From the beginning of movie history, filmmakers have understood that for the new medium to be most effective, they had to pair music to their creations. This was the case even in the days of silent film, when pianists and other musicians usually played along with the otherwise soundless films showing in theaters — evidence that while spoken lines might not have been considered mandatory, musical accompaniment generally was. Looking back through film history, it becomes clear that some movie music is an enormous reason that a classic film "works," that it's just as important an element as authentic characters and an engaging plot. Here are ten examples of music that helped make a movie special.
10. THE JAMES BOND THEME
Everyone who's ever seen a James Bond film is familiar with this theme. It was written by a composer named Monty Norman, and first appeared in 1962's Dr. No, before going on to be in every subsequent Bond film in one form or another. It's iconic for a reason — it's a gnarly-sounding bit of surf guitar played mean.
Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 proto-slasher classic is great for a lot of reasons, but the music played when its killer makes a homicidal appearance is rightfully famous on its own. The score was composed by Bernard Herrmann, and the bit written for the film's famous shower scene is titled simply "The Murder." Fittingly, orchestral stabs seem in sync with Norman's knife, raising the bar for creepy movie music, but then Herrmann deserves his own list of great film scores.
8. THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE AWESOME
When Italian director Sergio Leone began making his take on westerns in the 1960s, it changed film history forever, and made Clint Eastwood a star. Leone wasn't the only Italian filmmaker making "spaghetti westerns," but he is usually credited as the genre's inventor and thus created a lot of the stylistic rules. One of his better decisions was having Ennio Morricone score his epics. My personal favorites are "The Ecstasy of Gold" from 1966's The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and his score from Once Upon a Time In The West. All of his work in spaghetti westerns is notable, and those scores are as important as Eastwood in setting the tone.
7. THE PINK PANTHER THEME
You just read that title, and I'm betting most readers are already hearing the slinky theme from Blake Edwards's 1963 film playing in their heads. A single of the main theme reached the Top 10 in the U.S. and won three Grammys. The tune went on to be featured in the film's sequels, as well as other works featuring the animated Pink Panther character.
Originally, Steven Spielberg intended for audiences to see a lot more of his man-eating shark, but special-effects limitations of the time kept onscreen shark time to a minimum; "Bruce," the huge mechanical beast built for the film, was often malfunctioning or broken. Some brief scenes feature real sharks (that don't match Bruce at all), but mostly Spielberg was forced to suggest the shark's presence in various ways. Fortunately for him, movie-music genius John Williams wrote the perfect theme for a killer shark, used to cue audiences in that the monster was around. Not seeing the shark onscreen makes the film scarier, a rare instance in which wonky special effects probably helped make a film more effective.
5. IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY...
A whole long list could be made of nothing but the iconic scores John Williams has composed, but the music from Star Wars would have to be near the top simply because the main theme, and a few others, are thoroughly embedded into our collective pop consciousness.
4. SUSPIRIA...GOBLIN TAKES CONTROL
Suspiria, the 1977 film by Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, has become noted as an ahead-of-its-time classic, with visuals that have never quite been equaled. However, its musical score, by the prog-rock band Goblin, deserves equal attention. It's hard to think of another horror soundtrack quite as bombastic and in the audience's face, but it's a delirious and complimentary mix to the eye-bleeding colors onscreen. Goblin also did great work for many other films, most notably Dawn of the Dead and Profondo Rosso.
3. FRIDAY THE 13TH'S SLASHING THEME
Inspired by the success of Halloween, the creators of Friday the 13th wanted to take the new slasher genre up a few notches in regards to onscreen shocks and gore. They succeeded in that goal, but again, the score played a big role in scaring audiences. Harry Manfredini wrote the score, inspired by Jaws, as a cue that the killer was nearby. False scare scenes don't have the theme, but when audiences hear the echoing "Ki Ki Ki...Ma ma ma...", it's time for murderous Mrs. Voorhees to make an appearance. The creepy repeating line is short for "Kill her, mommy," and it's a spooky bit of movie music that's become iconic.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
2. CONAN'S SCORE CRUSHES HIS ENEMIES
The 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian helped make Arnold Schwarzenegger a household name, but it's a genuinely good movie with a great score by Basil Poledouris. Director John Milius envisioned his film as a sort of visual opera, with little dialogue planned at first, and so Poledouris composed nearly two hours of music — almost enough to fill the entire film. That vision really comes through in the finished score.
1. JOHN CARPENTER'S TRIUMPHANT HALLOWEEN
This list wouldn't be right without a mention of John Carpenter and his music for Halloween, which ranks as one of the most suspenseful scores ever composed. The music in that film is an enormously important part of what makes the movie work, and what makes it scary. It's relentless. Carpenter would continue to do much of the music for his other films, and a lot of it is great — if directing hadn't been his main career, it seems likely he would have been able to make a living as a composer. Houston fans have a rare treat in store, as he will conduct a rare live performance of his movie music at this weekend's Day For Night festival.