Noovie Soundtracks: Iconic Instrumental Movie Themes

From "Lord of the Rings," to James Bond, and "Star Wars," celebrate National Film Score Day with our list of the most iconic instrumental movie themes.

By Matt Lissauer

Iconic Movie Themes - A scene from "Star Wars."

© 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved./courtesy Everett Collection

Today is National Film Score Day, which we honor with a list of mighty movie themes. Why is today the day? Well, it was on this day in 1942 when United Artists released the first non-musical original motion picture soundtrack. The film was "Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book," a Technicolor production that was actually an indie for its day. It was also largely a Hungarian production by Zoltan and Alexander Korda. While the film was criticized for not being faithful to Kipling's source novel, it still became a box office smash. U.A., the studio that helped finance and distribute the picture, capitalized on this success by taking the orchestral score and commercially releasing it. The album was an equal success and the score itself would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award. It lost, however, to Max Steiner's sweeping romantic score to "Now, Voyager."

As you celebrate the day, which has arguably become "John Williams Day," we give salute to many more of cinema's great and epic movie themes and scores. After all, a heroic story deserves an equally heroic signature tune. So, let the sweeping strings and the triumphant horns carry you away, as we highlight some key instrumental movie themes that came to define and transcend the films themselves.

As you read on, also head over to Spotify and listen along with our "Iconic Movie Themes" playlist. We've collected these themes (and more!) into a single playlist that you can hum, march, and match to your workout. And, if you want to jam out to more good movie music, check out our list of great Beatles songs that found their way into movies.

The Avengers (2012) - "The Avengers" by Alan Silvestri

© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

Between the soaring horns of John Williams' "Superman" theme, and the dark undertones of Danny Elfman's and Hans Zimmer's "Batman" themes, it seemed like all the great heroic airs were saved for the superheroes of DC Comics. But, in 2012, Marvel finally got its place in the sun with a theme that stands amongst the great movie themes.

The main theme to Marvel's superhero match-up "The Avengers" is a throwback with a modern touch. The theme and score itself was composed by Alan Silvestri, the composer who gave us other notable themes like the main theme to "Back to the Future," and who had also previously scored 2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger." Silvestri's theme perfectly blends John Williams' style of horns and heroics with Hans Zimmer's more deep, emotional touch. For the big team-up movie, Silvestri found a sound that balanced all the characters, while giving each the same emotional weight. What he created was a theme that could give any movie that heightened sense of heroics as heroes band together to thwart the bad guys.

Marvel's the Avengers

Action / 2012 / PG-13

When Thor's evil brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), gains access to the unlimited power of the energy cube called the Tesseract, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of S.H.I.E.L.D., initiates a superhero recruitment effort to defeat the unprecedented threat to Earth. Joining Fury's "dream team" are Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).

Jurassic Park (1993) - "Theme from Jurassic Park" by John Williams

© Universal / courtesy Everett Collection

How do you capture the majesty and sublimity of seeing a real-life dinosaur? What kind of emotions does that conjure up, witnessing these colossal creatures roaming the Earth once again? Those were the questions on composer John Williams' mind as he wrote the iconic movie theme to Steven Speilberg's monster hit "Jurassic Park." We first hear the theme as park creator and founder John Hammond takes Drs. Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm through the King Kong-like gate that leads into the main park. The theme then swells in time as the three doctors encounter a towering brontosaurus. There are two commonly heard motifs in Williams' score that play on the themes of awesome and grand beauty. And, it's in the main title where it all comes together.

Jurassic Park

Action / 1993 / PG-13

In Steven Spielberg's massive blockbuster, paleontologists Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) are among a select group chosen to tour an island theme park populated by dinosaurs created from prehistoric DNA. While the park's mastermind, billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), assures everyone that the facility is safe, they find out otherwise when various ferocious predators break free and go on the hunt.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) - "Concerning Hobbits" by Howard Shore

© New Line Cinema / courtesy Everett Collection

With airy woodwinds and Celtic strings, Howard Shore's "Concerning Hobbits" transports you right into the heart of the Shire. It's mood presents the feelings of peace and tranquility that only a true Hobbit knows. The theme is first heard in "The Fellowship of the Ring" as we meet Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. It then re-appears numerous times throughout the main trilogy, and again in the "Hobbit" prequels. While there is no main theme, per se, for Peter Jackson's epic fantasy adventure, "Concerning Hobbits" certainly stands as one of the most recognized pieces from Shore's Oscar-winning score.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Fantasy / 2001 / PG-13

