Music has always had an important role to play within the film industry. Much of what an audience feels and experiences depends on the music and sound choices of directors and production teams. Finding the right music for a particular scene or movie is no easy task, which is why it seems that whenever someone discovers a song that works well for a certain type of scene or emotion, that song finds its way into a plethora of movies and television shows.
There are some songs that have become iconic for their use in movies and TV. In fact, it’s not surprising that many movie-makers select certain songs because of their ability to quickly clue viewers into certain expectations or emotions within the cinematic experience. Songs like the Jaws and Mission: Impossible themes provide an immediate expectation within the minds of viewers about what’s happening on screen.
As we reflect on the history of cinema, it’s easy to pinpoint other songs that are used on a consistent basis by movie and TV studios. Here are the 20 Most Overused Songs in Movies and TV.
20. Low Rider – War
The easygoing nature of War’s “Low Rider” has become the theme song for the coolest, most certified badass characters in film. It’s been used to represent the carefree lifestyle of pot-smoking Latinos in Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke, as well as a way for the characters in Gone in 60 Seconds to get in the spirit of stealing cars.
“Low Rider” seems to be most effective in a film when it’s accompanying a rebel-style character and a slick, iconic car (though not always one that’s riding low). Based on those criteria, there’s no doubt War’s “Low Rider” will continue to find a comfortable, confident place within the cinema world.
“Low Rider” has been featured in fifteen movies, including Colors, Blood In Blood Out, Robots, 21 Grams, Dazed and Confused, Beverly Hills Ninja, A Knight’s Tale, Friday, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, The Internship, and others.
19. Oh Yeah – Yello
When it’s time to denote that something is sexy and has captured the lust of the main character, cue up Yello’s “Oh Yeah“. The deep-voiced, smooth vocals and electronic music create a slow, caressing vibe that lets viewers know they want whatever’s shown on screen.
While the song was created in 1985, it didn’t gain much attention until it was featured in 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Of its inclusion in the movie, writer and critic Jonathan Berstein claimed its use by John Hughes illustrated the “mouthwatering must-haveness of Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari. Since then, it has become synonymous with lust.”
Since Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, directors have used Yello’s lust-filled anthem in The Simpsons, Nip/Tuck, Chuck, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, South Park, Not Another Teen Movie, She’s Out of Control, The Secret of My Success, American Dad!, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.
18. Have a Little Faith in Me – John Hiatt
Humans are flawed creatures, but that doesn’t mean that, beneath their failings and struggles, they’re bad people. Instead, a person’s intents and desires are often good, despite how they sometimes act outwardly. At least that’s the message we get from John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me“.
Due to the somewhat sappy nature of the song, “Have a Little Faith in Me” is most often used in romantic comedies, and assures viewers that what’s happening on screen is positive. That said, since it usually arises during the second act of a film, it’s followed closely by the main conflict of the plot.
One of the best examples of John Hiatt’s warm, love-themed piece in movies is 1993’s Benny & Joon. It’s a touching moment when the two main characters, Benny and Joon, who both face mental challenges, are able to reach into each other’s hearts and find a romantic connection previously unavailable to either of them. It’s a sweet moment in cinema and one that props up the quirky film as a must-see for romantic movie fans everywhere.
“Have a Little Faith in Me” has also been featured in Love Happens, Dawson’s Creek, Look Who’s Talking Now, My Best Friend’s Girl, and Alias.
17. Angel – Sarah McLachlan
Movie characters die. It’s a known and accepted part of cinema, but sometimes those character deaths rip at our heart strings. When a particularly pure or noble character dies, the moment is often accompanied by Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel“, a warm, friendly tune that’s indicative of all that is good. It has a way of telling viewers that yes, the person who died was good and probably shouldn’t be gone, but that they are in a better place now.
The song has also become known for its placement in the ads for SPCA International, the organization dedicated to the protection and well-being of animals, most notably dogs. McLachlan’s timeless “Angel” has become synonymous with scenes of sad, lonely pets in need of comfort and a safe, happy home. The emotional reaction this song can conjure up, alongside photos and videos of sad puppies, only serves to show how effective it can be at driving home a sense of emotional loss and longing.
16. Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
When there’s trouble on the way, bring on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising“. The song’s lyrics are a perfect allegory for whatever is happening on screen. Whether it’s a protagonist or antagonist, when John Fogerty says he sees a bad moon a-rising, we know there’s trouble brewing.
