The most iconic movie music themes of all time

Behind most classic movies there’s an unforgettable score. Glen runs down his eleven most iconic movie themes ever...

Many films contain musical cues that are more iconic than some of the imagery contained in the feature. Here, then, are eleven of my favourite examples of iconic theme tunes. And do feel free to add your own in the comments at the bottom…!

The Exorcist – Tubular Bells

Taken from Mike Oldfield’s debut album of the same name, the use of this track in William Friedkin’s 1973 horror masterpiece complimented the mood of the film and lead to a boost in album sales for Oldfield.

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For a piece of music that is so recognisable for its inclusion in the film, it was a surprise for me to learn that it wasn’t the director’s first choice and was, in fact, used after Friedkin rejected Lalo Schifrin’s original score.

The GodfatherThe Godfather Waltz

Nino Rota’s score for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 adaptation of Mario Puzo’s gangster novel is one of the finest scores of all time. It utilises a number of leitmotif’s and switches from beautiful and elegant to moody and menacing in a way that perfectly complements the film and makes it instantly recognisable when listening to it away from the film.

Despite the quality of the score, it was deemed ineligible for an Academy Award nomination, as one of the themes borrows a melody from another film. Although the mood of the pieces vary drastically, the similarities were deemed to be enough to warrant its disqualification.

Interestingly, Rota’s score for The Godfather Part II was nominated and won the Academy Award for Best Original Score a few years later, despite using the same theme.

Superman – Theme From Superman

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Composed by John Williams and played by the London Symphony Orchestra, with whom Williams collaborated a number of times prior to recording this, Superman‘s theme is arguably one of the most instantly recognisable and iconic pieces of music of all time.

With both Williams and the LSO on top form, the soundtrack itself is a fantastic listen and works equally as well as a standalone as it does with the film. This could be said of a number of films that they scored together such as…

Star Wars – Main Theme

I had considered the equally iconic Imperial Attack for this piece, but feel that this one edges it for me. Whenever I hear it, it takes me back to the first time I saw the movie and being mesmerised from the opening bars of this song through to the film’s finale.

My enthusiasm for Star Wars has diminished over the years as a result of Lucas’ incessant tinkering with the material and dodgy prequels, but I have fond memories of the original trilogy and this piece of music. Williams was recommended to Lucas by Steven Spielberg whom he worked with on…

Jaws – Shark Theme

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Taken from Spielberg’s phenomenally successful 1975 thriller, simplicity was the key for Williams with this two note theme that increases in intensity to mirror the approaching shark’s heartbeat as it prepares for attack.

Performed on the tuba by the session musician Tommy Johnson, who contributed to over 2,000 movie soundtracks, the piece is easy to play on a number of instruments (I haven’t tried the tuba, though) by simply finding the E and F notes and alternating.

Williams won the Oscar for his work on the film and this theme, in particular, is widely recognised as one of the most iconic pieces of film music of all time.

Rocky – Gonna Fly Now (Theme From Rocky)

Some of the entries into the Rocky series may not have been that great, but the first film is undeniably a classic piece of cinema.

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Bill Conti’s iconic score, full of classical cues, is one of the finest examples of music in a film, drawing the necessary feelings out of the audience and has become recognised as one of the best scores of all time.

Gonna Fly Now was released as a single around the time of the film’s release and topped the US Billboard charts for one week.

Conti would go on to provide the score for all but one of the Rocky movies.

James BondMain Theme

There have been numerous arguments and lawsuits over the years regarding the creator of this iconic piece of film music. As it stands, Monty Norman has been determined to have been the writer of the piece, despite claims to the contrary from John Barry.

The piece has been used in all of the official James Bond movies since the release of Dr. No and has been played using various arrangements and instruments over the years.

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GhostbustersGhostbusters Theme

Like the majority of pieces on this list, Ray Parker Jr’s Ghostbusters brings back many fond memories of childhood and the regularity with which I watched the movie.

It’s also another example of music from a film with a certain degree of controversy around the authorship of the material, as Parker Jr was sued by Huey Lewis, who was the original choice for composer of the Ghostbusters theme, as it was strikingly similar to one of his songs.

Despite the controversy, the song was an international hit, topping the charts in America and number two here in the UK and earned Ray Parker Jr a Best Original Song Academy Award nomination.

PsychoThe Murder

Bernard Herrmann collaborated with Hitchcock on a number of his movies, but few have matched the quality of his work here.

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It’s reported that Herrmann agreed to score the film but refused to accept a reduced fee and, as such, had a limited budget to work with. The financial limitation didn’t hinder Herrmann and he created a score that Hitchcock admitted provided thirty-three percent of the film’s effect.

It’s amazing to think that Hitchcock was originally opposed to having music in this scene and it has since become one of the most iconic scenes in cinema, partly thanks to the eerie musical cue.

In addition to this iconic them, the film also features an amazing and hypnotic leitmotif that I would say is my favourite piece of music in the film. However, as this piece is on iconic themes, the shower scene, without question, is the most iconic piece of the two.

RoboCop – RoboCop’s Theme

Out of all the pieces on the list, I would say that this is my favourite. Composed by Basil Poledouris, who lent his talents to Conan The Barbarian, The Hunt For Red October, Starship Troopers and Lonesome Dove.

His theme here combines electronic music with orchestral sensibilities which effectively captures the mood of the film and the idea of technology consuming the life of the protagonist (as a matter of necessity).

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The use of the song throughout the film is excellent and even with my seeing the movie countless times, there are many moments in the film that make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Raiders Of The Lost Ark – The Raiders March (Indiana Jones Theme)

Another collaboration between Williams and the London Philharmonic Orchestra , I’m ashamed to admit that this was missing from my initial version of the piece and is a last minute addition.

A theme that has been so iconic throughout the Indiana Jones series and holds up just as well, if not better, than his other iconic pieces from that time.

A brilliant theme for a brilliant film.

Add your favourites to the comments…

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