If you go up to any random person on the street and start whistling the theme from Jaws or Star Wars, they would be able to guess the movie and composer, even if they had never seen either film. Yes, people exist who have never seen Star Wars - but because of television commercials and the internet, they probably have heard at least part of the music. We, as a society, love film scores. They make us emotional, fill us with pride, and scare the crap out of us, in addition to tying movies together. Half of what makes a film a classic is whether or not the theme is stuck in your head for weeks after you exit the theater.
Film composers have become celebrities in their own right. John Williams, of course, is the undisputed king of the movie soundtrack world, with at least 5 billion Oscar nominations under his belt. And of course, there's Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, Danny Elfman, Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Silvestri, and many more composers who make film the most epic experience it can be.
Sometimes, though, when you're sitting in a dark theater, watching a hyped-up blockbuster for the first time, do you wonder: "Why does this theme sound so familiar?" Well, due to the rigorous demands and time constraints of movie-making, sometimes composers end up recycling...everything. Honestly, I love film music so much that I didn't seriously analyze some of these scores until one of my college music professors made it part of a class project.
Obviously, to say that composers always write the same music is a bit of attention-grabbing hyperbole, but when you take apart some scores (either on a superficial or deeply analytical level), you can find some shocking similarities... But whether these similarities are the result of a composer's individual sound or due to producers demanding a proven money-making theme is anyone's guess! I'll let you decide.
Composed: The Lion King; Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy; Gladiator; The Dark Knight trilogy; Inception; 12 Years a Slave
Like many well-known composers, Zimmer has a working relationship with a particular director: in this case, Christopher Nolan. His music for Nolan's movies - and many other films - includes certain musical traits, which are best explained in the following video:
If you have a little more time, or need some nice background music, check out this longer compilation. If you just listen to it rather than watch the video, it seems like you're listening to the same piece:
I remember listening to my film score Pandora station one day when a Pirates of the Caribbean track I hadn't heard before started to play. Turns out it was from Gladiator (which I hadn't yet seen) - but the theme was so similar, I never would have guessed!
Composed: Batman; Edward Scissorhands; Men in Black; Good Will Hunting; Spider-Man 1 and 2; Fifty Shades of Grey
Elfman has worked with many directors over his career, but he is most known for his collaborations with Tim Burton. He has also scored several movies for Ang Lee and Sam Raimi. And when you hear an Elfman score, you know it's an Elfman score.
Try comparing the theme from 1989's Batman...
...to the theme from 2002's Spider-Man. With these two pieces, at least (and in more of his film openings, if you care to check), he has a very specific formula that he follows: an epic, slowish beginning, followed by quick, almost frantic instrumentation overlaid by the hero's theme.
Andrew Lloyd Webber
Composed: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; Evita; Cats; The Phantom of the Opera; Sunset Boulevard; Love Never Dies
Okay, he's not technically a film composer, although he has composed additional music for film adaptations of his musicals. And not only does a lot of his music sound similar, but he has blatantly reused melodies in different musicals. Here's an excellent example:
This is from 2010's Love Never Dies...
...and this is from 2000's A Beautiful Game. It's the same song. Listen to the chorus.
Composed: Star Wars; Jaws; Indiana Jones; Jurassic Park... You know what? Do I really have to list all of them for you?
John Williams is arguably the most famous film composer to have ever walked the earth, and there's a reason for that. His scores are epic, memorable, and often instantly iconic. However, part of this may be due to the formula he follows - lots of brass instruments, choral parts, perfect fifths, and a constant return to a major key (for you musical folk out there).
Here is part of the score from the 1987 Stephen Spielberg film, Empire of the Sun. It is not as well-known as many of John Williams's other film scores, but within the first minute and a half, you will hear snippets that may bring to mind (to name a few), Star Wars, Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, and E.T. the Extraterrestrial. Now, John Williams has many beautiful and unique scores...but anytime I watch a movie with a soundtrack by him, I can tell before the credits even roll.
Now, none of this is to say that these are bad composers - but sometimes, it is interesting to sit back and realize how we tend to be attracted to the same musical sounds over and over again.