Here’s an experiment: imagine a cartoon of a skinny, bare-chested old man on the streets of Cairo, noodling on a flute while a cobra emerges from a wicker basket and sways back and forth to the music. What’s the tune playing in your head? Chances are, it’s the same tune playing in everyone else’s.
And that’s just one of many music cues that everyone knows from cartoons, movies and TV shows. However, few people know the names of those songs or where they came from. In addition to showing up in more mainstream fare, most of these pieces have shown up in geek media — especially early videogames, where they represented cheap, royalty-free ways to convey certain settings and situations — such as “it’s time to be sneaky” or “we’re in Asia” — whenever the low-resolution screen’s clues may have been a bit hard to understand.
You may have wondered about the story behind these tunes from time to time. Well, wonder no more! Today, Topless Robot unveils the secret history (and in a few cases, the lack thereof) behind these famous incidental music cues.
10) When Something Magical or Mysterious is Happening
A more recent addition to the incidental music staple, popping up in such shows as Ren & Stimpy, The Simpsons and How I Met Your Mother and numerous movie trailers, is “The Aquarium,” a movement from the 1886 musical suite The Carnival of the Animals by French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Sa?ns.
The dreamy sounds of the flute and strings, contrasted by the tinkling piano like water running over a brook, is perfect for establishing a mood for underwater and daydream sequences as well as nostalgic reminiscences. It may have been one of composer John Williams’s inspirations for his work on the Harry Potter films.
9) The Oriental Riff
In this day and age, few things immediately call to mind “offensive Asian stereotype” like the Oriental Riff. The true origin of this brief snippet of music is, unfortunately, unknown, though it may not originally have been specific to Asian countries like China or Japan any more than, say, India. It appears in very early forms in the mid-to-late 1800s in various Tin Pan Alley songs and as incidental music in Far East-themed musicals, eventually growing into usage in vaudeville shows, cartoons and pop songs as shorthand for “the mysterious Orient.”
The variant as we know it today – popularized by Carl Douglas’s hit song “Kung Fu Fighting” from 1974 – seems to have evolved over the decades. To read an exhaustive study of the song’s history, check out this site. In addition to many appearances in cartoons and television shows (nowadays, only for satirical purposes), it appeared in some early videogames, such as the very beginning of theme for the final stage in “Super Mario Land” for the Gameboy, seen above (though it’s unclear what’s specifically Asian about the sequence).
8) The Gunslinger Duel Theme
While any movie fan worth his or her salt will already know the origin of this one, it’s become a staple musical riff played at any standoff between two fighters (or whistled by one of your friends when you’re taking a potential game-winning shot in H-O-R-S-E). It’s little more than the first few notes of the theme to the 1966 film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the third film in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” starring Clint Eastwood. The music was composed by frequent Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone. Since the part of the song that’s been immortalized in pop culture is so small, many people don’t know it comes from one of the most famous Westerns ever made.
7) The Snake Charmer Theme
If you have any passing familiarity with cartoons, this song will immediately conjure images of a skinny, bare-chested old beggar on the streets of Cairo noodling on a flute while a cobra emerges from a wicker basket and sways back and forth to the music. So it’s fitting that the song’s official name – or, well, the closest thing it has to an official name – is “The Streets of Cairo, or the Poor Little Country Maid.”
Like other songs on this list, the origins of the piece are murky, but it may have been created by a U.S. showman as part of an attraction called “A Street in Cairo.” Songwriter James Thornton then added words and music and named it “The Streets of Cairo, or the Poor Little Country Maid.” This version was copyrighted in 1895. It’s appeared in dozens of cartoons, commercials and TV shows since then. It also makes brief musical cameos in pop songs like Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” and They Might Be Giants’ “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).”
6) The 1950s Salesman Theme
Nothing more perfectly captures the sunny new world of consumerism in post-WWII era than “Happy-Go-Lively.” It was composed by Laurie Johnson, a British film and television composer who was still touring as late as the 1990s. Johnson created “Happy Go Lively” as a stock music track, and it’s become one of the best-known such tracks in the business. The title “Happy-Go-Lively” is perfect, as it describes exactly the sort of mood the music sets. It was one of the most memorable stock tracks used in Ren and Stimpy. These days it’s usually used in a satirical sense, such as fake commercials for terrible products or parody Public Service Announcements.
