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10 Most Iconic Movie Themes of the 21st Century

The art of cinema has always been closely tied to music. From the very first silent films all the way to the massive blockbuster films of today, one of the main components of any film is the musical theme. Many films and series are immediately identifiable by the music that accompanies them. While the score itself provides great ambiance all throughout a film, the theme is the big piece that brings everything together and sticks in the memory. Great themes convey a sense of the entire film or series and provide a clue to the story as early as the opening credits or studio logos.

The turn of the century began an entirely new era in cinema, one filled with franchises driven by great characters, stories, and, naturally, phenomenal musical themes. So far, the 21st Century has produced some outstanding examples of cinematic music, however, there are a few that stand out. From the soaring and adventurous theme from Lord of the Rings to the whimsical, dancing notes featured in Pixar’s Up, here are some of the musical pieces that have become the most iconic and recognizable cinematic tunes of the 21st Century, in no particular order.


10 Time — Inception

Leonard DiCaprio in Inception (2010)
Warner Bros. 

Hans Zimmer’s score for Inception is widely considered one of the best, and “Time” has been accepted as the theme for the film. The track mimics the flow of the film, building a suspenseful tone as more and more musical layers are added leading up to a climactic peak of the song.

A review for Movie Wave praised the soundtrack as some of Zimmer’s finest work, crediting the score with intellectual and emotional depth. Listening to the sweeping and swelling tones of “Time,” it’s hard to argue with such a statement. This theme is an excellent musical representation of a fantastic film, and an example of what so many film and music fans love about Zimmer’s work.

9 Star Trek — Star Trek

Paramount Pictures

Michael Giacchino’s leitmotif for the 2009 cinematic relaunch of Star Trek was in a difficult position. Not only was the new theme meant to represent a major science fiction film, but it was following a long line of musical themes that had all been iconic in their own time, and would be well remembered by the fans.

Giacchino’s score was terrific, led by a theme that captured the pioneering spirit of the 21st Century update to the classic Trek series. The theme of the 2009 film would go on to be featured in the rest of the series as well as spinoff media based in Star Trek‘s new Kelvin timeline, living up to each one of the previous themes’ examples and establishing another chapter in the beloved franchise’s history.

8 “Battle of the Heroes” — Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

Star War: Revenge of the Sith
20th Century Fox 

The prequel era of Star Wars films was a dramatically different version of the films from the original trilogy, and each film featured its own theme in addition to the franchise’s main fanfare. For the final film of the prequels, which brought the three films to a close, that theme was “Battle of the Heroes.”

Played during the climactic duel between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith, John Williams delivered a soaring piece which captured both the grand spectacle and the tragedy of the scene in beautiful musical detail. This was not the triumphant brass of the opening crawl, but a haunting theme for the struggle playing out on screen, bringing the prequels to a close in a way only Williams could.

Related: The Best Movie Composers of All Time, Ranked

7 Day One — Interstellar

Paramount Pictures

A soft entry in Zimmer’s organ-heavy score for the 2014 film Interstellar features recurring melodies and a mysterious, if somber, tone that pairs beautifully with the outstanding imagery and themes of the film. Fittingly for a film that follows a mission of discovery for the sake of humanity, this theme evokes a sense of mystery and subtle hopefulness.

Emotional and powerful without relying on pure volume, the theme accompanies many of the impactful moments of the film and helps bring the audience into the story just as the more bold and intense tracks among the score do. As a theme, “Day One” grounds the film in the mission and its purpose, rather than simply focusing on the most intense moments of a film built around depth and discovery.

6 You’ve Been Called Back to Top Gun — Top Gun: Maverick

Paramount Pictures

This revision of the original Top Gun anthem featured in the 1986 film brings the audience back into the story with the same iconic theme from the previous film, extended and updated for Top Gun: Maverick. Choosing to revisit the theme from the original film rather than creating a new one completely from scratch played into the nostalgia power that the film drew on.

