Five Soundtracks More Swashbuckling Than Pirates of the Caribbean

Posted on May 9, 2009 at 9:07 am, by Ben

Today, nearly everyone knows what pirate music sounds like because nearly everyone has seen the Pirates of the Caribbean films. But for whatever reason, the rich heritage of swashbuckler scores that graced the silver screen before the first POTC looted and pillaged the box office in 2003 has been almost completely forgotten.

This is unfortunate, because there was a lot of music written pre-Jack Sparrow that may actually capture the piratical and nautical nature of the traditional swashbuckler feature better than Zimmer/Badelt’s rousing and exciting Pirates of the Caribbean scores.

Note: I do not say five soundtracks “stronger,” “better” or “more enjoyable,” than Pirates of the Caribbean; I say five soundtracks more swashbuckling than Pirates of the Caribbean because my intention with this post is not so much to find the scores that best fit their individual films as it is to discover which music is most representative of the historic swashbuckling tradition as defined by the likes of Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth and R.L. Stevenson.

Also note: This post was not written in any way to promote the biblically illegitimate vocation of piracy. It just so happens that the dashing style of music historically used to romanticize piracy is one that is very energetic and enjoyable.

Though I usually judge a film’s music based on how well it matches and strengthens its individual film, I am making an exception for this post, and am ranking the following five soundtracks based on how well the music stands on its own. Remember this, because otherwise my list will won’t make much sense.

5 – Treasure Planet – James Newton Howard
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I was not expecting a soundtrack this good or this fun from a film this crummy, but I love surprises (half of the time) — chances are this is one of those soundtracks that will lay claim to permanent residency on your ipod’s playlist.
My favorite aspects of this soundtrack are:

– A number of recognizable themes and motifs (not so common these days) that are really pretty good
– Well executed and clean orchestration that successfully incorporates a number of ethnic Irish and modern instruments to form some excellent instrumental textures
– With the exception of the two songs at the beginning, a very balanced and diverse track listing that sounds good from beginning to end.

Notable tracks from Treasure Planet:
12 Years later
Billy Bones
The Map
The Launch

4 – Hook – John Williams
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It’s very hard to place this anywhere besides #1 because –hey–it’s John Williams! As far as pirate music goes, this may not be the most definitive or representative score out there, and it’s arguable whether it should even be classified as pirate music at all. And it’s not even one of Williams’ best scores, but Williams’ duds are usually more masterful than most composers’ masterpieces.

Of the five films mentioned, this may contain the most masterfully crafted and complete melodies and it’s probably the best score to study and observe in the context of the film because no one (living or otherwise) has a better understanding of the relationship between music and film than Williams. If that were the contest there wouldn’t even be a runner-up. He is in a league all his own.

Notable tracks from Hook:
Prologue (Williams sure knows how to buckle a swash)
Presenting the Hook
You are the Pan

3 – The Sea Hawk – Erich Wolfgang Korngold
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In the world of piratical film music, the first step in determining whether or not a score is worth its sea-salt is by seeing how well it measures up to this 1940 release. If it can’t come close, then forget it. OK, maybe not every pirate score has been judged that way, but they often are because the music for The Sea Hawk has been so influential in defining this genre.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a transplant from the Austrian music scene applauded by the likes of Strauss, Mahler and others, moved to the US in 1935 to escape Hitler’s takeover of his native land. That same year he wrote his very first film score for Captain Blood (another swashbuckler starring Errol Flynn), which proved to be an excellent testing ground for Erich to play with the “pirate sound” which he would take to new heights five years later with The Sea Hawk. Though he is best known for The Adventures of Robin Hood (yet another rollicking Flynn feature), this is arguably Korngold’s single best work for film.

Notable tracks from The Sea Hawk:
Main Title
Doña Maria and Capt. Thorpe / Elizabeth’s throne room
Condemned to the Galley / Doña Maria’s Song
Escape from the Galley / Fight on Deck / “Strike for the Shores of Dover”

2 – Shipwrecked (called Håkon Håkonsen outside the US) – Patrick Doyle
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It usually takes a film composer several tries before he really comes into his own as a veteran of the musical score, but Patrick Doyle wrote like one right from the start with Henry V, his first feature film outing. Disney’s summer b-release Shipwrecked marked his second, the soundtrack for which has become very difficult to obtain for a reasonable sum due to the limited popularity of the film.

Shipwrecked’s strong points are its strong melodic approach and the smaller, more intimate set of instruments Doyle used to set the tone for the film and match its (intended) period feel. These days it seems like every score is trying to be bigger and louder than the others, so by contrast a smaller sound can be very refreshing and striking to the listener. Be sure to look out for very economical and effective use of the classical orchestra, with emphasis on the strings.

