It turns out there are a ton of famous songs you don’t know the names of. What they all have in common is an uncanny ability, thanks to pop culture, to evoke bizarrely specific feelings. Because of that, they’re all go-to tracks for filmmakers and TV producers (meaning many have since become cliches). Read on to learn what the heck all those songs are even called (and be sure to listen, too: your mind will be blown at least once).
Where You’ve Heard It: In zany chase scenes (and other sequences of comic mischief) in Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Hocus Pocus, The Hudsucker Proxy, Vegas Vacation, Blues Brothers 2000, Kung Fu Hustle, Full House, The Simpsons, Family Guy, SpongeBob SquarePants, and The Big Bang Theory, and Fellini’s Amarcord, among countless others. Much like “Entrance of the Gladiators,” portions of “Sabre Dance” were rephrased for Fellini’s 8½.
Background: Composed by Aram Khachaturian in 1942 for his ballet Gayane, the song also became a pop hit in the US. It’s also extremely popular with figure skaters throughout the world, for use in their routines.
Where You’ve Heard It: Ren and Stimpy, SpongeBob SquarePants, KaBlam!, The Simpsons, Richie Rich, and any production that needs a sunny-yet-satirical 1950s vibe.
Background: Created as a stock music track by Laurie Johnson, an English film-and-TV composer responsible for the score for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and the theme to the TV show The Avengers, among many, many others.
Where You’ve Heard It: In a ton of Looney Tunes cartoons, but also The Simpsons, Duckman, Ren and Stimpy, The Bernie Mac Show, The Drew Carey Show, Animaniacs, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Skip to the 1:07 mark in the YouTube video to hear the most iconic riff.
Background: “Powerhouse” is a short (2:56) jazz piece released by The Raymond Scott Quintette in 1937. The song has two distinctive parts, sometimes referred to as “Powerhouse A” and “Powerhouse B.” “A” is often used for chase scenes, while “B” is paired with scenes depicting assembly lines, industry, repetitive work, etc.
Where You’ve Heard It: Octopussy, 13 Sins, Brassed Off, The Simpsons, Animaniacs, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, basically whenever a scene needs to remind the audience of clowns or the circus. The track was also rephrased in various ways by composer Nino Rota for the work of Federico Fellini, notably The Clowns, and borrowed from heavily to score other Fellini films, including 8½.
Background: Created as a military march in 1897 by Czech composer Julius Fucik, the melody really took off in America when it was arranged for wind bands by a Canadian composer under the title “Thunder and Blazes.” This is when the tune became associated with circuses and clowns, who often used it as introductory music.
Where You’ve Heard It: Probably right before a rooster crows in many Golden Age cartoons (also The Simpsons).
Background: Written to be incidental music for Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 play Peer Gynt by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. Often used over the top of a pastoral scene, the piece was actually written to accompany a scene set in the desert.
Where You’ve Heard It: This one is everywhere, and has become audio shorthand for “EPIC!” Excalibur, The Doors, Last of the Mohicans, The General’s Daughter, Detroit Rock City, and Jackass: The Movie are just a few of the films its in. It was also prominently used in the trailer for South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. On TV, Glee, The Simpsons, American Dad!, and How I Met Your Mother used it, among many others.
Background: “O Fortuna” is a 13th-century poem set to music by German composer Carl Orff in 1935 for his cantata Carmina Burana. Film Score Monthly called it “the most overused piece of music in film history.”