Music can be as essential to a film’s plot as any part of its screenplay. Not only does it evoke a powerful range of emotions that can completely alter the mood of any given scene, but it’s also a great way for directors and writers to subtly influence viewers without saying anything out loud. Many movies are made even better by their musical scores, just like the ones we’re about to see on this list.
For this list, we’ll consider only movies that have an original musical score – that means no Bohemian Rhapsody or 8 Mile. Secondly, we’ll rank movies themselves and not composers – otherwise, this would be just a list of John Williams’ accomplishments. With that said, let’s take a look at 10 of the best movie scores of all time!
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10. Back to the Future — Alan Silvestri
It’s hard to imagine the ’80s without remembering Alan Silvestri’s iconic Back to the Future soundtrack. Not only did the upbeat score perfectly capture the essence of the franchise, but also of the entire decade Marty McFly originates. Songs by Huey Lewis and the News were at the forefront of the film’s soundtrack but, in hindsight, it was Silvestri’s score that was the true standout. The main theme from Back to the Future is boisterous, heroic and memorable enough to instantly identify it with the films.
The score gets even better with each new entry into the series – going from the electric guitars of the ’80s to the more traditional western sounds heard in Back to the Future III. The result is a soundtrack that is just as thrilling to hear as watching the films.
9. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl — Hans Zimmer
Considering the state of modern blockbusters – and the way it has been for more than a decade – the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean is something that seemingly happened overnight.
The epic swashbuckling saga might have Captain Jack Sparrow’s drunken shenanigans to thank for its success, but the effect of Hans Zimmer’s epic score cannot be understated. For many, it was the Star Wars of their generation, with a main theme that’s just as recognizable as anything John Williams has ever composed.
8. The Grand Budapest Hotel — Alexandre Desplat
Wes Anderson’s characteristic visuals might frequently come accompanied by compositions made by Mark Mothersbaugh, but it was Alexandre Desplat who gave us what is arguably the soundtrack that best captures what Anderson is all about in his films.
Inspired by classic European tunes, The Grand Budapest Hotel has one of the more whimsical scores we’ve ever heard on an Oscar-nominated film. However, that’s just par for the course for any Wes Anderson film these days.
7. The Nightmare Before Christmas — Danny Elfman
No, The Nightmare Before Christmas wasn’t directed by Tim Burton – we have Henry Selick to thank for that. However, many fans remember the movie for its stellar score, composed by Burton’s regular collaborator, Danny Elfman.
Composing a musical is never an easy task, but Elfman was absolutely up to the challenge, and he passed with flying colours. Nightmare Before Christmas‘ score has become as timeless as the movie itself, with songs like This is Halloween eventually becoming seasonal landmarks over at Disney.
It’s also worth mentioning that this is the only entry in our list where the composer played a prominent role in the film. Elfman not only composed the film’s soundtrack, but he stars as Jack Skellington, the film’s lead character.
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6. Superman — John Williams
One of the very first blockbuster superhero films ever released, 1978’s Superman‘s challenge was to establish the tone for a genre that wasn’t really that popular in Hollywood at the moment.
What John Williams created is an impressive musical score that becomes as much of a character as Superman himself. The film’s iconic main theme has been synonymous with the Kryptonian for generations, a feat that, to this day, seems impossible to replicate.
Now that superheroes are more popular than they’ve ever been, it’s almost baffling to see that almost no Marvel or DC flick has a noteworthy score: they all blend with each other in an ocean of unoriginality. That’s what makes the Superman soundtrack such a legendary piece among comic book fans.
This is a superhero film with one of the best movie scores of all time.
5. The Godfather — Nino Rota & Carmine Coppola
How do you make a movie about one of the most ruthless crime families of all time even more memorable? Easy: add a mesmerizing musical score to the mix. The subtle yet menacing nature of the score by Nino Rota perfectly conveys the feelings of unease felt every time Vito Corleone is on screen.
Rota’s eerie melodies and the masterful arrangements by Carmine Coppola create a score so hauntingly beautiful that many would argue it has become a masterpiece in its own right.
4. Psycho — Bernard Herrmann
With Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic 1960 film Psycho, we were introduced to the genius of Bernard Herrmann. Composing a soundtrack for a horror film is always a difficult task, but Herrmann’s unique style managed to strike the perfect balance between disturbing and emotional.
Who could forget the notoriously frightening shower scene? After all, it’s arguably one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history. What’s even better is how well the score matches the imagery.
In addition to the obvious use of suspense, it also uses elements of sadness and desperation. The film’s main theme is also a master class in the use of violin notes to create a haunting sense of dread that permeates for the duration of the film.
3. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring — Howard Shore
Arguably one of the greatest fantasy trilogies in history, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is also considered by many to host one of the best movie soundtracks of all time.
Even more surprising is that this epic soundtrack comes from a composer who’s mostly known for his work in horror films! Howard Shore’s score perfectly suits the tone of Tolkien’s fantasy novels, with many considering the soundtrack as the ideal companion to Jackson’s adaptations.
Peter Jackson and his writing team were drawn to Shore because he displayed considerable skill in adapting literary works. These included The Fly, Silence of the Lambs, Naked Lunch and Looking for Richard. Shore’s score for The Lord of the Rings is vast, operatic and filled with leitmotifs that relate to Middle Earth cultures and characters, a tour de force that equalled Jackson’s grand vision.
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2. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly — Ennio Morricone
The best entries in our list perfectly encapsulate the movies they represent – on the other hand, Ennio Morricone’s work defines what it means to be a Western film. Morricone’s score is iconic to the point that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else providing the soundtrack for a good cowboy film.
The reason for this is simple: Morricone’s score perfectly combines the aesthetics of traditional Westerns with modern musical techniques to create a timeless masterpiece. Who knew that electric guitars could work so well with the dusty, lonely landscapes of the American West? (Or, in Sergio Leone’s case, the Spanish desert).
1. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope — John Williams
A soundtrack that needs no introduction, John Williams’ Star Wars score is a cultural landmark, just like the franchise itself. But why exactly does the score stand out so much? In short, it’s because it has a bit of everything: a mix of heroic themes, lighthearted numbers, and moments of pure tension.
Pieces like the Imperial March and Luke’s theme as he watches the sunset on Tatooine might be taken as the perfect examples of what Star Wars is all about: a struggle between the primordial forces of good and evil. It’s pure cinematic bliss.
Perhaps the best part about the Star Wars score is that no piece is better than the rest: they all coexist, adding up to a soundtrack that perfectly complements the visuals. Even after all these years, the soundtrack manages to encapsulate the timeless stories of a galaxy far, far away.
Before Star Wars: A New Hope, there was a dearth of classical, orchestral film music. Movies from the 1950s onwards utilised mainly, pop, rock and jazz. After Williams’ work on Jaws, Steven Spielberg recommended the composer to George Lucas for work on Star Wars. For the film, Williams wrote a romantic orchestral work that celebrated music from the golden age of Hollywood. The success of Star Wars helped revive classical music in film and cemented Williams’ status as a great film composer.
The Star Wars theme is one of the most recognisable and best movie scores of all time.
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The Matrix – Don Davis
Fantastic contributions by Marilyn Manson, Rage Against the Machine, Juno Reactor and The Crystal Method did not overshadow Don Davis’ jarring yet fresh and interesting avant-garde score. Davis’ dissonant brass-heavy tones and dissonant strings give the impression all is not as it seems.
Batman: Danny Elfman
Before Batman, Danny Elfman and Tim Burton collaborated on the cult hit, Beetlejuice, which also has a memorable soundtrack. Yet it was Elfman’s work on Batman that cemented his status as a notable composer.
Conan the Barbarian – Basil Poledouris
Poledouris’ score veers between brutal and tender. To capture the brutality and energy of the ancient setting primal fifths and huge orchestras are utilised to marvellous effect. Tender moments are found in minor-keyed melodies and Poledouris’ keen awareness of ancient folk music and chant.
Ben Hur – Miklos Rozsa
Before pop, rock and jazz became the main musical idioms in Hollywood during the 60s and 70s, Rozsa’s music for Ben Hur was arguably the last representation of the golden age of Hollywood film music. Rozsa effectively exploits leitmotifs and thematic transformation to show the development and change in characters, pulling on your heartstrings one moment and then raising your spirits the next.
Predator – Alan Silvestri
Silvestri’s score is primal and rhythmically complex, perfect for those jungle scenes. The trumpets, piano and percussion are militaristic but what most captivates and unsettles you are the wild dissonances of the strings, ethereal and fantastical. Ambient electronic sounds are perfectly used within the acoustic orchestral compositions as well.
Harry Potter – John Williams
John Williams scored the first three Harry Potter films. Consequently, their scores are the best in the series. While Williams does not reinvent himself he still managed to create a memorable and magical soundtrack.
The Battle of Algiers – Ennio Morricone
In the history of cinema, Morricone is a titan. Some of his credits include A Fist Full of Dollars, The Good the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. The Battle of Algiers is not one of his more commonly known or celebrated works but the score is excellent nonetheless. The low piano passages and militant percussion encapsulate the revolutionary spirit of the film.