Film music has always been a favorite topic of mine; in fact, my interest in composing was through film music (read about that here). Even though my teenage aspirations of becoming the next great film composer have long passed, I still love listening to, and discussing, great film music.
Like most musicians who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, I absolutely loved the music of John Williams. I was born in 1977, I’m a STAR WARS baby (my parents saw it days before I was born!), so my childhood was saturated in the music of STAR WARS, SUPERMAN, INDIANA JONES, E.T., and even eventually JAWS. Those themes!!! So memorable, so lyrical, so simple in their construction, yet no other film composer seems to have the gift Williams has for a great tune. But, there are other great themes out there, and I wanted to share what are my five favorite non-John Williams movie themes. Not soundtracks, mind you (this would be a mostly-Thomas Newman/Jerry Goldsmith list in that case!), but just the themes; those melodies that we immediately bring us back to memories of sitting in the darkened theater. Here they are, in alphabetical order.
Back to the Future — Alan Silvestri
This theme is just fun! It has so much kinetic energy throughout. The opening fanfare and the main theme that follows both highlight the interval of a perfect fifth: the root (1st scale degree) and dominant (5th scale degree), as do most heroic themes. Silvestri was not an orchestral composer before this soundtrack, but perhaps that is what makes this theme sound so fresh and exciting. One can definitely hear elements of pop and jazz in the theme and throughout the score, but perfectly melded with the symphonic writing to create a timeless, and fun, movie theme!
Batman — Danny Elfman
Again, like most heroic themes, the most important intervals of this hero theme are the root and the fifth (1 and 5 of the scale). The major difference is the minor mode (pun intended…). Walking up the scale from the root, we hear a minor 3rd, which is completely appropriate for this dark hero (Dark Knight, if you will). The minor 6th that resolves to the 5th creates the perfect amount of tension and release to represent this hero: it’s resolved, but it’s not pretty. It’s intimidating. And the scoring: the thick strings, the almost church-like scoring of the brass and organ, Batman is larger than life before we even see him on the screen. While I find the Nolan “Dark Knight” trilogy superior in almost every way to the Burton films, the Elfman soundtrack is the exception.
The Magnificent Seven — Elmer Bernstein
The oldest entry on my list, it is certainly one of the most iconic movie themes of all time. What makes this theme work so well is how the simple diatonic melody soars over the driving accompaniment. The melody does not need to move quickly to convey the energy, the guitar-strum inspired rhythm underneath provides that while the soaring strings convey the vast expanse of the west. Owing much to Copland, this music conveys a very “romantic” view of the west, the idealized version that most of us Americans think of when we remember the “old west.”
The Natural — Randy Newman
Newman’s score for “The Natural” is another example of a soundtrack tapping into American nostalgia. This is not a criticism, rather it is what has helped the score remain in the culture to this day (at home games in Arlington, TX, every Texas Rangers home run is accompanied by this music as the batter rounds the bases). Perhaps nothings is romanticized more in American culture than baseball, and Newman capitalizes on this in his majestic soundtrack. Here, the melody is heard in the mid-range instruments, like the French horns, while the high treble instruments flutter over the theme and the low bass instruments sustain broad long tones in fifths and octaves underneath.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture — Jerry Goldsmith
Iconic, majestic, heroic; I submit that this is one of the greatest movie themes of all time. It perfectly captures the adventurous spirit and optimism of the STAR TREK franchise. Gene Roddenberry, creator of the original series, loved the theme so much that he insisted it be used as the theme for the television series “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (which is how many fans first heard this theme and associate it). Interestingly, the most important pitch in this melody is the fifth (dominant), not the root (tonic), and this helps propel the melody forward and keeps it moving: it never rests at it’s home base, but continues to travel throughout the scale (quite a metaphor for the franchise!). In addition to “The Motion Picture” and “The Next Generation,” Goldsmith wrote the scores for “First Contact,” “Insurrection” and “Nemesis,” but this is where it all began. Incidentally, this is not a very good movie!
So, there it is: my five favorite non-John Williams movie themes. As I finish this entry, I want to leave you with some honorable mentions that almost made the cut. Thanks for reading!
The Avengers (Alan Silvestri)
Braveheart (James Horner)
Chinatown (Jerry Goldsmith)
The Godfather (Nino Rota)
Gone With the Wind (Max Steiner)
Independence Day (David Arnold)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Ennio Morricone)
Star Trek (Michael Giacchino)
The Terminator (Brad Fiedel)
Vertigo (Bernard Herrmann)