My Top Ten Movie Theme Songs

November 18, 2008 at 10:38 am (Pop thoughts, Random thoughts)

The other night we went to see the IMAX version of Eagle Eye.  One of the great features of IMAX movies is that they don’t have 20+ minutes of previews even before the previews. Instead we were sitting there staring at a blank screen. However while the screen was blank the room was far from silent because they had a delightful compilation of movie scores playing.

I love movie soundtracks and often hear them playing in my head while performing different everyday tasks.

Have you ever run to the theme from “chariots of fire“, or heard the ominous “da-da, da-da” of Jaws while swimming? Of course you have, and so have I.

So as I sat and enjoyed the miscellaneous themes I was inspired to consider my own top-ten list of movie sound tracks and to post them for all of my faithful readers. Before you get all bent out of shape regarding my selections allow me to break down the criteria I used for this list. First consideration goes to the title track; the main theme of each film. Is it instantly identifiable with the film? Secondly I excluded all musicals. Third, they did not have to be original compositions for the film (3 are not), but if they are not they have to be MORE identifiable with the film than with their original purpose. Fourth, does the song play in my mind on a semi-regular basis for no particular reason? And finally if the movie had a bonus of an amazing soundtrack this helped to compensate for title score deficiencies.

10. The Sting.

The rhythmic piano pacing of Scott Joplin was such a perfect match for this  movie. While the music for the sting wasn’t actually a historically accurate selection for the period it did set a perfect tone for a movie that depended on pacing and twists. Ragtime music is the first truly original American musical genre. The Sting paired Paul Newman and Robert Redford two truly original American actors and the finest of their generation. And with the recent passing of Paul Newman I felt it necessary to give this honor of making my top ten list to their film.

9. Rocky

A couple of weeks ago Rocky was on AMC. I started watching it about half way though watching while Athena was in the other room. During the dialogue scenes she had absolutely no clue what I was watching since she had personally never seen the movie. But as soon as this song came up she said “are you watching Rocky?” That is the sign of a truly fantastic movie theme song. She actually stopped whatever it was she was doing to come in and watch the scene of Rocky training before his big fight with Apollo Creed. She was disgusted by him punching sides of beef in a meat locker and insisted that it violated several health codes. She was also impressed with the speed that Sylvester Stalone demonstrated as he sprinted along the docks. Of course the song ended and the fight began and she went back to doing whatever it was she was doing. As for me? I was hooked. I had to watch the movie all the way till the end.

8. The Good the Bad and The Ugly.

Most westerns kind of blend together (in my mind anyways) due to the sweeping scenery, the hats, the guns and the stubbly faces all looking about the same in each flick. Most of the time the music as well sounds fairly similar and this song isn’t all that distinct, but overall it is just soooo good, it’s hard to keep it off the list. This is from the genre known as “Spaghetti Westerns” which were called such because they were filmed in Italy. Not only was this one filmed in Italy but the composer himself was an Italian by the name of Ennio Morricone. He wrote a number of other winners, but none better than this beauty.

007. James Bond

With over 20 movies in this series Mnty Norman, the original composer, has been raking in royalties for life. If you’ve never heard of Monty Norman don’t feel too bad because evidently he has never composed anything other than the James Bond theme. John Barry was the actual musical arranger of the first 11 Bond films and has claimed repeatedly to be the original composer of the title track. I don’t really care who wrote it I just love it. Especially during those few occasions in life where I’ve had to wear a tuxedo. While those occasions are almost exclusively related to weddings I can’t help but look in the mirror and think of myself as a British gentleman spy. I’m not sure how woman feel about this song, but every guy I know imagines himself as James Bond at some point or another.

6. Casablanca

The reason it makes the list is because of the story behind the song. In May of 1942 The US had just entered into World War II a few months earlier.  While the movie was being filmed the budget was skyrocketing out of control due to the war; so the producers at Warner Brothers looked for a way to cut costs. One such way was to drag out of the vault a song they already owned the rights to instead of giving the films composer, Max Steiner, an opportunity to earn boatloads of royalties on a new song (which is what he wanted). So instead of having an original Steiner piece Warner Brothers settled for a no-name piece from a Broadway show that had ended a decade earlier after just 139 performances. Little did they know the song, written by Herman Hupfeld, would become such a hit that it now is the theme song for the warner brothers emblem at the beginning of every film they show.

