13 Most Iconic Theme Songs

Published on June 29, 2015.

No show or movie in the realm of television or cinema can be iconic without the accompaniment of great, or in some cases, infectiously bad music. Music has the ability at tug the heartstrings, and many movies enjoy the success they do because all of the elements — especially the score — are hitting in sync and on all cylinders. This is a list that could go 50 deep. Alas, you’re likely reading at work, and it’s necessary to streamline distractions to a nice, lucky number… like 13. If nothing else, this list is definitive proof that John Williams is the man.

13. Full House

“Whatever happened to predictability…?” Nothing. That’s why the theme song to Full House is the first thing appearing on this list. The song, “Everywhere You Look,” was written by Bennett Salvay and Jesse Frederick. Truly, this was a theme song that parents and children sang together because all parties kind of knew the lyrics. And if they didn’t knew the lyrics, they knew the melody. For evidence of such, simply begin singing it at any social function. It’s almost frightening. The show was one of the last of its kind, and it will be interesting to see if there is an homage to the original theme song in the Netflix reboot of the franchise, Fuller House. Fingers crossed…

12. The Pink Panther

Henry Mancini wrote countless melodies and arranged orchestrations that have become iconic. It can be left for debate among Mancini enthusiasts which was the the most prolific and recognizable, from “Moon River” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to “Baby Elephant Walk” in Hatari! to “Peter Gunn,” from the show of the same name. Bottom line, it’s hard to beat the theme from The Pink Panther. Whether the film franchise or a cartoon character that was used to help sell fiberglass insulation, the theme to The Pink Panther is truly iconic. As soon as the swing rhythm begins on the ride cymbal… cue vibraphone and guitar… then saxophone. In addition to being an iconic theme song, the song itself serves as the icon for the modern jazz era.

11. Jurassic Park

Enter John Williams, stage right. Perhaps he should be asked to stay and conduct that rest of these selections, even if he didn’t write them. Who can argue about his iconography. It certainly hasn’t hurt that he has worked with Steven Spielberg time and time again, but his music tells a story of its own. The theme to Jurassic Park — helped by its placement in various theme/amusement parks throughout the United States — is immediately recognizable. When the strings swell with the percussive arpeggio sounding through, then giving way to the trumpets…? It triggers a sense memory that has the power to transplant you to the space and time you first saw the film.

10. Superman

Superman was privy to theme music before John Williams wrote the prologue for the 1978 version of Superman: The Movie. Yet, Williams was the first to really make Superman fly. When the horns sound, there is no mistaking the coming narrative. It is all about The Man of Steel. From the single stroke of the timpani, followed by silence, Williams launches his brass section into syncopated rhythms, followed by one of the most iconic themes in film history. It was even followed by a rash of fan-written lyrics that were passed from generation to generation across the nation on school buses. “Superman… he isn’t a Milk Dud. Superman… he isn’t a slug. He’s a STU…d, he’s a STU…d, he’s a super STUD! Kinda like me!” Or some variant thereof.

9. James Bond

While the theme songs have changed for each and every film in the James Bond franchise, the theme for the man himself is unmistakable. The mix between big band swing and mid-century modern jazz: incredible. It has been replicated and imitated in several satires, and it is still used as a theme when children, or adult children, pretend to be a super spy, and create a Walther PPK out of an index finger and a thumb. The theme was written by the incomparable English composer, John Barry, who — though exceptionally popular — still managed to fly under the radar in the realm of pop culture. Barry also served to compose the scores for 11 of the James Bond films, as well as iconic scores for Out of Africa and Somewhere in Time.

8. The Wizard Of Oz

“We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz…” The film, The Wizard of Oz, isn’t merely an icon in the realm of cinema, it was a rite of passage for the movie-making industry, and a rite of passage for every fan of movies. What they were able to pull off in Culver City at the iconic MGM Studios in the late 1930s was nothing less than an groundbreaking achievement — one of the reasons the film scores 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. The theme to The Wizard of Oz, is something of a title track, and for those who are adept at singing it, the next course of action is to add the traveling dance step that accompanies the music. All things considered, this theme may outlast all the others.

