How Hollywood soundtracks repeat the same old tune

If you see a movie for the first time and swear you've heard the score before, it may not be your imagination...

Last month, the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM) sued six major studios for reusing film soundtracks in other films without paying the appropriate compensation. It’s the kind of news that will make people roll their eyes. Ah yes, they’ll say after seeing the headlines. Typical Hollywood. Not even the music’s original any more.

But go beyond the headlines about reusing the same music too much and delve into the lawsuit and it reveals an interesting insight into the kind of situations where music does get repeated.

The lawsuit, it soon becomes evident, isn’t about the use of music in itself (a quick browse through the soundtracks for the titles in question, such as This Means War or Argo, reveals that they have permission to do so). The source of dispute is the lack of payment to those who performed on the original recording.

“Our agreements obligate the studios to make additional payments to musicians when soundtracks are reused and AFM members are entitled to receive the benefit of that bargain,” says AFM International President Ray Hair in an official statement. “Our efforts to resolve these contract violations and missing payments have been unproductive, so we are looking to the courts for relief.”

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The union’s lawsuit specifically charges Columbia, Paramount, Fox, Universal, Disney and Warner Brothers for violating the deal between AFM and the studios. There are some exceptions and small-print conditions – a 2010 Agreement allows the use of up to two minutes of music from another motion picture soundtrack without the matching footage (an un-synced clip) – but the overall list of claims is surprisingly long: they allege, for example, 111 clips used by Fox without the supplementary payments for musicians.

So how and why is this happening in the first place? The automatic presumption is laziness, but it is more complex that that. A lot of this reuse takes the form of pop culture references, franchise continuity or intentional intertextual references.

From remixes to recycling, here’s how Hollywood soundtracks repeat the same old tune:


Work your way through the AFM lawsuit and what swiftly becomes apparent is that the majority of them are, in effect, pop culture references. In Little Fockers, one of the listed clips, 18 seconds of the Jaws score were used. Why? To accompany a fight scene between Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro, when De Niro emerges from a ball pit. A bit like a shark. A shark shaped like Robert De Niro.

If that’s a knowing joke between the filmmakers and the audience, though, others are diegetic.

Fox are named for using 1 minute and 10 seconds of an un-synced clip from Titanic in This Means War, but that’s because of another 4 seconds of synced music, as we see Chris Pine watching James Cameron’s movie on the TV. Similarly, in Labor Day, Columbia are charged with 2 minutes and 23 seconds of un-synced music from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, as the family enjoy the end credits of the film (complete with John Williams’ score) from the sofa. In Argo, Warner use 35 seconds of Leonard Rosenman’s Battle For The Planet Of The Apes soundtrack, as Ben Affleck rings his son to see a film together over the phone. In Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig’s Annie watches Cast Away (“Oh, Wilson!”), while in The Office season nine, episode nine – “Dwight Christmas” – Pete and Erin watch Die Hard.

These are moments that reuse soundtracks to create a bond between the characters and the audience; we recognise the score as much as they do, a shared point of reference that helps us relate to what’s on screen.

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Even then, it can be more intricate than that: in Season 7, Episode 17 of The Office, we see Michael’s own film, the wonderfully named Threat Level Midnight (“three years of writing, one year of shooting, four years of re-shooting”). The opening scene is accompanied by 30 seconds of John Powell’s Bourne On Land from The Bourne Identity, a quote that places the joke firmly on Steve Carrell’s boss: this is a guy who used to keep grilled bacon by the side of his bed. Of course he wouldn’t know any better than to steal music.


Some reuse of music can be straight-forward recycling. Knight And Day, for example, is cited by AFM for using 2 minutes and 7 seconds of An Ass Model Named Lavitka from Harry Gregson-Williams’ Taking of Pelham 123 soundtrack.

There can be a range of reasons for this. For example, a last-minute need for additional music in post-production. Sometimes, it could be because the film has been edited to a temp track, one that the director becomes so used to that they simply stick with the piece – or, if not, order their composer to come up with something very similar.

One impressively detailed book on Hammer Horror soundtracks by Randall D. Larson notes how both Hammer and Universal in the 40s and 50s recycled their scores (House Of Dracula formed part of the accompaniment for Revenge Of The Creature). The end credits of Quatermass And The Pit, meanwhile, unexpectedly saw Tristram Cary’s music replaced with something by Carlo Martelli from Witchcraft.

Recycling can also be down to creative differences between the filmmakers – or, in the case of Spider-Man, a mix of all of the above. Danny Elfman dropped out of the third entry in Sam Raimi’s franchise after two films of having to recycle his own work.