5. 2001: A Space Odyssey

I have to admit I have never watched more than 20 minutes of this movie. It’s as boring as watching paint grow or grass dry. Nevertheless I can’t forget the theme song. 2001 is a unique film because all of the music is classical music composed ago. But If I were to play you the main theme of 2001 you would probably have no idea who composed it , what it is entitled or what association it had other than 2001. Just for kicks, without googling it go ahead and tell me if you know the correct answer (I’m betting maybe Bruce or Rube could get it but I’m also betting they stopped reading the blog a while back). Since 2001first came out in 1968 the theme has been used in over 50 movies! Of course when we hear it we only think of one.

4. Forest Gump

This one will probably have the most argument, and I’ll take it on. This was a very well constructed theme song that, in my opinion, will prove to be timeless. It has great appeal for it’s softness and the way in which it reaches it’s highs so perfectly mirrors a film with gradual and unassuming victories. The other great aspect of this movie is in the broad journey of American pop music from Elvis to Creedence to the Doors to Simon and Garfunkle to the 5th dimension to Fleetwood Mac the list goes on and on. There are over 35 pop songs from the 50’s through the 80’s played throughout the movie. When you combine that with the Forrest Gump Suite, you  have a truly memorable movie music experience.

3. Jurassic Park

OK maybe this one will get more complaints. But when it comes down to my top ten favorite movies I cannot ignore JP (or pretty much anything with Dinosaurs eating people). And JP probably wouldn’t be JP if it weren’t for three things…

A. The scene where Laura Dern wills herself to run to Sam Neil after barely escaping the velociraptor. “Runnnn”.

2. The Scene where the Lawyer is sitting on the toilet not moving at all and the T-Rex who cannot see you if you don’t move, looks right down and him and bites him in half.

D. The music of John Williams (who totally dominates my top ten list).

2. Indiana Jones

My childhood was a perpetual effort to be dragged from the back of an army truck by a whip, and then to turn onto my back and pull myself to the front of the vehicle safely protected by a brown leather jacket. While I was never able to realize that dream I did have a number of great bike crashes, rope burns, skinned knees, and death defying leaps across roaring streams all to the above music. The only other music I can remember from my childhood was when I was having light sabre fights with my brother using PVC pipes called pipe works (found a set on ebay for just 1500 bucks). And during those days this was what was playing in my head…

1. Star Wars.

This one wins for a number of reasons. First of all it’s instantly identifiable; no one ever hears any song (example ) from Star Wars and says, “What movie is that from again?” Even the song from the cantina in episode IV sticks in our brain and gets our toes tapping.

Whether it be the first notes that penetrate the dark screen and fill it with stars or it be the familiar sound of Darth Vader’s presence, the songs of Star Wars are tattooed into our minds.

Even the new songs from the prequel trilogy came to be hits (albeit not as popular), but have a listen to what came to be known as Darth Maul’s theme and realize that it is probably the 10th best song from the trilogy and you’ll agree with me.

John Williams of course composed the scores for these iconic films and if there be any argument at all about it landing in the top spot, I would LOVE to hear it.

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38 Comments

  1. danielbalc said,

    a couple of other Honorable Mentions to go with Jaws and Chariots of fire are…
    Mission Impossible
    Pink Panther
    Superman

  2. Lance Balcombe said,

    you also forget some songs such as…

    Mortal Kombat
    Kill Bill
    Austin Powers
    Top Gun
    and my personal favorite…

    CONDORMAN!

    and if you were to throw in pop songs for movies… i would have to say
    “My Heart will go on”
    “Dont wanna miss thing”
    aaand that song by Michael Jackson for Free Willy:-)

  3. Pablo Honey said,

    Some of my favorites

    O Brother, Where Art Thou? – Great bluegrass collection, super cool movie.