Thanks to the light-hearted nature of the song, it’s often used to introduce viewers to a less-serious moment in a film, despite being “troublesome”. While trouble is on the way, there’s no need yet to be overly worried about what lies ahead, even if it does involve violence and werewolves. It’s the kind of song that gives viewers a moment to rest, a chance to snap their fingers and enjoy the tune as it nestles itself into their minds, where it’ll stay for the next few hours.
To add to the upbeat nature of the song, one line in the chorus has often been misheard by listeners. Instead of “there’s a bad moon on the rise,” people claim to hear “there’s a bathroom on the right.” Fogerty has even been known to sing the misheard lyric in concert.
15. All Along the Watchtower – Bob Dylan
It’s the 1960s and someone’s about to take some drugs. That’s the message that Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” has come to be known for. One of the most recognizable uses of Hendrix’s hymn-for-the-hippy is Land of the Lost. The chords charge up just as the movie’s characters drink from hairy foreign fruits that send them on a wild ride by the pool. A similar drug-engaging scene comes from 1989’s Look Who’s Talking, where the main character, a baby, experiences a high for the first time while in his mother’s womb.
Some directors have ventured outside the normal connotation of the song and instead use it as a marker of ironic pleasantness, such as its use in Watchmen. Additionally, Battlestar Galactica used the riff as a tonal cue to denote major milestones in the lives of the show’s characters.
In addition to those mentioned, “All Along the Watchtower” also made appearances in The Simpsons, Private Parts, Forrest Gump, Flashback, 1969, and Withnail & I.
14. True – Spandau Ballet
Very few songs say “romantic comedy” quite like Spandau Ballet’s “True“. The soft “ah-ha”s that are a prelude to “I know this much is true” are easily recognizable for almost any movie fan. This is especially true for those who remember the song’s central role in The Wedding Singer, where Steve Buscemi offers a unique but not entirely awful rendition of the piece.
“True” is also a great era-setter as it can let viewers know that they’ve somehow found themselves in the ‘80s. This is most definitely the case with Hot Tub Time Machine, where the main characters revisit the ‘80s thanks to, well, a hot tub time machine.
There’s little doubt “True” has cemented itself in the minds of movie-goers of all generations as a reminder that life is full of fun, romantic moments that don’t need to be taken too seriously. Because of that, the song has made appearances in movies and television shows in each of the last three decades, from The Wedding Singer and Charlie’s Angels to I Love You Beth Cooper and Modern Family. It’s also been featured in the likes of The Simpsons, The Office, Grind, and Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector.
13. For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield
Like others on this list, “For What It’s Worth” is most often used to get movie and TV viewers in that ‘60s frame of mind. During the era it was released, the song became an anthem for anti-Vietnam War protestors, and is therefore included almost every time a movie or show that features the 1960s or wartime.
The slow, rhythmic chanting of “For What It’s Worth” makes it the perfect background song for passing a blunt, which makes it an interesting choice when used with a Vietnam War backdrop like in Forrest Gump.
“For What It’s Worth” is a strong choice when characters are faced with introspection or an opportunity to reflect on their current state, as in the case of Tropic Thunder. Both Ben Stiller and Matthew McConaughey’s characters are faced with difficult decisions, and viewers are provided with the Buffalo Springfield song as a way to denote the internal struggles taking place.
“For What It’s Worth” has been featured in Lord of War, UnReal, The West Wing, Forrest Gump, and Coming Home.
12. Kung Fu Fighting – Carl Douglas
It’s hardly surprising that a song titled “Kung Fu Fighting” would be the go-to song every time someone starts kung-fu fighting in a movie. Though we’ll note that it’s often implemented in a comedic way, as those doing the kung-fu are often quite terrible at the martial art. There’s no better example of this than Beverly Hills Ninja, where the ironically agile Chris Farley takes down multiple bad guys in an effort to protect his half-brother.
Interestingly, the song was originally created as a B-side to”I Want to Give You My Everything“. Since it was just a B-side song, the singer went over-the-top with the kung-fu sounds and finished the song recording within a few minutes. However, once producers had a chance to hear the song, they decided to make “Kung Fu Fighting“ the A-side, and a winner was born.
These days it seems the song is featured a little too often and has long since lost its flavor. However, that hasn’t seemed to stop “Kung Fu Fighting“ from finding its way into Horrible Bosses, Kung Fu Panda, Rush Hour 3, Daddy Day Care, Supercop, and more.