7. Indiana Jones

The Indiana Jones theme, often referred to as the “Raiders March,” is another bold, brassy, strong John Williams theme that brings with it a desire to immediately seek adventure. It’s one of the worst things you can listen to at work, when you’re stuck in an office. It’s impossible to listen to it, and not look for the nearest horse to hop on, and ride into the sunset. “Raiders March” offers seamless string lines that drip with romance, paving a path for woodwinds, then the key change to really make you want to grab a bullwhip and start thwacking. Music. Icon.

6. The Godfather

The iconic theme for The Godfather, is a song entitled, “Speak Softly Love,” written by Nino Rota. The lyrics, which have been recorded several times since being written by Larry Kusik, were most iconic when crooned by the late Andy Williams. Andy was an icon in his own right, known for themes from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Godfather. The iconic theme is offered throughout the Godfather trilogy, commonly noted as “The Godfather Love Theme.” And it’s something of a love theme… before seeking revenge and killing a bunch of paisanos who dones ya wrong. And of course, it is often heard as the novelty horn on many Italian food trucks throughout major cities.

5. E.T.

The “Flying Theme” from E.T. has become so iconic that it was once created in 8-bit digital for one of the worst video games ever created: “E.T.” for Atari 2600. Still, the sweeping string and woodwind score — written by none other than John Williams — has also been featured in the company logo for Amblin Entertainment, appropriately owned by Steven Spielberg and producers Kathleen and Frank Marshall. There are several scores that evoke imagination and sense memory, but the E.T. theme is able to trigger that sense that you got something in your eye. They just start welling with liquid without warning.

4. The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns were marked with the music of Ennio Morricone, one of the greatest composers in movie history. There’s only one way to describe the scores of Morricone: epic. There was never a shortage of surprise in any one of Morricone’s scores, and his theme for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is better known to some people than the film itself. The mix of sinister whistles, howling native flutes and throaty screams simply lends itself to desert isolation. The precise setting of the film.

3. Jaws

To this day, Jaws remains the reason why many people will not swim in the ocean. They will not venture beyond knee depth. Was there anything more terrifying about the film than the score? The shark was a nuisance, and audiences in 1976 were treated to something they had never seen in their lives, but that score… it was wrought with angst and anticipation. With it, John Williams offered a terror through syncopated rhythms, and the dissonant string arrangements that make the skin crawl. Who would have thought that a half step on the western musical scale could have laid the foundation to one of the most iconic pieces of music in cinematic history? Young composers take note: less is more.

2. Rocky

The theme song for Rocky, “Gonna Fly Now,” was written by the film’s composer, Bill Conti. Sylvester Stallone once remarked that the one thing he was concerned about in the film was the score. That was until he heard the theme for the first time, and realized that it was better than he could have ever imagined. Conti did a number on this incredible theme, mixing classical strings with brass fanfare and tossing in a little disco funk. This iconic theme defined the film era of the late 1970s, and had everything to do with the low budget drama scoring the Oscar for Best Picture. Add to it the fact that it’s still the greatest pump-up song for any workout, and it will forever stand the test of time.

1. Star Wars

All you have to do is listen to the Star Wars theme, and the movie screen in your mind is able to play the scrolling precursor to the live action that follows. From the 20th Century Fox fanfare to the first piercing sound of big brass, the Star Wars theme is more than iconic: it’s legendary. It serves as the basis of stories. Memories. It is the stuff from which folklore is derived. Add to it the theme for the dark side of the force, the “Imperial March,” and the themes serve as two of the most hum-able melodies ever written. Regarding movements from the saga that stand alone as expertly crafted pieces of music, “Luke and Leia” from Return of The Jedi could be something written for a duet in the world of ballet, it oozes so much sentiment. Star Wars. The iconic themes to which all others are measured.

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