    Amadeus – Have you seen this movie? AWESOME. The music is also fantastic, and while it probably doesn’t fit your criteria as it doesn’t exactly have a theme song it is incredible all the same.

    The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – Don’t knock it if you haven’t heard it. An awesome collection of homemade mixes, with Seu Jorge playing acoustic David Bowie songs sung in Portuguese throughout. If you haven’t heard it or seen this movie you are really missing out.

    Honorable Mention: The Hunt for Red October – Needs to be mentioned for 2 reasons:
    1. Russian Choir singing is awesome.
    2. The last track of the soundtrack is titled: “Kaboom!!!”

  4. danielbalc said,

    Pablo, the three you mentioned are all based upon the soundtracks as a whole rather than simply the scores. In fact if any one of them had a truly recognizable score they might have made it, but sadly none do.

    Re: the Life Aquatic…
    Athena and I went to a wedding in June. It was on the roof of this little boutique hotel overlooking the ocean in Orange County. While we were waiting for the ceremony to begin a soundtrack was playing and I was thinking to myself, “where have I heard this?” then it dawned on me, “This is the life aquatic soundtrack.” It was the perfect background for a hip wedding such as this was.

    Hunt for Red October is again a great soundtrack but not a great title score.

    From Lance’s list I think Top Gun is a really good suggestion. Condorman has a fantastic theme but unfortunately too obscure for the masses. Kill Bill ST is cool but has a long way to go to be top ten worthy.

  5. Goldminers said,

    One of my favorites is the soundtrack from Bourne Identity.

  6. danielbalc said,

    A lot of people i’ve talked to have mentioned the Bourne theme.

    For the life of me I couldn’t think of what they were talking about. I am guessing it’s the song that is played during the credits. If that is the case I can’t even give that an honorable mention because A) I knew that song as a moby song before seeing any of the Bourne movies. B) I’m pretty sure it only plays at the end credits.

    While I do like the song I just don’t immediately think of the bourne movies when I hear it. I suppose the same could be said about the Scott Joplin’s entertainer for some.

  7. Aunt Beth said,

    Another factor must have influenced your selections. Where are the “chick flicks?” How about including a couple of the great romantic themes such as Lara’s Theme – from Dr. Zhivago or the theme to Gone with the Wind?

    I couldn’t think of the theme for Jurassic Park or Forrest Gump to save my life, but I found a site where many movie themes can be downloaded in MIDI form: http://www.elite.net/~gurpal/movie1.htm

  8. Goldminers said,

    Yeah, the song that plays at the end. It just fits the movie.

  9. danielbalc said,

    I couldn’t name the themes of Dr. Zhivago or Gone with the wind to save my life and since the title happens to be “MY top ten…” I think it’s a pretty good list. That being said I did include Casablanca which has to qualify as a chick flick. And Forest Gump is a far cry from a “man-movie”.

    Thanks for the cool link action.

    BTW after having listened to Jurassic Park and Forest Gump were you reminded of them?

  10. Aunt Beth said,

    Nope – I’ve seen both movies, but the themes did nothing for me. Were you reminded of Dr. Zhivago or Gone with the Wind? Gone with the Wind probably leaves a stronger impression, but I always think of Dr. Zhivago when I hear Lara’s Theme – and it has a great soundtrack to boot. The music is haunting yet grand.

  11. Bruce S. said,

    Richard Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra – Thus Spake Zarathustra – A Tone Poem written, (I’m guessing – no googling) around 100 years ago. What is more interesting is that the inspiration for Strauss’ work derives from a book by that title of Friedrich Nietzsche whose rebellion against the Platonizing liberal Hegelian Lutheranism of the mid to late 19th century pushed him to his Will-to-Power/Death of God stance – which of course is well depicted in 2001 – A Space Odyssey.

    As for James Bond, I feel myself has Bond did when he was sitting in that chair with the hole cut out of the seat.

  12. Bruce S. said,

    You’re forgetting everything Bernard Herrmann wrote for Alfred Hitchcock. He’s right up there along side John Williams.

