Movies have used songs to enhance their storytelling since the advent of sound: quite literally when Al Jolson sang “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” in 1927. Jazz singer. This begs the question of which song is played the most in movies, but the answer is surprising. As new movies go into production every day — most attempts are tentative at best — and as the line between movies, TV, and other mediums becomes impossibly blurred, it’s hard to even define what “counts” as a use of song.
However, there is an answer, which is more satisfying and less interesting than it seems. It is “Happy Birthday to You”, cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most popular song in the English language. IMDb notes authors Patty S. Hill and Mildred J. Hill a full 809 times for the song, easily beating out the closest competition. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the second-place finisher, has more than 300 entries (incl Werewolf by night recently released as of October 2022). Other titles are easy to cite, but the combination of longevity and “Happy Birthday”‘s very odd copyright history makes them unlikely to challenge.
It is difficult to count songs in movies
Tracking the use of a song in movies can be difficult not only because of the sheer number of movies out there but because a given song can be overused to the point of seeming ubiquitous. For example, George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone”—a song commonly cited in this type of discussion—first appeared in John Carpenter’s opening. Christine In 1983. But it picked up steam in the 1990s after Arnold Schwarzenegger walked out of Biker Bar in 1991. Terminator 2: Judgment Day And for a time it seemed to be everywhere. And with 28 movie citations on IMDb — 68 if television is included — it’s well behind the leaders.
Kasumo’s recent article cited MC Hammer’s “You Can’t Touch This” as the most used movie song, but their study was limited to 4,000 movies, which significantly reduces the data. (IMDb lists over 13,000 movies released in calendar year 2022 alone.) It lists 15 uses for “U Cant Touch This”. IMDb’s number is 36 for movies and over 100 for TV series and movies combined.
Why the top song will probably stay there
Still, “Happy Birthday” rises above any other song. Despite its traditional usage and nursery-rhyme simplicity, “Happy Birthday to You” was outright copyrighted for a long time. Which does not make it different from other popular songs. If movies and TV wanted to use it, they needed to pay for the rights, which many did decades before even current hits like “You Can’t Touch This” were written. Its cultural significance and sheer intrinsic value meant enough filmmakers were willing to pay for the rights. Few other songs can match the combination of enduring tradition and copyright status that led to its impressive count on IMDb.
Indeed, some memorable uses of the song specifically mention its copyright status despite being considered a largely traditional (and thus copyright-free) piece. Stephen Colbert digs it The Colbert Report In 2014, Aaron Sorkin did it on his show sports night Season 1, Episode 4, “Intellectual Property.” The latter had one of the anchors on the show’s fantasy sports broadcast sing to his co-anchor on air and had to pay a copyright penalty for his trouble.
That ended when the song was declared public domain in 2016. Warner Music—which owned the copyright at the time—paid $14 million to end a lawsuit challenging its claim, finally releasing it. That might be the final touch to put “Happy Birthday” in the lead for good. Besides the fact that any production can use it for free, its endurance is far beyond the most memorable pop song. It’s just been around too long, and the numbers don’t lie.