Noovie Soundtracks: Iconic Instrumental Movie Themes

As the "Star Wars" theme blares through a star field one last time, we take a look back at other great and memorable movie themes.

By Matthew Lissauer

A scene from "Star Wars."

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

With the release of "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker," we finally get to see how George Lucas's 42-year saga comes to an end. It's not the end of "Star Wars" per se, just the close of the so-called "Skywalker Saga." But what does that mean for the music we've enjoyed throughout all the movies? Is this also the end of hearing John Williams' seminal theme at the cineplex -- is that theme synonymous with the Skywalker clan only, or "Star Wars" as a whole? It's an interesting thought to ponder, and it got us thinking about other great cinematic themes, because a great heroic story always needs an equally heroic signature tune. So, as the "Star Wars" opening scroll moves past your eyes in the theaters to the tune of John Williams' heroic horns, we highlight some other great themes that came to define and transcend the films themselves.

As you read on, also head over to Spotify to 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 -- more probably -- match to your workout. Enjoy!

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    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 both 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 its own theme that certainly stands amongst the greats. The main theme to Marvel's superhero match-up "The Avengers" is a throwback with a modern touch. Composed by Alan Silvestri, the same composer behind other notable themes, including the main theme to "Back to the Future" -- and who had previously scored 2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger" -- the Avengers theme, as well as the score itself, blends John Williams' style of horns and heroics with Hans Zimmer's more deep, emotional touch. For the big team-up movie, Silvestri had to find 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.

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    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 would that conjure up, seeing colossal creatures that hadn't existed for millions of years roam the Earth once again? That was the nugget of thought that composer John Williams explored in his classic theme to Steven Speilberg's monster hit "Jurassic Park." We first hear it 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. We then hear the theme swell just 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, but it's in the main title where it all comes together.

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    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, along with 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 Baggins, and then appears numerous times throughout the score of the main trilogy, and again in the "Hobbit" prequels. While there is no main theme, per se, for Peter Jackson's epic fantansy adventure, "Concerning Hobbits" certainly stands as one of the most recognized pieces from Shore's Oscar-winning score.

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

    © Image courtesy Everett Collection

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

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

    © Image courtesy Everett Collection

    John Williams wasn't supposed to score Richard Donner's "Superman." The director originally wanted Jerry Goldsmith, who had previously won what would become his only Oscar, scoring Donner's 1976 horror film "The Omen." Goldsmith ended up getting tied up in scheduling, and so orchestrating duties fell to Williams, who took on the task having appreciated the lighthearted nature of the script. Williams ended up creating one of the most memorable themes of all time, so when it was announced that a whole new Superman was going to fly again in 2013's "Man of Steel," composer Hans Zimmer got some initial cold feet, telling CNN, "I 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.'"

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

    © Image courtesy Everett Collection

    James Bond's jazzy 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, 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 next year's "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 the darker themes of his movies. Pierce Brosnan's theme was more techno influenced as Bond's adventures gave way to more tech-inspired stories following the end of the Cold War. Finally in Daniel Craig's reboot, the theme almost became something that's earned, as it -- along with the classic gun-barrel squence -- was featured at the end of the movies, just as we follow Craig's Bond in his first adventures as Double-0-7.

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

    © Image courtesy Everett Collection

    There are 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 Old West allusions, including a whistle meant to recall a howling coyote. Three different instruments are then heard, each representing the different characters: a flute for Blondie, a/k/a "The Man with No Name" (the Good), an ocarina for Angel Eyes (the Bad), and human vocals for Tuco (the Ugly). Morricone's theme and score has penetrated pop culture to the point that it can stand completely separate from the movie and still evoke the same emotions. It's almost a crime that his score was not even nominated for an Oscar that year, but the theme did peak at #4 on Billboard's "200 Album" chart, and became a pop hit for musican Hugo Montenegro, who covered it a year later -- so, at least there's that...

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    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. From his themes for "E.T." and "Harry Potter" to "Schindler's List," and everything in between, we could have easily made this an "Iconic John Williams Themes" list. Out of all of his themes over the years, though, 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 from adventure movie serials of the '30s and '40s, the "Raiders March" went on to become synonymous with the Indiana Jones franchise itself. Williams' "Raiders" score was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to another iconic score, Vangelis' triumphant synthesized symphony from "Chariots of Fire."

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    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, in the opening of "2001: A Space Odyssey," 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. Kubrick wanted his space drama to be a near non-verbal experience. Traces of this can still be found in the movie: the aforementioned scene with early man, and of course 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, Kubrick originially 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.

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    Star Wars: A New Hope (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, knowing that both pieces of music would be heard back to back, so the effect of hearing both would be seemless and 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" -- even ended up with it's own disco cover (this was, of course, the '70s).