Movie scores get too little credit. Being able to transport someone, instantly, into a particular mood, using only their hearing is a talent of acoustic conjuration. It’s part hypnosis, experience, and innate instinct that works behind the scenes to reach deep in your subconscious. A good movie soundtrack can conjure the film in an instant, and tell you in a few bars whether or not this is going to be something you will enjoy.
These are, inarguably, the 12 best movie themes that have ever been made. We appreciate being given the final word on this matter. It is now closed.
Great Movie Themes That Are Not In Contention
There’s a few movie themes that would easily make this list, but the criteria we were forced to adhere to state that the theme must have been made exclusively for the film. It could not exist previously. These cinema themes are therefore null and void.
‘Tubular Bells‘ is the name of the haunting, unsettling music that led to one of the crowning horror achievements of all time. The composer of the piece is Mike Oldfield, a master melder of styles. Classical, choral, folk, electronic, and unabashed new age all work together in his material. He’s worthy of a long listen for variety’s sake. Stream it as background. We’ll wait.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Brassy, growing, glowing, and revelatory, “Also sprach Zarathustra,” is the actual name of this piece. It comes from Richard Strauss, a composer who lived in 1896. The composition itself is a reference to Friedrich Nietzsche’s book: “Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None.” Between the Nietzsche tie-in, the heavily stylized Kubrick directing, and the excess of the music itself, it’s a perfect onion of pretension. That’s how we like our affected behavior: Given the full Jared Leto treatment. From dye jobs to health risks.
Tremendous piece of music conjured up by members of U2 for the first feature-length M:I franchise reboot. Proof that classic TV should be shoved back down our throats until someone remakes M*A*S*H* in space, the initial, Brian DePalma Mission was a fun little romp. Then John Woo got involved and now we feel like we’re supporting the cult of Scientology if we buy a ticket. Plus, the Limp Bizkit version of the Mission: Impossible theme actually nullifies the good version. It’s the cancellation property of music. In fact, the movie theme was a television theme before it was a movie theme, which takes it out of the running. Sorry Scientology nutjobs!
Best Movie Themes
Danny Elfman has long held reign over the world of themes. Despite not being classically trained, and by his own humble admission a dabbler, he’s managed to carve out a career of memorable music perfectly paired with a cinematic or televised work. The 1989 Batman was seminal. It was proof the market could manage a darker kind of comic book hero than the bland Superman. Elfman manages to quickly conjure up the moody, rainswept streets of Gotham, as seen by Tim Burton’s team. A little Gothic, brooding, and low, then fighting its way up to pulsing action, no sound has been more the Dark Knight.
Raiders of The Lost Ark
Adventure, heroism, a little wry wit, more heroism, and then some tenderness. Considered by many to be ‘The Indiana Jones Theme’ as it’s so heavily tied to that character, this music from John Williams won awards for a reason. Rough and tumble, ready to rouse rabble, but never too nervous, it makes you want to swing over a pit on a whip. Then smirk like a sonofabitch!
Dashing, sleek, suave, sultry, alluring, punctuated throughout with flair that spills over into the jazzy composition. It moves with purpose, but doesn’t rush. It’s gait is measured, though plays with every flirtatious step. It’s sex, it’s danger, it’s a little too smug for its own good. However you may feel about the misogynistic male fantasy franchise, the music of Bond isn’t shy about being the sort of leisure lounge trash you’d expect. Velvet that reeks of stale smoke.
This music is still all that is needed to make a person want to stay out of the water. It’s the pure, simple elegance that with two notes and a fin a villain was born. As deep in our cultural subconscious as knowing you can’t trust white bankers, “Dun-dun!” means shark.
The Star Trek theme that was composed for the motion picture is very different than the theremin used for the original television show. The theme that went with the film was then brought back to the small screen for The Next Generation. Though the lineage is a little suspect, the drive onward and upward; to boldly go, is not. Frankly, the fairly dull film that was Star Trek: The Motion Picture didn’t live up to the triumphant, reaching theme.
John Williams making the noise, with special effects that were on a whole other level for the age, that’s why no one cared about the plot. Space opera boy has a freaking light stick, lasers, pew-pew! Lucas couldn’t pay enough for how much that powerful score managed to make his green screen nonsense feel like something with atmosphere. Without the Imperial March, Vader would be about as frightening as aunt Peggy. And the theme manages to outshine even that accomplishment. It’s practically patriotic, that Star Wars theme is. Kicking you back as that scroll starts, and you can’t help but think “The balls on this guy! Making me read before his movie! Check out the stone jack dandy on this cotton candy cracker.” But that theme held you transfixed.
Rocky has to go on the list for pure utilitarian purposes. It’s the duct tape. It’s never a bad idea. Here’s why. Not only does it instantly conjure up boxing, battling, underdogs conquering impossible odds, and El Stallion Italiano. It gets you in gear for those times when you need all the help you can get. True, the movies had some homoerotic and rape overtones. That’s sort of male frustration and boxing in a nutshell. But that’s a good reason to get pumped up! Fight the sweaty power! It goes perfectly with the “Fight Song” or “Roar” or whatever pablum Miley Cyrus is spitting out elsewhere in the world.
Finally, some spook up in the theme business. Music has a hard time being frightening. The problem is, music is pleasant to listen to. That’s why it’s music. Otherwise, it’s just noise. It’s why Halloween songs are so hard to make. Yet, the Halloween theme from the film Halloween about the holiday, Halloween, featuring a villain named Mike – for some reason – has one of the best themes of all time. Get that running on your Hallow’s Eve, sinister children of the night. There’s even a 10 hour loop of it so you can just run that bad boy in the background while you and your partner freak on each other. Sick bastards.
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure
This theme is awful. Pee Wee is a dreadful character that is mauled and broken in some horrific way. I have never seen the appeal of Pee Wee and would burn each and every copy of his bike theft shenanigans if I could. Paul Reubens is a fine, delightful man who is a fun and talented actor. He was pure magic in the Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie (#KristiistheBestBuffy). It’s not about him, it’s about that pseudo-human character of Pee Wee. The exaggerated childhood is horror personified. Large Marge haunts me to this day as a strapping man of middle years. Pee Wee falls into the uncanny valley for me. A human that looks automated is worse than a machine that looks like a person.
We’ve been accused of being overly enthusiastic about Elfman’s music. It’s true. You can tell we’re mostly 90’s kids. Xennials, you would say, because we’re awfully full of ourselves, and like naming things in nonsense compounds. Xennial tribunal, out!
Chariots of Fire
A trope unto itself, Chariots of Fire has long been heralded as the crowning musical achievement of a film. Hum along to the Chariots of Fire by Vangelis while doing anything in slow motion, and it’s instantly recognizable. Even to those wholly ignorant of the film itself. The same way “Ride of the Valkyries” can be played over any helicopter footage for that comedic Apocalypse Now vibe.
The Terminator should have honestly been cast aside as a B-Film joke. Arnold somehow makes wooden work. True, it had Linda Hamilton to sell the entire premise. Thank sweet mother for the underappreciated Linda Hamilton.
The Theme, even the original 80’s Casio electronic cut, had an ugly, mechanical ring to it. Ominous, but not supernatural. Later versions of the theme started with dense percussion and bassy hums that still mean Judgement Day to any true fan of the franchise. And half the fake fans. But not the half you’re thinking of.