While the updated theme is identical in many ways to the original piece, the work by Zimmer elevates it to reflect the development of the main character and the continuation of the story. Adding in an orchestra behind the synth and guitar makes the track more cinematic, while the main melody retains the high adrenaline attitude of the original, blending deference to the original with 21st Century updates just like the film itself.

5 Married Life — Up

Married Life
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The song playing over the opening of Pixar’s Up is a musical story, which accompanies a pair of characters through their life as husband and wife, matching tone with the events that play across the screen. Each moment in the song pairs with the film to pull at the heartstrings of the audience, resulting in a deeply emotional opening to the film.

This sequence uses no dialogue, instead allowing the soundtrack to accent each moment in the narrative, from the upbeat opening, to the soft close of the scene. Giacchino manages to create a theme for the film that is whimsical while moving the audience to feel deeply for the characters on the screen within minutes. Because of the sheer impact of this moment, the song has become the de facto theme for the movie itself.

Related: Michael Giacchino Compares His First Time Directing With His Work as a Composer

4 Hedwig’s Theme — Harry Potter Series

Harry Potter Hogwarts
Warner Bros. Pictures

Mysterious, soft bells play through the intro to this track and transition into sweeping brass before the tune dances playfully along, and then brings things to a mighty crescendo toward the end. Though entitled “Hedwig’s Theme,” this piece is the most featured in the Harry Potter films, and has come to represent the franchise as a whole.

Williams composed this theme to accompany the films, and its effect on anyone who hears it, fan of the books and movies or not, cannot be denied. The song has become one of the most recognizable movie themes of all time due to its memorable tune and melody that sticks in the mind instantly. Beyond simple musical value, the song also manages to portray the tone of the Harry Potter universe, a setting that can be dark, mysterious, cheerful, and epic all at the same time.

3 He’s a Pirate — Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates of the Caribbean_ The Curse of the Black Pearl- Jack Sparrow
Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

The track first heard when Jack Sparrow arrives in Port Royale at the beginning of Curse of the Black Pearl is a soaring adventure theme that instantly transports the listener to the high seas for swashbuckling adventure and excitement. A pounding, high energy tune sets expectations for Disney’s pirate film, and accompanies many of the action sequences and hijinks that follow.

Becoming a major part of the entire Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, this track is instantly recognizable as the definitive pirate theme of the 21st Century, even being used by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at their home stadium. An interview with Zimmer for Soundtrack gives insight onto the collaboration with Klaus Badelt to create the entire score, including this theme.

2 The Avengers — The MCU

The Marvels What to Expect
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Alan Silvestri’s grand, intense theme for 2012’s The Avengers underscores many of the most triumphant moments of the MCU. This track represents the formation of the team of superheroes, and the first moment that the MCU truly coalesced onscreen. As part of the ensemble panning shot in the film which became iconic of The Avenger’s first appearance, the intense brass of the theme cemented itself as the musical theme for the MCU right then.

This theme would later be used in many, many other properties related to The Avengers, including updates for following films in the franchise, as well as the opening marvel logos. While the theme was originally written for the film, ultimately it became the musical representation for the massive media franchise that is the MCU, and one of the most recognizable themes of the 21st Century.

1 Concerning Hobbits — The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
New Line Cinema

Composed by Howard Shore, this peaceful and upbeat track is a theme meant to represent hobbits and their way of life in Lord of the Rings. The theme transitions across themes and leitmotifs, painting a picture of a simple and joyful people, which contrasts with the soaring epic themes and menacing tones of other parts of the score.

Classic FM highlights the score’s enormous critical success, winning numerous awards. While there are many outstanding musical moments in the franchise, this track has come to represent the series most closely. This can be interpreted as a musical representation of Frodo’s journey to bring peace to Middle-earth, with the ultimate goal being the preservation of the small people, rather than a grand pursuit of glory, and in that respect it is fitting that this track represents such a great fantasy epic.

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