Memorable Music Moments in Movies
All films, even relatively bad ones, have moments that capture the audience’s attention, but it’s often the supporting music that separates great scenes from the truly unforgettable. And then there is the music that becomes even more recognizable than the scene – or film – itself.
With music that is not composed specifically with the film in mind, the director has an advantage in enhancing a scene because the track can be selected, purchased, and strategically placed. That’s certainly not a bad thing, but not the same as composers orchestrating that perfect combination of notes specifically for an unforgettable moment. Musicals, too, have a different kind of advantage, so for this list we’ll focus on only single tracks from original scores that enhance great film moments. At the bottom I’ll list some memorable pre-recorded, or covered instrumental music used in film (partly to erase thoughts that the music was actually recorded with the film in mind).
Also, there are many great original scores from start to finish that may not be on this list, because no track elevated itself to a much broader audience the way the ones below do. Many of these can be found on Gunaxin’s Best Original Film Scores Ever article, with some overlap. Gladiator is my all-time favorite, and loved by many, but most of Hans Zimmer’s tracks aren’t exactly recognizable by most people when heard out of context of the film. Now onto the list:
Back to the Future (Alan Silvestri, 1985)
This brilliant theme sounds like something John Williams would have composed, but fortunately Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis went with Silvestri, who made perhaps the best score of his life. Buy from Amazon
Beverly Hills Cop (Harold Faltermeyer, 1984)
Faltermeyer was a two-trick pony in the 80s. He’s best known for this track (Eddie Murphy’s personal theme music), and the Top Gun Anthem. These two tracks were so good we thought we had another legendary composer in the making. Unfortunately, more than two decades later, he’s still best known for these two. They’re great, though. Buy from Amazon
Casablanca (Max Steiner, 1942)
Since 1999, “As Time Goes By” has been used as the opening theme for Warner Bros. films. The first film to adopt this new theme was Lethal Weapon 4. A truncated version of the theme debuted in 2003 as the closing logo for Warner Bros. Television.
Chariots of Fire (Vangelis, 1981)
Vangelis’s Chariots of Fire is the soundtrack to every slow-motion burst of triumph. The odd thing about it was it used that typical 80’s synthesizer sound for a film based in the 20s. This music, I believe, became more famous than the film itself. Buy from Amazon
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (John Williams, 1977)
Here’s a Williams score that, to me, doesn’t rise anywhere near his best, but the music played when the aliens and humans communicate didn’t need to be overly complex to make its point or ingrain itself in our heads. In fact, this is perhaps the only track on this list that the music is vital to the story.
Somewhere in this track is an interpolation of “When You Wish Upon A Star” which wasn’t written by Williams and is best known from Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. Buy from Amazon
E.T. ( John Williams, 1982)
Elliot and E.T. go cruising past the moon. Truly one of the most magical movie moments ever. Buy from Amazon
Glory (James Horner and the Boys Choir of Harlem, 1989)
Certainly some of the best original score battle music ever composed. Buy from Amazon
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (Ennio Morricone, 1966)
Duels are so cool. We need to start having those again. Buy from Amazon
L’Estasi Dell’oro (The Ecstasy Of Gold)
Before I even saw the film, I fell in love with this track when I heard it played as a prelude at a Metallica concert.
And Metallica’s version:
Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark (John Williams, 1981)
Personally, I prefer the The Temple Of Doom – Parade Of The Slave Children but the main theme is iconic, even in sequels where Indy survives a nuclear blast in a fridge and later encounters aliens. Buy from Amazon
Dr. No, (Monty Norman, 1962)
For those of you who didn’t know, there is a feud between John Barry and Monty Norman over who wrote this, and the courts credit Norman, who has been collecting royalties on it since 1962. Buy from Amazon
Jaws (John Williams, 1975)
Though it won the Oscar, the Jaws score as a whole is only really enjoyable while watching the film (as opposed to playing it on the stereo). But Williams’ two-note shark attack theme has embedded itself into pop culture and won’t soon be forgotten. It’s Williams and Spielberg’s answer to Herrmann and Hitchcock’s murder music in Psycho. Buy from Amazon
Jurassic Park (John Williams, 1993)
I hear ya saying, “So what I’m learning from this article is that John Williams makes good music. DUHHH!” Well, yeah, he’s got a knack for that just as Spielberg’s got a knack for making HIGH GROSSING FILMS THAT EVERYONE SEES AND RECOGNIZES AND ENJOYS. Buy from Amazon
Last of the Mohicans (Trevor Jones, 1992)
I might think this is more well-known than it actually is, but the score is loved and this tune stands above them all. It strikes anyone who hears it. I bet that babies have been conceived with track No. 3 of this soundtrack blaring on the stereo. Buy from Amazon
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Howard Shore, 2003)
There is no shortage of superb tracks throughout The Lord of the Rings films, but the most exemplifying is called “The White Tree” on the original score, and “Lighting of the Beacons” on the the complete recordings. Actually, you need to fast-forward on each of those tracks to get to the part where the camera swoops across Middle Earth, from Gonder to Rohan, as Shore’s Middle Earth anthem delights classical music lovers, even those who find J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories to be nonsense.