“He got so intensely attached to the temp music that I couldn’t even adapt my own music close enough,” the composer said at the time.

One of the most well-known cases of recycling was Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, which used Vertigo‘s Scene d’Amour by Bernard Herrmann to accompany the climactic confrontation between its star couple – a controversial inclusion that didn’t stop it from winning five Oscars, including Best Original Score for Ludovic Bource.

Recycling, though, doesn’t always fit in smoothly: after rejecting several efforts, Kick-Ass lifted music liberally from other productions to create its soundtrack, the kind of patchwork sound that gives a good idea of what a movie’s temp track is like. John Murphy’s Adagio from Sunshine is the most notable cameo, a theme so good it has been recycled countless times in everything from The Lovely Bones to The Walking Dead.

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(Speaking of the small screen, a mention here must go to Top Gear, one redeeming feature of which was its fantastic use of big screen scores by composers such as Howard Shore to Hans Zimmer.)


Some reusing is the composer intentionally recalling their own work. Nino Rota’s iconic love theme for Francis Ford Coppolla’s The Godfather was famously taken from his music for the 1958 film Fortunella – a fact that caused the 1973 Oscar contender to be struck from the list of nominees. (The Godfather Part II, though, went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Music anyway.)

Sometimes, it’s done without the composer’s knowledge: Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla signature, for example, is reused throughout the history of the Godzilla series, regardless of whether Ifukube was involved or not. Franz Reizenstein’s music from The Mummy, meanwhile, was reused in Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb during a flashback scene to make it as coherent as possible.

Which brings us to…


One of the most common reasons you’ll experience soundtrack deja vu is the rearranging of a theme for a sequel – something that’s crucial to franchise continuity.

For Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, John Williams’ Hedwig theme was heavily relied upon to maintain the same sound. In fact, Williams was so busy that William Ross was hired to arrange a score from music for the first film, together with a couple of new themes.

Speaking of Williams, John Ottman’s Superman Returns is a textbook example of how to arrange a familiar tune – something that Ken Thorne was also hired to do with John’s music for Superman II.

More recently, Brian Tyler’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron score smartly rearranged Marvel’s existing themes for Iron Man and Thor to bring the franchise a much-needed sense of musical identity. In fact, Danny Elfman’s take on Alan Silvestri’s Avengers (and Captain America) theme is the best thing on the whole album.

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It’s not always music from the same franchise that gets remixed, though: Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer,” best known to people as the theme for Badlands, was almost definitely referenced by Hans Zimmer for his True Romance melody. In Paddington, meanwhile, Nick Urata arranged the Mission: Impossible theme to create a cue for an action sequence in the final act.


So far, we’ve only considered tracks taken from movies, but existing music is an equal target of re-appropriation in Hollywood.

Barber’s “Adagio For Strings,” made famous among cinema audiences by Platoon, has cropped up in Amelie and The Elephant Man. “Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, on the other hand, has been used in almost any film you could name.

Sometimes, inevitably, people don’t look too kindly upon the decision: There Will Be Blood‘s atmospheric use of Arvo Part’s “Fratres” (alongside music Jonny Greenwood had written before) disqualified the Radiohead guitarist’s soundtrack from the Best Original Music Oscar.

It’s not just classical compositions, though: pop songs are re-appropriated too. “Gimme Shelter” by the Stones appears in practically every Martin Scorsese film, while “London Calling can be heard in projects as diverse as Aardman’s The Pirates! and Die Another Day.

Quentin Tarantino, of course, has made an art of it, from his use of music by Ennio Morricone (L’Arena from The Mercenery in Kill Bill, for example) to Stuck In The Middle With You.


And finally, the most obvious kind of music reuse: marketing.

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Distributors all the time borrow soundtracks to help recommend their movie in trailers.

Clint Mansell’s sublime “Lux Aeterna” for Requiem for A Dream and John Murphy’s “Sunshine” are both prime contenders for the most over-used trailer music of all time – a fact that isn’t about to stop their use any time soon. That’s partly because the final score of a movie isn’t usually ready by the time the trailers are being cut, but it’s also because – much like those pop culture gags – they give us a shared point of reference. That music from the film you really liked? If it’s in this trailer, then maybe you’ll like our film too! Remember that action flick that sounded really cool? This one sounds cool as well!

And there you have it: a handy guide to how Hollywood reuses music.

So next time you spot a tune that you think you’ve heard before, remember it’s not just the sound of laziness that’s caught your attention. And, of course, spare a thought for the musicians, who might not have been paid for you to hear it.