31 Mar Top 5 Most Iconic Film Soundtracks
Jean-Michel Basquiat once said “Art is how we decorate space, music is how we decorate time”.
This adage rings true: sound – and its “decorative” lovechild, music – is such a key part of how we experience life and such a crucial and recognisable part of visual mediums, like film. Soundtracks can become so iconic that they define generations, genres, characters and themes for decades. They become perpetual decorations of the zeitgeist. So recognisable that they can even spark satires and memes because of their power to evoke connections to the source material, and the emotions and visceral memories associated with it.
We’ve picked 5 of the most iconic soundtracks in film and analysed their musical makeup and the effects they have had on audiences. We’ve also thrown in some Simpsons parodies because nothing cements an iconic status in the zeitgeist like a parody in The Simpsons!
1. Psycho (Bernard Herrmann)
Hithcock’s “Psycho’ is still to this day considered one of the most iconic pieces of cinema ever made. It redefined cinematic narratives and cemented cinema as landmark of popular culture. Bernard Herrmann’s minimalist score uses only strings in its palette and in doing so managed to create a simple yet incredibly tense soundscape that would become a mnemonic for the Horror/Slasher genre for decades to come. Herrmann uses muted pizzicato and harsh attacks to create a shrill and unsettling sound that raises the hair on your neck and jars the nervous system.
The piercing screeches of the violins during the infamous shower scene is a staple of film studies and has sparked many a parody due to its firm position in the zeitgeist.
2. Jaws (John Williams)
As if sharks needed any help with their image as nightmare fuel, John Williams and Steven Spielberg have given them a permanent soundtrack. The Jaws soundtrack is arguably the most recognisable and infamous piece of cinematic music ever written. Williams took a leaf out of Herrmann’s work on Psycho, using minimalist orchestral pieces to create a sense of lurking menace and fear. The soundtrack is primarily comprised of a two-note Cello motif that signals the presence of the shark (aptly named Bruce during production), this motif builds and builds with flourishes of orchestral dissonance and low brass toplines. Williams said of the score, “It’s so simple, insistent and driving, that it seems unstoppable, like the attack of the shark.”
3. Indiana Jones (John Williams)
Nothing says adventure like the theme of Indiana Jones. This grand orchestral movement is synonymous with heroic escapades, the triumph of good over evil and overcoming adversity through sheer dumb luck masquerading as pure and unwavering competence. The strong, galloping melody of this theme is unmistakable. The rich brass fanfare creates enough hope and inspiration to give the audience complete confidence in Indy’s ability to overcome any challenge, all the while keeping enough pace and tension to hook you in and ask yourself ‘What If?”
Indiana Jones is probably the best example of how music can become synonymous with character, theme and action all at once.
4. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (Ennio Morricone)
In the open plains of America’s western frontier (or Spain, dressed as America for this Spaghetti Western) full of rolling tumbleweeds, two cowboys stare each other down from opposite ends of the main strip in a dusty old shanty town. Their trigger fingers quiver over their holstered Smith & Wessons, the tension is palpable; who will shoot first in this duel between right and wrong? The late Ennio Morricone is solely responsible for creating the iconic soundscape that immediately evokes this scene in the collective subconscious.
Morricone’s work with director Sergio Leone became the quintessential sound of the Spaghetti Western, incorporating Mexican Surf Rock with Native American themes, using exotic instrument choices to create motifs (including the infamous whistle). It truly encapsulates the harsh landscape, and the human desire to tame it against all odds.
5. 007 – James Bond (Monty Norman)
“The name’s Bond…James Bond”. Surely everyone has done an impression of 007 at some point, and no doubt run this simple theme in their head as the score! After 27 movies and 6+ decades, Monty Norman’s classic theme for 007 remains the motif of this franchise. Although, as times have changed it has evolved stylistically through musical fashions and genres to match the era of each film. Norman’s original theme became a benchmark for the spy genre by combining Big Band Swing with a touch of Bossa Nova and the Mexican Surf Rock sound of the Spaghetti Westerns. The result is a snapshot of a suave, debonair secret agent traversing his way through dangerous territory undetected. If this theme doesn’t make you crave a vodka martini, shaken not stirred then you might just be a supervillain!