  13. Anthony said,

    Rocketeer

  14. danielbalc said,

    Bruce, congratulations on giving the most detailed and incredible answer I have ever received on a blog challenge. A couple of things that leave me flabbergasted… first of all I’m guessing that you didn’t learn about the music and the history of the song and the connection to the film all at the same time. Or perhaps you did? I guess I just assumed you might know the composer and title but the background of the story, I didn’t expect that. three cheers. If you can elucidate as to how exactly you knew all this I would love to hear it.

    Another thing that blows my mind is that you are still reading my drivel. Why? I’m honored.

    The final thing that confuses me is why you would describe yourself as Bond in that situation? This does not sound good.

    As for Hitchcock films I have to say that they are sadly before my time. While I have seen Vertigo, North by Northwest and the Birds I can’t think of their musical scores.

    Anthony,

    The Rocketeer is a GREAT call. Athena and I were at Disney’s California Adventure a couple months back and I heard the score for the rocketeer playing. At first I was frustrated because it sounded so familiar but I couldn’t place it, but as soon as I did it brought a huge smile to my face. It was like I was doubly charmed.

    Another honorable mention that caught my ear yesterday was Back To the Future, which not only has a great score but also has pop hits from Huey Lewis featured. After hearing BTTF I think I may have erred in keeping it off my list.

  15. Bruce S. said,

    Hey DBalc,

    I have been a classical music nut for a real long time – I think I was six years old when I started. The movie came out in 1968 which was about the time I was starting to really get into classical music – since that was the year before I played in the Chicago Symphony training orchestra. About all I thought about was classical music – playing it, that is. Also, this was the period when I was reading things like Nietzsche and even crazier stuff. So, all three of them (music, movie, philosophy) kind of converged at the same time.

    Interestingly, when I read Nietzsche back in the late 60’s I didn’t know he was rebelling against a false Christianity. Consequently, today, Reformed Christians will use Nietzsche favorably in their efforts to tear down Platonistic Christianity.

    No further comment on the Bond torture.

    As for Hitchcock, the Vertigo score happens to be one of the best. And surely you’ve seen Psycho. It has the most recognizable music snippet of all time – at least prior to Star Wars coming out. Admittedly Herrmann was not a composer anything like John Williams. He didn’t use much fanfare or brass or percussion. But he was great at what he did for Hitchcock.

    Check out the “Possibly related posts” tag at the end of your article.

  16. Anthony said,

    I was just at the California Adventure park a month ago and heard the Rocketeer theme song there by the Muppets 3-D Theater. It took me a couple of seconds to recall it but it too made me happy.

  17. danielbalc said,

    Re the possibly related blogs, The top 20 one is a great example of a blogger with incredible bias and completely lacking in objectivity. My selections were based mostly on instantaneous recognition.

    8 of his 20 scores were composed by Danny Ellfman,

    Admittedly I have no Ellfman on my list and he is a fantastic composer but unlike Williams his films are usually targeted towards a smaller audience.

    Williams is undeniably the greatest film score composer ever.

    As for the Psycho soundtrack, it is very familiar, but I never thought of it as a score. I always considered it a sound effect (similar to the jaws theme; other than the “da-da, da-da” what really stands out?). So while both are instantly recognizable outside of the brief snippets I think they falter (but then I suppose the same could be said for the good the bad and the ugly).

    I also want to throw out this comment. The worst score I have ever heard in a movie was the music for last year’s “There will be blood”. It made me want to tear my head off.

  18. danielbalc said,

    Here is a fun challenge…
    John Williams won his first Oscar in 1971 for “the fiddler on the roof”, since then he has been nominated 29 more times and won 4 more oscars.

    I will give just 10 options and see if anyone can get the 4 out of the 10.

    10. Memoirs of a Geisha
    9. Harry Potter
    8. Catch me if you can
    7. Schindler’s List
    6. ET
    5. Indiana Jones
    4. Superman
    3. Star Wars
    2. Close Encounters of a Third Kind
    1. Jaws

  19. Save For Retirement said,

    I don’t really know or care much about this topic but I am always up for a contest.

