The Power of Themes

It’s interesting to see the effect on an audience when they hear a beloved theme. The James Bond theme in a trailer always seem to elicit cheers. I still remember the enthusiastic audience reaction to just the finger-snapping theme in the trailer for for the Addams Family. The audience went wild. The STAR TREK, STAR WARS, INDIANA JONES, SHAFT, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and Harry Potter are among the many other themes that have that same power. We have a strong, emotional reaction to theme music. It evokes not only memories of the show, but memories of who we were, and what we were doing, at the time we were watching those movies of TV shows. You can’t buy that kind of instant audience reaction (which is why I am baffled by the decision of movie-makings NOT to use the themes for WILD WILD WEST and MIAMI VICE in the movie versions).

But there’s an aspect to theme music I never thought of. I recently bought screenwriter Christopher Wood’s self-published memoir JAMES BOND, THE SPY I LOVED (which you can order from and in the book he makes an interesting, almost throwaway observation relating to the emotional impact of a score on the screenwriter:

Now we have the credits and the delighted writer’s name in happy proximity to a seemingly naked, somersaulting girl whilst Shirley Bassey belts out the theme song of the movie (MOONRAKER). I like this song and it is hardly surprising. There is a form of umbilical cord that binds any writer to the music from a film he has written. I only have to hear a few bars from the score of CONFESSIONS OF A POP PERFORMER and tears come to my eyes — mind you, that score brought tears to a lot of people’s eyes.

The theme to MOONRAKER is almost universally despised among Bond fans (right up there with OCTOPUSSY), and yet I can totally understand Woods’ reaction. I have that same, emotional bond with themes to the shows I have been a part of. Who but the writer of the show would love, much less remember, the totally unmemorable themes to THE COSBY MYSTERIES, THE HIGHWAYMAN, or COBRA? It’s not because the music is any good, it’s because of the memories they evoke for me and the emotional investment I made in those shows. I have a ridiculously strong attachment to the themes from SPENSER FOR HIRE, BAYWATCH, DIAGNOSIS MURDER and SEAQUEST that have nothing to do with the quality of the music. They are on my iPOD and I listen to them more often than I care to admit.

Already the score of FAST TRACK has a hold on me — and it’s only been a few weeks since we completed the movie. The music will always remind me of my summer in Berlin, making the movie, and the fun I had. It will always remind me of my trip through Europe with my family. It will always remind me of my friends in Germany and the good times we have had together over the last year. Long after the movie is gone and forgotten, the music will still have this power over me and I’m glad.

3 thoughts on “The Power of Themes”

  1. I agree themes do have great power. I’m waiting for the day when you can open a book and, just like those musical greeting cards, the books theme plays in the back ground for 20 sec. Diagnosis Murder books are my favorites by the way.

  2. From what I understand Sonnefeld didn’t want to use the Addams Family theme either but — as the story goes — some of the producers were on the way to location and started singing the song on the way, and someone realized it had to be included.
    What gets me with themes, especially Bond and Mission Impossible, is that when used carefully during the movie they kick up the excitement. The first Mission Impossible movie did this brilliantly: on the top of the train, excitement is mounting, someone’s gonna die and it’s not looking good for Ethan, and the audience is tensing up and anything can happen and then the theme kicks in and shivers shoot down your spine shivers because you know this means that wild as the action is, the main character is about to do something *amazing*. Silly though the situation was, I got chills when I heard the music. In Bond movies the music would swell and turn dramatic and exciting, but when the Bond theme played it meant he was about to do something that only Bond could do.
    Also got chills – for different reasons – during the show Smallville when Christopher Reeve guest-starred the first time. John Williams’ original Superman theme was woven in very skillfully and subtly so that during the entire scene the score was toying with your memories, and when the Reeve mentioned Krypton the coda played full and strong and gave me goosebumps. Excellently done, and a wonderful example of how much a skilled score can bring to the emotional resonance of a story.

  3. This is true of all kinds of music. There is one song that reminds my entire family of a campground we all love. And an entire CD that reminds me of a summer I spent working at a waterslide park.
    Music has a huge power over our emotions. And good theme music taps into that.


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