As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famously said, “Music is the universal language of mankind,” for it connects us, inspires us, fills us with grief, or instills us with hope. Some songs, written for movies, have develop into so iconic — recognizable by the primary stroke of the guitar or beat of the drum — that they not only represent the films they were written for but often the zeitgeist of the time. In other cases, they’re simply goofy and catchy, abandoning a legacy that supplants their cinematic counterparts. So listed here are our top ten most iconic songs written for movies, ranked.
“Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” | ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’
“Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” was written for the 1969 classic western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starring then-young heartthrobs Robert Redford and Paul Newman. The song boasts a happy-go-lucky beat about overcoming the blues, for “happiness” will greet you soon enough. “Crying’s not for me,” sings B.J. Thomas as he laments concerning the sun’s poor performance on the job.
In the film, the song is a much-needed respite from the otherwise tense narrative. Newman and Redford take refuge in a secluded home and get a moment to ride bicycles. It’s a playful interlude that gives a bit carefree escapism from their always-on-the-run outlaw lifestyle. It’s an ideal fit — musically matching the scene’s energy but lyrically suggesting the characters’ neverending hurdles.
The song is now a go-to tune for those coping with a bit rain on cloud nine. It lingers just long enough within the “pity me” space before taking a more uplifting turn.
“Ghostbusters” | ‘Ghostbusters’
“Who you gonna call? (Ghostbusters!)” It’s a famous and oft-quoted song lyric referenced in The Nanny, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Supernatural, How I Met Your Mother, Futurama, The Magicians, and more. The Ghostbusters movie was even a complete category on Jeopardy!…twice! The first time, there was also a category titled “Who you gonna call” with phone-number-related trivia in store for the contestants. The song has implanted itself into popular culture, because the little ditty is catchy and ripe for comedy. Those unfamiliar with the movie are often acquainted with the tune, earning its place on this list.
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” | ‘Pat Garret & Billy the Kid’
The Boston Globe’s Kevin Kelly deemed 1973’s Pat Garret & Billy the Kid “a monotonous and despicable movie,” while The Chicago Tribune highlighted its “emotional slow motion” and “self-inflating lethargy.” In short, the Western following the tumultuous relationship between an outlaw and his former friend turned sheriff wasn’t exactly a critical success. However, Bob Dylan’s song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” peaked at #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed on the charts for 16 weeks.
The song boasts universal themes about mortality and the eager for peace within the short stay now we have on earth. The lyrics became an anthem for the generations addressing the widespread disillusionment prevalent at the peak of the Vietnam War. Like at all times, Dylan managed to tap into the collective consciousness of the American public — as they grappled with the social and governmental establishment.
“Eye of the Tiger” | ‘Rocky III’
How “Eye of the Tiger” got here to feature in Rocky III is an interesting story that features The Karate Kid, helmed by John G. Avildsen (the identical director who took home the Best Director Oscar for 1977’s Rocky). According to Millennial Mind, Stallone was searching for an original, youthful, upbeat track to feature in Rocky III. So, Bill Conti (music) teamed with Joe Esposito (vocals) and Allee Willis (lyrics) to provide “You’re The Best” for the film. Though this wasn’t quite a fit for Rocky, it worked beautifully for the ultimate combat montage in The Karate Kid.
Stallone then reached out to Jim Peterik of Survivor, and the remaining is (as they are saying) history. The intro chords to “Eye of the Tiger” are immediately recognizable and adrenaline-boosting. You feel the energy swell in your gut — the necessity to release all that pent-up aggression.
It’s hard to assume playing “Eye of the Tiger” and failing to punch on the imaginary people within the room. It’s intimately related to the Rocky franchise and has since develop into a timeless tune about determination within the face of adversity. About the fighter spirit. About the struggle, the sacrifice, and the eventual triumph.
“Call Me” | ‘American Gigolo’
Debbie Harry of Blondie fame penned “Call Me” after she was asked to write down an original song for the 1980 neo-noir crime drama American Gigolo. She worked alongside composer Giorgio Moroder to create this ‘80s rock hit that peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on April 19, 1980, stayed at #1 for six weeks, and stayed on the charts for a complete of 25 weeks.
