The 20 Greatest Music Themes in Movie History
14. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s “warning against the new psychedelic fascism”, A Clockwork Orange, was released in 1971 to much acclaim, controversy and misunderstanding. A futuristic Britain wherein young thugs rule the street and the government introduces a new technique to condition these criminals against their primal urges (to turn them into clockwork oranges) is suitably accompanied by the electronic score of Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind.
Although the film contains ‘traditional’ renditions of the works of Beethoven, Rossini and others, the film’s music is mostly remembered for its synthesised score, featuring selections from Beethoven’s 9th symphony, the overture to Rossini’s William Tell, and perhaps most famously, Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary. Kubrick, who was an innovator in the truest sense of the word, hired Carlos and Elkind to provide electronic realisations of ancient music on the relatively new Moog synthesiser.
The very early use of the instrument means that the extremely unique tone of the instrument was yet unheard by the masses, and was very well suited to the also distinctive script (due to Anthony Burgess’s Nasdat slang), cinematography and acting style.
The ominous march that opens and features throughout the film, which has become inseparable from Malcolm McDowell’s intensely villainous gaze and reverberating narration, perfectly captures the essence of A Clockwork Orange in its ‘retro-future’, and is remembered fondly by fans of the film and even known by those who have not had the pleasure.
This is the true test of any film score. Music also serves as a crucial plot point in the film giving Walter Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s score an even more inextricable connection to the film’s legacy.
13. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
This film has a number of fantastic themes, but for the purpose of this list only the harmonica theme will be scrutinized. This theme is introduced by Charles Bronson’s character playing the harmonica. The harmonica is usually an instrument of quaint sensibility; emanating soft, soothing sounds. Or, in the case of its application in jazz, the harmonica is defined by its sharpness and expeditious projection of sound.
Its use in Once Upon a Time in the West is noticeably discrepant to this. The numerous appearances of the theme throughout the film establishes a rhythmic, restless pace that is paralleled by the happenings of the film. Although the film’s pace is meticulously slow, the harmonica theme contributes to making it push on with audience absorption and anticipation.
Inextricably linked with this piece of music is the impression that there is submerged action ready to burst from the seams of the film. Although the theme is ostensibly slow and protracted, underneath the surface lies explosive energy. Matched with the meandering nature of the vast landscape of the West, the music acknowledges that it is inevitable that the ‘melting pot’ environment is going to erupt into violence, hostility and vengeance.
Therefore, the music evokes atmosphere, narrative development and setting in its repeated appearance in Leone’s spaghetti western.
12. Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Midnight Cowboy is not your typical buddy film. Rather, it is a penetrating look at the forces of marginalization that bring two social outsiders, Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), together in an initially tenuous fashion.
Harry Nilsson’s Everyone’s Talkin plays over Buck’s solitary meanderings a number of times throughout the film. It manages to capture the alienation Joe experiences in the underbelly of New York City. Although the lyrics obviously have some part in facilitating such meaning (‘I don’t hear a word they’re saying), the exploitation of the sadness in Nilsson’s voice is paramount.
The rhythm of the song perfectly fits the staging of the film; depicting the nihilism and idleness of a deceptively large underclass that desperately seeks to make themselves known and make something of themselves, in the way that Buck and Rizzo both aspire to something.
Everyone’s Talkin really speaks to the disaffection felt by those left out of the era of the American Dream in a way that creates a sense of sympathy for Buck’s unmitigated failure and isolation.
11. Vertigo (1958)
Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo is a film classic that speaks to natural human emotions and desires, such as loss, love and grief. Prima facie, the film may seem a circumstantial tale of shallow romance, but with a degree of thought, Hitchock’s psychodrama is complicatedly layered in order to expose the enormity of human feeling and reaction.
Hitchcock’s more than reliable collaborator, Bernard Hermann, delivers a typically moving and vital score. Specifically, Hermann’s Scene d’Amour, that is heard a number of times in the third act of the film, is a powerful piece of music. The prominence of the violins, characteristic of Hermann’s style, ensure that the intensity of Scottie’s (James Stewart) and Judy’s (Kim Novac) relationship is realized in the high-pitched rhythms of the theme that wails on, particularly in Scottie’s and Judy’s last moments together.
