Why our favourite movie themes still resonate today

Jaws, Psycho, Chariots of Fire and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are among Andrew Collins's picks of the best

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Why our favourite movie themes still resonate today
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The greatest movie music does more than simply accompany the visuals and underline the emotional beats of a story. In some cases, it goes way beyond its day job and enters the collective consciousness. Which, of course, is why thousands of you will no doubt have already voted in the poll currently running on Howard Goodall’s Saturday Night at the Movies show on Classic FM (Saturdays 5pm) that will be used to compile this year’s Movie Music Hall of Fame.

Some film scores stay with us for life. For instance, let’s consider the ostinato (ie the persistently repeated rhythm) of bass notes that signifies the appearance – or non-appearance – of the shark in Jaws. Composed by the prolific, five-times Oscar winner John Williams, the riff quickly became shorthand for underwater peril, and is hummed even now by bathers wishing to freak themselves out.

The Jaws theme is described as being “at once serious and comical, solemn and skittish” by a BFI handbook on the film, but it is actually disarmingly simple. Williams himself occupies a hallowed place in the pantheon of film composers because of his uncanny knack for creating big, bold orchestral hooks – think of the main themes from Star Wars, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark (Wednesday BBC3) and Jurassic Park (Friday Sky Family), all of which were recycled across their respective franchises as signature jingles, and all of which, crucially, can be sung using multiples of the syllable “Bah”.

Elmer Bernstein was an equally prodigious talent, scoring almost 150 films over a six-decade career, but the two pieces that will outlive us all are his rollicking theme for The Magnificent Seven – which almost single-handedly defines the western genre – and the rousing march from The Great Escape – which is sung at England football matches to this day. Other composers whose work has achieved a kind of immortality in the war-movie genre are Eric Coates for The Dam Busters and Malcolm Arnold for the Colonel Bogey March from Bridge on the River Kwai.

As for westerns, Ennio Morricone’s two-note motif from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly abides as a genre classic. (Hugo Montenegro’s version was a hit in 1968, topping the charts and providing me with a formative musical memory, aged three.)

Anton Karas’s jaunty Harry Lime Theme from The Third Man also enjoyed a life of its own away from the British classic, bringing stringed instrument the zither to worldwide prominence. And the fanfare from the Richard Strauss tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, composed in 1896, underwent a significant cultural transformation when Stanley Kubrick used it to open 2001: a Space Odyssey in 1968. Though the music predated the film by 70 years, it’s now synonymous with space travel.

By the 1970s, the electronic synthesiser had revolutionised the composition and recording of music. Director John Carpenter utilised it to create his proto-slasher Halloween’s unsettling, metronomic theme – an aural indicator for a killer on the loose wherever it’s played. Likewise, Bill Conti’s pulse-quickening Gonna Fly Now from Rocky heralds any big sporting event, boxing or otherwise, and still gets rolled out for teams from Philadelphia, where the film was set.

If you want to encapsulate the majestic, noble endurance of running, it’s got to be Chariots of Fire by Vangelis. And if it’s simple “cool” that you’re after, slow down the footage of a bunch of people walking down a street and play Little Green Bag by the George Baker Selection, which was used to memorable effect in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

But if there’s one riff from a century of cinema that transcends the already transcendent, it has to be Bernard Herrmann’s stabbing strings for the iconic shower scene from Psycho. With that screeching, staccato sequence, Herrmann set the template for every horror score to come. The cue may even trump the “Duh-duh, Duh-duh” of Jaws as the most recognised and imitated snatch of film music ever recorded.
 But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’d want to hear it played on the radio!

Hear Andrew Collins's top five movie scores along with more from Myleene Klass, John Suchet, Alan Titchmarsh and film experts at Radio Times