    1. Jaws

    2. ET

    3. Star Wars

    4. Schindler’s List

  20. Athena Balcombe said,

    I don’t know about the whole theme song thing, but I DO know that the Goofy Movie has the greatest movie soundtrack of all time. If you see me rockin’ out in my car it’s probably because I’m listening to it full blast!

    Don’t be jealous I have the cd and you dont!!!

  21. danielbalc said,

    Well no one else took a guess so that means ted is the winner by correctly naming the 4 films John Williams received an oscar for.

    Of course I don’t see how he can glory in such a victory when he so obviously cheated.

    as for Athena’s comment about the goofy movie soundtrack. All I really know is that it’s extremely expensive to buy on ebay.

  22. Save For Retirement said,

    CHEATED????????

  23. Goldminers said,

    Other notable Herrmann works…North by Northwest, Citizen Kane, and Taxi Driver.

  24. RubeRad said,

    I’m betting maybe Bruce or Rube could get it but I’m also betting they stopped reading the blog a while back

    For the record, I knew the answer too. And I do read all of your posts — except for sports and politics (which I guess means I don’t read much of your blog after all)

  25. RubeRad said,

    And you gotta give some props to Danny Elfman; Would you consider Nightmare Before Christmas or Charlie & the Chocolate Factory to be musicals? How about the theme Elfman wrote for Batman?

    Also, you can find some great themes if you go back a generation or two to the great epics. Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, Great Escape, Bridge over the River Kwai (those two have got to be the top two all-time whistled movie themes!)

    And how about the Star Trek theme? (Even though it was TV first — maybe you should plan on top ten TV themes for your next post?)

  26. RubeRad said,

    You should also know that, technically, Williams is not a composer, but only an arranger, since as everybody knows, all his tunes are lifted from classical composers.

  27. danielbalc said,

    Nightmare before Christmas is a musical.
    Charlie is a film I refused to see.

    Elfman’s Batman theme is top notch and certainly worthy of an honorable mention.

    When all is said and done I think Elfman is the going to challenge Williams for best movie composer of all time.

    I appreciate the suggestions dating back a generation but I think what they have working most against them is that they have no sequels. The sequels are what keep putting the songs over and over into our heads. Half of my selections have sequels. and 4 of the other 5 are played frequently in other circumstances (the only exception being forest gump, which I admit is the most debatable selection).

    So rube, what would your top 10 look like?

  28. RubeRad said,

    Complaints about John Williams’ derivitaveness aside, it’s hard to argue with his iconicness. He’s a category by himself! I’d put Indiana Jones ahead of Star Wars (just on plain listenability; Star Wars is more obviously Theme Music). I’d leave Jurassic park out just to give somebody else a chance; I’d leave Jaws out — despite recognizability, as music alone it’s nothing you’d ever buy just to listen to. I might, however, include E.T. Some would maybe want to include Harry Potter.

    Mission Impossible would have to enter the list (unless that belongs on the TV themes list you’re going to post next — my advice, save up ideas for top ten cartoon themes to follow that).

    I’d dump Casablanca in a heartbeat. I’d probably also dump Good/Bad/Ugly, for the same reason as Jaws. Sure it’s iconic, but would you put it on a mix CD just so you could listen to it? Forrest Gump I can’t even think of (and I’m firewalled to check YouTube from work), so I guess I’d dump the Gump (I’ll take some Shrimp Gumbo though)

    Batman is definitely in; Elfman simply must have a presence. BTW, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a lot better than you think. Depp is not nearly as creepy as the commercials made him seem, and the songs are awesome! But it’s a little like a musical; I don’t know that I could pin down a particular “theme song”. (This is what makes it problematic to wangle Elfman onto the list)

    I would discount anything exactly classical (i.e. 2001, Amadeus), since it was not written (or even “arranged”, in Williams’ case) for the movie. Also discounted by this rule would be Barber’s Adagio for Strings, so famously juxtaposed against violent death in Apocalypse now. This principle would also disqualify (in my mind) The Sting.

