempo of the music to be driven more by the emotional quality of the piece itself rather than the tempo. Music can ebb and flow in terms of tempo, creating tension and release that is a fundamental part of musical expression. If you remove the ability of the musicians to breathe with the music to create that endlessly enjoyable feeling of tension and release inherent in so much music, you diminish the ability of that music to reach it’s true power and ability to influence and affect the listener.  

A click track is a musical tool, and like any tool, its value and effectiveness is determined more by how it’s used than by the nature of the tool itself.

Bill, as well as theme park music you also record albums and TV and film scores. Is there anything you want to explore musically that you haven't yet?

WR: I love writing music, and I love the opportunity to contribute something musically to almost any project. The blank page often feels to me like a puzzle waiting to be solved. The intellectual and emotional thrill I get from (hopefully) solving that puzzle is a true thrill for me. There’s no specific area that I would like to explore, rather it’s the musical integrity and sincerity of any musical artist and/or project that attracts me.  

I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with so many talented and gifted people [including Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, David Foster, Walter Afanasieff, Quincy Jones and of course John Williams]. I can’t begin to express the appropriate gratitude for that good fortune. With the wonderful opportunities I’ve had it would seem beyond greedy to ask for more!   

Coming back to theme parks, what’s an attraction that you think makes great use of music?

MW: The work we did with the LSO for both Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run is a perfect example of how music enhances the guest experience. I have had the pleasure of watching our guests step off our Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance attraction after hearing John Williams’ triumphant finale, seeing them cheer and hearing the applause. There is nothing else like it!

WR: One of the attractions in the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge theme park [pictured] is 'Savi’s Workshop'. It’s there that you have the opportunity to build your own lightsaber.  As with everything in Galaxy’s Edge, the attention to detail is stunning!  The workshop is a room filled with the gravitas of galactic history.

There is a moment where you are asked to lift your lightsaber with your Guide and the other builders. We used John’s music from when Yoda raises Luke’s ship from the swamp in Empire Strikes Back. The music helps to make that moment truly emotional. I felt chills down my back and a welling up of tears when we did it in the preview tests with the music.  

In reviewing the Galaxy’s Edge experience, more than one reviewer singled out 'Savi’s Workshop' – and that moment in particular – to describe what a powerfully emotional experience Disney had successfully created.  

Star Wars Galaxy's Edge at Walt Disney World

How do you brief a composer to start writing for an attraction?

MW: We bring the composer into the process during early stages of development. We’ll take the composer through our storyboards, designs, models and animatics to inspire their creative work. John Williams, for example, visited Walt Disney Imagineering for a comprehensive deep-dive into all of the experiences we were designing for our new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge lands.

WR: Prior to the ride being built, a team puts together a computer generated movie that shows what the rider will experience. This movie is as accurate in terms of timing as they can make it based on the computer simulation. We use that movie to create the musical soundtrack that will be a part of the rider’s experience.  

MW: When possible, the composer also experiences an attraction either as mock-up on our creative campus or the moment it’s ready and safe to ride in the theme park. In some cases, we have been able to ride an attraction with the composer and their music in time for them to further optimise the score based on their emotional response to the experience.   

WR: It’s during that period that we make adjustments to the track. The actual physical experience of the ride helps us know where it might be helpful to add or subtract elements from the track and make any other changes that will help the music have more of an impact on the rider’s experience. 

Does the geographical location of the theme park affect the music?

MW: First and foremost, the music is all about the experience we are creating. We continue to expose our visitors to more aspects of world music, and we are excited to continually be working with local teams to find talent to produce music that resonates with the local audiences at each of our parks around the world. Developing a global pipeline of talent is one of our priorities.

Do you update music for long-standing attractions?

MW: We are constantly looking at all of our attractions and experiences to ensure we are delivering the best soundtrack possible. In some cases we re-record simply because of advances in recording techniques, and other times a story we’re telling has evolved and we want to evolve with it.

What’s the most fun you’ve had designing music for an attraction or experience?

WR: Disney added a new story line to the classic Space Mountain ride and it was going to be a Star Wars themed experience, so would be called HyperSpace Mountain, and John William’s iconic music for the Star Wars films would be used. Taking that wonderful music and making it work in the context of a roller coaster was an amazing experience!

During the try-out phase of the music, I rode the ride five times in a row! It was beyond fun up until about the fourth ride. After five, I had to request a long time out!

MW: Because I believe in the power of music, musicians and composers, every single time I am brought into a new project it becomes my new favourite experience. Because of my love of Disney music, the use of music across all of our attractions resonates with me. That is one reason I feel like I have the best job in the world!

What’s the most surprising thing about your jobs?

WR: That I’m constantly learning as I go! I feel like I’m constantly returning to a piece or passage that I love, and discover that I’m still learning so many things about them. I often feel the same excitement returning to a piece as when I explored the piece for the first time. I suspect that’s a truth that never goes away.  

MW: It’s always wonderful when we are in creative meetings and sparks of ideas come up that inspire and remind us that that we can still create something new or a fresh interpretation even with an existing property. Our process at Walt Disney Imagineering is full of collaboration among artists, engineers, designers, writers and musicians – to name just a few – and that often leads to new creative discoveries. It’s amazing how it all comes together!

Finally Matt, what’s your top tip for visiting a Disney park?

MW: Every corner of our parks we have tried to musically design something for our guests, so…

Always be listening!

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Matt Walker

Matt oversees all aspects of music production for Walt Disney Imagineering, supervising an extremely diverse body of work for Disney’s parks, resorts, cruise ships and other destinations worldwide.

He just finished working with legendary composer John Williams and his core music team to deliver original musical scores for the Star Wars-themed lands coming to Disney parks in California and Florida. Matt enjoys strong creative collaborations with his fellow Imagineers, designing and producing music for the ultimate immersive experiences that Disney’s destinations provide, creating opportunities to blend all forms of music to underscore Disney’s stories, and enhancing the experiences of guests around the globe.

William (Bill) Ross

William Ross is a prolific award-winning composer and arranger whose work has spanned feature films, the recording industry and television.

His arrangements have been featured in many films and include such hits as Celine Dion’s Grammy and Academy award-winning 'My Heart Will Go On' from the motion picture Titanic; 'When You Believe', the Academy award-winning song from the Prince of Egypt, Andrea Bocelli’s 'God Bless Us Everyone' from Disney’s A Christmas Carol, 'Believe', sung by Josh Groban in the film The Polar Express; 'The Prayer' with Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion from Quest for Camelot, for which he received a Grammy nomination; and the Academy Award nominated song 'Run To You' sung by Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard.