Top 20 Movie Theme Songs
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
WRITTEN BY: Nick Spake
These tracks deserve top billing! For this list, we'll be looking at the most iconic tunes that are forever tied to classic films. Our countdown includes “Shallow”, "Eye of the Tiger", "I Will Always Love You”, "Ghostbusters", “Over the Rainbow”, and more!
top 20 movie theme Songs
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 20 movie theme Songs.
For this list, we’ll be looking at the most iconic tunes that are forever tied to classic films. We’ll be excluding instrumental pieces this time around.
What’s your favorite movie theme song? Let us know in the comments.
This musical drama explores both the expectations and reality of pursuing a career in the arts. The theme song taps more into the expectations, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The “Fame” theme is so optimistic that it’s practically therapeutic for aspiring artists everywhere. If you need a pick-me-up before a life-changing audition or the opening night of your Broadway debut, this song will give you the confidence. By the end of the first verse, you might be compelled to rush outside and start dancing in the streets. Michael Gore’s toe-tapping music and Dean Pitchford’s celebratory lyrics are perfectly complemented by Irene Cara’s enthusiastic vocals. The song isn’t simply about achieving fame. It’s about the enduring passion that will take you to the top.
#19: “Rainbow Connection”
“The Muppet Movie” (1979)
At the suggestion of Jim Henson, Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher devised a banjo solo for Kermit the Frog. The result was “Rainbow Connection,” a tune that was inspired by the magical “When You Wish Upon a Star” from “Pinocchio.” Just as that timeless tune evolved into Disney’s anthem, “Rainbow Connection” has etched out a similar place in the Muppets’ legacy. Also like Walt Disney, Henson was a once-in-a-lifetime innovator who always dreamed big. “Rainbow Connection” encourages dreamers to pursue the impossible and make it a reality. You may even pick up some friends who share a similar dream along the way. While the main story commences with Kermit singing alone, he’s joined by over 250 Muppets for the final reprise, completing the Rainbow Connection.
#18: “The Power of Love”
“Back to the Future” (1985)
Nothing jumpstarts a time travel plot quite like being late for school, but it’s the classic pop rocker that gets Marty McFly really going. Huey Lewis’ first number one single, the song pops up throughout this sci-fi trilogy, meshing brilliantly with the movie’s themes and with Marty’s idealistic young character. As it’s practically his own personal theme, Marty and his band ‘The Pinheads’ attempt to perform the tune at a battle of the bands audition; however, a familiar-looking judge shuts him down pretty quick. And that’s too bad, because “The Power of Love” is an undisputed masterpiece, and we personally don’t mind if it’s too darn loud.
#17: “The NeverEnding Story”
“The NeverEnding Story” (1984)
“The NeverEnding Story” remains a decade-defining movie for any kid who grew up in the 80s. From the get-go, the English version of this fantasy creates a distinctly 80s aesthetic with its synth-pop theme song. That’s not to say the song is at all dated. On the contrary, there’s a sense of wonder to the lyrics and melody that’ll speak to anybody with an active imagination. Limahl’s (lih-MAWL) whimsical vocals only make the tune more infectious. Like the film, the song does technically end, which you could argue contradicts the title. The tune is so catchy, however, that you want to play it on an endless loop. No matter how many times we listen to it, the theme never loses its appeal.
“A Star Is Born” (2018)
Although it was originally meant to merely be played over the end credits, “Shallow” evolved into the driving force behind “A Star Is Born.” You never know where a song might take you. One day, you might be testing it out in a parking lot with a fellow singer you just met. The next, the two of you could be performing it in front of a massive audience. This power ballad conveys Ally’s desire for something more, Jackson’s search for companionship, and their escalating feelings for each other. Although Ally is initially afraid to dive off the deep end, Jackson motivates her to jump with him. Moving out of shallow waters, Ally is swept away by the adoring crowd and her blossoming romance with Jackson.
#15: “Mrs. Robinson”
“The Graduate” (1967)
We all associate this folk-rock song with the eponymous Mrs. Robinson, who jumpstarts the younger Benjamin’s journey into adulthood. When Simon & Garfunkel were first working on the tune, it wasn’t about Mrs. Robinson. Rather, the song was originally titled “Mrs. Roosevelt,” as in the former First Lady. Following a meeting with director Mike Nichols, everything started falling into place for the now-classic song. Although traces of the tune’s original intent can still be heard in the final product, it still works as an ode to Mrs. Robinson. The carefree melody paints an innocent portrait. Upon reading deeper into the lyrics, we sense that there’s something more adult going on, especially the verse where they talk about needing to hide “the Robinson’s affair” from the kids.
The “Footloose” soundtrack has arguably left an even greater impact than the film itself. More than 35 years later, we’re still rocking out to the titular theme song by Kenny Loggins and Dean Pitchford. Although many associate this song with Kevin Bacon’s iconic warehouse dance, the song “Never” by Moving Pictures actually accompanies that scene. Whenever we’re alone and need to blow off steam, “Footloose” is the song we turn to. The lively lyrics and electrifying melody encourage us to let out all of our pent-up energy through dance. You might not have Ren McCormack’s dancing skills, but the song will make you feel confident enough to fly. It’s the ideal way to kick off a weekend and has basically become a school dance staple.
#13: “Flashdance... What a Feeling”
Another dance flick that defined the ‘80s, “Flashdance” also scores singer Irene Cara her second mention on this list. Co-written by Cara, Giorgio Moroder, and Keith Forsey, the theme song can be summed up in one word: “joyous.” As such, we can’t think of a more fitting way to cap off our heroine’s journey. First heard over the opening credits “when there’s nothing,” the theme returns for Alex’s climactic audition. Both the song and the dance convey how far Alex has come not only as a performer, but as a person as well. Emerging more radiant and resilient than ever before, Alex leaves her audience on a high note. It’s a mic drop of an ending that wouldn’t feel complete without this inspiring song.
#12: “Eye of the Tiger”
“Rocky III” (1982)
If we were to rank all the “Rocky” movies, the third chapter would fall somewhere in the middle. As far as “Rocky” theme songs go, though, “Eye of the Tiger” is the one to beat. Performed by the band Survivor, the song was co-written by lead guitarist Frankie Sullivan and keyboardist Jim Peterik. Tying it all together is lead singer Dave Bickler, whose fiery vocals bring out the will to survive. “Eye of the Tiger” could’ve just been a catchy tune to play over the credits and training montage. However, the filmmakers weaved this rousing song into the narrative’s overarching theme. It encompasses the edge that made Rocky the champ and the drive he feels to reclaim his title. The outcome is a knockout.
#11: “Lose Yourself”
“8 Mile” (2002)
“8 Mile” is a semi-autobiographical film that draws influence from Eminem’s life before he achieved mainstream success. The rapper’s struggles and triumphs are on full display in “Lose Yourself,” which encapsulates B-Rabbit’s journey in roughly five minutes. The song also captures the grit and pride associated with the Detroit hip-hop scene, as well as the city itself. In addition to being what might be Eminem’s most personal work, its rhyme scheme and beat burrow their way into the listener’s head. Although Eminem wasn’t present to accept his Oscar, he’d appear on the 2020 Academy Award telecast to perform “Lose Yourself.” It went to show that even after all these years, people were still turning to the song for inspiration and making memes out of “Mom’s Spaghetti.”
#10: “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”
“Dirty Dancing” (1987)
Of all the dance movies the ‘80s gave us, “Dirty Dancing” may be the most memorable. This is due in part to its soundtrack, which offered a variety of nostalgic songs and original singles. The standout is this Oscar and Grammy-winning tune, which accompanies the climactic dance between Baby and Johnny. While the song was written with the film in mind, its placement during this pivotal scene can be attributed to choreographer Kenny Ortega and assistant Miranda Garrison. “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” synced up flawlessly with their choreography, as well as the emotional journey our leads have been on. The sequence is as sizzling as it is uplifting, appropriately culminating with what might be the most famous lift in cinema.
#9: “Live and Let Die”
“Live and Let Die” (1973)
The words and ideas of Ian Fleming managed to reunite Paul McCartney with The Beatles’ producer George Martin to create one of the best-remembered themes from the long-running James Bond series. Written by Sir Paul after reading the novel on which the film was based, the tune’s sultry piano music strikes up without warning and sets the stage for the musical pressure to come in the form of a grand orchestra. The rocker’s triumph was as inevitable as another Bond movie, and it became not only one of Wings’ most successful singles but also the first Bond theme to be Oscar-nominated for Best Original Song. The first to win, however, was “Skyfall.”
#8: “I Will Always Love You”
“The Bodyguard” (1992)
While some songs become iconic right away, others take time to achieve such a status. “I Will Always Love You” is an example of the latter. When Dolly Parton first released the original country version in the 70s, it performed well. But Whitney Houston immortalized the song with her haunting rendition in “The Bodyguard.” In her film debut, she plays an actress/singer who develops a close relationship with her bodyguard. Although the romance is kept relatively understated for most of the film, our lovers share a steamy embrace as they part ways. Their kiss goodbye is sealed with an equally passionate song. Houston throws her soul into every note. Although the two go their separate ways, their hearts remain intertwined through this poignant track.
