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The 20 Greatest Music Themes in Movie History

28 June 2016 | Features, Other Lists | by Nick Bugeja

7. Melancholia (2011)

Lars Von Trier’s characteristic filmmaking style was again revisited in this profoundly solemn examination of human emotionality amid environmental catastrophe.

Von Trier’s repeated utilization of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolode prelude helps to give the film the visceral quality for which it so ardently strives. Rather than focus on the intellectuality associated with the complexities of the human condition, Von Trier’s Melancholia takes the approach of bombarding the senses of his audiences.

Wagner’s music significantly complements the transcendental imagery Von Trier puts forward on the screen. The grand-scale on which Wagner’s music features keeps the audience emotionally in touch with the depression and sense of resignation invoked in Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

 

6. Halloween (1978)

Halloween harkens back to a time where horror films did not exploit cheap scares and tactics for a superficially rewarding film experience. Halloween, especially in respect of its theme, is a drawn out, suspenseful film that stays with its audience for some time.

The perpetually eerie and and unsure theme, punctuated by the repetitive string sounds, ensures that at no point through this film the audience is passive or calm. There is always a foreboding sense that the masked killer, Michael Myers (Tony Moran), is about to abruptly appear and cause unfiltered chaos, mayhem and death.

Although it would make a lot of sense for the audience to merely presume that Michael Myers is to appear in his typically murderous way a number of times throughout the film, this would entail a predictability that undercuts the whole point of horror films- to evoke tangible fear in its audience. Instead, the spine tingling counteracts this by viscerally gutting the audience of its use of their mental faculties, and forcing them to submit to the fear Myers presence brings.

 

5. 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey stands today as one of the most ambitious films ever produced. The challenge for Stanley Kubrick was to select music that would complement the film’s expansive scope. He rarely had original music composed for use in his films, discarding the majority of the score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind for The Shining in favour of works by such composers as Krzysztof Penderecki and Béla Bartok.

But through this process, Kubrick assembled perhaps the most well-known soundtracks to a film. Although the music has, in modern times, been abused by commercial use, this does not dilute the earth shattering impact of the first strains of ‘Sunrise’, as the screen fades up, from Richard Strauss’s tone poem ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’.

The use of the works of György Ligeti or Johann Strauss is similarly inspired, but the use of ‘Sunrise’ has been selected for entry to this list due to its prominence at the film’s key structural points. It provides the perfect prelude in the film’s opening scene, with its sense of majesty and pomposity.

As well as creating this dramatic atmosphere, the music also works to convey some of the cornerstone ideas presented in the film. Never has watching an ape destroy a tapir’s skeleton seemed so ground-breaking and momentous.

‘Sunrise’ also functions as an ending to the film. Although viewers of 2001: A Space Odyssey will question and debate over the intellectual messages of the film, one cannot disagree that as the orchestra rises to resolution of that C major chord to conclude ‘Sunrise’ and subsequently the film and they see the screen fade to black from the star child’s gaze, the film makes perfect emotional sense, as Stanley Kubrick creates the perfect marriage of sight and sound.

His ability to manipulate this piece of music peerless, creating sheer anticipation in the film’s opening, and finality in the film’s closing. It makes for one of the most stupendous viewing experiences possible.

 

4. The Godfather (1972)

Rightly hailed as the Citizen Kane of the second half of the 20th Century, Coppola’s masterpiece can call itself just that thanks to a many number of filmic elements. No element is as important as Nino Rota’s supreme score, which is epitomized by its stylish grandeur that flows seamlessly through the film.

The Godfather is a film that depicts the orderly regimentation of mafia life, and the power that it confers upon its Italian American subjects. While there is certainly an ugliness and chaos to the power entailed by mafia membership (see: the myriad gruesome killings), much of the film deals with the very visible and coveted power held by Vito (Marlon Brando) and Michael (Al Pacino).

