3x3: favorite musical cues

We discuss our favorite musical cues in movies at the 1:16 mark of the Qt3 Movie Podcast of Everest.

Tom Chick
3. Psycho
2. Jaws

  1. Interstellar

3. Henry V
2. Touching the Void

  1. I Am Legend

Kelly Wand
3. Jaws
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey

  1. Vacation

What are your favorite musical cues in movies? Listen to the podcast to hear us hold forth on what we think a musical cue is and isn’t, and to hear Kelly read some listener choices.

Please send in your picks for next week’s topic to [email protected].

No Rushmore, Dingus?

The opening sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark is all about musical cues. The scene is mostly bereft of dialog. The action and the music lead the audience through Indy’s effort to obtain the golden idol. Love that whole sequence!

Of course Jaws has been mentioned and rightfully so. The shark music is about as iconic as it gets.

Psycho has also been mentioned, good choice. Hitchcock was brilliant at using musical cues to heighten suspense and Psycho is probably the most famous.

I’m going to cheat and do TV shows - just because I love my #1

  1. Law & Order: SVU - there is a distinct percussive sound when something clicks with a clue or a new police call comes in and then they transition to the questioning of the suspect or a crime scene or back to the precinct. That would be a deadly drinking game.

  2. Perry Mason: When Perry finally breaks down the witness on the stand and they confess to the crime in court, there is a brief moment of silence and then the familiar music kicks in.

  3. Any Charlie Brown special: When Schroeder decides to get down, it’s time to party. Dig that crazy dancing!

Dada dut dada dut dah dah - dah dut dah! Dada dut dada dut dah dah - dah dut dah! Duh dada dut dut! (twinkly noise) Duh dada dut dut! (twinkly noise) Doobah doobah doodoo, doobah doobah doodoo {repeat as necessary}

See. Now you are smiling. Aren’t you glad I cheated?

The Magnificent Seven

The Pink Panther

I’m not sure if the use of the Cars’ Moving in Stereo in Fast Times at Ridgemont High qualifies. Maybe not, in context, since it’s a one-off. But those first few bars have been quoted a lot.

  1. A Few Dollars More - The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly tends to get all the love, but to me this is far and away the best piece I’ve heard from Morricone. I especially love the use of the church organ.

  2. The Thin Red Line - This plays over one of my favorite sequences in any film. It does an incredible job conveying the horrible sense of inertia and fate of soldiers on both sides trapped in a nightmarish situation where neither side really wants to kill the other, but has to in order to prevent themselves from being killed.

  3. Army of Shadows - I almost never cry during films, but when this kicks over the credits after that gut-punch of an ending, I become a sobbing mess. I think my #2 may actually be better musically speaking, but this carries such an emotional punch for me that I can’t help but put it in the top spot.

And honorable mention: this cue from the Mad Max: Fury Road score. This might be the single best piece of music I’ve found to put on while exercising. If you ever need to make anything you’re doing feel dramatic, give it a try.

By the way, Tom, I absolutely love your pick from Interstellar. Watching that scene in IMAX was just an incredible experience.

“It’s not possible.” “No. It’s necessary.” is an exchange that shouldn’t work, but (for me, at least) totally does.

I love that tiny music box too. This is a great example of beautiful music that ratchets up tension, which is not typically what beautiful music does.

My number 3 is placed right before another dusty standoff bursts into violent action. There’s no music box or church organ, though, and I’m gonna get John Williams out of the way (otherwise this whole topic could be filled with his music). Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker did pretty well in his last fight against one big monster. But the fight before that? That was against one guy, and Luke got his hand chopped off. Why is he picking a fight with an army of gangsters when they’ve already captured him? Now he’s cockily walking a plank like a historically inaccurate pirate. You could say that any attack is impossible, for the bad guys have the high ground. “The Sail Barge Assault” starts off with seven farts of horn over a bed of strings. This musical cue gives the audience enough time to say to each other, “Well, I guess this is it for that guy, 'cause I don’t see how he’s going to get out of this one.” The last flatus fades but the strings keep rising in crescendo. Finally, our heroes launch into battle, and John Williams re-launches into the awfully familiar Star Wars melodies. Man, Star Wars. Do you think the new one will be any good?

  1. I guess I’m still thinking about Jackie Chan from the “Best Stunts” 3x3. There is a folk song translated as “On the General’s Orders” or “The General’s Mandate” that was tied to the folk hero Wong Fei-Hung. Chan played Fei-Hung in some of the Drunken Master movies, plenty of other guys played him when Fei-Hung was portrayed as just a swell guy. In those movies, when that theme starts playing, it either means that some knowledge is about to be learned or Fei-Hung is taking to booze like Popeye takes to spinach. That is, he gets real dangerous.