The future of civilization rests in the fate of the One Ring, which has been lost for centuries. Powerful forces are unrelenting in their search for it. But fate has placed it in the hands of a young Hobbit named Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), who inherits the Ring and steps into legend. A daunting task lies ahead for Frodo when he becomes the Ringbearer - to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom where it was forged.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) - "Main Theme Suite" by Elmer Bernstein

© Image courtesy Everett Collection

Elmer Bernstein's Oscar-nominated movie theme and score to "The Magnificent Seven" puts you right into the saddle. The soaring violins and horns whisk you away to the wide open spaces of the Wild West, and its promise of adventure. And, adventure was sure to be had in John Sturges' classic Western. The popularity of the movie was matched by the popularity of the score. Bernstein's theme in particular penetrated pop culture to the point where it was covered by numerous bands. It even found its way into everything from Australian beer ads, classic TV episodes, and grand rock concert entrances. With such a popular and beloved theme it really begs the question: why was it so absent from the 2016 remake, especially in the marketing?

The Magnificent Seven

Western / 1960

A Mexican village is at the mercy of Calvera, the leader of a band of outlaws. The townspeople, too afraid to fight for themselves, hire seven American gunslingers to free them from the bandits' raids. The professional gunmen train the villagers to defend themselves, then plan a trap for the evil Calvera.

Superman (1978) - "Theme from Superman" by John Williams

© Image courtesy Everett Collection

John Williams wasn't originally supposed to score Richard Donner's "Superman." The director initally wanted Jerry Goldsmith, the composer behind his 1976 horror flick "The Omen." A score that earned Goldsmith his only Oscar. Goldsmith ended up with scheduling conflicts, so orchestrating duties fell to Williams. Having appriciated the lighthearted nature of the script, Williams took on the task. He ended up creating one of the most memorable movie themes of all time. So iconic was the theme, that when a new Superman was set to fly again in 2013, "Man of Steel" composer Hans Zimmer had some cold feet. Zimmer admited to CNN that he "spent three months just procrastinating and not even getting a start on the thing, because I was so intimidated: 'Oh my God, I'm following in John Williams' footsteps.'"

Superman

Action / 1978 / PG

Just before the destruction of the planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El (Marlon Brando) sends his infant son Kal-El on a spaceship to Earth. Raised by kindly farmers Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter), young Clark (Christopher Reeve) discovers the source of his superhuman powers and moves to Metropolis to fight evil. As Superman, he battles the villainous Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), while, as novice reporter Clark Kent, he attempts to woo co-worker Lois Lane (Margot Kidder).

Dr. No (1962) - "James Bond Theme" by Monty Norman and the John Barry Orchestra

© Image courtesy Everett Collection

Since his first outing in 1962, James Bond's jazzy movie theme has been featured in some capacity in each film featuring the suave spy. The distinctive "dum-di-di-dum-dum" from the electric guitar actually finds its roots in an Indian song. The melody was sung by the characters in the musical "A House for Mr Biswas," which was composed by "Dr. No" composer Monty Norman. John Barry then added his own jazzy arrangement, turning it into the memorable tune we still hear today, and will soon hear again in "No Time to Die."

In fact, each version of Bond received its own distinctive version of the theme. Sean Connery's was more jazzy and orchestral. George Lazenby's was higher-pitched, featuring a Moog synthesizer. And, Roger Moore's started with a full string orchestra, but then got more funky as Bond moved into the '80s. Timothy Dalton's version was overdubbed with harder rocking drums to play on his movies' darker themes. Pierce Brosnan's was more techno influenced as Bond's adventures became more tech-inspired following the end of the Cold War. Finally, in Daniel Craig's reboot, the theme almost became something that's earned. It, along with the classic gun-barrel sequence, is featured at the end of the movies, just as we follow Craig's Bond in his first adventures as Double-0-7.

Dr. No

Action / 1962 / PG

In the film that launched the James Bond saga, Agent 007 (Sean Connery) battles mysterious Dr. No, a scientific genius bent on destroying the U.S. space program. As the countdown to disaster begins, Bond must go to Jamaica, where he encounters beautiful Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), to confront a megalomaniacal villain in his massive island headquarters.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1967) - "Main Title" by Ennio Morricone

© Image courtesy Everett Collection

There are great themes to great Westerns, and then there's the "Main Title" to "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." Ennio Morricone's theme to Sergio Leone's classic "spaghetti" Western -- the last in Leone's "Dollars Trilogy" -- features a number of Old West allusions, including a whistle that recalls a howling coyote. Three different instruments are heard throughout in the piece, each representing the different characters. A flute sings for Blondie, a/k/a "The Man with No Name" (the Good). An ocarina plays for Angel Eyes (the Bad). And, human vocals come in for Tuco (the Ugly). Morricone's theme and score has become so synonymous with Westerns that it can stand completely separate from the film and still evoke the same emotions. It's almost a crime that Morricone's score was not even nominated for an Oscar that year. But, the theme did peak at #4 on Billboard's "200 Album" chart. It even became a pop hit for musician Hugo Montenegro, who covered it a year after the film's release -- so, at least there's that...

