Sounds of the Cinema: The Best of Movie Themes


Colin Bergen

Grab some popcorn and find a seat, as we celebrate some of the greatest scores ever to accompany film.

Colin Bergen, Staff Writer

There are few things more enthralling to the ears than a movie’s musical score. They can provide such immense power and emotion to a scene that they rival, and sometimes even eclipse the actor’s themselves. They are essential to any film, and composers throw in their absolute all to get the music just right. So, in honor of these great works of music, we are going to count down the greatest film scores in cinema. Keep in mind, this list is focusing on the main scores that the soundtracks to these movie’s are largely based off of, not the soundtracks themselves. Also, this list is based on my personal opinions, and is not in any association with any sort of official list.

  1. Fargo, Carter Burwell- Coming from the one of the greatest dark comedies of our time, the theme to Fargo is both powerful and haunting. It is based off a Norwegian folk song called “The Lost Sheep”, which really fits the cold, isolated setting of the story. The lonely strings at the beginning do well to set the ominous and disturbing feel that is present throughout the movie. The sudden crescendo, the crashing orchestra, and the faint clinking of the bells clinches the essence of the movie, both the uncompromising heroism of its protagonist and the disturbing actions of its villains.

  1. Hudsucker Proxy (adiago from Spartacus),written by Aram Khatchurian, arranged by Carter Burwell- I was torn in putting this one on the list, as it’s not technically a composition made specifically for the movie. The real song, ‘Adiago from Spartacus’, was made for the play Spartacus by Aram Khachaturian, and not for the movie I first heard it in, the Hudsucker Proxy. However, since I it was used in a movie and it is a theme, I figured it worked. That being said, this is a score I wish got more attention. It is simply enchanting! Not only does it fit the time the story is set in (the late 50’s) but it also fits the strange dream-like aspect the movie has. It’s slow and methodical in some moments, but always has such whimsy to it. Then there are those big If nothing else, I put this score on the list just for those huge, grand moments. They just stir such a powerful feeling of joy and, for lack of a better word, wonder that it’s hard just not to get enthralled by it.

  1. Star Trek: First Contact, Jerry Goldsmith- I know what you’re thinking, “Star Trek? Really? This is not even a movie theme, it is a television ” While it is true that the most iconic theme for Star Trek was made for television, the movies actually had their own themes. This one, in my opinion, is the best. Like all of the movies that came before it, it starts off with that classic Star Trek score we all know and love. That alone could have probably earned a spot on this list, but this movie in particular does something quite unique with its theme. Instead of continuing with the iconic big, brassy, and energizing sound of the original, it suddenly becomes a lot slower, gentler, and soothing.  It is rather strange for a Star Trek score, but it actually fits the underlying themes of the story of the movie.

This movie isn’t just about an adventure to save the world, it’s about the importance of discovery, and how, though the odds may be against us, we need to dare to learn. That’s what this track is to me: the theme of discovery, in all of its excitement, in all of its wonder, in all of its uncertainly, and in all of its awe-inspiring power.

  1. Harry Potter (Hedwig’s theme), John Williams. – Oh, how could John Williams not be on the list? The man is a musical legend, bringing unforgettable gems like this one to the silver screen. While Williams did eventually depart from the Harry Potter franchise, he gave it its iconic sound. Those quiet few notes at the beginning are the work of pure movie magic instantly identifiable and truly unforgettable. It perfectly encompasses the very essence of the films: the whimsy, the mischief, the mystery, the adventure, and even the ominous. It is a tremendous feat for a composer to make something so perfect for such an extensive franchise, especially one that progressively changes its tone like the Harry Potter films do. Yet, even in the darkest film in the franchise, this twinkly theme managed to find a place in it. That is the sign of something truly magical (pun intended).

  1. Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Brad Fiedel – Action movies boast some of the most and most awesome music to be ever featured in a darkened theater. They have a way of getting their audience pumped for the movie and involved with the action no-others. The score for Terminator 2 is, by far, among the best of these. That somber melody accompanied by that industrial drumming is just awesome, and perfectly captures the feeling of looming Armageddon . It is as short, sweet, and intense as a theme could be. What more could an action flick ask for?

  1. Indiana Jones, John Williams – Well, look who is back! Once again John Williams appears on the list, with another cinematic marvel. This theme in particular is one of those delightful tunes you could hum to yourself over and over again without getting tired of. It is not only instantly identifiable with the eponymous protagonist, but it also identifiable with adventure as a genre. Not only does it encapsulate the fun and excitement of a movie adventure, but also manages to even capture a bit of the romance that’s often intertwined throughout it all in a fine brassy finish.  The next time you’re on a quest to find some lost artifact, be it the Holy Grail or the TV remote, do not forget to pack along this song.

  1. Superman, John Williams- Williams comes back again for  yet another awesome score. The theme to Superman is loud, proud, and just so much fun to listen to.

It oozes the thrill and whimsy that came with these movies, a feeling sorely missed in the dark and gritty attitude of today’s cinema.   While it would not exactly earn the acclaim of another certain entry on this list (you can probably guess the one), it has certainly made its place among one of the greats.

