Image by Ava Weintraub Photography.

From the earliest days of cinema in the 1890s to the zoetrope to the modern surround sound systems of today, there has never really been such a thing as silent cinema. Whether it was somebody playing the piano, organ or violin to accompany the images on screen, movie music has always existed in some form.

 Originally, the majority of music was taken from previous sources or adapted and borrowed from existing material, but as cinema developed so did the music that went with it. Composers were hired to pen original scores to accompany the flickering images, and this became the art of film music.

Cinema has spawned some of the best and most memorable compositions of any musical genre.  Here are some of the greatest examples of music written for films – you might not know who wrote them or what film they’re from, but chances are you’ve heard them more than once.

Star Wars – John Williams

Movies of the 60s and 70s used a lot of jazz and pop songs, but John Williams practically reinvented the use of the traditional, old fashioned, orchestral film score with his grand and operatic music for George Lucas’ space adventure.  Recommended to Lucas by Spielberg who had worked with him on Jaws, it went on to become a record-breaking album, won an Oscar and reintroduced a new generation to the possibilities of film music.

Gone With The Wind – Max Steiner

Max Steiner had scored King Kong (1933) and his late Romantic Viennese style was perfect for David O’Selznick’s Civil War romance. With music for pretty much the films three hour-plus duration, it was a herculean task that resulted in one of the most recognizable themes ever.

Psycho – Bernard Herrmann

Herrmann was an absolute master – his first film was Citizen Kane and his last was Taxi Driver, but it’s his collaborations with Hitchcock that gained him most notoriety. As well as Vertigo and North by Northwest, Herrmann wrote what was arguably his masterpiece – the shrieking violins of the shower murder were enough to cement his genius reputation.

The Third Man – Anton Karas

Anton Karas theme was written to for an unusual, quirky instrument called the zither, and it’s this sound, along with its jaunty theme, that instantly became associated with Orson Welles’ shady but charming character Harry Lime – and an instant classic.

The Magnificent Seven – Elmer Bernstein

Bernstein’s muscular and heroic theme is the stuff of legend and has been often plagiarised for other films, TV shows, adverts and parodies – in other words, it has become part of popular culture that is really quite extraordinary for film music.

The Godfather – Nino Rota

Rota’s frequent collaborator was Fellini before he worked with Francis Ford Coppola on the Godfather movies. Interestingly, its original Oscar nomination was withdrawn on the grounds that Rota had borrowed and reworked music from previous compositions. Needless to say, the films and the score have become classics.

ET: The Extra Terrestrial – John Williams

Another entry – and Oscar winner – from Maestro Williams, his romantic, soaring, luscious theme has long been a firm favourite of both movies and film scores and demonstrated again Williams knack for coming up with unforgettable themes.

The Great Escape – Elmer Bernstein

Another Bernstein effort, not only an iconic movie theme but also frequently whistled during England football matches. If any film music is worth getting a decent car radio for, just so you can blast it at full volume, this is it.

This list doesn’t even scratch the surface, so what film music do you think has entered the global musical consciousness?