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The best movie themes capture the essence of a story in musical form. They might be used to represent a character, a feeling, or an exciting new world. Whatever the case, these themes ingrain themselves in the public subconscious and take on a new life outside the original movie.
We’ve pulled together the greatest movie themes of all time. Even if you haven’t seen each of these films, you’ll still know the iconic music.
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
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 musical theme absolutely contributes to making Jurassic Park such an unforgettable sci-fi film.
8. The Great Escape
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.