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Stop and think of your all-time favourite movie: I'll bet you could hum me a few bars of the soundtrack. Unless you're one of the rare few who miraculously thought of a film without a musical score, chances are your film memories are completely tied up with flashes of the music that fills it.  

Throughout the history of cinema, directors have used music as a critical means of helping their films linger long in the minds of their viewers. It's no coincidence that the closing credits usually contain the catchiest of the film's musical themes or pop hits.

But for those to have any impact, film composers have to start flexing their emotional muscles from the very first frames, and get us all tapping and humming along. 

The most memorable musical moments in film

One of the cleverest ways is by linking individual characters to their own musical theme. John Williams is the master of this. If you've ever watched The Empire Strikes Back, listening to this track, and then to this one, you'd immediately recall Darth Vader, and Yoda (or possibly a mystical moment involving The Force) just through listening.

Memorable music in The Empire Strikes Back

The characters themselves are extraordinarily memorable, yet by giving them their own distinctive musical cues throughout the film, Williams is also giving your brain yet another way to associate emotions and narratives later on through some very memorable melodic lines. 

Of course, a character's theme can also double as an atmospheric cue. Take this piece for example. While not as catchy as a pop tune, one could argue that Jaws' musical theme is one of the factors that has kept a low-budget 40-year-old film in public consciousness as long as it has.

While perfectly conjuring images of nightmarish, malevolent sharks in our collective memories, it's low string lines also feel like the dark, menacing tone of the rest of the film.

Many films use the same kinds of atmospheric cues. For example, even though the main theme from Marvel's Avengers films may not be as well-remembered, you immediately sense what kind of film it's from. In turn, such a brash, proud, winning theme is essential to filing the film away in our brains in those exact ways. 

Memorable musical moment in Pulp Fiction

Repetition is a perfect way to make memories stickier in our heads, something filmmakers have long embraced. Composers like Hans Zimmer (Inception) and Alan Sylvestri (Back To The Future) regularly take one central motif, then repeat it (bent, stretched, and expanded upon) in various places throughout the score.

It not only works on viewers like a charm, but brings a pleasant cohesion to the entire score. 

Finally, one of the easiest ways music often makes a film memorable is through linking a marketable track to one of its iconic scenes. If I were to mention the film Pulp Fiction, one of your first memories of it will likely be this musical moment. Likewise, utter the words Dirty Dancing, and you'll probably be thinking of this.

Sure, the feeling, the acting and the marketing have made this memorable too, but where would each be without its music?  

In the end, the movie and the music should always be considered as a single, cohesive work of art. Though regardless of how filmmakers chose to make their film memorable, the best scores and soundtracks will always have you leaving the cinema humming a great tune. 

This page was updated on 28/10/2020


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