    Out of my list of epic classics, number one I’d probably want to keep is Great Escape, although Beth’s got a pretty good point with Lara’s Song (Zhivago).

    And as a personal favorite (that nobody outside our family would care about), the cool jazz theme of Robert Redford’s greatest performance: The Hot Rock!

    And speaking of cool jazz, how about Dave Brubeck’s classic Peanuts’ theme?

    I’m not sure how long my list is at this point, but that should give everyone something to argue about!

  29. RubeRad said,

    Ahh, taking a closer look at your list, I see that our guiding principles do not align very well. I’d say that the “2001 theme” is equally recognizable as 1) Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (for people that know their classical), 2) 2001, 3) Sesame Street, and 4) TV commercials for Giant Labor/Memorial/President’s Day sales on Cars/Couches/Waterbeds…

    And for The Sting, I think most people would think of “That great Joplin rag that was in The Sting,” indicating that the movie use hasn’t overridden its original famousness.

  30. danielbalc said,

    Rube I have been tossing around this TV show song concept and I have determined that it is impossible.

    There are simply too many genres of TV and I have such limited experience. Let me give you an example…

    As I began to think of the best TV show theme songs these were the first to come to mind in no particular order…
    Brady Bunch
    Mission Impossible
    Seinfeld
    Jeopardy!
    Flinstones
    Sportscenter
    MASH
    Looney Tunes
    Monday Night Football
    the Simpsons

    It is clear to me that my partiality towards the show clouds my judgment towards the song. I love Seinfeld but surely it doesn’t belong on such a list. Nor are any of these really great pieces of music. they are just remember because of the show. ON the other hand in the movie list the music actually helped to make the movie. This is a big difference. The only 2 on this list where the music actually improves the program and not just identifies it would be looney tunes and Jeopardy!

  31. Goldminers said,

    Don’t the forget the classic Beverly Hillbillies theme song. Doesn’t everyone know the words to that one…

  32. Travis Stark said,

    This is a really well thought out list. I agree with most of them based on the fact that I know them in my head. I think that ‘Rocky should be much higher though. You should post this to my buddy’s site http://www.toptentopten.com/.

  33. Aunt Beth said,

    I don’t understand how “not having a sequel” works against a theme song. I hear the song from Gone with the Wind and immediately think of the Rhett, Scarlett, Ashley, and “I don’t know nothing about birthin’ babies, Miss Scarlett.” I hear Lara’s theme and my heart is in my throat as I think of the endless ice and snow of a Russian winter. When hear the famous whistle of Bridge on the River Kwai I cringe at the horrors of a Japanese concentration camp (even though the parody that begins with “Comet” sometimes makes its way to my thoughts also). Having strong movie associations DESPITE the fact that these movies haven’t had a plethora of sequels, seems that these songs are stronger than any song whose association was built upon repetition.

  34. Liara Covert said,

    I am amazed that you were able to narrow your favorites down to ten. Some people are unable to choose while others have a list that extends longer than their arm. Many readers will be able to relate to at least some of your choices. I wonder if you periodically revise this list of your “favorites.” After all, you continue to watch movies and some of thair theme songs may surpass your view of the listed ones above.

  35. TonyO said,

    Boy you hit it on the nail with the James Bond song. I drive a convertible and whenever I have to make quick errands I play these 3 songs in no particular order.

    James Bond Theme
    Mission Impossible Theme
    Theme from Peter Gunn

    When I arrive back home it always feels that I just completed a very exciting mission as I pull into the driveway. Of course I just have a few items from the store but those songs get you going and imagining. It’s an awesome feeling listening to those songs while I’m driving down the road on a nice clear day.

  36. Denise said,

    How Ice Castles’s “Through the eyes of love was not included? 😥

  37. UTKARSH said,

    harry potter theme
    mission impossible
    james bond
    jurassic park
    titanic
    dbz
    matrix
    king kong(2005)
    pirates of the caribbean
    & the exorcist

  38. UTKARSH said,

    also the dark knight, back 2 future, star wars,indiana jones.

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