11. Final Countdown – Europe
As soon as the opening electronics kick in of Europe’s “Final Countdown”, we know that something awesome is happening, or will happen shortly, on screen. It’s a compelling, upbeat song that aids in the excitement of a scene.
In the TV show Arrested Development, character Gob Bluth lives as a struggling magician who can’t quite find his place in the world. His use of “Final Countdown” to kick off his often failed “illusions” is a highlight of the show. And thanks to the popularity of Arrested Development, especially with its return via Netflix, the song has garnered additional attention among younger viewers who were young or not yet born at the time it was released.
Since it was first used in Arrested Development, it seems “Final Countdown” is making a resurgence in cinema and will continue to gain traction as directors and production teams recognize its usefulness as a catchy film tune.
10. Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has found its way into dozens of movies and shows since its creation in 1984. The iconic song is most often used during a dip in a character’s situation or mood. The sad tale of David reflects the challenges and struggles facing those we watch on screen.
Despite its obvious religious lyrics, “Hallelujah” is rarely included as a religious or even spiritual song. It’s a bittersweet song that, in the words of Time Magazine, is “a tacit admission that neither the writers nor the actors could convey their characters’ emotions as well as” the song can.
With that in mind, it’s not surprising to see the song used in numerous drama television shows that rely so heavily on delivering powerful emotional experiences to viewers. The song can be heard in The West Wing, ER, Crossing Jordan, Criminal Minds, House, Ugly Betty, Without a Trace, Third Watch, NCIS, Lord of War, Feast of Love, and most memorably, Shrek.
9. Ain’t No Sunshine – Bill Withers
There’s always a moment in romantic movies where one of the characters, usually the guy, does something to drive away the woman he loves. Of course he wishes he hadn’t done or said that awful thing, and now the love of his life is gone forever. Time to play “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers. The song’s gloomy line “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone”, alongside the throaty hum of a bass guitar, perfectly capture the often sad, regretful nature of the character.
We feel for the guy, we really do. We know that inside he loves her and wants her back. We know that he wishes he could take back whatever he did to wrong her. And “Ain’t No Sunshine” has a way of helping the audience feel his pain and understand his desire to make things right.
8. Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd
“Sweet Home Alabama” is unequivocally the theme song for the South. Despite referencing Alabama, it is held dear by nearly everyone below the Mason-Dixon line. It’s a jovial tune that begs listeners to grab their cowboy boots, throw back a cold one, and get out on the dance floor.
While the song quickly brings to mind the movie of the same name, it’s hard not to think about its place in Con Air, thanks to Steve Buscemi’s memorable line: “Define Irony. Bunch of idiots dancing on a plane to a song made famous by a band that died in a plane crash.”
Despite the sad history of Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sweet Home Alabama” lives on as the pride of the South, and a reminder that sometimes we just need to forget our troubles and dance.
7. Walking on Sunshine – Katrina & The Waves
“Walking on Sunshine” is one of the ‘80s’ most well-known, feel-good songs for movies. The words, the pacing, the upbeat chords – they all work together to deliver a fun-spirited melody. It’s the perfect tune for Jack Black’s character in High Fidelity as he does his best to excite his less-than-jovial friend. With Black’s trademark goofiness and Katrina & The Waves singing in the background, we can’t help but smile and enjoy the moment.
Alternatively, the song is played almost ironically in American Psycho as Patrick Bateman strolls through the office hallway on his way to his office. His outward mood is one of near-boring monotony, but the song provides a look into the soul of a man who, just hours before, took great pleasure hacking his coworker apart with an axe.
6. Gimme Shelter – Rolling Stones
Even if no one else was a fan of “Gimme Shelter“, Martin Scorsese is. The legendary director has included the Rolling Stones’ song in numerous films. From Casino to The Departed, viewers can look forward to the tune’s inclusion whenever something shady is going down or a character is about to have a major life-altering experience.
But Scorsese isn’t the only one who likes the tune for its cinematic meaning. “Gimme Shelter” has been used in over a dozen movies and shows to warn viewers that things are about to get more intense, often from either violent action or heated emotions. Regardless of the outcome, though, whenever viewers hear “Gimme Shelter” play, it’s time to pay attention and get ready for something exciting.
