Like most people, I’m a big fan of music. My favorite type, though, tends to go underappreciated by many. Movie soundtracks and scores. A lot of people don’t pay any attention to the background music when they watch movies or TV, and that’s a damn shame, because it’s a great art-form, different from any other kind of music. Of course, there’s some themes that have become iconic for the story they’re from. I think this is because they’re such an effective form of emotional manipulation that a piece’s ability to make you feel what you felt when you watched that story has transcended that particular moment.
Some of the most iconic themes are signifiers for certain characters. They say “this character is about to do something amazing that you need to pay attention to”. Take, for example, the main theme from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, “He’s a Pirate”. I don’t need to say anything else, it just started playing in your mind. The first time we hear it is as Captain Jack Sparrow steers his nearly entirely sunk ship into port, standing proud and tall on the mast. It says “this is who this character is and you can expect more of this where that came from”. Eventually, as Will and Elizabeth embrace the pirate lifestyle, the theme starts playing when they do anything especially piratical too. Another solid example of this is from the Moffat-era of Doctor Who, which I largely have not enjoyed that much. But he did introduce a bit of music, “Every Star, Every Planet”, that plays at a few key times each season. It shows up at big climactic moments when the Doctor is about to do something, well… something Moffat-ish, to be honest. It’s a good indicator for when the Doctor is doing something that would have been extremely out of character during the Russell T. Davies or Classic Who era. It’s a shame, because it’s actually a great piece of music. On Game of Thrones, the “Rains of Castamere” leitmotif is even deliberately invoked in-universe by Lannister and Lannister-allied characters. Once you notice it, it’s impossible to not hear it every time it plays, and if it starts playing when it seems like nothing major’s happening, you know that some shit is about to go down.
Then there’s some themes that have come to represent the work as a whole. In my experience, these tend to be the ones that play very early on in a given work. It’s the establishing moment for the entire movie, the one that sets the tone for the next two hours of your life. One of the prime examples is the opening Star Wars theme, that plays over the opening crawl. That big opening blast of horns tells you exactly what you’re in for – it signifies an epic story. It transitions into lighter, eerie tones and then big deep bass chords and it takes on this serious melodrama that again tells you what to expect – this is not a light, goofy comedy, it is a space opera of massive proportions. The other top example of this would be a theme that is truly near and
dear to my heart – “Hedwig’s Theme” from the Harry Potter movies. The gentle, haunting melody is so iconic to so many of my generation (I almost said all, until I remembered there are still people my age in my country who haven’t seen/read Harry Potter and I am baffled). It sweeps up into this mysterious, almost spooky crescendo in a way that can only mean magic. Of course, I can’t say this without pointing out that both of these motifs were composed by John Williams, who is apparently a music wizard himself.
Of course, if we were to look at the 80s, we come to one of my favorite trends of that era that I wish had lasted – the musical montage. I talked about this a little before, when I talked about The Monster Squad and The Goonies, both of these having typical 80s montage scenes set to extremely 80s rock songs. This is one of the only categories here that can use an actual song, the kind that you could hear on the radio, as a score. Big mention goes to “Eye of the Tiger”, from Rocky, because it is now impossible to hear that song without imagining a training montage, especially running up the steps for whatever reason. Technically, there’s a couple of other among my favorite 80s movies that have this, but to a less noticeable degree. The build-up before the climax of Ghostbusters, for example, is primarily shown through montage and is of course set to the eponymous theme, the song that ruined the phrase “Who you gonna call?” for everyone forever. You cannot use it without invoking a Ghostbusters reference. And technically, the Indiana Jones main theme, “The Raiders March” would fall into this category, as the first time its heard in full is during a big adventuring montage. It could also fit in as a character theme for Indy, and as the theme of the work as a whole, because of course it could – John Williams is a terrifying genius. For the record, if you can listen to The Raiders March without feeling like an invincible adventurer, you are stronger-willed than I am.
One similarly big emotional example is not from the 80s, and that is the theme from Pixar’s Up. The first 15 minutes are primarily a montage and it’s set to the extremely sentimental and beautiful piece that I dare you to listen to without tearing up. In contrast to the 80s examples, this was a really sad montage, including things like miscarriage, aging, and death. In the first 15 minutes of a kids movie. This was all was composed by Michael Giacchino, who also wrote the main themes for The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Now, I’ve talked about how much I love all these movies, and the music is a big part of that. One time, my friends and I were in the car and our local college radio station started playing the Ratatouille theme (weird, I know) and I identified it in literally one second because I have watched that movie so many times. At any rate, there’s posts on tumblr that are just the “Married Life” montage music from Up with the caption “Don’t listen to this while thinking of your OTP”. Don’t do it. Don’t.
And naturally, there’s one other major category that I love when I find it, and that is the musical score being used as an homage to other works. My favorite “oh my god is that-? IT IS!” moment was when I was watching Futurama right after watching Star Trek: The Original Series (naturally). The episode Why Must I Be a Crustacean in Love is a whole plot reference to Amok Time, or the Pon Farr episode of Star Trek, and the big fight between Fry and Zoidberg actually uses the same music as the fight between Kirk and Spock. Right as it starts playing, Fry recognizes it and says “uh oh”, which I never got when I was younger, but Fry is a Trekkie, of course he would recognize that music as bad news! And as another deliberate reference between two of my favorite things, there’s an episode of Bob’s Burgers that is a whole plot reference to The Goonies. At the end, instead of the usual credits music, they actually got Cyndi Lauper to sing a parody of her original song, “The Goonies R Good Enough”, for the show, called Taffy Butt. The entire bit is hysterical, playing over Jimmy Jr. dancing Flashdance-style through the abandoned taffy factory the episode is set in. Both of these examples work to solidify the parody of the work they’re paying homage to, and these are great examples of creators loving the works they parody.
So, there’s a lot of great classic movie themes out there, the ones everyone recognizes and knows, but even the less famous ones are frequently really good. So next time you’re watching TV or a movie, take a moment to pay attention to the background music. Even if you don’t notice it consciously, you are still being emotionally manipulated by it, so you might as well take notice and appreciate the composers. After all, they managed to make music so powerful that it changes your literal emotions, but so subtle that you don’t consciously see what it’s doing to you. And that takes skill.