Notable tracks from Shipwrecked:
Opening Titles
Off to Sea
The Chase

1 – Cutthroat Island – John Debney
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This film is so bad that when it was released in 1995 it was given the black spot by critics and moviegoers alike, finishing with an abysmal $10 million box office haul when about $200 million would have been required for it to break even.

In the rush to forget the film, John Debney’s brilliant score fell by the wayside and was relegated to the wastebins of cinematic history where it collects dust and appears on ebay every now and then. But now that everyone has forgotten the film, it should be safe to bring the soundtrack back into the light and enjoy it for its own merits, which are legion.

Is the soundtrack for Cutthroat Island:

Over the top? Likely to make you run off to sea? Filled with exaggerated bravado and an overblown sense of reckless adventurism? Fun and rowdy? Eschewed by the critics and musical academia who have labeled it as cheap, compromised and commercialized musical entertainment?

Yes. Otherwise it wouldn’t make #1 on this list!

Notable tracks from Cutthroat Island:
Main title: Morgan’s ride
To the bottom of the sea (great intro)
It’s only Gold/End credits

Honorable mention – Muppet Treasure Island – Hans Zimmer
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I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Hans Zimmer’s first pirate score, Muppet Treasure Island. Just don’t listen past the first two tracks and you won’t be disappointed.
I know this is getting repetitive, but this is also a very hard-to-find soundtrack. I wonder why…


  • Excellent choices! If you didn’t have Cutthroat Island on here, I would have thought you under-informed. Another one I would recommend is the soundtrack written by the Chieftains for the best version of Treasure Island ever filmed – the Turner Network Television one featuring Charlton Heston, a very young Christian Bale and a host of other excellent actors. It’s the only version I’ve seen which really used the original novel like a script, and they caught the characters and moods in a way I never expected to see on film. You can find the music for it on the CD titled “Reel Music” by the Chieftains.

    Posted by Israel Groveman on May 9th, 2009 at 2:51 pm
  • Great article Ben! I’m adding a couple of these to my “needs to be purchased list” 🙂 Cutthroat and Treasure Planet are my favorites. The Musketeer by David Arnold is also one of my favorite swashbuckling soundtracks.

    On the topic of “forgotton soundtracks”…one of my new all time favorites is the soundtrack Eragon (composed by Patrick Doyle.) I don’t hear much about it and I’m guessing it’s due to the bad press associated with the movie. I know its not in the swashbuckling genre but it would be interesting to hear your thoughts about that one sometime. 🙂


    Posted by John-Clay on May 9th, 2009 at 7:52 pm
  • Good ones Ben..Glad you got something up and running.
    Don’t you know George Harrison had a great Pirate Song!
    Wouldn’t publish it though!
    Look forward to reading your posts man!

    Posted by Ryan Stapleton on May 9th, 2009 at 9:27 pm
  • Hey Ben,

    It seems that many, if not all, of these samplings are the same time signature, 6/8. Is this true? Why does this tempo work for the pirate style? Is it because it is a driving, rollicking tempo?

    Thanks for this post!


    Posted by Kyle Shepherd on May 10th, 2009 at 4:48 pm
  • Oh, yes, I forgot.

    How do you come across such obscure titles as the ones you write about?


    Posted by Kyle Shepherd on May 10th, 2009 at 4:50 pm
  • Except for Hook and the Muppets, this is first I’ve heard these. I agree Cutthroat Island is very good, but I found the Treasure Planet track to be the most delightful of the bunch. It brought a variety of sounds into a single “swashbuckling” theme. After two minutes and forty-two seconds I thought I’d already gone on an adventure myself.

    But, not having a composer’s ear, it may be the others are more complex or historically influential.

    Nice post.

    Posted by Daniel Devine on May 10th, 2009 at 8:35 pm
  • Kyle,

    yes, a lot of “pirate” themes are written in 3/4 or 6/8, and I think a lot of it has to do with the feel that is inherent in those rhythms.

    Wikipedia says this about 3/4-6/8:

    3/4 (triple) – used for waltzes, minuets, scherzi, and country & western ballads.
    3/8 (triple) – also used for the above, but usually suggests higher tempo or shorter hypermeter.
    6/8 (duple) – double jigs, polkas, fast obscure waltzes, marches and some rock music.

    But even so, you will notice that many of these “pirate” themes are in 4/4, particularly the ones that are meant to be grander and more march-like/fanfare-ish– 4/4 is a much more measured, straightforward rhythm.

