The significance of film music can sometimes be underplayed or completely neglected in one’s evaluation of a particular film, or in the summation of the most important components of the filmic medium. That is to say, the power of the image is sometimes apportioned disproportionate weight, to the detriment of the role that sound and music plays in film.
Music can be both the centrepiece of certain film sequences, and also more commonly, complement and amplify the image projected before the audience. Music can evoke or clarify aspects of characterization, setting and thematic ideas.
Often, music can indeed explicate ideas unable to be communicated through the image, especially ones that require emotion or feeling from the audience. Music often transcends the communicable, and resides in a more ethereal and emotional realm. In this regard, the importance of film music, and specifically recurring film themes, is not to be understated.
The themes listed below are some of the most potent and beautiful music themes that have featured in the history of cinema. A great deal of the acclaim awarded to these films can be traced back to the impact of the themes that render these films, in their own respects, great or recognisable.
20. Spirited Away (2001)
All of Hayao Miyazaki’s films are evocative journeys through richly layered landscapes. These are significantly bolstered by the orchestral themes featured in them. Joe Hisaishi’s Spirited Away theme is no different, and in fact on the top of the pile.
Probably the first thing that strikes someone who sits down to watch Spirited Away is the distinctive visual style with which Miyazaki polishes his films. Regardless, the impact of Hisaishi’s theme in Spirited Away cannot be understated. In fact, it helps to absorb the audience further in the fairy tale-esque world and narrative constructed by Miyazaki.
The theme is both soothing and engrossing at the same time; managing to inspire passive wonder and soulfulness, as well as active contemplation of the implications entailed within the filmic world. Hisaishi’s theme gracefully comes up to its audience from behind and cloaks them wholly in a wave of immersion.
The audience, along with the tone of hope and wonder, established by the characterization of Chihiro, her friendship with Haku, the fantastical setting, and the rich colors of the image, is moved to invest themselves into the tale being told. The film certainly has a transcendental quality maintained the whole way through, and this is greatly embodied in the theme. Without the effect of Hisaishi’s theme and music, this film would hardly be as emotionally satisfying as it undoubtedly is.
19. The Graduate (1967)
The Graduate was, in conjunction with a number of films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), said to have launched the American New Wave period. Essentially, it set the new, rigorous standard of quality for American directors. A major decision left to Mike Nicols was what music to use for the film. Fortuitously, Nicolls enlisted the soft yet stealthily powerful music by Simon and Garfunkel.
The decision not to create a score or a varied soundtrack for the film was vindicated by the way that the music resonates with the style of the film. The Graduate, aided significantly by the performance of young Dustin Hoffman, really gave voice to the rising anxieties and concerns of 1960s youth.
Filmed with quiet conviction, Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence expertly matches the tone being established by Nicols; a self-examining, unassuming one. For the theme to have been hard-hitting or coarse would have undoubtedly undermined the power of the film.
Instead, both the content and the style of Sound of Silence reflected, and even fortified, the subversive narrative, wonderful characterization and acting and cinematography. Simon and Garkunkel’s soothing, melodic music reminds the audience of the interior anxieties and choices that Ben Braddock experiences.
18. Blade Runner (1982)
Vangelis’s theme for Blade Runner subscribes wholly to the visual neo-noir world created by director Ridley Scott. It sufficiently maintains the futuristic appearance of the film by delivering a collection of sounds that are produced electronically. However, the innate quality of the theme is due to its similarity to classical music. It is quite wondering how Vangelis is able to conflate these two kinds of sounds together in such an effective way.
At times, Blade Runner can be a cold, calculated film that makes its audience think, not feel. Although a significant portion of the film’s merit is founded on the basis that it makes the audience question and comprehend the nature of humanity; such an examination would be amiss without emotion.
For, the very philosophical meanings of the film tackle whether feelings can constitute personhood. Vangelis’s theme delivers on giving its audience something to feel, best placing the film in a human context amid all of the artificiality the film depicts.
17. Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Like the film itself, minimalist and realist in narrative, character, motivation and budget, the music theme that pervades Bicycle Thieves is fittingly simplistic. It is without grand symphony and elaborate instrumental sound. Rather, the music in a nuanced way captures the despair associated with the modest ambitions of individuals in post-war Italy that were quashed with a harsh regularity.
In the case of the protagonist, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), his hope for regular work is betrayed by the cyclical and pervasive nature of poverty in 1940s Italy.
The tone of the theme that so beautifully compliments the images of the impoverished streets of Italy is soft on the ears, and all the emotionally touching for it. Beauty in simplicity definitely applies here: the delicate flow of the theme elicits strong audience empathy for the Ricci’s, and for those who battled it out in the poor economic conditions of Italy in the 40s.
16. Batman (1989)
Batman Tim Burton’s Batman is not like Christopher Nolan’s appreciation of the character or of the world Gotham. His approach to the film was typically gothic and supernatural; a world that suspended and did away with conventions of filmic realism.
Thus, Danny Elfman’s score had a big job in realizing the world, and getting the audience to buy into the world Burton had made. Consequently, Elfman’s triumphant Batman theme conforms to, and ensures that the style and tone of the film is matched in the sound department.
The beginning of the theme is of low volume, and unsuspecting in its feel. When the instruments break out into an explosive, triumphant stride, the audience’s mind parallels this to the journey of Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton). For, his transition into Batman has revelled in his heroism. Also, the tension built up in the opening is released to powerful and immersive effect by the second half of the theme.
15. James Bond
Although it has little function other than to unite the James Bond series and for instant identification, the Bond theme has surpassed most of the limits of mainstream music themes by providing a smooth, slick sound that has proven to be unequivocally iconic. You would be hard pressed to find somebody, a fan or otherwise, who cannot spot the Bond theme.
It would be open to some to dispute the artistic quality of the Bond series, but it has picked itself up out of the pack by way of distinct filmic choices. Along with the Bond-esque gadgets, cars, opening credits and outlandish action sequences, the Bond theme has rendered the films themselves recognisable at worst, and classic at best.
Additionally, the theme functions to add style and poise to the admittedly large-scale set pieces in the films. It helps to identify Bond’s chase sequences as epic and heroic.