Hollywood’s greatest theme tunes

Good movie music enhances the storytelling – and lingers long after the credits have rolled. Geoffrey Macnab picks some of his favourite soundtracks

Cinema is self-evidently a visual medium but without music, most films would remain earthbound. The best movie scores help films to take wing. The music becomes as emblazoned in the audience's mind as any of the images. Whether it's the rousing theme of a Western like The Magnificent Seven or The Big Country, the equally stirring music of a war movie like 633 Squadron or The Dam Busters, the haunting "la la la la" refrain that plays recurrently through Rosemary's Baby, or the insistent and ominous "shark" theme from Jaws, the soundtrack helps to define the film.

The best film music also has a life of its own. Movie themes (for example, The Great Escape) have been adopted on the football terraces. Film scores have been performed in concert halls.

The Band of the Coldstream Guards are currently making an unlikely assault on the main album charts (and have gone to No 1 in the classical charts) with their album Heroes, which features rousing renditions of "The Dam Busters", "Where Eagles Dare", "Colonel Bogey" and various other pieces of music drawn from epic war films.

"Write music like Wagner, only louder," Sam Goldwyn once instructed a composer. It's a revealing remark. All those swirling Max Steiner, Franz Waxman and Miklós Rózsa scores from old Hollywood films suggest that the studios liked to ladle it on thick. Their scores were invariably based on what the late composer Elmer Bernstein used to call a "middle-European, symphonic sensibility." They may have been writing in California but their hearts were still back in Vienna. Arguably, not so much has changed since then. Music is used in an infinite number of ways in movies but most often, it's about narrative. As the film historians David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson note in their book, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, "Stravinsky's comparison of film music to wallpaper is apt, not only because it is so strongly decorative but because it fills in cracks and smoothes down rough textures."

The music sets the tempo for the storytelling. It can crank up tension. (Watching horror films or thrillers, you often have the sense that the music is one step ahead of the spectator: it knows in advance just where the danger lies.) It can underline character. It can introduce deep levels of irony (in Godard movies, the music always seems to be in opposition to the images.) It can convey the sublime one moment and encourage you to buy popcorn the next. If an actor is off-key, the music can hide his inadequacy and sometimes even do his work for him.

Grief, fury, lust, awe and even boredom can be signalled far more tersely and effectively by music than they can by dialogue. The best movie scores aren't necessarily the best music. They're there to work with the visuals, not to subvert or overwhelm them.



Taxi Driver: Bernard Herrmann

As a yellow cab glides through the mist, there are martial rolls on the soundtrack, hinting at the violence lurking within the film. Then, as we see a close-up of the cab driver's eyes, we hear a jazzy, saxophone theme, full of yearning and lyricism. Herrmann had written scores for Orson Welles and Hitchcock. For him, music was a key part of film-making. "All you would have to do would be to look at any film without music and it would be almost unbearable to look at," he once stated. Herrmann was credited with moving Hollywood movie scores away from the European symphonic sound and giving them a specific American idiom. He was an ideal collaborator for Scorsese, sharing the director's intensity and his sense of longing.



The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Ennio Morricone

With its coyote-like wailing and ferocious changes in tempo, the main theme from Morricone's most famous score manages to keep its edge, however many times and in however many different contexts we hear it.

Jaws: John Williams

If ever you have the misfortune to be swimming in the Pacific and to see the fin of a great white shark edging toward you across the water, this will be the music playing in your head as you try to splash to safety. In a concert hall, Williams' monotonous and repetitive music would sound utterly absurd, but for spectators watching a shark inexorably close in on its quarry, it was the stuff of sheer terror. As Williams once said, the test of a good score isn't that you notice it. "It's like a good tailor. You don't want to know how he sewed it. You just want to know that it holds."



The Ipcress File: John Barry

Dreamy and sinister, Barry's music for The Ipcress File is more laidback and less showy than his James Bond scores. The "A Man Alone" theme was reportedly influenced by the Anton Karas zither playing in Carol Reed's The Third Man. Barry's most innovative gambit was to use the cimbalom to achieve that distinctive twanging noise.



Once Upon a Time in America: Ennio Morricone

It's the pan flute music that is so poignant here. Sergio Leone's film has a self-consciously embroiled, time-shifting narrative, complete with Proustian flashbacks. The narrative might have seemed cumbersome and even absurd if it wasn't for Morricone's magical and evocative music. The score here somehow captures both the toughness and the vulnerability of the film's protagonists: young immigrants in the Jewish ghetto of New York who become big shot gangsters but betray their friendship in the process.



The Adventures of Robin Hood: Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Korngold's famous score is more stately than swashbuckling. If Errol Flynn had taken his tempo from the music, his Robin Hood wouldn't have been nearly dashing enough either to impress Maid Marion or to out-swordfight Basil Rathbone's Sir Guy of Gisbourne. However, Korngold's music is still revived frequently in concert halls and is as much loved by classical music devotees as it is by kids who relish yarns about men with bows and arrows in green tights. Korngold was considered a musical prodigy in the Vienna of the 1920s. Europe's loss in the Nazi era was Hollywood's gain.



The Piano: Michael Nyman

Nyman's score for Jane Campion's Palme d'Or-winning film had a raw charge about it that you wouldn't expect from a composer known as a minimalist and who had worked frequently with the very cerebral Peter Greenaway. Then again, given that the characters in the film (Harvey Keitel's gruff Scotsman, Holly Hunter's mute piano-playing spinster) don't have long dialogue sequences with which to express their feelings, it was inevitable that Nyman's music would be used to heighten the film's emotional charge and its eroticism.



The Magnificent Seven: Elmer Bernstein

Bernstein wrote the themes for both The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven. When I interviewed him in the late 1990s, I asked if he found himself humming music that has been heard everywhere from football terraces to commercials. Unlike many of the rest of us, Bernstein was able to get the music out of his mind. In the case of The Magnificent Seven, he told me, he had simply been trying to drive up the pace of a movie that had seemed on the slow side to him when he first saw it without music.



The Man with the Golden Arm: Elmer Bernstein

It's the jazzy, brassy, self-consciously hip quality that makes Bernstein's soundtrack for this Otto Preminger adaptation of Nelson Algren's novel stand out. When other Hollywood composers in the 1950s still seemed determined to ignore the world around them and to write novelettish scores, Bernstein took the boldest, most strident approach he could. He had to risk the wrath of his famously bad-tempered director to get away with writing an entirely jazz-based score. To his amazement, Preminger simply told him that he should go away and do it.



The Big Country: Jerome Moross

Critics used to talk about the idea of "the American Sublime" – 19th-century painting celebrating big, romantic landscapes with mountains, waterfalls and rolling plains. The famous Moross score for The Big Country evokes perfectly the spirit of these paintings. Its continuing cultural relevance was underlined in bizarre fashion when Atomic Kitten used the Big Country theme in their song "I Want Your Love".



'Heroes' by the Band of the Coldstream Guards, featuring performances of "The Great Escape", "633 Squadron" and other epic tunes is out now, released by Decca

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam