There’s no question that music is essential in films. In a similar vein to other elements like cinematography, music can actually make you feel something beyond a particular position in a narrative. Soundtracks can elevate you from an emotional perspective. When films make you cry, it’s pretty likely that there’s music playing. And when you want to stand up and cheer for your favorite character defeating evil, we can bet there’s music in the background.
It’s been this way since the conception of film. Even silent films had some sort of musical companion in the experience. Decades of cinema scores have taken us to this exact moment in which we are able to recognize, remember, and even relive, the moments of film by listening to a film’s soundtrack.
What are the most iconic pieces of film composing? The ones that instantly bring you back to thrills and scares and joy. We’re sure you’ll love our selection.
15 The Indiana Jones Films
John Williams is the most common name on this list. It’s pretty simple. He’s the sound of cinema in every possible genre, and his collaborations with Steven Spielberg represent the true essence of musical themes in film scores. For the Indiana Jones Franchise, he created the sound of adventure, dangerous rides in cars or horses, and cliffhangers. The piece above is from the Raiders of the Lost Ark score, and it has the version of the ‘Raiders March’ we love the most. Yes, there’s a difference between this one and the ones composed for the sequels.
14 The Star Wars Franchise
Now we head to space. It’s impossible to listen to this score and not remember the battle taking place a very long time in a galaxy far, far away. John Williams is also behind the most iconic and recognizable piece of film music ever written. Variations of the Star Wars main theme have shown up through the years as the franchise keeps growing. We’d rather stick with the main theme from the very first film, Episode IV – A New Hope. The fanfare just sounds different.
Also known as ‘Gonna Fly Now,’ the theme for the Rocky franchise is the only selection of the list that actually includes singing voices and has lyrics. Once you hear the horns in the first seconds of the song, there’s no chance you won’t see Rocky running up the stone steps that lead to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Perhaps, this one also motivates you to start your day with a full workout, in which case you’re probably also including ‘Eye of the Tiger’ on the playlist, a song also composed for this franchise.
12 Back to the Future
Alan Silvestri created the sound of a DeLorean time traveling to the past and getting a teenager in trouble. This is also the sound of adventure, just with a little more stamina and speed. We like to think the Back to the Future theme transcends the film itself and can represent the sound of ’80s blockbuster cinema as well.
11 Jurassic Park
John Williams again makes us imagine real dinosaurs. His score for Jurassic Park is very diverse and effective for the film. It goes from tender orchestral pieces to more dramatic and tense themes that show up whenever the characters are in trouble. The one you probably hear the most is ‘Theme From Jurassic Park,’ but the one that’s the most recognizable doesn’t have its own name. You can find it at the 4:30 mark of the video above, and when you listen to it, you’ll agree with us. This is what an adventure in a dinosaur park sounds like, but only when you’re at the entrance and none of the huge guys have escaped their compounds.
10 The Godfather
We’re going to take a risk and say that The Godfather’s most recognizable piece of music isn’t its main theme. Perhaps you know it by its more common name, The Godfather Waltz. The piece that you hear, and instantly takes you to the Corleone universe is Love Theme from The Godfather. Is there a chance that after listening to the first five notes, you don’t remember Marlon Brando caressing his own face?
Yes, we have to say that it isn’t originally from the film. It’s actually a version of another piece written by the same Nino Rota for the 1958 comedy Fortunella. Fortunately, the speed is different, and the theme matches much better with The Godfather.
There are many versions of John Carpenter’s score for his own 1978 film Halloween. Some include a percussive electronic drum that’s not very good. Regardless, this is the sound of a killer getting close to your house on any night of the year. There’s an impending sense of doom in the main theme for Halloween which makes you certain you will never escape the wrath of Michael Myers.
8 Superman (1978)
The best superhero theme of all time. When listening to the Superman theme composed by John Williams, chances are you will look at the sky and stare for a few minutes to imagine how it would feel to fly. When it comes to iconic soundtracks, this is one of Williams’ frequently underrated scores. This is what hope and sheer optimism sound like.
7 The Exorcist
This one is controversial, and we’re pretty certain we’ll never know the truth about what truly happened. The Exorcist may be the most important horror film in history, and as effective as a horror soundtrack may be, there’s not an original score for the film. Bernard Herrmann rejected the gig, and Lalo Schifrin actually composed and recorded music (an excellent score by the way), but Friedkin was very vocal about hating it.
So, what did he do? He found unused music in the studio’s library and decided to include it in the film. Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ is the name of the melody that will instantly make you remember the moments before an innocent girl got possessed by the Devil himself.
Williams makes another appearance on this list. In one of his most important gigs, the composer gave sound to that fear humans experienced when entering the water on a beach. The sound is that of an unknown menace that’s prowling with a hunger to see which unlucky victim it eats first. Jaws is undoubtedly the most important horror soundtrack ever composed.
Bernard Herrmann’s work in Psycho is essential to the film industry. For Hitchcock’s film, he gave sound to a twisted mind who was capable of doing the unspeakable, and most importantly, that which Hollywood had never witnessed before. Aside from putting you in a very tense state of mind, Psycho’s Prelude piece will make you remember the shocking murder of a lady who paid for her sins in the most gruesome way possible.
This one may compete against the main title from Jaws in the most important horror soundtrack race, but we’d rather let you decide who wins.
4 Mission: Impossible
There are too many to choose from, but each of them arrives at the same idea: The theme for Mission: Impossible is the most recognizable score in history. In TV or film, there’s nothing that’s more reminiscent of where it comes from. Lalo Schifrin composed and recorded it in 1967 for the TV series, and since then it’s been readapted several times. Danny Elfman’s version of the theme is one of our favorites since it’s very exciting to listen to, it’s loud like no other, and automatically makes you think of becoming a spy and trying to be Ethan Hunt.
John Williams’ score for E.T. the Extraterrestrial is hard to describe as something other than magical. It’s the sound of adventure, of wonder, of tragedy, and of goodbyes. There’s no way that after you listen to this, you don’t imagine Elliot’s bike flying across the moon. Again, another piece of music that sounds like the ’80s.
2 The Harry Potter Franchise
Williams created a theme in the form of a prologue for the first big-screen adaptation of the Harry Potter books. The very first piece Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone soundtrack is what magic and awe sound like, especially when experienced by an 11-year-old boy who didn’t know he would become a wizard. Sticking the prologue together with the song Harry’s wondrous world is a great introduction to a world we would never forget.
1 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The music composed by Ennio Morricone for Sergio Leone’s epic western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, is exactly what the Western genre sounds like for modern audiences. The electric guitar, the frantic horns, the vocals, and the gritty mixing are what made this a sound that was definitely ahead of its time in 1966. When you listen to this one, you can find yourself in the middle of a duel between two enemies that will draw their guns when you least expect it.