Here’s What It Takes To Win Best Original Song At The Oscars

The 89th Academy Awards are only two days away, and in the days leading up, everyone’s humming the same tune: Who’s going to win big?

While music isn’t heavily represented at the Oscars—we have other awards shows for that—there’s always plenty of excitement around the Best Original Song category, of which the nominees usually perform throughout the annual ceremony. Whether you’re a movie or music person, there’s no denying that when done well, the two go together like peas and carrots.

According to the Oscars’ official rules, the Best Original Song submission must be:

“…words and music, both of which are original and written specifically for the motion picture. There must be a clearly audible, intelligible, substantive rendition (not necessarily visually presented) of both lyric and melody, used in the body of the motion picture or as the first music cue in the end credits.

OK, cool, so this tells us that a song has to be comprehensible and made specifically for a movie. What isn’t written in stone (or PDF) is what really makes an original film song the “best”; what’s considered momentous, well-crafted and a solid representation of that year in film.

We took a gander back over many decades, and found some recurring themes in the music that has taken home the coveted golden statue in Oscars past. So, if you’re about to sit down and pen a movie tune with the hopes it will win “Best Original Song” at the Oscars, you might want to make sure it has one of these five things.


Ah, l’amour. The Academy has historically been helpless to a big, beautiful ballad that warrants a hearty chest pump or slow waltz, à la Celine’s “My Heart Will Go On” (Titanic, 1997) Andy Williams’ “Moon River” (Breakfast At Tiffany’s, 1961),  Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes’ “Up Where We Belong” (An Officer and a Gentleman, 1982) or Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s “Falling Slowly” (Once, 2007). Love wins every time in life, and very often at the Oscars.


Basically, hit ’em with what’s up. Whether it’s a real-life account or political or social commentary—honest, poignant songs like Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” (Philadelphia, 1993), Three 6 Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” (Hustle & Flow, 2005) and Common/John Legend’s “Glory” (Selma, 2014) have fared surprisingly well with #OscarsSoMaleAndWhite in the past three decades. Edgier instrumentation or poetic lyricism push these power anthems to stand out next to their “safer” competitors and, when the old boys choose right, they finish first.


I mean, a little pre-existing popularity definitely hasn’t hurt Oscar nominees in the past. If a pop song has been spinning so hard everywhere you turn, so much so that its movie affiliation has become an afterthought, chances are it’s very much on the Academy’s radar. Everyone likes a toe-tapper, and, correct me if I’m wrong—but doesn’t the below sample of Oscar-winning jams just look like a portion of your Friday night turn-up playlist?


The 1990s Oscars were very fond of cartoon choruses, which there was no shortage of in the heyday of box office-ruling Disney classics. From 1989 to 1999, lead singles from The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Prince of Egypt and Tarzan all nabbed Best Original Song, earning over 60 per cent of the awards that decade. In more recent years, Pixar has followed suit and picked up a few trophies, so let this be a lesson: ‘toons (and computer-generated ‘toons) = Oscar gold.


Everything from big-budget, award-sweeping musicals (Les MisEvitaLa La Land—this year) to famed adaptations (The Lord of the Rings) to Bond flicks (Skyfall, Spectre) have been fan and Academy favourites, year after year. The sensational plot lines, rich orchestral arrangements, celebrity voices (“they learned to sing just for this role!”) and dark, moody lyrics undoubtedly shine alongside songs with lesser production budgets.

There you have it. If you’re writing with Sir Oscar in mind, steer clear of indie, experimental, country and dance. Don’t keep it simple—go big or go home. Write lyrics that will move people. Hire an orchestra. Pitch it to Top 40 radio. And, if you can, ask Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone to sing it together.

Watch Jimmy Kimmel host the 59th Annual Academy Awards on Sunday, February 26 starting at 8 pm E.T. on CTV and CTV Two.