John Barry’s James Bond Scores (Part 4 of 6): Moonraker


In writing his score for Moonraker (1979), the eleventh James Bond film and the fourth to star Roger Moore, John Barry met with several setbacks and frustrations. First, Barry had the idea of writing an eight-movement symphonic suite from which the film’s score could be drawn. And as Jon Burlinghame notes in The Music of James Bond, Barry “had hoped to turn it into a two-LP set à la the colossally successful Star Wars album.” This, however, never came to fruition. Second, three singers were approached to sing the title song—Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, and Kate Bush—before Shirley Bassey signed on at the last minute. Third, the song’s original lyrics by Paul Williams were ousted at a late stage in favour of new lyrics by Hal David. Finally, Barry was never happy with the way his music was used in the film, feeling that his contribution had been, to some extent, marginalized.

Nevertheless, Barry’s music for the film remains a highly regarded Bond score, in part because of Barry’s subtle shift towards a more symphonic style whose initial impulses in his Bond scores can be heard in The Man with the Golden Gun and which became more fully developed in his scores for films such as Out of Africa and Dances with Wolves, both of which won him an Oscar. More noticeable, however, is the effect of two strong new influences: 1) an increased focus on sound effects due to the introduction of Dolby stereo in what may be called the “Star Wars Revolution”, and 2) the lighter, more comedic style of the Roger Moore Bond films. At the same time, the adherence to some of the techniques of Barry’s previous Bond scores ensured that the sound of Moonraker would be readily identifiable as a Bond score. Precisely how all these influences affected the sound of Barry’s score will be discussed below in a film music analysis.

The James Bond Theme

The Gunbarrel Sequence

In the gunbarrel sequence of Barry’s previous Bond score, for The Man with the Golden Gun, the melody of the James Bond theme is played by the strings, which not only served to distinguish the sound from the Connery Bond films, but also began to push the style of the music in a symphonic direction. In Moonraker, Barry adds trumpets to the strings for the Bond melody, delving even further into a symphonic sound (from 0:28 in the clip below):

The Symphonic Style

Because symphonies, and indeed most forms of concert music, lack the overt narrative of film music, they must be self-sufficient and create their meaning by referring mainly or entirely to themselves. As a result, symphonic music tends to be driven less by the repetition of ideas, as in much film music, and more by their development, as though the musical themes and motives themselves are characters in a drama that are shaped by the musical events of the piece. In other words, the more variation of ideas we hear in a film score, the more symphonic its style. Barry’s score for Moonraker adopts more of this symphonic style, no doubt partly influenced by the great success of John Williams’ symphonic score for Star Wars, which had appeared only two years prior.

The Bond theme, for instance, starts to undergo developments that had previously not been part of Barry’s Bond vocabulary. When Bond finds and investigates the glass shop in Venice, overtop of the Bond accompaniment, we hear fragments from the theme’s B section and end of the guitar riff that are transformed enough in its tempo and instrumentation that one may not consciously recognize them as the Bond theme even if their emotional qualities of mystery and wary confidence are fully perceived (compare the two excerpts from the original Bond theme with Barry’s developments in Moonraker):




The excerpt directly above is heard at the start of this clip (a well done synthesized version):

The Title Song/Theme – “Moonraker”

Like Barry’s other Bond scores, the title song to Moonraker appears throughout the film as an instrumental theme. This time, however, the theme’s function is not nearly as broad and therefore is not a main theme for the film in general, as in previous films, but is almost exclusively a love theme. We hear it, for instance, when:

  • Corinne yields to Bond’s advances
  • Bond thanks Corinne for her help
  • Jaws finds his girlfriend Dolly in the space station

This narrower focus in function allows Barry to score the theme with a rich accompaniment for strings in a highly symphonic style. A good example occurs when Bond kisses Goodhead for the first time:


Lack of Music in Action Scenes

With Diamonds Are Forever, we saw that just about every action scene began without music and remained that way for most of the scene. In Moonraker, the same tactic is employed, but ostensibly for different reasons. In Diamonds, there was a clear attempt to infuse the characters—including Bond—with a darker, grittier quality. The absence of music during action scenes heightened the scene’s sense of reality and augmented the film’s already gritty feel.