The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter“ can be heard in Dexter, Adventures in Babysitting, Knight Rider, The Fan, Layer Cake, CSI: NY, Covert Affairs, Flight, and Hawaii Five-O.
5. White Rabbit – Jefferson Airplane
Another fine example of a song that pairs well with drug scenes is “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. The calm melodic piece provides a relaxing experience as movie characters enter the smooth high provided by their drug of choice.
One of the most quickly recognizable instances of “White Rabbit” is in Platoon, where Charlie Sheen’s character indulges in a narcotic experience in a tent with his buddies.
The combination of “White Rabbit” and drugs comes as no surprise considering the themes of the song’s lyrics. With discussion of pills, hookah, and mushrooms, it doesn’t take a genius to understand why it’s become synonymous with drug activities in movies.
“White Rabbit“ has been included in dozens of movies, including The Game, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Holiday, Purple Haze, Futurama, Supernatural, America’s Sweethearts, Coming Home, Circuit, Love and Music, Where the Truth Lies, Singularity is Near, Go Ask Alice, The Sopranos, and The Simpsons.
4. What a Wonderful World – Louie Armstrong
The world can be a beautiful, lovely place. That’s the message we get from Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World“. It’s an easy-going tune that represents goodness and points to the kindness that can be found in the wide expanse of our world. It’s a song that invites us to reflect on opportunities to do right by others, to see each other as friends, and to shed the negative feelings we often harbor for people around us.
While Armstrong’s version is the most used, some productions also call in the “What a Wonderful World/Over the Rainbow” mashup from Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, who delivers the song with an expertly played ukulele. Unlike Armstrong, though, Kamakawiwo’ole’s version is reserved for the more oddball characters in film – often those featured in silly family comedies that try to pair goofy characters with the goodness in the world around them.
“What a Wonderful World” can be heard in The Mentalist, Fred Claus, Meet Joe Black, 12 Monkeys, Good Morning Vietnam, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, Madagascar, and ER.
3. Stayin’ Alive – The BeeGees
Thanks to Saturday Night Fever, The BeeGees’ “Stayin’ Alive” is now one of the most recognized and overplayed songs in cinema. When the script calls for a character to strut down the sidewalk, that means the speakers will start pumping out “Stayin’ Alive”. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if, when writers today put pen to paper and draft out a character who will be grooving down the street, they play this song in their head.
Considering that Saturday Night Fever was released in 1977, it’s really only the older generations that remember where the sidewalk-strutting “Stayin’ Alive” trend began. For those who were born after John Travolta’s iconic scene first hit the big screen, there are plenty of other instances of people and creatures striding along to the BeeGees, including The Simpsons, A Goofy Movie, and Madagascar.
“Stayin’ Alive” has also been featured in Sherlock, Glee, Baby Geniuses, Virtuosity, Honey I Blew Up the Kid, Airplane, Chicken Little, and Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult.
2. Bad to the Bone – George Thorogood and the Destroyers
As the title of this song suggests, whoever it’s played for is one serious badass. This is the one guy or gal you don’t want to mess with, and they are on a mission to do some serious damage. At least that’s what you get with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s leather-wearing, motorcycle-riding character in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Of course, it’s also used comically, like in the case of Joe Dirt as he’s about to do the dirty.
Due to its upbeat and somewhat light-hearted tune, “Bad to the Bone“ has been used in numerous children’s films to let viewers know the character they’re watching is definitely one of the “cool kids”. And since the song is G-rated in its language and message, it works great for both parents and children.
1. Born to be Wild – Steppenwolf
No matter what anyone else says, “Born to be Wild” is the song for road trips, and it’s easy to see why. The tune is fun, catchy, and starts off with “Get your motor runnin’, head out on the highway, lookin’ for adventure, and whatever comes our way.” Naturally, it’s the best fit anytime someone in a movie or show takes to the open road.
The song was originally used in 1969’s Easy Rider and perfectly captures the sense of liberation that accompanies life on two wheels in the ‘60s. Since then, though, production folks have used it as a cheap way to show a character’s freedom.
Unsurprisingly, “Born to be Wild“ has been used in over 100 films and television series, and shows no signs of slowing down. It seems so much easier to stick this iconic song in than try to find something else that so perfectly depicts the sense of freedom it captures so easily.
Among the many titles to feature “Born to Be Wild” are Las Vegas, Six Feet Under, Dudley Do-Right, One Crazy Summer, The Wonder Years, Problem Child, Wild America, and Borat.