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Many things go into a great movie: acting, writing, cinematography, and more. One thing that isn’t always recognized as an essential element is its theme song. Check out our list of the best movie theme songs.
“Blue Moon” (from Manhattan Melodramaa, 1934)
The MGM soundtrack writing system produced some of the top movie songs of their time, including the original version of “Blue Moon,” which was created by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for the film Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable. It is one of the best movie theme songs.
Over the years, singers as diverse as Elvis Presley, Mel Tormé, Dean Martin, and Ella Fitzgerald have all crooned the heartbreakingly beautiful words “blue moon/you saw me standing alone/without a dream in my heart/without a love of my own.”
“Somewhere Over The Rainbow” (from The Wizard Of Oz, 1939)
A good performer may make a song their own via perception and creativeness. Many songs are even more known for their singer than the composer.
People are more likely to recall Judy Garland’s soaring performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz than they do the magnificent work of songwriters Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg.
On the other hand, MGM considered the opening Kansas segment to be excessively long and nearly eliminated the song from the movie.
Thankfully, it was allowed to remain, and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” went on to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song, solidifying its status as one of the greatest movie songs of all time.
Since then, several other performers like Eric Clapton, John Martyn, Gene Simmons of KISS, and Ariana Grande have recorded their versions of the song. “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” is obviously one of the best movie theme songs.
“White Christmas” (from Holiday Inn, 1942)
The words to “White Christmas,” performed by Bing Crosby and included on a soundtrack record for the film Holiday Inn, spoke to thousands of American servicemen and women serving overseas during World War II.
Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” won an Oscar in 1943, and it’s since gone on to become the best-selling single in music history, with over 50 million copies sold.
Although Bing Crosby’s recording is the standard, many other artists, such as Bob Marley, Willie Nelson, and U2, have recorded their versions of “White Christmas.”
“Singin’ In The Rain” (from Singin’ In The Rain, 1952)
Perhaps Oliver Hardy getting wet by a broken shower nozzle while “Singin’ in the Rain” plays is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the song. The Big Noise, a film from 1944, depicted such a scene.
The song had been extant for 15 years prior to that, having made its debut in a 1929 film. Nonetheless, songwriter and MGM producer Arthur Freed saw an opportunity to cash in on his previously unpublished lyrics and ordered the production of a musical based on the song’s title.
Gene Kelly’s stunning song-and-dance rendition of “Singin’ In The Rain” established its status as one of the greatest film songs of all time, and the rest is history.
“Que Será, Será” (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956)
“Que Será, Será, whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see, Que Será, Será.” It hardly ever gets more iconic than Doris Day singing this song in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.
“Moon River” (from Breakfast At Tiffany’s, 1961)
Both Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer were successful artists. The former had composed the Pink Panther theme, while the latter had written the lyrics to hundreds of movies, including “Hooray for Hollywood.”
Mancini spent a whole month crafting the perfect song for the waif-like good-time girl Audrey Hepburn, who had a narrow and restricted range, yet always in tune singing voice.
In the film, Hepburn sings the song while sitting on the fire escape of her New York City apartment, and the resulting appeal makes the song one of the finest ever written for the silver screen.
Hepburn famously responded “Over my dead body” when a studio official sought to get the song scrapped. Many of the greatest names in jazz have recorded it, but Aretha Franklin, Patty Griffin, Elton John, R.E.M., and Morrissey all have fascinating takes on the song.
“Mrs. Robinson” (from The Graduate, 1967)
Anne Bancroft played Mrs. Robinson, a middle-aged woman who seduces young Dustin Hoffman in 1967’s The Graduate.
The incredible harmonies of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel propelled this song to the top of the charts and made it one of the most beloved film scores of the decade, if not all time.
Joe DiMaggio is referenced in a popular phrase that asks, “where have you gone?” Simon’s baseball hero Mickey Mantle once questioned why he hadn’t been mentioned in the song.
“Dueling Banjos” (from Deliverance, 1972)
This scene from the Burt Reynolds film is one of many instrumentals that have enhanced movies. Others include Ry Cooder’s “Paris, Texas” and John Williams’ “Promontory” from Last of the Mohicans.
Arthur Smith originally wrote “Feudin’ Banjos” in 1955 for his banjo. Bluegrass band The Dillards performed it as “Briscoe Declares For Aunt Bee.”
“Dueling Banjos” was recorded by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell for the film Deliverance and spent a month at No. 2 on the Billboard charts.
“Stayin’ Alive” (from Saturday Night Fever, 1977)
The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” the theme song to Saturday Night Fever, is about hanging on during difficult times.
It is one of the most memorable movie songs because of the beautiful harmonies (particularly in the “ah, ha-ha-ha” chorus) and Barry Gibb’s falsetto. It really is too bad that the Bee Gees went on to butcher the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.
“Rawhide” (from The Blues Brothers, 1980)
Given that the film’s soundtrack is full of timeless Southern blues and soul, it’s unlikely that The Blues Brothers would be left out of a list of the finest movie songs of all time.
“Rawhide” is a wonderful country song that was a hit for Frankie Lane and served as the theme music to the popular TV show of the same name.
In the John Landis comedy The Blues Brothers, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi do a particularly enthusiastic rendition. In one particularly hilarious sequence, the band decides to perform at Bob’s Country Bunker in Kokomo under the guise of a country band called The Good Ole Boys.