With the widespread adoption of Dolby stereo sound in 1977 for Star Wars, however, action films changed dramatically. The quality of sound heard in films had increased by such a large margin that specially trained technicians began to be hired specifically to work on the construction of the film’s sound effects—essentially, the position of the sound designer was born. With the success of Star Wars, detailed film sound became something of a novelty with which filmmakers experimented. In Moonraker, the lack of music in the majority of most action scenes allows one’s aural attention to be focused entirely on the sound effects, as when:

  • Bond is in danger in the ever-accelerating gravity-simulator
  • A sniper in a tree aims at Bond while he shoots at pheasants
  • Bond first enters Drax’s secret laboratory in Venice
  • Bond fights Drax’s henchman Cheng in the Venice glass shop
  • Bond fights the henchman in the ambulance
  • Bond is chased by boat down the Amazon River
  • American forces fight Drax’s people in space
  • The final battle takes place inside the space station

Notice, for example, even in a short excerpt below from the Venice glass shop fight how the lack of music is attempted to be compensated for by the detailed and diverse sound effects of (among others):

  • Cheng’s battle cries
  • The abnormally loud footsteps
  • The bamboo sword swiping the air, then hitting a brick wall
  • Cheng hitting the brick wall
  • The breaking of the glass display cases
  • The tossing aside of the wooden shelves
  • Cheng’s kick to Bond
  • Bond picking up the glass-handled sword as it rubs against the armour
  • Bond’s sword cutting the bamboo sword in half and the loose portion hitting the ground

Watch the scene from the start to 0:50:

While the sound effects in such scenes are indeed more detailed and clearer than in any previous Bond film, the lack of music seems strangely out of place given the outlandish nature of the film’s plot. As I have said before, the addition of non-diegetic music helps to immerse us in a film’s fictional world. A lack of music starts to suggest that very unreal situations are somehow realistic, a jarring feeling for a film as unrealistic as Moonraker. Surely this is partly why Barry was dissatisfied with the way his music was mixed in the film (known as the “dubbing” process), laying blame with director Lewis Gilbert:

“I was very disappointed with the dub of Moonraker… Personally, I believe Lewis Gilbert’s ears were out to lunch when he made that dub. I think a director should spend a few days familiarizing himself with what Dolby offers and how best to employ these new balances and perspectives in order to get the maximum effect instead of simply going in cold with a traditional mind.”


While Barry still makes use of the short repeated units of ostinatos in Moonraker, there is one particularly important difference in the technique: there are significantly fewer repetitions of each ostinato before moving on to different material. Listen, for example, to “Flight Into Space” below from the start up to 0:41 and notice how each of the first three different phrases is initially stated twice, as though it will become a more extended ostinato:

Barry, however, moves onto differing material after the second statement of each, suggesting the more diverse nature of symphonic music. This technique pervades most of the ostinatos (or perhaps would-be ostinatos) of Barry’s score. Notice also the use of a female choir (most obviously from 1:44 above), another indication of a grander, more symphonic style.

Other Themes

Despite the many new and altered elements in the Moonraker score, some techniques, particularly themes, remain much the same as in Barry’s earlier Bond scores, providing a solid connection with the rest of the franchise.

The 007 Theme

This theme had thus far appeared in four other Bond films: From Russia with Love, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, and Diamonds Are Forever. In each case, it provides an action scene with a lighter feel through its major key and upbeat syncopated rhythms:


It reappears in Moonraker during the boat chase down the Amazon River, though this time Barry slows the tempo slightly, which ironically provides the scene with a slightly more serious atmosphere within the lighter style of the film (watch this scene from 0:45):

The “Beautiful Landscape” Theme

When Bond enters the Amazon jungle and begins to follow a blonde beauty who leads him to a mysterious pyramid, Barry writes a lushly scored theme with a lyrical melody that suggests the beauty of the natural landscape and appears nowhere else in the film (from 0:09 in the clip below):


Barry had used a “beautiful landscape” scoring several times before in Bond films, though not usually with a unique melody—for example, the cue “Alpine Drive” from Goldfinger (from 0:13 in the audio clip below):

One exception, however, is the cue “Journey to Blofeld’s Hideaway” from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (starting from 1:06):


One aspect of the Moonraker score that is novel to Barry’s James Bond scores is its quotation of other musical works. Almost all of these quotations are for a humorous effect, as with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture, which accompanies the love-at-first-sight moment between the assassin Jaws and his girlfriend Dolly. Most of the quotations draw from other films that were recent and would have been in the public consciousness at the time of Moonraker’s release. When Drax begins his pheasant hunt, for example, we hear the first three notes of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, which was famously used at climactic points in Stanley Kubrick’s hugely successful 2001: A Space Odyssey (like Moonraker, another film about space). The numeric code to Drax’s secret lab in Venice sounds out the five-note “alien-communication” motif from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, yet another space-themed film. And even though The Magnificent Seven, from which we hear Elmer Bernstein’s main theme as Bond rides to the MI6 base on horseback and in western gear, was not exactly a recent film, being released in 1960, the use of its theme in Marlboro cigarette commercials would have been very familiar to the filmgoing audience. And lest anyone should miss the reference, the ambulance from which Bond escapes drives by a billboard for Marlboro less than a minute before the theme enters, thus solidifying the connection on a subliminal level.

These touches of corny comedy were almost certainly not imposed by Barry—the previous Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me (scored by Marvin Hamlisch), contains a similarly comic treatment of Maurice Jarre’s main theme from Lawrence of Arabia, which sounds as Bond walks through the desert. Considering that both films were directed by Lewis Gilbert and that only the later film was scored by Barry, the decision to use these pieces almost certainly came from Gilbert rather than Barry. Besides, in his previous Bond score, The Man with the Golden Gun, Barry regretted setting the mid-air spiralling of Bond’s car over a river to the silly sound of a slide whistle. As he explained,

“I just took the liberty of poking fun at it. It made a mockery of Bond, looking back on it. Even Cubby didn’t like that.”

One quotation that certainly does not fall into the category of humour is Drax’s playing of Chopin’s famous “Raindrop” prelude on the piano when we first meet him:

This use of classical music is likely meant to suggest an air of sophistication in Drax in much the same way as the strains from Bach and Mozart heard in bad-guy Stromberg’s underwater hideout, Atlantis, in The Spy Who Loved Me. Chopin also spent the vast majority of his career in Paris, and since Drax’s residence is supposed to have been imported from France (the residence is actually Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, which lies just outside of Paris), Chopin’s music is an appropriate fit with Drax’s French tastes.


As we have seen, Barry’s score for Moonraker was in many ways quite unlike his previous Bond scores. On the one hand, he began to explore a more symphonic style of writing with richer string writing, the addition of a female choir, a narrower use of the title song as a lyrical love theme, and a greater focus on the development rather than repetition of musical ideas. At times Moonraker also delves into a more comedic musical style than in Barry’s previous scores, which accords with the lighter style of the Roger Moore Bond films in general. Perhaps most of all, Barry’s score contends with Lewis Gilbert’s prolonged focus on sound effects in action scenes, no doubt as an experiment with the new Dolby stereo technology. Yet at the same time, Barry retains a number of familiar elements of his Bond style to maintain a clear continuity with the previous films, such as a frequent use of the title theme, ostinatos, and even another appearance of the 007 theme. But despite the fact that Barry himself was quite dissatisfied with the use of his score in the film, it continues to be among the most admired of his Bond scores.

Coming soon… The Living Daylights.

11 thoughts on “John Barry’s James Bond Scores (Part 4 of 6): Moonraker”

  1. This is very interesting indeed!! To think of Barry is “symphonic” is an interesting idea – providing a level of sophistication one wouldn’t normally expect to find in action-film music.

    You’re suggesting, then, that Barry’s decision to use more “symphonic” scoring for “Moonraker” was influenced by the success of Williams’ “Star Wars”. It’s a risky game for them, though, isn’t it, particularly with audiences for popular film who are used to, say, The Beatles used for title music. Over time, audiences in the megaplex have grown less sophisticated, not more so IMO.

    You also discuss the inherently non-narrative quality of symphonic music. That’s to say, ‘absolute’ music because there are certainly symphonies which appear ‘narrative’ in the sense that they provide musical ‘images’ of extra-musical ideas. I’m thinking here of Beethoven’s “Pastoral”, just as one example. But, actually, I’ve always felt symphonies were ‘narrative’ in a very particular way. I remember completing an analysis decades ago of the first movement of Mozart’s symphony No. 39 and describing the ‘drama’ unfolding between instruments of the orchestra and that this had been achieved through dynamic range, alternating the main theme between instruments – having them tossed back and forth – and modulation. But, I grant that it’s a ‘stretch’ for any novice to develop this argument in a meaningful way. I simply mention it in the context of your discussion about John Barry and how some of your ideas tapped into my own thoughts.

  2. Correction: I earlier commented on “The Beatles” used as title music for a James Bond film. Of course, I meant Paul McCartney and Wings (“Live and Let Die”). And there have been other pop icons used in James Bond films.

  3. Hi Sue – thanks for your thought-provoking comments. Always a pleasure to discuss these things with you.

    You’re absolutely right that concert music on its own can have a narrative. I suppose when I say “narrative”, I mean a literary narrative, which is much more specific than a purely musical narrative. With this lack of a specific literary narrative in symphonic music, the focus is instead on the development of musical motives, something like the kinds of developments subjected to characters in a literary narrative. That’s a big part of what drives symphonic music forward.

    In film, one isn’t required to have such elaborate musical development because that is taken care of by the literary narrative to which the music is attached. Not that all film music should simply repeat themes and motives over and over. But generally, film music lends itself more to repetition because of the complexities of the plot. In other words, hearing a familiar bit of music in the same way helps us mentally bind together the very fragmented nature of filmmaking with its jumps in times, locations, and even points of view.

    So to use a more symphonic style certainly isn’t a requirement for what is generally considered successful film music. But it adds more nuance to the film since we can not just see but hear the developments as well. I think it’s a hard thing to do well, as musical details can easily become lost in our focus on the film’s narrative. But if done well, as it is in Moonraker, I think one can appreciate its emotional effects without even knowing that one has heard a development of a certain theme (as in the Venini Glassworks scene above).

    Finally, regarding your comment on why filmmakers would want to use symphonic music instead of pop music. I think we have to remember that the Star Wars album was a huge sensation, selling over four million copies in its initial release in 1977. That kind of success in film always has a powerful influence on the films that follow. I think that Moonraker was an instance where there was a conscious attempt to somewhat emulate the style of the Star Wars score (especially given the former’s overt space theme). So symphonic music at that time was, in a sense, popular music.

  4. It all makes perfect sense that way you shape your argument!

    Do you know what really interests me too? Music to accompany silent film. I once toyed with the idea of doing a PhD on the topic of Australian music used to accompany Australian silent cinema, thinking this would make an outstanding thesis. But, time moved on…it didn’t eventuate. But, particularly when one looks at restorations of a film like “Metropolis”, the whole idea of symphonic (or other) music composed especially to accompany silent cinema has a whole, new brief compared to sound film, IMO. (Of course, if you couldn’t read in the first part of the 20th century you couldn’t go to the cinema!!!). It’s a great score for “Metropolis”, but I’d be interested in the various kinds of music – and I guess these varied depending upon the venue – for the Griffith films, just as an example.

    This would make a fascinating thread in your film music course!! Cheers

  5. another great analysis mark…you should write a book !. This score has got better over time i think. Lot’s of great Barry touches and it is interesting how his writing got more lush for Bond in this movie . One think to note , Drax’s chateau is in fact Vaux-Le_Vicomte……


    1. Thanks, Ed. I’ve updated the post accordingly.

      Yes, a book about this would be a good topic. Though I’d probably wait a few years yet since Burlingame’s book just came out last year. Still, there is still lots more to say since that book is more historical than analytical. Maybe I will one day…