“Top Gun” (1986)
This is truly a song that screams “1980s” and acts as the anthem for bromances across the world. Mixing a synthesized bassline with the vocals of the King of the Movie Soundtrack himself never sounded so good, especially considering the background to the song: originally, producers wanted Toto, Bryan Adams or even REO Speedwagon to perform it – with all of them turning down the opportunity for different reasons. Eventually, Mr. Loggins was tapped to perform the hit track, likely thanks to his impressive job with “Footloose” a few years prior. But it’s the epic nature of “Danger Zone” that has bypassed ‘80s cheese and gone straight back into awesome territory.
Say it with us now: “Ghostbusters!” When approached by producers to create a theme for this supernatural comedy, Ray Parker, Jr. was given very little time to write a dance-pop masterpiece – especially considering how hard it is to rhyme with “Ghostbusters.” According to Parker, he saw a cheap ad late at night that was incredibly similar to the one featured in the movie and he was inspired to set what basically became a commercial jingle to a popping beat. However, Huey Lewis sued Parker due to the similarities between the “Ghostbusters” theme and his own song “I Want a New Drug.” Regardless of the resemblance, Parker, Jr. seems to have come out on top thanks to his super-catchy theme song.
#5: “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”
“The Breakfast Club” (1985)
This coming-of-age classic opens and closes with the same song by rock band Simple Minds. By the time the credits roll, the characters we met in the first scene have significantly grown. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” encompasses the same feeling each teen experiences as they part ways. It’s a feeling that although something has come to an end, something new is beginning. Whatever waits on the horizon, the five likely won’t face it together because they all come from different backgrounds. But the impact they’ve had on each other won’t be forgotten. The same can be said about this bittersweet new wave tune. Anyone who feels lost as the song commences may find what they’re searching for before its conclusion.
#4: “Stayin' Alive”
“Saturday Night Fever” (1977)
They say disco is dead, but the endurance of this film’s best-selling soundtrack suggests it’s still very much alive. The Bee Gees’ musical contributions, in particular, added another layer to the story and character development. Right off the bat, “Stayin' Alive” tells us everything we need to know about Tony Manero. Like the song, Tony comes off as cool and confident on the surface. Listening to the lyrics, however, the song’s message of survival is made apparent. Although it seems like Tony owns the streets of New York, the big city is slowly eating him alive and disco is the one escape. The song will speak to anyone who’s tried to maintain a self-assured appearance while struggling to find their place in life.
#3: “Circle of Life”
“The Lion King” (1994)
We easily could’ve populated at least half of this list with themes from Disney’s animated library. For the sake of variety, though, we’re shining a spotlight on the Disney song that gives us the most chills. No, not “Let It Go,”―although that ever-popular tune was a worthy contender. Every time “The Lion King” commences with the “Circle of Life,” we get goosebumps. It’s a song that makes us feel almost insignificant in the vastness of nature. At the same time, “Circle of Life” reminds us that we all have a part to play in this world. Elton John’s music and Tim Rice’s lyrics are sweeping yet soothing, not unlike a sunrise. Opening and closing Simba’s story, the song makes the circle whole.
#2: “My Heart Will Go On”
As an elderly Rose lies in bed, her younger self reunites with Jack aboard the Titanic, sharing a kiss while their fellow passengers surround the staircase. For anyone in the audience barely containing their tears, the ensuing song is what unleashed the floodgates. “My Heart Will Go On” is every bit as epic and romantic as the film that inspired it. Ironically director James Cameron initially didn’t want a theme song for his picture because he feared it’d come off as too “commercial.” Likewise, singer Celine Dion wasn’t sure if she had another “Beauty and the Beast” in her. Composer James Horner was so adamant that he quietly worked on the song with lyricist Will Jennings. Cameron eventually gave his blessing and the rest is history.
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
“Men in Black,” “Men in Black” (1997)
Will Smith at the Height of His Film & Music Career
“Gangsta’s Paradise,” “Dangerous Minds” (1995)
Way Before We All Associated It with the First “Sonic the Hedgehog” Trailer
“Princes of the Universe,” “Highlander” (1986)
This Theme Has the Power!
“Theme from Shaft,” “Shaft” (1971)
Damn Right, This Is on the List!
“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” “Armageddon” (1998)
A Power Ballad That Hits You Like a Meteor Shower
#1: “Over the Rainbow”
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
“The Wizard of Oz” is full of extravagant musical numbers. But its most beloved song feels surprisingly simple. There’s no complex choreography or crowds. It’s just a young girl on a farm, singing about her desire to travel somewhere more colorful. But sometimes the simplest songs are the most profound. “Over the Rainbow” brilliantly sets up Dorothy’s story. Upon arriving in Oz, all she wants is to return home. It dawns on Dorothy how much she misses the comfort of Kansas, as well as those she left behind. Her farm might not be as exciting as Oz, but it has a warmth that can’t be topped. While “Over the Rainbow” speaks to our inner-adventurer, its peaceful melody reminds us that there’s no place like home.