The Blues Brothers play “Rawhide” to appease the “redneck” crowd while beer bottles fly onto the stage and shatter against the chicken-wire barrier.
“Hakuna Matata” (from The Lion King, 1994)
Three songs from Disney’s The Lion King were nominated for Academy Awards, with “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” ultimately taking home the trophy. The other two nominees were “Hakuna Matata” and “Circle of Life.”
Still, that’s three of the greatest movie songs of all time in one film, and we’re going with “Hakuna Matata” because of its memorable tune (by Elton John) and upbeat lyrics (by Tim Rice) for this list.
“My Heart Will Go On” (from Titanic, 1997)
This power ballad by Céline Dion is one of the best-selling singles of all time. It has received several accolades and is now nearly as closely associated with the sinking ship as the iceberg it hit.
As Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet hug in front of the sinking Titanic, the beautiful ballad “My Heart Will Go On” plays. Dion does a fantastic job of handling the song’s complex modulations, while Andrea Corr contributes some lovely tin-whistle work. As one does.
“Lose Yourself” (from 8 Mile, 2002)
“Lose Yourself,” the first rap song to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song, was released by rap legend Eminem on October 28, 2002. The song is the theme to 8 Mile, the popular autobiographical movie about his life.
A sure-fire entry among other best movie theme songs, “Lose Yourself” is a masterpiece.
“Let It Go” (from Frozen, 2013)
Another stunning award-winning movie theme song, “Let it Go” is famously featured in the animated movie Frozen. It was written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez and released on November 25, 2013.
Certainly one of the greatest movie theme songs, it won the Best Original Song at the Golden Globes Awards and Academy Awards.
Fun fact: “Let It Go” has been dubbed into 47 different languages.
“Happy” (from Despicable Me 2, 2013)
“Happy” was written, produced, and performed by the American singer Pharrell Williams and was released on November 21, 2013. The song expresses the feelings of the film’s lead character Gru.
The track is catchy and uplifting, the perfect popcorn song. Unfortunately, this Oscar-nominated best movie theme song lost to “Let It Go.”
“Glory” (from Selma, 2014)
Rapper Common and singer John Legend deliver the iconic movie theme song “Glory“ in Selma. The song was written by Common, John Legend, and Rhymefest, and was released on December 11, 2014.
Significantly, the song won the Best Original Song at the Grammy Awards, Golden Globe Awards, and Academy Awards.
“City of Stars” (from La La Land, 2016)
“City of Stars,” from popular film La La Land, was written by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, and was performed by Ryan Gosling and Emma stone.
The song perfectly encapsulates La La Land, as the film represents the life story of a young actress, Mia, and hapless pianist, Sebastian. The popular movie theme song won Best Original Song at the Grammy Awards and Academy Awards.
“Shallow” (from A Star Is Born, 2018)
A catchy, stunning song, “Shallow” is sung by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. The epic collaboration of Cooper and Gaga in the movie A Star is Born was highly anticipated and didn’t disappoint. The movie tells the story of the bond and struggles of two country singers.
The ballad won the Best Original Song award at the Golden Globes, cementing its place as one of the most popular movie theme songs.
“Somehow You Do” (from Four Good Days, 2020)
Diane Warren penned this hopeful and inspirational song for the mother-daughter film Four Good Days.
It was released on April 30, 2021. Reba McEntire sings this moving song evoking hope, strength, and power in an individual. It’s famous for its music video.
The main character, played by Mila Kunis, is a drug addict who lives with her mother. Despite their weak bond, her mother fights to help the daughter stay clean for at least four days.
“Somehow You Do” empowers listeners to face every hurdle and hardship with courage and determination. It is undoubtedly one of the great movie theme songs.
“Fight For You” (from Judas and Black Messiah, 2020)
“Fight for You,” from the 2020 movie Judas and Black Messiah, is sung by Grammy winner H.E.R. It was released on February 4, 2021.
The film is based on the true story of Black Panther Party member Fred Hampton and his betrayer. As such, “Fight For You” matches the central idea of the movie, with the lyrics touching on equality, police brutality, and racism.
“Dos Oruguitas” (from Encanto, 2021)
Colombian singer-songwriter Sebastián Yatra sings a Spanish-speaking ballad, “Dos Oruguitas,” in the Disney animated movie Encanto, released in 2021.
It was written by Pulitzer-winning composer Lin-Manuel Miranda. Yatra told CNN in an interview that it is the first Spanish song Disney has left untranslated across a movies’ international releases.
The English translation of the title is “Two Little Caterpillars.” It is a metaphorical song that shows the caterpillar’s remarkable transformation into a beautiful butterfly.
However, the song also evolves around the tragic truth about Abuela Alma Madrigal and her lost husband.
“Be Alive” (from King Richard, 2021)
“Be Alive” is featured in the biographical movie King Richard. It was written and produced by Beyonce and Dixson and released on November 12, 2021.
In the movie, the main character Richard Williams, played by Will Smith, shapes his two daughters professional tennis careers. Sensitive issues related to feminism and black life in the song fully resonate with the storyline.
“Be Alive” was nominated for various awards, including the Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice, Hollywood Critics’ Association, Satellite, and Academy Awards.