The best movie theme songs are able to capture the essence of their story in musical form. They might be used to represent a character, a feeling, or an exciting new world.
When they're done well, movie theme songs ingrain themselves into the public consciousness and take on their own identities. It's not unusual for a legendary movie theme to be recognizable even by those who have never seen the film!
Here are my picks for the most iconic movie theme songs of all time that you will probably recognize. They're iconic for a reason!
20. Inception Theme
Christopher Nolan's sci-fi heist blockbuster Inception is defined by its ingenious sound design, which matches so well with Hans Zimmer's legendary score. The overall tone is bleak and ambient, amplified by a growing intensity as time runs out.
Funny enough, the most popular music piece from Inception—the song titled "Mind Heist"—wasn't composed by Hans Zimmer.
That one was brought to us by composer Zack Hemsey, but it certainly feels like a Zimmer piece as it meshes with the movie's true theme song titled "Time," which successfully embodies the entire feel of Inception.
19. Titanic Theme
A lavish epic romance like Titanic requires an equally epic score to complement its grandeur. James Horner certainly stepped up!
In his second collaboration with James Cameron, Horner gave us the most memorable theme song of any Cameron film.
One of its leitmotifs ("Hymn to the Sea") is strongly evident here, not only with its frequent recalling of "My Heart Will Go On" but also with how it's referenced by the rest of the soundtrack.
That motif represents melancholy, and melancholy best describes the love story between Jack and Rose.
18. Pirates of the Caribbean Theme
Pirates of the Caribbean is a franchise defined by its rollicking action and plundering lore based on the Disney ride.
This world-famous franchise—helmed by its standout lead character and adventurous spirit—is accompanied by an awesome score.
Composer Klaus Badelt set the flag for the iconic Pirates of the Caribbean theme song. The recurring motif comes from its popular track "He's a Pirate", which serves as the franchise's main action theme. You can really sense Jack Sparrow pulling you to adventure!
17. The Social Network Theme
The score for The Social Network is defined by its frigid atmosphere and underlying tension. Director David Fincher trusted the vision that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross had for the theme.
And the result is a soundtrack that manifested the coldness and infamy of the brainchild behind Facebook.
The opening track alone ("Hand Covers Bruise") sets the tone of this tech-centered tale. Over its droning background are three piano chords, signifying the influential position of Mark Zuckerberg.
Several tracks follow the same manner, transforming its bleak tone into an exciting techno score that makes for great study music.
16. Lawrence of Arabia Theme
Film scores for epics are a great source of inspiration for other composers, especially those in the blockbuster genre.
One of the most influential film themes came in Maurice Jarre's score for Lawrence of Arabia. In fact, the score was so influential that it changed the entire direction of the film—the producers nearly executed a different plan before Jarre's involvement.
Instead of two sections showing the Eastern and British sides, Jarre focused the scope more on T. E. Lawrence's exploits in Syria.
15. Rocky Theme
The music for the Rocky franchise remains popular to this day. On the pop song side, you have the 80s staple "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor. On the film composition side, the memorable "Gonna Fly Now" by Bill Conti.
That latter theme music first appeared in Rocky's training montage. Many notable moments happened during that montage, with the most iconic being Rocky's flight of stairs in Philadelphia.
Bill Conti's thrilling score elevated the film and helped make Rocky's story feel truly triumphant. Other films in the Rocky franchise had variations on the score, solidifying its iconic status.
14. Chariots of Fire Theme
Certain film scores tend to be associated with specific genres or settings, like Star Wars for epic space operas and Mission: Impossible for high-stakes spy operations.
The iconic score for Chariots of Fire takes the cake as the definitive score for Olympic triumphs and clichéd slow-motion running.
Composed by the late and great Vangelis, this film theme was initially called "Titles" for its insertion into the opening titles sequence, but its popularity eventually made it known as "Chariots of Fire."
With its uplifting tone and joyous orchestra, this is a great score that foreshadows its hidden underdog story.
13. Batman Theme
The various music themes for Batman have all become recognizable in their own special ways. Later examples from The Dark Knight and The Batman are great, but Danny Elfman's score for the 1989 Batman sets the standard for Batman's films and mythos.
With his specialty in epic compositions with gothic touches, Elfman captured the vision Tim Burton wanted for the Caped Crusader.
Every time Michael Keaton's Batman enters the screen during action scenes, the horns, the strings, and the symphony greet him. It's everything a Batman fan could've hoped for.
12. The Godfather Theme
The Godfather trilogy of films makes it clear that it doesn't romanticize the life of a gangster and the inner workings of the Mafia.
Nina Rota's score emphasizes this as it illustrates the splendor of a larger-than-life figure with hints of the tragedy that unfolds. It's a mix of grandeur and melancholy.
The theme song (titled "The Godfather Waltz") is a good place to start with its recognizable horns. This motif is scattered throughout the soundtrack, especially in the love theme "Speak Softly, Love."