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Western / 1967 / R

In the Southwest during the Civil War, a mysterious stranger, Joe (Clint Eastwood), and a Mexican outlaw, Tuco (Eli Wallach), form an uneasy partnership -- Joe turns in the bandit for the reward money, then rescues him just as he is being hanged. When Joe's shot at the noose goes awry during one escapade, a furious Tuco tries to have him murdered. The men re-team abruptly, however, to beat out a sadistic criminal and the Union army and find $20,000 that a soldier has buried in the desert.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) - "Raiders March" by John Williams

© Paramount / courtesy Everett Collection

It's no surprise that John Williams takes up most of this list. Between his themes from "E.T." and "Harry Potter" to "Jaws" and "Schindler's List," we could have easily made this a list of "Iconic John Williams Movie Themes." Out of all of his themes over the years, though, almost none is more iconic than his theme to "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Meant to evoke feelings of adventure, while also harkening back to the grand themes of the adventure movie serials of the '30s and '40s, the "Raiders March" has become synonymous with the Indiana Jones franchise itself. Williams' "Raiders" score was nominated for an Oscar, but ended up losing to another iconic score -- Vangelis' triumphant synthesized symphony from "Chariots of Fire."

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Action / 1981 / PG

Dr. Indiana Jones, a renowned archeologist and expert in the occult, is hired by the U.S. Government to find the ark of the covenant, which is believed to still hold the Ten Commandments. Unfortunately, Hitler's agents are also after the ark. Indy and his ex-flame Marion escape from various close scrapes in a quest that takes them from Nepal to Cairo.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - "Also sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss

© Image courtesy Everett Collection

A fanfare of horns blare, and heart-pounding timpanis boom, as an ape tosses a bone in the air. It's suddenly transformed into a spaceship, and the evolution of man culminates in time with the soaring crescendo of Richard Strauss' timeless flourish. This is the celebrated opening to Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi masterpiece "2001: A Space Odyssey." Kubrick wanted his space drama to be an almost non-verbal experience. Traces of this can still be found in the movie, from the aforementioned opening scene, to the space-trippy ending sequence. Kubrick wanted the music, more than the dialogue, to evoke the drama and emotions. To get this to sound exactly right, he originally asked his "Sparticus" and "Dr. Strangelove" composer, Alex North, to compose the score. But, Kubrick was moved more by the classical pieces he picked out as placeholders. And, thus we have Strauss' 1896 tone poem, and Johann Strauss' famous 1866 waltz, "The Blue Danube," and other classical pieces, in a film about the future. The perfect irony; but someone should have told North – he had no idea his score was removed until he saw the film at its premiere.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Science Fiction / 1968 / G

An imposing black structure provides a connection between the past and the future in this enigmatic adaptation of a short story by revered sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke. When Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and other astronauts are sent on a mysterious mission, their ship's computer system, HAL, begins to display increasingly strange behavior, leading up to a tense showdown between man and machine that results in a mind-bending trek through space and time.

Star Wars (1977) - "Main Title" by John Williams

© Image courtesy Everett Collection

Fun fact: John Williams wrote the main theme to "Star Wars" in the same key as 20th Century Fox's famous fanfare. Williams knew that both pieces of music would be heard back to back, so he purposely composed the theme to seamlessly blend, making it less jarring for the viewer. With its place at the start of the movie, what was originally written as a main theme for hero Luke Skywalker has gone on to become the main theme of the entire franchise. As the movie became a massive force of pop culture, it was no surprise that Williams' romantic, heroic and Oscar-winning score would too. The main theme -- which peaked at # 10 on the Billboard "Hot 100" -- in true '70s fashion, even ended up with it's own disco cover.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

Action / 1977 / PG

The Imperial Forces -- under orders from cruel Darth Vader (David Prowse) -- hold Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) hostage, in their efforts to quell the rebellion against the Galactic Empire. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford), captain of the Millennium Falcon, work together with the companionable droid duo R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) to rescue the beautiful princess, help the Rebel Alliance, and restore freedom and justice to the Galaxy.

About the Author

Matt Lissauer

Matt Lissauer is a writer & data manager for Noovie. When he is not busy writing listicles, Matt is enjoying life in New Jersey with his lovely wife and three kids.

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