The catchy, disco-infused sound and sultry lyrics captured the film’s seductive air and decadent lifestyle, resonating with listeners in support of a bit hedonism and excess. Not to say, the song was quite sexually liberating as Blondie owned her status and power as a liberated woman of the ‘80s.
“Stayin’ Alive” | ‘Saturday Night Fever’
The Bee Gees penned several hit tracks for 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, including “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Night Fever,” “Stayin’ Alive,” and “More Than a Woman” yet “Stayin’ Alive” is arguably probably the most immediately recognizable and culturally significant.
The song went on to develop into the anthem of the disco era as its infection rhythm danced across nightclubs all over the place. The Bee Gees sound — mixing elements of funk, soul, and pop — is one way or the other each distinctive and destined for karaoke sing-alongs. The number reflected the growing popularity of disco music and the Bee Gees’ influence as leading artists of the time.
“Don’t You (Forget About Me)” | ‘The Breakfast Club’
Written by producer Keith Forsey and guitarist Steve Schiff and performed by Simple Minds, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” was inspired by a scene in The Breakfast Club where the introvert and the varsity bully bond while nobody is watching. Forsey told The Guardian, “ It was: don’t forget, after we’re back within the classroom, you’re not only a foul guy and we’ve got other things in common.”
The song became synonymous with The Breakfast Club, exploring themes of identity and the deep-seated desire all of us need to connect — especially as we’re coming of age. The song is emblematic of youthful insurrection and individual expression within the face of social pressures to evolve. Relatable lyrics paired with a shoulder-swaying melody and sing-a-long chorus made for a timeless hit that is still without delay nostalgic of ‘80s youth culture and reflective of the highschool experience many years later.
“Mrs. Robinson” | ‘The Graduate’
Simon and Garfunkel wrote several songs for The Graduate, but “Mirs. Robinson” and “The Sound of Silence” remain probably the most celebrated, with the previous arguably representing the film to a greater extent.
Mrs. Robinson” became an anthem for the counterculture movement of the Nineteen Sixties, reflecting the generational clashes that defined the last decade. With a catchy chorus featuring lines like “Heaven holds a spot for individuals who pray” — satirically mocking those that profess to be virtuous but possess less-than-holy intentions — the song questions traditional notions of morality, bringing under a microscope the views of a somewhat older, antiquated generation.
The cutesy, fast-paced beat retains a light-hearted nature quite antithetical to the complexity and deepness inherent to the lyrics, allowing the song to postulate without pandering.
“Theme From New York, New York” | ‘New York, New York’
Though intimately connected to the charismatic baritone-voiced Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli first sang “New York, New York” for Martin Scorcese’s 1977 film of the identical name. Written by the legendary songwriting duo John Kander and Fred Ebb (who made historic musical contributions to Chicago, Cabaret, Liza With a Z, Curtains, The Rink, Funny Lady, and more), the number perfectly captures that New Yorker restlessness. That ambition. That drive to succeed. You can smell smoke within the air and listen to the honking of taxi cabs while listening.
The song contrasts New York’s gritty underbelly — which many movies were emphasizing on the time — and asserts a more romantic notion of town that never sleeps. To this present day, the song serves to represent New York City, and the limitless opportunities that await you if you travel to the Big Apple to “make a brand latest start of it.” Because, in case you could make it there, you possibly can make it anywhere.
“9 to five” | ‘9 to five’
“Tumble away from bed and stumble to the kitchen. Pour myself a cup of ambition.” No truer words have ever been spoken. No lyrics have ever higher relayed the sentiment of a working-class citizen waking as much as return to the grind. “9 to five” seamlessly captured the blue-collar struggle, but more specifically the shortage of equality women faced within the workplace. The struggles women endured against a misogynistic and patriarchal system. “It’s a wealthy man’s game, regardless of what you call it,” and girls shouldn’t spend their careers boosting their bosses’ resumes and putting money of their wallets — only to be sidelined and dismissed.
With lyrics like “need to move ahead however the boss won’t appear to let me,” the song tapped into the growing frustrations and aspirations women felt as they fought for workplace equality within the ’80s.
The song quickly became an anthem representative of the second wave of feminism, encouraging the necessity for solidarity within the face of corporate gender discrimination. The song was, and still is, a rallying cry for justice, equality, and equity. With Dolly Parton on vocals (and on nails — google it), “9 to five” was destined to develop into a rustic hit.