This is a versatile theme, as it gives feeling to both the fraught nature of Scottie’s and Judy’s relationship, but it is able to romanticize it as well. When Judy appears as Madeline, late in the film, Hermann’s theme is inextricable from the image projected by Hitchock. In that moment, with Scene d’Amour exerting itself, there exists a palpable feeling that all could again be well with Scottie and Judy.
Perhaps the versatility of this theme successfully represents the multiplicity of the relationship established so well by Hitchock and his actors. At its most base level, Hermann’s Scne d’Amour is a scintillating piece of music that encapsulates Hermann’s astute understanding of the relationship of music and film, and also his unparalleled ability to compose thoroughly beautiful music.
10. Contempt (1963)
Not necessarily crowned as one of Jean Luc Godard’s best films, Contempt irrespectively makes the most out of its potential through a tightly woven story, sharp dialogue and commendable acting.
The theme conjured up by Georges Delerue, a composer with many film and television credits to his name, is perhaps one of the more superior entries of music into Godard’s filmography. Even in the end credits of Casino, this theme manages to give added meaning to the 3 hour plus runtime of Scorsese’s unofficial sequel to Goodfellas.
Contempt plays upon the making of Fritz Lang’s most recent film, but also beneath that narrative, a tremendous amount of focus is dedicated to relationships, notably the one between Paul (Michel Piccoli) and his wife Camille (Bridgette Bardot). This focus on male and female relationships is central to the critical success of Godard’s films.
Especially in the final act, Godard intimately depicts the dissolution of their marriage, as Camille has clearly fallen out of love with him (played effectively by an unresponsive Bardot). The flow of Delerue’s score over the depressing events of the film characterizes the very nature of breakups as fraught, emotional.
The audience is left to rue, and sympathize with Paul over the deteriorating state of his marriage, and his loss of love. The theme that pervades a significant amount of the film takes away from the sharp and terse scenes full of dialogue, and injects a more emotional dimension.
9. Raging Bull (1980)
Scorsese’s penetrating character study of boxer Jake LaMotta’s (Robert De Niro) fall from sporting greatness to utter desolation is so powerfully depicted thanks to the musical assistance Scorsese enlists from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana- Intermezzo. The established polish and nuance of the opera classic is integrated with pertinence and more importantly, artistic sensibility into the film. Although this features in Godfather Part III, it is more effective in Raging Bull.
Particularly, the theme features in the opening credits that depicts LaMotta’s pre-fight routine in the ring; isolated and blinded by the stadium lights. Without the implementation of Cavalleria rusticana- Intermezzo, this affecting scene could, prima facie, be mistaken for depriving LaMotta’s dedication and aptitude at boxing.
Rather, the acute and contemplative qualities of the music set the context for the film. LaMotta is a man whose failure to control his most primal and raw masculine instincts and insecurities render him a dysfunctional and broken man.
Although Scorsese makes no attempt to permit his audience to sympathize with LaMotta’s condemnable actions, the music helps to facilitate the notion that it is indeed regrettable and sad that LaMotta makes the decisions he does, and the way that is life and livelihood consequently shrivels up and dies.
8. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Often cited on this website as one of the most depressing films ever made, Requiem for a Dream cannot be said to deliver an underwhelming film experience.
The main theme aims to push the action forward in a compelling way. But it does so much more than just that. The violins that dominate the sound landscape of the theme are played rhythmically for much of it.
So, when the rhythm is changed, and the theme adopts a much more frenetic pace, the raw intensity of the film is perfectly paralleled through the audio medium. Specifically, the harrowing effects of drug addiction are felt, only enhanced by the quiet, subdued howl of a human voice that is heard secondary to the orchestral theme.
The theme entwines the different experiences of the four main characters with drug addiction: mental instability; prison; prostitution; amputation, by consecutively playing over the shots depicting the characters uniquely suffering from the ramifications of drug addiction.
This unity instigated by the theme is important, because it allows the film to assert that drug addiction is invariably a bleak, painful thing. In line with this, the theme maintains a strong, consistent sense of grave melancholy to not only convey the gravity of the plight that the characters are in, but to genuinely rue the presumptive destruction of their lives.