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Lasting Music Pieces in Films

April 18, 2019 | By

Some of the finest music in films becomes emblazoned in the audience’s mind as any of the images. HQ Chowdhury, author of the recently republished Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman looks at a few of these lasting music pieces in cinema in the western world that have stood the test of time and are now part of film folklore.


Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky once compared film music to wallpaper. He said, ‘Something very decorative that fills in cracks and smoothes down rough textures.’

But it is more than that as its use is almost unlimited. It can provoke tension as in horror or spy films; can introduce deep levels of irony, convey the sublime, can underline character. Grief, anger, lust, love, boredom can be highlighted far more tersely with it than dialogues. And if an actor is wide off the mark, it can give him/her the necessary support to save his/her face.

It could be an orchestral arrangement playing in the background, a symphony, a song or simply total silence. Being a visual medium, without music, a film remains earthbound. It can fly high, very high, if the score, scores. The music becomes emblazoned in the audience’s mind as any of the images.

Be it a western like, The Magnificent Seven, a war epic like, The Guns of Navarone, the musical, My Fair Lady, or the fantasy, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the soundtracks help to define them. The finest film music also has a character of its own. Movie themes are played in departmental stores, film songs are performed in concert halls and weddings.

music of The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai (Pic: IMDb)

Some music pieces from films will never be forgotten. Recap the 1957, star studded memorable film, Bridge on the River Kwai by David Lean. Composer (Sir) Malcolm Arnold who won the Oscar for its music had less than three weeks to write for the film. The soundtrack of the film is largely diegetic as in many tense, dramatic scenes, only the sounds of nature were used. The rustling of foliage, the echo of explosions, the sudden screaming of a bird, the sound of insects etc. But what holds the cinema fans most, is the whistling march by the POWs when they enter the camp.

The march tune, Colonel Bogey was originally written in 1914 by British Bandmaster, Frederick J. Ricketts using a pseudonym, Kenneth J Alford. But it was the skilled work of Malcolm Arnold which made it world famous.

The whistlers, incidentally, were a piccolo and seventeen members of the Irish Guards who were not handpicked as they all knew Colonel Bogey. With whistling being a natural habit with most men, Arnold asked the Irish Guards to replace ‘the dirty words’ that were associated with Colonel Bogey, with the whistle. The piccolo was used to give them the pitch and the military band, Buckingham Palace style, earlier recorded, was fused in for grandeur. Today, the film is also remembered for its ‘march’ music …… an all time popular score.

Another fine example of theme music is that of Dr. No. When Ian Fleming, the writer of Dr. No began to write the exploits of a British secret agent in 1952 with Casino Royale, he never had an iota of thought that a foundation of a billion dollar industry was being laid. And John Barry, the arranger of Dr. No did not have the slightest idea that he would be launching Spy Music that was to become a genre in film music.

The Bond ‘sound’ was an incident by chance. John Barry arranged something for Monty Norman’s tune that would suit a spy. It was a concoction of jazz, classics, pop that was found working. It had all about that character, James Bond, sound wise … cocky, swaggering, confident, dark, dangerous, suggestive, sexy, unstoppable ….. bloody hell — all in two minutes.

The editor of Dr. No, Peter Hunt liked it so much that he kept repeating the piece throughout the film. It ultimately became, the de facto sound of international espionage, on screen. The tremendous ‘sound success’ of this ‘James Bond Theme,’ led Barry to compose for more Bond movies, 11, eventually.

The huge popularity of the 1960s Bond films forced composers of spy thrillers of both big and small screens to follow in varying degrees, Barry’s path breaking creations. That included films like, The Man from U.N.C.L.E’, Our Man Flint which we had the opportunity to see in Dhaka.

Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia

Then there is, this score of Lawrence of Arabia. Sam Spiegel, the producer, who always had an obsession for brand names, offered (Sir) William Walton and (Sir) Malcolm Arnold for its music. But the two tactfully moved out, as to them, the film did not have that appeal for a score. Arnold recommended, Aram Khatchaturian of Russia as one of the composers.

This left Sam Spiegel to rethink and he decided to have three composers for the film. An unknown 35-year-old Maurice Jarre from France for the dramatics, Khatchaturian for the oriental part and Benjamin Britten for the British imperial music. But Khatchaturian was not allowed to leave Russia and Benjamin Britten needed a year to do the job. Naturally both were out and Sam struck a deal with Richard Rodgers who was then quite a name in musicals and operating from New York.

But David Lean was disappointed with Rodgers theme; on the other hand, in the same sitting, he was extremely impressed with Jarre’s score that he heard on the piano. David put his hand on the young Jarre’s shoulder but gave him only six weeks for two hours of orchestral music needed for the film.

Managing with only 3 hours of sleep per day, Jarre finally made it. It was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Jarre as the conductor although the credit was given officially to (Sir) Adrian Boult who actually had failed to do the job. The score got Jarre his first Academy Award and today, ‘the Lawrence Music’ is considered one of the greatest scores of all time.

While working on the soundtrack for Dr. Zhivago, David Lean wanted a well-known Russian song for the character of Lara, portrayed by Julie Christie and asked Maurice Jarre to adapt it. But MGM (which did not like Maurice Jarre’s selection because his music might sound ‘desert like’ and wanted ‘Hollywood’ to do it) could not locate the rights to it. Thus Maurice Jarre was handed over the responsibility to compose the theme. For Jarre, it was a ‘hell of a job’ to meet David’s requirement. David then suggested Jarre to take his girlfriend to the mountains and write a piece of music for her. The result was Lara’s Theme.

Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Zhivago (Pic: Wikipedia)

David Lean instantly fell in love with it and decided to use it in numerous tracks for the film. While editing the film, David Lean and producer Carlo Ponti reduced or deleted many of the themes composed by Jarre. This annoyed Jarre as he felt that an over-reliance on Lara’s Theme would mess up the soundtrack.

But that was not the case. Lara’s Theme hit the world instantly and gained fame throughout the world to the extent that singer, Ray Conniff, Connie Francis and lyricist Paul Francis Webster presented, Somewhere My Love based on Lara’s Theme. Various versions of it have since been released. Lara’s Theme today remains one of the most recognized movie themes ever written.

But all said and done, the finest film music in the western world were and still continue to be of middle-European symphonic sensibility. The music writing can be in London or Hollywood but the heart still remains in Vienna, Berlin or Moscow.

More to read

An Overview of American Movies of 1958

The Cinema of Bergman and Antonioni

The Incomparable Music Of S D Burman Transcends Generations


Creative Writing

Whether you are new or veteran, you are important. Please contribute with your articles on cinema, we are looking forward for an association. Send your writings to

HQ Chowdhury is a freelance writer on music and films. He first wrote in the late 1960s for the People, an English daily from Dhaka and then for a while in the early 1970s for Cine Advance, published from Kolkata and Mumbai. He is the author of Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman (the biography of composer-singer SD Burman) and a recipient of the 2006 ‘Sachin Dev Burman Award’ from the Government of Tripura, India. HQ Chowdhury is the CEO of Plasma Plus, an application laboratory of science and technology of which he is also the founder. He was listed in the Marquis WHO’s WHO in the World of Professionals from 1997 to 2002.
All Posts of HQ Chowdhury

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3 thoughts on “Lasting Music Pieces in Films

  • Pingback: Carnival of Blogs on Golden Era of Hindi Film Music

  • Kunal Chatterjee

    HQ Chowdhury is a seasoned scribe and has in-depth knowledge of film music. It is certainly true that a movie can be made without songs but it is virtually impossible to make a movie without music. Besides direction, acting, cinematography, music is the most creative component of film-making. It has to be the most “visible” facet because it is integral to audio-visual perception of the central theme of any movie. I entirely agree with HQC’s fine elaboration on music of few well-known Hollywood movies enhancing the cinematic experience of dramatic and delicate contents of the basic story that it narrates.

    The movies listed by him are veritable classics of 20th century cinema. Nevertheless, I have one minor issue. I wish he had included song “Where do I begin” of Andy Williams composed by French musician Francis Lai for 1970 release “Love Story”. It integrated very well with the theme. Besides it would have been a wonderful tribute to Francis Lai who passed away few months ago (in November 2018). Unfortunately, his death virtually went unreported in Indian print and electronic media.

    Antara, my sincerest thanks to you for sharing a very enjoyable essay by HQC.

    1. Antara

      Kunal Da…thanks for an awesome and so detailed comment.

      The song you have mentioned is a classic one (makes one emotional) and there were some more too. Among the more recent ones, I remember the theme music of Pink Panther 😀 its so cute and became very popular.

      “Play it once, Sam. For old time’s sake… Play it, Sam. As time goes by…” The ravishing Ingrid Bergman and the theme song that I will never forget from Casablanca. 🙂

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