  6. In this analysis, the absence of music during the action and fight sequences was identified as a changing trend throughout the 70s. I just wanted to bring to your attention that almost from the “off”, John Barry was wise to his music not being drowned out by loud sound effects. Here is a quote from Michael Schelle’s The Score, Interviews with Music Composers from the late 90s:

    “At the time we did Goldfinger, certain movies had exaggerated sound effects. But with Goldfinger, they really, really did it—with the hits and the screeching car sounds and the runaway trains and the fist fights—everything was just way over the top, very noisy. I was frustrated, so I asked if we could have the senior sound editor involved with the music score. For one car-chase scene, as an example, I suggested that the sound effects could be at high volume for the first part, but then we would find a given point where something changes in the action—another element of danger or an imminent escape—where the effects would then dis-solve into my music for the second part. The music would lift the emotions and the effects would be subliminal, except maybe for the last five seconds, where everything effects and music would crescendo to a fevered pitch. So, on a lot of the Bond movies, I would work side by side with the sound guys. And the formula worked very well. If you ask people why the Bond chase scenes worked, they don’t really know. But I believe it’s because of this careful blending of effects and music. When I get a movie nowadays, and we enter into that “action” area, I use the same approach: find out what the sounds are, and fade the music in and out of the effects. In the five-minute buffalo hunt in Dances With Wolves, for example, they initially had laid a very loud temp track over the entire scene, but I pushed for beginning it with only the sounds of the buffalo, which were such terrific sounds by themselves, without music. Let’s give the audience the feeling of what that must have been like if they were there — let’s give that to them first, and then I’ll come in when some element changes and the effects can fade into the background.”

    A couple of early examples are in From Russia With And Goldfinger. In the former he scored the end of the train fight with Grant and it was intended that the music would come in when the garrotte is seen (however it was unused). In the latter, the car chase is unscored until Bond is seemingly driving head on with another car. That was the point when the action changed and was ready for the tension to be turned up a notch. The fight with Oddjob is unscored apart from a tiny moment when Bond has the lethal hat. That was yet another quality of Barry, knowing when best not to underscore a scene and letting the atmosphere build naturally and despite generally being an outlandish film, he played the tense moments in Moonraker for all they were worth. His comments on the dub were after he composed the score so I believe he was just going for Bond v Oddjob feel for the Cheng fight – enhance the realism by hearing the footsteps, blows and breakages standalone.

  7. Obviously I am just getting around to reading stuff you wrote sometime ago, but your fascinating explanation of the Moonraker score made me want to listen to it again–in fact I think I want to buy a copy thanks to you. You note the different instrumentations Barry used in the Gunbarrel opening over the years, specifically the fuller, more symphonic version for this film. However, don’t I also hear a different, more dissonant repeated chord useed over the opening bullet holes that move across the screen than in previous versions? It just sounds different to my ear, and not just the instruments. Is it to catch our attention in a new way? Curious as to your thoughts.

    1. Film Score Junkie

      Hi David. Thanks for your thoughtful comments and question. As to whether the Moonraker “bullet-hole” chords are more dissonant, I have to say definitely not. The recording of the chords seems to be more closely miked, so there’s greater definition to the individual notes, which might explain why it could appear to be more dissonant. Starting with From Russia with Love, those chords have always been an EmM9 chord, or the notes E-G-B-F#-D#. The top trumpets I believe are spaced from the top down as B-G-F#-D#, but the D# is always hard to hear, being rather covered up by the middle of the texture. Actually, in Live and Let Die, George Martin changed the chord to a much mellower Em7 chord, or E-G-B-D. Martin’s rock background as opposed to Barry’s experience in jazz probably explains the difference. (And interestingly, Hamlisch’s The Spy Who Loved Me didn’t use the chords at all.)

  8. Hi there, new visitor to this site , love it ! Very informative and not being a musician but a film music enthusiast easy to understand.
    I wonder if you can help me with a query on the Moonraker score .
    I am desperately trying to find the piano sheet music for my daughter to play for ” Bond lured to the pyramid .” I cannot find it anywhere.
    If you have any ideas where I can purchase this I would love to hear them please .
    Best regards and keep up the great site !

  9. I am impressed
    I list Moonracker in my personal top 3 Bond film scores.
    This article spots details I missed

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