When I was five, I began figuring out how to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on the upright piano. My mom then heard me play “Memory” from the musical “Cats,” and deemed me a musical genius from that point on. She sent me to piano lessons, and I played the flute for a couple years in middle school.
Throughout my love-hate relationship with music and piano, it became both a source of peace and stress. I practiced hours a day before competitions, and my mom and my piano teacher were both one of those strict tiger moms who disciplined me hardcore: piano and I shared many moments of tears and breakdowns where I wanted to quit.
There is one aspect of music that never failed to cause me grief though, and that was listening to soundtracks. There is something about the magical realm where my love for film meets music, and deciphering how the composer creates a memorable, distinctive theme that belonged to no other but the movie and its message. When you hear it, within seconds you know right away it’s Jaws, or Star Wars.
That said, here is a list of the classics and some of my personal favorites.
The legendary John Williams (who often writes the music of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas)
- Jaws 1975 – ominous half step, two-note motif
- Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark 1981 – heroic, cheeky trumpet, orchestra, brass, percussion
- Star Wars 1997-2015 – opening theme – fanfare, welcoming, march
- +Imperial March (Darth Vader’s theme) – dark, march of impending doom
- +Across the Stars (Love theme between Anakin and Padme)-opening by oboe solo accompanied by orchestra: somber, romantic, minor key. Repeated by orchestra, harp
- Harry Potter (Hedwig’s theme) 2001-2011 – beginning mysterious triangle (?) theme in minor key, repeated by orchestra.
- The Patriot 2000 – calm, higher range violin takes melody in counts of 3, legato, slight celtic sound with orchestral back up
- Jurassic Park 1993 – 2015
Hans Zimmer – experimenting with unconventional ways of producing abstract, ambient sounds (Christopher Nolan)
- Inception 2010 – brave, wandering, and dreamy, soft timpani with cautious orchestra. Complemented with higher guitar string two-note repeat. Ebb and flow.
- Interstellar 2014 – dream-like, piano-organ combination with experimental sounds with woodwind and choral elements.
- Gladiator 2000 –
- + “Honor Him” timpani, orchestra, minor key, noble.
- +”Now We Are Free”
James Horner – (James Cameron) classic, hopeful, hopeless romantic, emotional. R.I.P.
- Titanic 1997 “My Heart Will Go On” sung by Celine Dion – originally orchestral, but became vocal; beginning flute trill
- Avatar 2009 “I See You” sung by Leona Lewis
- Troy 2004
- A Beautiful Mind 2002
- The Mission 1986 “Gabriel’s Oboe” – hopeful, beautiful, calm; oboe theme also in vocal, cello versions
- Others: The Hateful Eight, The Best Offer, other Italian movies
Nino Rota –
- The Godfather soundtrack series 1972-1990 – wistful, somber, threatening, sustained melody
Klaus Badelt –
A. R. Rahman – (Danny Boyle) eccentric, vibrant amalgamation of Asian with European, electronic and acoustics
- Slumdog Millionaire 2008 – “Jai Ho”- rhythmic, pulsating, blend of Indian Bollywood, Spanish, and other elements
- 127 Hours 2011 – with Dido- “If I Rise- gentle, ethereal vocal accompanied with quiet rhythm and guitar strumming
- +”Funeral” – Band of Horses
Mark Isham –
- Life as a House 2001 / No Reservations 2007 –“Building a Family” – homey, piano with oboe, strings
- The Theory of Everything – “Arrival of the Birds and Transformation”
TV SHOW THEMES
John Lunn –
- Downton Abbey 2010-2015 – “Did I Make the Most of Loving You”
Bear McCreary –
- Walking Dead 2010-current theme – anxiety-ridden, unsettling, orchestra rifts, distortion, apocalypse sounding
- +”Mercy of the Living”
Ramin Djawadi –
- Game of Thrones 2011-current theme- otherworldly, heavy, rhythmic orchestra
- Others: The Island, Ironman, Pacific Rim
And of course, I got to give a celebratory shout-out to the amazing Asian films, especially those that have blossomed in recent years, such as the Taiwanese movie industry! It all began with the movie that revived it all, Cape No. 7. We also can’t forget the wonderful Joe Hisaishi, who has written so many for the Japanese films, particularly legendary Hayao Miyizaki animations in Studio Ghibli.
- Cape No. 7 2008 – “Love Letters”
Joe Hisaishi has his own category:
- Kikujiro 1999 – “Summer”
- Howl’s Moving Castle 2004 – charming, waltz-like, spiral-y strings with piano
- Other notables: Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky Laputa
Happy listening!!! Let me know which ones are your favorites and if I missed any 🙂