The theme is more interested in conveying the romantic and nostalgic aspects of the film, as is Coppola’s dimly lit, moody cinematography. The film is better for this, as it evokes in spades the beauty of power for those in the mafia that so crave it.

Similarly, there is a touch of nostalgia perceptible in Rota’s theme. As the film has made in the 1970’s, the makers had awareness of the declining nature of the mafia in America. The events of the film, taking place in the 1940’s, can be said to be a much more prosperous time of mafia activity. The theme accommodates this historical context by harkening back to it by way of the sheer beauty of the music.

 

3. Taxi Driver (1976)

Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus has marked its 40-year anniversary this year, and it is no less impactful in spite of its age. Much of the critical resonance that still exists today is thanks to the indelible mark of Bernard Hermann’s final score.

It can be presumed that Scorsese views film music as inextricable from the filmic process itself, as he has been quoted as saying “music and film are inseparable. They always have been and always will be.” The repeated use of Hermann’s jazz-orientated theme, sometimes under Travis’s (Robert De Niro) voiceovers, gives the film a dimensionality it would otherwise not have.

The theme acts to enliven and aggrandise the urban sprawl of Travis’s New York City. This adds significant vibrancy to the more sordid elements depicted through the images on the screens of fights, drug use and prostitution. The ostensibly melodic sound of the theme, juxtaposed with the decadent happenings on the streets of New York provides an engrossingly stark portrayal of Travis’s surrounding environment.

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the music draws substantial attention to Travis’s interior state. While the music contextualises 1970s New York, it also penetrates and examines Travis’s inner character. The slow but energetic sound of the saxophone, through its very form, accesses the deep loneliness Travis experiences and feels as he traverses New York City.

Although this loneliness and misanthropy is expressed in his dealings with Betsy and his taxi driver friends, as well as his animus-filled voiceovers, this theme adds a layer of human emotionality to Travis’s unenviable circumstances. In a similar respect, the repetition of this theme tells the audience that Travis’s set of circumstances are never ameliorated at any point in the film.

Rather, his isolation brews insofar as he is driven to homicidal tendencies. Subliminally, Hermann’s music constantly reaffirms Travis’s fundamental battle with social invisibility that ends in a spate of unrelenting violence.

 

2. Star Wars

John Williams’s seminal theme is perhaps the most well-known piece of film music. It is for good reason.

When George Lucas made Star Wars IV- A New Hope (1977), it was expected to be failure, despite his own lofty expectations. If a piece of music has ever successfully conveyed grand-scale filmmaking, it is this. Williams’s theme is nothing short of epic, constantly building and building up to the climax in a way that is unparalleled in film music.

It is certainly impressive that a theme like this can set up a film series based in the unknown world of space so well, yet also be so hummable as one walks down the street.

Not much more can be said of this hopeful, evocative, ambitious piece of music that hasn’t already been said. All that can be done is to reaffirm its pre-eminence, and to give Williams his dues.

 

1. Psycho (1960)

Bernard Hermann’s theme for Psycho redefined the parameters of how film music can sound. Prior to this, the majority of film scores were romantic affairs. Indeed, much of the confrontational power that Psycho exerts on its audience is derived from Hermann’s tension-filled, grinding score. It would be nowhere near the same film without it.

It was a very smart move by Hermann to rely mostly on the string instruments (the violin, the double bass) to provide the backbone of his theme. The sounds that emanate from the instruments conflict and grind up against each other to produce an enormously discordant sound that somehow maintains its beauty as a piece of music.

Similarly, the manic control over the pace of the theme; tinkered with by Hermann to increase or decrease its speed in certain places, allows him to modulate the tension inherent within the world of the film.

The result of Hermann’s mastery is an unbelievably disconcerting and memorable piece of music that stands up against any piece of music ever created. It leaves its audience exposed, and sensible, to the harrowing events of the film waged by a mysterious, duplicitous and deeply troubled Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).

Author Bio: Nick is a uni student with more interest in film than the subjects he is studying. He is waiting for a reunion between De Niro and Scorsese.

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