The days when people waited for a new Beethoven to drop are long gone, but classical music lives on in pop culture—almost every time you go to the movies or binge-stream a new show over the weekend.
Indiana Jones wouldn’t look quite so heroic leaping across crevices without that adventurous brass melody behind him; Rose and Jack, less romantic without the wistful Irish flute; and Captain Jack Sparrow, less of a wild card without the army of rebel strings carrying him to shore.
That said, do viewers recognize movie soundtracks once the credits roll? We asked 500 people if they recognized some of the greatest film theme songs in Hollywood history, and more fell through the cracks than we expected. Would you have done better?
Most recognizable movie soundtracks
- The Lion King soundtrack took the top spot, with 86% percent of respondents recognizing the opening song, “Circle of Life.”
- Composed by Elton John with lyrics by Tim Rice, the tune was nominated for best original song at the Academy Awards in 1994.
- Titanic came in second, with 84% of respondents recognizing the soundtrack’s signature Celtic crooning.
- The single “My Heart Will Go On,” composed by James Horner with vocals by Celine Dion and lyrics by Will Jennings, became the second best-selling physical single recorded by a female artist in history.
- 77% percent of respondents recognized the dramatic string jaunt, “He’s a Pirate,” from the first installment of Pirates of the Caribbean.
- Composed by Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer for the 2003 Disney film, the track returned for every film in the $4.5 billion franchise and still energizes the crowd at Tampa Bay Buccaneers home games today.
- Another 77% recognized the ’80s pop hit “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from the romcom Dirty Dancing.
- The song won the Oscar and the Golden Globe in 1987 for best original song, plus a Grammy Award for best pop performance by a duo or group with vocals.
- 74% of respondents recognized the Star Wars theme—a percentage perhaps on the low side considering how popular Disney has made the franchise.
- Director George Lucas knew he had to have John Williams for his space epic after hearing the score of Jaws. “Give me a body of work,” he asked Williams, “comparable with the greatest masterpieces of symphonic history.” Twenty-eight years later, the American Film Institute named Star Wars the greatest American movie score of all time.
- Indiana Jones and James Bond, both longer-standing franchises created in the 1960s or ’70s, were recognized by 71% and 69% of respondents, respectively.
- The Indiana Jones theme song, “The Raiders March,” started as two separate songs. Steven Spielberg asked John Williams to link them together, and the rest is history.
- Mission Impossible tied with Indiana Jones, with 71% of respondents recognizing the bongo percussion that still characterizes stealthy spy stories today.
- Despite being wildly popular films with modern-day relevance, Jurassic Park and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had the least recognized soundtracks of the group at 50% and 56%, respectively.
We surveyed 500 Americans using Pollfish, a market research software, to see if they recognized 10 iconic movie soundtracks.