The Top 12 Movie Themes NOT written by John Williams

Since I was a teenager, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed movie soundtracks. Listening to them can leave me in exactly the same mental and emotional state I was in when watching the movie. They are the classical music of our day.

Of course, everyone knows the famous scores of John Williams – Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Jaws, the list goes on and on. There are many great movie composers out there creating many great scores, so I thought I would highlight a few others I have fallen in love with.

12. Phenomenon – The Orchard – Thomas Newman

I like rollicking themes made up from simple components that don’t necessarily require a full orchestra, which describes this song very well. This is one of Newman’s less famous scores (he is best known, perhaps, for The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty and Road to Perdition for which he received Academy Award nominations), but it captures the feel of the scene and the movie overall perfectly. Confusion is conveyed with sudden transitions, certainty is marked with a steady drumbeat, and it ends with an epiphany of sorts; an otherworldly and almost Lost-like string and choral diminuendo.

11. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – Suite – Cliff Eidelman

Of course I had to include an entry from the Star Trek oeuvre in this list, and it was difficult to decide which one. Jerry Goldsmith, of course, wrote many of the great Star Trek themes, including the “Motion Picture” main title which went on to become the theme for television’s Star Trek: The Next Generation. Reserving Jerry for later in the list, I am going to go with the theme from my favorite Star Trek film – The Undiscovered Country. While it does not include the classic “Klingon theme,” it is the most dynamic of the Star Trek scores. With a strong beginning and an even stronger ending, it’s really the middle section that stands out. Intertwining echoing woodwind solos brings you into the wonder and awe of the vastness of the unknown and undiscovered.

10. Chocolat – Main Titles – Rachel Portman

This is the hardest theme on the list to write about. As it begins, it portrays such a deep sadness and slowness and careful reflection. Piano and strings convey these emotions very delicately. Finally, at the halfway point, hope and playfulness appear. These emotions are so obvious and intrinsic that it is almost unbelievable.

9. The Piano – The Sacrifice – Michael Nyman

I’ve actually never seen this movie, but if you’ve been reading you know I have a soft spot for beautiful piano pieces. I also think the music is actually being played, in the movie, on an actual piano, so that also counts for something.

8. Vertigo – Prelude and Rooftop – Bernard Herrmann

Ah, the old school! Yes, movies had scores in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and there were excellent composers creating them. Herrmann is one of those well-respected members of the old school, winning the academy award in 1941. Having scored many of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, Vertigo’s winding and dizzying theme stands out as an example of the most suspenseful and powerful pieces of that time.

7. Backdraft – Fighting 17th – Hans Zimmer

When Iron Chef chooses to use your theme song as ITS theme song, you know you’ve done something right. I don’t know how many people actually saw this movie, but the theme lives on whenever Chairman Kaga bites into his pepper in Kitchen Stadium.

6. Amélie – LaValse Des Monstres – Yann Tiersen

So whimsical! A simple accordion piece which is at the same time like and unlike all the other waltzes you’ve ever heard. It fits the whimsical and fun yet sometimes sad feeling of the movie so perfectly. Also, friends were listening to this full blast in their car when they arrived at my wedding, so it will always have a special place in my heart.

5. The Terminator – The Terminator Theme – Brad Fiedel

I don’t think Terminator was supposed to be the hit it ended up. I assume this score was at least part of why it did end up that way. Two sequels and a television show later, this theme and its powerful percussion has echoed back at us from the screen many times, and it inspires us to imagine that terrible post-apocalyptic future and its undoing all at the same time.

4. The Truman Show – Truman Sleeps – Philip Glass

I linked a video version of this song a few weeks ago. Philip Glass, the avante garde composer, scored this movie so gently, this song with just a synthesizer. The scene in the movie where it plays shows the “Truman Show” composer composing the piece on the spot as the camera slowly zooms into a sleeping Jim Carrey’s face. I can listen to this piece over and over.

3. Unbreakable – Visions – James Newton Howard

The movie, I think, is underrated, as is the theme. This song builds and builds, the same melody again and again, each time more and more intense. If you listen with headphones, you can’t help but be inspired as the drums kick in and the songs nears its conclusion. I wish this song could go on forever, getting more and more intense, the emotions building and never stopping. When it comes to completion, the theme is repeated once more, gently. So powerful.

2. Requiem For a Dream – Lux Aeterna – Clint Mansell

A million teenagers have used this song to score a million youtube videos. I’ve never seen the movie, though I absolutely would like to. This is another song, like the previous one, that just builds and builds. Slowly more and more instrumentation is added until the song is blasting full-bore. Then, the overarching string part appears. Strings are often the most powerful piece of movie themes and this is no exception. This song is a portrait of despair.

1. Rudy – Tryouts – Jerry Goldsmith

They use this song at the Olympics, and in every third movie trailer. It’s used especially in sports movies, I suppose because it is truly inspiring. The thing is that it builds to that inspirational piece, and then it only lasts for about 10 to 15 seconds. That’s the 10 to 15 seconds that appears in the trailers, and that elevates this song to its place of greatness among movie themes not written by John Williams.

I really wanted to actually link these songs here so you could listen, and I think it would be a fair use, but the internet stymied me. I can burn a CD for anyone who is interested.


4 Responses

  1. A most excellent post. Are they in order of greatness? I agree with Requiem, Unbreakable, and Amelie, but Vertigo never did anything for me and Star Trek must have the klingon overture!

  2. Yes, with greatest at the bottom. They’re numbered!

  3. Hey… wat about Hans Zimmer’s the Thin Red Line theme? It is one of the most intensely gorgeous and haunting theme I’ve ever listened to.

  4. I just listened to a song off that soundtrack at Youtube. It was reasonable, and slightly otherworldly like I enjoy, but a little slow. Is there a better song that you recommend? I may be listening to the wrong one.

    My favorites by Zimmer include: Regarding Henry, Rain Man, Gladiator, The Rock, and Pirates of the Caribbean. I was trying to only do one per composer on this list, though.

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