While the latter is derived from another film (causing its Oscars disqualification), it fully defined the gangster genre.
11. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Theme
A list of famous movie theme songs wouldn't be complete without the inclusion of the late and great Ennio Morricone.
His score for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly made him one of the greatest film composers in history, and the score itself is an undisputed icon of Westerns and Western pop culture.
Starting with a howl and then to the distinctive "wah-wah-wah" horns, it immediately brings to mind images of cowboys readying for threats as the desert sun and tumbleweeds fill the scene.
In the case of Sergio Leone's film, it's three rogues outwitting each other in an old-fashioned Mexican standoff.
10. Jaws Theme
It starts with two notes: BUH-DUM. Not much at first. But they repeat again and again, crescendoing. Building speed until the horns kick in and you know you're done for.
At least, that's what it feels like when you listen to this iconic theme from John Williams's score. Just about everybody has sung the Jaws theme under their breath while sneaking up on an unsuspecting victim.
It effectively sealed the partnership between Williams and Spielberg, who would go on to collaborate on several other iconic movie themes featured below.
9. Jurassic Park Theme
The music from Jurassic Park plays in my head every time I find myself surrounded by dense foliage. Don't let the sub-par sequels fool you; the original movie was a masterpiece on every level, not least the monumental score.
Williams's theme starts out slow and reflective, begging you to ponder the thematic questions of the movie.
But before long, it lifts you up and fills you with wonder at the dino-shaped marvels on display. This theme absolutely contributes to making Jurassic Park such an unforgettable sci-fi film.
8. The Great Escape Theme
Elmer Bernstein's melody from The Great Escape feels as if it were designed with avid whistlers in mind. This iconic theme music has become synonymous with escape attempts and has been referenced by everything from The Simpsons to Chicken Run.
Accompanied by a marching brass band and snare drum, the lilting melody maintains a military feel that inescapably ties it to the wartime setting. Despite the bleak origins, this is a fun melody to whistle whenever your team is putting a daring plan together.
7. Harry Potter Theme
Yet another contribution from John Williams, "Hedwig's Theme" from the Harry Potter franchise has become synonymous with the idea of magic.
What begins as a delicate melody with twinkling bells swells into a whirlwind of strings that sweeps you away to the wizarding world.
This music is burned into the minds of an entire generation thanks to the huge success of Harry Potter. It stirs feelings of excitement and wonder, alongside a longing to get back to Hogwarts and practice your spells.
6. James Bond Theme
The James Bond franchise prides itself on original title songs with each new release, but underpinning them all is the classic Bond theme, originally composed by John Barry.
The jazz backing stinks of suave espionage while the surfer guitar gives the music a raw edge.
While the arrangement is often revisited, Barry's core theme is present in every Bond film since Dr. No. And it's no surprise; the music is absolutely fused to Bond's character.
5. Superman Theme
Thanks to the MCU, there is currently no shortage of superhero music. But none of it holds a torch John Williams's score from the original Superman movie. The bold horn melody perfectly captures the essence of that cape-wearing hero.
The theme opens with a proud statement, then builds into a heroic melody that is absolutely unforgiving in its grandeur, just like the man of steel himself. After achieving something great, hum the Superman theme to yourself to show off your prowess.
4. Back to the Future Theme
The musical theme from Back to the Future sounds absolutely massive. Of course, that's no surprise seeing as it was performed by a 98-piece orchestra, known as The Outatime Orchestra.
Composer Alan Silvestri would go on to score several MCU movies down the line, but he made his name with the epic music for Back to the Future.
These time-traveling adventures wouldn't be the same without Silvestri's score underpinning their most triumphant moments.
3. Indiana Jones Theme
Yet another pairing between John Williams and Steven Spielberg brings us one of the greatest movie themes of all time.
The Indiana Jones theme—featured in each of the movies and also known as "Raiders March"—perfectly captures Indy's roguish adventures as he faces off against Nazis, evil shamans, and aliens (although I'd rather forget about that last one).
If you're racing toward a closing door or reaching back to retrieve your favorite hat, this is the music that ought to be playing in your head.
2. Mission: Impossible Theme
Lalo Schifrin's musical theme has featured heavily in the title sequence for every Mission: Impossible movie, often getting rearranged by different composers for each film.
That initial vibrato gives the sensation of lighting a fuse, and from that moment it's a race against time to execute another daring mission.
Granted, this theme is originally from the TV show, but the music is so good we're including it on this list anyway. After all, most people these days have never seen the TV show, but they still recognize the theme music.
1. Star Wars Theme
Are you surprised? Of course, the best movie music ever composed is the Star Wars theme. The epic chord that opens this composition is instantly recognizable and sets the tone for the huge adventure to come.
The Star Wars theme is grand, stirring, heroic, and absolutely inseparable from epic space adventures. Williams contrasts romance, action, and drama in a single piece of unforgettable movie music; there's really nothing better.
After five other appearances on this list, John Williams has earned his place as composer of the greatest movie theme ever.