- The White Tree (Original Score) begins around 1:50 into the track
- Lighting of the Beacons (Complete Recordings) begins around 3:50 into the track
Or, you can watch it here in HD, with the symphony orchestra playing:
Midnight Cowboy (John Barry, 1969)
The anthem for all male cowboy prostitutes in New York. Buy from Amazon
The Piano (Michael Nyman, 1993)
Psycho (Bernard Herrmann, 1960)
Perhaps the biggest no-brainer on the list. The rest of the score is good, too. But I’d say of all the music on this list, this track is perhaps the most important for the enhancement of its scene than any other. Buy from Amazon
Pink Panther, (Henry Mancini 1963)
I’d be willing to bet that more people know this music than have seen the original film. Buy from Amazon
Requiem for a Dream (Clint Mansell, 2000)
There are many fans of this score, which was overlooked at the Oscars. I’m not particularly moved by it at all, but must acknowledge that its main theme is often played outside of the film, in trailers for other films, and even at sporting events. I heard it about 12 times at a Maryland-James Madison football game a couple of weeks ago. Buy from Amazon
Rocky (Bill Conti, 1976)
I’m sure this sounded great in the 70s but today I find this track to be cheesy. However, I can’t deny its recognition and integration into pop culture. Buy from Amazon
Rocky II (Bill Conti, 1979)
Conti made another memorable theme for Rocky II, and with songs by Survivor, James Brown and others, the music in most of the Rocky films rocked. Buy from Amazon
Shaft (Isaac Hayes, 1971)
Gotta admit I’m not sure which particular instrumental track stands above the rest for this film, and technically the Theme from Shaft is a song, but we’ll bend the rules here a bit (as we did earlier with “As Time Goes By”) because most of that song is instrumental and still recognized and enjoyed to this day. Hayes won the Oscar for Best Song and was nominated for Best Original Score. Buy from Amazon
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (John Williams, 1977)
While the 20th Century Fox theme (Alfred Newman, 1954) is played as a prefix to many Fox films, hearing it for the past 30-plus years triggers our collective anticipation, or even hope, that the Rebel Blockade Runner music is to follow. As for the main Star Wars theme, I believe it will be recognized even hundreds of years from now. Buy from Amazon
Star Wars: The Throne Room-End Title
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (John Williams, 1977)
The beginning of this sounds like a wedding march.
The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (John Williams, 1980)
The theme song in the Bush White House. Buy from Amazon
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (John Williams, 1999)
As disappointment set in after longtime fans saw this film, we continued to blare what’s nicknamed ‘Darth Maul’s Theme’ on the speakers. Buy from Amazon
Superman (John Williams, 1978)
Here’s something to ponder. If Williams switched the Star Wars main theme music for the Superman main theme music, would the world be any different? Buy from Amazon
Titanic (James Horner, 1997)
This is an extraordinarily cheesy soundtrack, with its most memorable sounds anchored by the same riffs of the power-ballad My Heart Will Go On that Horner also wrote. But Titanic is the highest-grossing movie of all time, and Horner ain’t a hack, so I’m presuming that this track, the score’s most downloaded on ITunes (behind Celine Dion’s song, of course) is indeed recognized and enjoyed by many music lovers. If this isn’t the right track, forgive me, I can’t finish listening to it without wanting to puke. Buy from Amazon
An interesting story, from know-it-all Wikipedia:
At first, [director James] Cameron did not want a song sung over the film’s ending credits, but Horner disagreed. Without telling Cameron, he went ahead and wrote the song anyway, and recorded Dion singing it. Cameron changed his mind when Horner presented the song to him. My Heart Will Go On became a worldwide smash hit, going to the top of the music charts around the world. My Heart Will Go On also ended up winning the 1998 Academy Award for Best Original Song as well as the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song.
Top Gun (Harold Faltermeyer. 1986)
The entire Top Gun soundtrack was great, particularly “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins, but Faltermeyer’s anthem to me is still the theme music that should be played whenever Tom Cruise enters a room. Buy from Amazon
Great Pre-Recorded Instrumental Music in Movies
For those of you who don’t know the difference, the music below was originally composed not with the film in mind, but was eventually used in the film. That’s different than a composer making music specifically for the film, with scene-by-scene guidance for each track, as listed above. Some tracks below were written by others, and then re-orchestrated by the film’s composer, thus disqualifying it from being ‘original.’ There are many more examples, but these particular tracks are certainly used extremely well in a feature film.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Duh… duh… duh… DUH DUH… bum bum bum bum bum, bum bum bum bum bum. Buy from Amazon
You rock, Wolfgang Mozart. Buy from Amazon
Ride of the Valkyries
When I hear this Wagner music I always think of vikings for some reason. Buy from Amazon
Colonel Bogey March
Bridge on the River Kwai
Mission Impossible Main Theme
The music in the movie was based on the music in the television series.
Here’s the right music but the wrong video:
In my opinion, one of the most fun instrumentals in a movie, ever. The song had been composed in 1955 by Arthur Smith, and he sued for royalties, and won, after the film was released.
Love Theme from The Godfather
An observant reader pointed out to me that Nino Rota’s score was removed at the last minute from the list of 1973 Academy Award nominees when it was discovered that he had used the theme in Eduardo De Filippo’s 1958 comedy Fortunella. The melody was the same as the ‘Love Theme from The Godfather,’ and for that reason was deemed ineligible for an Oscar. Despite this, The Godfather Part II won a 1974 Oscar for Best Original Score, although it featured the same love theme that made the 1972 score ineligible. Buy from Amazon
Layla (Derek and the Dominos)
Martin Scorsese used the instrumental part of the Clapton song to enhance this classic scene.
You also rock, Beethoven. Buy from Amazon
Adagio for Strings
Platoon, Samuel Barber
No film score was composed for Pulp Fiction, with Quentin Tarantino instead using an eclectic assortment of surf music, rock and roll, soul, and pop songs. Dick Dale’s rendition of “Misirlou” plays during the opening credits. Buy from Amazon
Star Trek – Main Title
Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Jerry Goldsmith
Another question to ponder. If this music was switched with main theme in Star Wars, would the world be any different? Buy from Amazon