  1. Pirates of the Caribbean (He’s a Pirate), Klaus Bedelt- One of the more recent pieces, the theme to Pirates of the Carribean made quite an resounding impression on movie-going audiences with the premiere of the very first film. It is one of those fast-paced , blaring adventure pieces that has just so much fun and energy to it, it’s hard not get hooked.  It does well to combine the sense of thrill and adventure so often associated with pirating with the light-hearted nature of Disney and the ride it was based of, and every time it is played, it instantly makes the scene that much more fun to watch. All of these outstanding components tie it into a treasure, perfect for a pirate’s life. (The Fellowship) (The bridge of Khazad Dum rendition, if you can/want to add)

  1. Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship), Howard Shore- I am not sure if I even need to explain why this is up here. It is just so epic! It’s the theme of fantasy adventure, without a doubt. It has all the good stuff:power, finesse, and occasionally an elvish choir thrown in there.   I cannot explain exactly what it is, but it just seems to have the perfect fantasy As soon as you hear it, you immediately think of knights and elves, duking it out with the forces of evil. While it may not be the one score to rule them all, it’s certainly among the best.

  1. James Bond (Classic theme), Monty Norman- How could I leave this off the list? It’s James Bond! This song captures the man perfectly: smooth, sauve, and just a little unhinged. It’s a unique blend surf-rock and orchestral, a strangely perfect combination that shows attitude and class, undeniably cool.  What I find particularly remarkable about this score is just how long it has  survived and how little it’s changed. Think about it, it has survived 50 years, 23 movies, and 8 actors, and it is still one of the coolest themes out there. That must say something.  Much like the man himself, I do not see this theme dying anytime soon.

  1. Good, Bad, and the Ugly, Ennio Morricone- I will not lie, I love westerns. There is just something about the lawless western frontier that has always captivated me, so it does not come as a surprise that this one would come up as one of my favorites. Not only does this song sound cool, with its resounding electric guitar, and the chilling, lonely flute in the background, it is actually become so engrained in pop culture, it has defined the music Western movies as a whole. Even the people that have never seen the movie the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or have never seen a western in their life, know this theme. It has been cut, copied, and altered into the soundtracks of almost every spaghetti western ever made, and anything so much as associated with a western has at least a little of this score in it. Whether or not you like the theme yourself, there is no denying the legacy that this one has left behind, and that alone earns it a place at this spot.

Batman 1989:

Mask of the Phantasm theme:

  1. BATMAN (1989), Danny Elfman/Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Shirley Walker: Two themes? Well, they are both batman, and they are more or less the same theme. The first score by Danny Elfman is definitely the more well-known of the two, and what most people think of when they think of Batman. It is dark, brooding, and energetic: the perfect combination of gothic and superhero. The Mask of the Phantasm is a great variation that uses the basic elements of the Elfman theme, but takes a bit of a different route with it. Rather than going for the comic-book, it goes for something much more dramatic, positively medieval. It feels like it would better fit Batman’s final adventure rather than one of his first, with its intense, booming sound and climatic choir. What I love so much about these two is the sheer level of atmosphere they create; they are practically drenched in it. Just by listening to it you get a sense of the dark and macabre nature of Gotham and its characters, as well as sort of the strangeness of the adventures themselves. While the Nolan films would create a pretty awesome sounding score of their own, it is the one from the Burton film and its animated counterparts that is ultimately the definitive theme for the dark knight.

  1. Tron: Legacy- While the movie itself was not exactly a masterpiece, there is no denying that it’s score is something of legend. It incorporates some of the best of orchestral and techno, going as far to use actual retro game sounds in order to perfect its feel. What I love so much about this score in particular is just that feel that it gets across. When I listen to this, I get such a profound image, not only of the movie, but also the future itself. Throughout its entirety, you feel as if you’re on the verge of something grand: an adventure, a discovery, a revelation. The melody goes at a constant, quick pace, as if one was always traveling towards that verge, and the music just gets bigger, and bigger the closer the listener seems to get. It almost does not matter what is at the end, the sheer build up is just so captivating one is willing to follow along with it. When it reaches its climax, it is a spectacular thing to behold, positively monumental. True, it does not come from a master composer like John Williams or Hans Zimmer, but it is still a masterpiece you won’t regret listening to.

  1. Star Wars, John Williams- Of course we come to the big one, one of the greatest scores to have ever played in alongside the silver screen: Star Wars. This is one of those quintessential scores that has all the staples of cinema sound wrapped so perfectly into a piece that is as unforgettable as its medium. There is just such a grand size and scale to it, it is almost unbelievable. It also handles such a great level of emotion with it, both joyous and bombastic, as well as quiet and romantic. Strangely enough, I think it is that romantic aspect that works so well for it. It gives it such a profound identity among the sci-fi film genre, which, up to this point was just a bunch of lo-fi techno sounds and eerie ‘ooo’s.  Listening to this theme alone, what would indicate it would be for a sci-fi film? It’s not as apparent as one would think, is it? It has a lot more fantasy aspects to it than it does sci-fi, and yet it has just enough of its own personality beyond that that it becomes almost inseparable from the sci-fi genre itself. That is the beauty in it; it is both so much a part of its genre as it is something else all on its own.  It has become something so iconic and incapable of duplication, that it has made itself a firm place in the music halls of cinema for all time, to the point where even the library of congress preserved it as part of the National Recording Registry.  Very few have had such an honor.  I love this theme, and it is a movie classic I am sure will thrill the spirit of moviegoers for a very, very long time.