  1. Gabrielle’s “Dreams” haunts William H. Macy’s character in Magnolia. Every goddamned time he’s in the car (which if I remember correctly, was his mom’s car), that song is playing. It doesn’t dominate the soundtrack, but it’s there. It’s a good choice of a song that would curse that guy, too. First, it’s annoying. Every time Gabrielle brays the word Dreeaams, take care or you’ll be infected with an earworm. Second, it was, and by was I mean had been ubiquitous. I don’t know if kids today would recognize this problem with their spotifies and their pandoras, but back in the day when pop radio fell in love with a song, it would always be on the radio. You wouldn’t have any choice in the matter, it would be there. Quiz Kid Donnie Smith has very little capability in his life to make changes, he can’t even change what they play on the radio. Third, it’s kind of a dated choice. Dreams hit the charts in '94, and Magnolia came out in '99. Quiz Kid Donnie Smith peaked in his childhood, and his wardrobe (jacket with skinny sleeves, narrow tie, big glasses) is stuck in the '80s. So it’s not surprising that his theme song is also behind the times. Like I said, it had been ubiquitous. Lastly, like many pop songs, it has a simple and sickeningly sweet message. Dreams can come true/ Look at me babe, I’m with you/ You know you’ve gotta have hope/ You know you’ve got to be strong. Repeat. Re-Repeat. For this loser, whose greatest hope is that a bartender will requite his unrequited love, it’s a nice affirmation for him to keep going. Even if, at the end of the movie (spoilers!) he’s tried to rob his mean boss, and his teeth are all messed up because he fell on them, and his mom’s car is trashed by raining frogs, well, he still has dreams, and they could come true. Some do! The theme of this movie is that weird shit happens, and the morals of the story are delivered via song titles. “Wise Up” and “Save Me”, indeed. Another song might have told Donnie that he just has to have faith, just has to have faith-ta-faith-ta-faith-ha.

Runners Up:
*I mentioned this a few years ago in the “Most Horrific Falls” 3x3, but the “Aim for the bushes” scene in The Other Guys came to mind. As soon as the intro for Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” kicks in, you know that you are owed some thrilling heroics. I think this song was close to becoming an over-used cliche, like how “Bad to the Bone” isn’t very edgy anymore. But then I might just be thinking that because it was used twice in that high school football movie “Varsity Blues”. Anyway, “My Hero” plays, The Rock and Samuel L. Jackson heroically plunge to their deaths, and it is funny.

  • The big musical standoff in Casablanca“Le Marseillaise” vs. “Die Wacht am Rhein”— echoes throughout Max Steiner’s score almost as much as “As Time Goes By”. As soon as Captain Renault tosses the Vichy Water in the trash, Le Marseillaise marches back on the soundtrack, and you know Renault and Rick Blaine are going to team up in the next installment of the Marvelous Cinematic Universe.

  • The dueling BWAMPs from [B]Inception[/B] and [B]Akira[/B].

  • Brian Eno’s “Prophecy” theme and Toto’s electric guitar sting when the Mayor of Portland rides a sandworm in David Lynch’s Dune. The original movie may not be that great, but I will always evangelize the extended and improved “Spicediver” fan edit and/or the music pack for the Dune Wars Civ IV mod.

You’re Next - “Looking For The Magic”

Maybe not a true musical cue, but nothing good happens when that song is playing.

Maybe a good 3x3 would be songs that are inconsistent with the action. Clockwork Orange has a good one.

Another way to gauge how good this pick is is that I knew exactly which cue he meant when I saw the name of the movie. A stunning moment!

Wrath of Khan - even without seeing the movie you can follow the action with the distinct musical cues forKhaaaan! and Kirk/The Enterprise. The score even follows the special effects - when Spock points out damage to the Enterprise, a horn plays as he jabs his finger at each troublespot.

Bonus:Override - where’s the OVERRIDE?!?!

The Limey Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda) is introduced with the song “King Midas in Reverse”. More specifically on the very apropos line - “I’m not the guy to run with”, then jumps to a montage of footage to let you know everything you need to know about this character. “He’s King Midas With A Curse”. Indeed.

There Will Be Blood - Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) falls and rises like a phoenix in an opening that reminds me of a perverse take on 2001’s. Exceptthe score is nothing but twisted and horror - what rises is not salvation, but the beast.

Bonus - Proven Lands. Because it my favorite piece from the entire score.

Someone please define “musical cue”, which as far as I understand is from theater, where music cues actors to do something, like come on stage, and therefore by definition can’t apply to a movie.

I went with the definition in the Film Score Wikipedia article.

This is a good point, Dave, and where I think we came up short in this topic by not clearly defining our terms. Since I think we just chose soundtrack moments we like. I think cue has a more active connotation (or should have) because I have a theater background, and so I like the idea of anticipatory nature in Djscman’s #3 pick. When I look at the gif he put into his post, I can immediately hear that musical cue. It has nothing, however, to do with what the actor is experiencing in the scene. And that is the basic difference between stage and screen.

The problem here is in parsing who is receiving the action of the word in question. In theater, as Dave mentions, the cue is designed to affect the actor as much as the audience many times. Much like a starter pistol. In movies, however, the cue is designed to affect the audience. Solely. Given the way movies are edited w/r/t sound, there is almost no way for a director to use a sound cue that we will actually hear as the audience, to motivate the actor.

So marquac’s link is apt. Especially if you carefully read the second sentence in his link. Which I wish I had done, before making my picks.


It was certainly the first that came to my mind, but this cue (Coop driving away from the farm and liftoff), and this one (“Those aren’t mountains…”) are also quite vivid memories for me.

Thanks, marquac and xtien, for your replies! Now I can think of some good ones.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 could probably fill this all by itselve, but here are two (to me) obvious ones.

Ellle Driver’s whistling Twisted nerve segueing into the soundtrack.

The siren before The Bride chops off Sophie’s arm.

Patton - Those distant, fading trumpet calls that seem to foreshadow the movie’s last line: “that all glory is fleeting.”