5) The Circus Theme
A “screamer march” is a term used in circus circles to describe a loud, boisterous musical march intended to get an audience excited about the show. Probably the most famous screamer march of all time was a reworking of a 1897 military march called “Entrance of the Gladiators” by Czech composer Julius Fu??k. Fu??k’s piece was re-arranged in 1910 by Canadian composer Louis-Phillipe Laurendeau for a smaller band and retitled “Thunder and Blazes.” This is the version that became most associated with circuses and is almost always used in cartoons as the soundtrack for a scene featuring a circus or a merry-go-round.
4) The Sneaking Theme/The Villain Theme
This theme pops up whenever a character is making an exaggerating effort to sneak around (usually on tip-toe). The first four notes creep along, usually followed by some sort of rushing by the character on the long fifth note, followed by a more quick tip-toeing on the next five, faster notes.
While this became became ubiquitous in cartoons, TV shows and even videogames, the exact origin of the piece is unknown. Some of the possibilities include “Mysterioso – Burglar Music 1,” a 1913 piece by silent film composer J.S. Zamecnik, or simply the undated and anonymous “Villain’s Theme” which was used for many silent films. In all likelihood, it was a piece first composed for silent films and became associated with someone (usually a villain) sneaking around.
Its current, “canonical” form probably came about either because someone took Zamecnik’s piece, or a similar piece, and reworked it a little to avoid getting sued; or it may simply have coalesced into its current form through constant use over the years, with each use reinforcing the previous one, until it became the familiar form we all know.
3) The Love-At-First-Sight Theme
Envision this: two people lock eyes across a crowded room for the first time, as the music swells around them. Or: two people are dashing toward each other in a meadow in slow-motion. What’s playing on the soundtrack? Assuming you’re not watching that one incredibly boring sequence in Attack of the Clones (wait, did I say “one”? I meant all), it’s almost certainly the “Love Theme” from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.
Inspired by the Shakespeare play (obviously), Tchaikovsky’s piece is sweepingly romantic. Its appearances in cartoons and movies (in the latter, usually for humorous effect) are countless, but it’s perhaps even better known from its use in commercials, where its an extremely easy way to convey people (or giant monsters) falling in love.
2) The Creepy Organ Theme
Though frequently connected with The Phantom of the Opera, the most famous bars of pipe organ music in history stem from the beginning of Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565. It was reportedly written by Johann Sebastian Bach, though this is disputed. Even its style is controversial; according to one theory, it may have been an organ transcription of a violin piece.
The appeal of Toccata and Fugue for horror film producers may be that’s it’s a heavy piece written in a minor scale, giving it a dramatic, tragic sound. Surprisingly, the first use of the piece in a Phantom of the Opera movie wasn’t until 1962, for the Hammer Film Productions version starring Herbert Lom. But the association with the piece and horror films began long before that – it shows up at the beginning of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931, and it’s played by Boris Karloff in 1934’s The Black Cat; a year later, Peter Lorre played it in his role as the creepy Dr. Gogol in Mad Love. It also shows up in two Disney classics: it opens 1940’s Fantasia, and is played (at a slightly later point in the piece) by Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
1) The Assembly Line Theme
Whenever anything starts happening on an assembly line in a cartoon, it’s a good bet you’ll hear this song’s familiar workings start up. Its title is “Powerhouse” and it was composed by Raymond Scott in 1937. While originally intended as no more than an entertaining piece of pop music, it was soon adapted for Warner Brothers cartoon soundtracks, which gave it a place in pop culture for all time.
It begins with a whirling, lightning-fast section; this is referred to as “Powerhouse A,” and is often used in cartoons when something is being built very quickly or there’s a chase scene going on. The piece then settles into “Powerhouse B,” the much more familiar steady, robotic tune used for the “assembly line” scenes.