    Posted by admin on May 11th, 2009 at 1:29 pm
  • Nice! I’m fond of the drama and “swashbuckling” of Zimmer’s POTC soundtracks, but regret that the movies didn’t live up to the music. These soundtracks are great examples of what I’ve been looking for–I’m definitely adding Treasure Planet, Shipwrecked, and Muppet Treasure Island.

    “These days it seems like every score is trying to be bigger and louder than the others, so by contrast a smaller sound can be very refreshing and striking to the listener.” –Have you seen/heard Unbreakable (score by James Newton Howard)? I found the simplification of the orchestration in the score to create a unique sound very intriguing.

    Thanks so much for putting together this list!

    John Calvin Young

    Posted by John Calvin Young on May 11th, 2009 at 3:26 pm
  • Ben ,

    Great music on this post!!! I was hanging in the rigging of a spanish gallion (sp?)

    Keep at it –


    Posted by Mark Robinette on May 11th, 2009 at 10:04 pm
  • Yes!! I knew Muppet Treasure Island had to make the list! Wonderful collection of music in this post, all very inspiring and exciting!

    Posted by Abby Caeton on May 12th, 2009 at 8:44 pm
  • I really liked Treasure Planet, Muppet Treasure Island, and Shipwrecked. I also liked your own song, Buccaneers. At the moment I am actually learning a piece of POTC music entitled He’s A Pirate. It’s a very popular song in my area, everyone I know is playing it.
    Thanks for the post!

    Posted by Kay Morris on May 13th, 2009 at 7:21 am
  • I love Muppet Treasure Island’s score. The opening title song is amazing. Really reminds me of some of the POTC songs…hmm…wonder why. 😉

    Posted by Alexandra on May 18th, 2009 at 6:18 pm
  • Oh, and I forgot to mention that I love the Hook soundtrack as well. Something about pirate music is lovely in its own way.

    Posted by Alexandra on May 18th, 2009 at 6:26 pm
  • What a great website you’ve started, Ben! I’ve been so encouraged and strengthened by your sisters’ book, film, and website, and it’s great to see you also perusing excellence in the world music composition! I loved this post. Got me and my little brother watching our old VHS of Shipwrecked, which, though not widely known or big-budget, is a classic at our house.

    Glad Muppets got on your list. 🙂

    Posted by Rael on May 21st, 2009 at 3:38 pm
  • Those are all enjoyable tracks! I also like your “Buccaneers.” Keep up the great work!

    Posted by Melissa M. on May 22nd, 2009 at 6:30 pm
  • Greetings!

    So would you advocate the position of enjoying a film’s music even if a film is reprehensible in other ways? I’m not trying to point fingers, I am curious. 🙂

    Found you in Your sisters’ work has been a blessing to me.


    Posted by Dr. Paleo Ph.D. on May 25th, 2009 at 7:32 pm
  • Ben Botkin,

    I really enjoy reading your blog and listening to your music. I have a question:
    Do you use a certain keyboard to compose or do you use real instruments? I am very curious to know.

    Posted by Naomi on May 26th, 2009 at 5:42 pm
  • Spencer,

    I’m always encouraged to hear of people who have been blessed by my family’s ministry!

    Thank you also for your excellent question–I am planning on covering this issue in a future post (as the comment section is quite restrictive), so keep an eye on my blog for updates.

    Posted by admin on May 26th, 2009 at 7:01 pm
  • Naomi,

    I am not currently using a real orchestra to perform my music, instead I am using a number of different pieces of software by Steinberg, VSL, Eastwest, Garritan and others to realize the music you hear. There is more information on those companies and their products in the “Software Developers” link category on my blog sidebar.

    Posted by admin on May 26th, 2009 at 7:06 pm
  • Ben,
    I will have to agree with you that Cutthroat Island has the best soundtrack.
    Unfortunately I have seen five out of the six movies you have mentioned, and I am currently regretting wasting several hours of my life watching the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies.

    ~Calico Zak

    PS if you are wondering yes that is after Calico Jack Racham Notorious Pirate but I like the ring. I guess you could say I am a pirate-guru-wanna-bee.

    Posted by Calico Zak on June 2nd, 2009 at 10:33 pm
  • I enjoy these pirate songs, but Hook doesn’t seem to be working. 🙁

    Posted by Jonathan on September 7th, 2009 at 3:41 pm
  • Back in the day, I loved John Addison’s soundtrack for the movie “Swashbuckler” (with Robert Shaw and James Earl Jones.) I bought the record and played the end title over and over.

    Posted by Eden on November 9th, 2009 at 2:45 am