Music is one of the most integral components of a film. A well-made film score can set the mood, foreshadow, further narrative action and plot, and even engage the audience.
One of the best parts about Hollywood today is the diversity and exceptional quality of the accompanying scores. Though it’s hard to single out just a few, today we’ll be counting down the top 10 film scores of all-time. Since this is such a broad topic (and I had a hard time choosing), there will also be a sizable honorable mentions list.
Jurassic Park (1993)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
The Pink Panther (1963)
#10: The Fugitive (1993)
Thomas Newman is one of the greatest composers in film history. He carefully balances the sweet timbre of the piano with the more majestic thrum of the strings to truly capture the mood of the film. Particularly in The Fugitive, he is able to capture the anguish of Dr. Richard Kimball (Harrison Ford)–who has been framed for murdering his wife–and his determination to reveal the true murderer, all while avoiding the persistent US Marshall Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones). The score will take you from suspense to heartbreak to fear to relief all in ten minutes.
#9: Jason Bourne franchise (2002-2016)
While the iconic track, “Extreme Ways” by Moby, always plays during the end credits, the whole score of this franchise is iconic. Composed by John Powell for the first three movies, James Newton Howard for The Bourne Legacy (2012), and John Powell and David Buckley for Jason Bourne (2016), this score knows how to generate suspense. The low, foreboding strings will have you frantically biting your nails as Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) sneaks around Europe. Quick tempos match the racing of your heart during exciting car chases. It’s an invigorating score that undoubtedly matches the tone of its film.
#8: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Once again, Thomas Newman turns a great movie into a phenomenal movie. The melancholy yet hopeful tone of the orchestra matches the mood of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), serving two life sentences for a crime he did not commit. The breathtaking instrumentation carries you along on a story that will teach you what life is really about and the value of true friendship. The glorious mood as portrayed by the orchestra will leave you feeling inspired and motivated to be as persistent as Dufresne and Red (Morgan Freeman).
#7: Gone With The Wind (1939)
Gone With The Wind is quite possibly one of the greatest movies ever made. What really elevates it to that coveted status is the score by Max Steiner, a famous composer who worked on classics like Casablanca (1942), The Caine Mutiny (1954), and King Kong (1933). Memorable pieces such as “Tara’s Theme” will keep you humming for days after and help you comprehend the strength Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) had to raise her fist at the war and vow never to be hungry again. The powerful and, at times, woeful score truly convey the emotions of this Civil War epic.
#6: The Green Mile (1999)
You guessed it, folks–another Thomas Newman score (is my nerd showing yet?). The man just has a way of pulling at your heartstrings and hitting you straight in the gut with that rush of emotion. I’ll admit it–The Green Mile is one of only two movies that’s ever made me cry (Million Dollar Baby was the other one, if you’re wondering), and the score is a big part of that. Newman has a way of matching the mood with just the right tempo, volume, and section of the orchestra to make you bawl like a baby. Yes, men, this is an acceptable movie at which to cry (rolls eyes).
#5: Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (2003-2017)
While I think this movie franchise probably should have ended with the third installment, it still has a spectacular score. Hans Zimmer (Inception, anyone?) creates a sense of grandeur and adventure with his orchestra. Staccato bits intermixed with more drawn-out notes evoke the correct emotion at just the right moment. This particular score even conveys a bit of contrasting humor, such as the impressive piece played as Captain Jack Sparrow sails into the British port at the beginning of The Black Pearl, only for us to amusingly realize that his ship has completely sunk as he steps onto the pier, slightly diminishing his imposing figure. However, this score is particularly motivating as well, and I highly recommend listening to it when you have an essay due at the last minute and you haven’t started (why no, I don’t have experience with that at all).
#4: Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)
I’ll admit–I’ve only seen Return of the King. However, from that I was able to appreciate the hype about this score. Composer Howard Shore places heavy emphasis on the brass section to truly evoke a sense of majesty and fantasy. The final battle scene is especially memorable with the awe-inspiring score leading them into their glorious redemption. Shore is able to make the orchestra sound like a powerful band of thousands of musicians and portray that sense of excitement and adventure that makes this such a popular franchise.
#3: Harry Potter franchise (2001-2011)
Of course one of the top three spots has to belong to this book-turned-movie super-franchise. Composed by the extremely talented John Williams, this is the most magical score of all-time. From those first few notes (admit it–you just hummed them in your head), you know exactly what movie you’re watching and you’re psyched to be watching it. The light high-pitched notes are perfect to accompany a film about magic, fantasy, and coming-of-age in a tumultuous world. No other score has created fantasy as well as this one has. Williams isn’t renowned as a world-famous composer for nothing–he knows how to engage people.
#2: The Dark Knight (2008)
This movie has everything—ripped Christian Bale, the late Heath Ledger, mass murder, gratuitous violence, unbearable suspense, sexy Batman, and a killer score. A collaboration between two of the best suspense composers–James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer–this score elicits such tension and uncertainty that it almost makes you want to scream. This score ingenuously retains a low pitch and moderately slow tempo (with occasional bursts of faster tempo) all the way through to create an almost horror-movie-like state of apprehension. And a movie with the Joker in it definitely needs all that anxiety to create this nail-biting thriller.
#1: Star Wars (1977-Present)
Is it any surprise that this franchise would take the top spot? With the great John Williams composing (in later films he’d be replaced, but the general sound remained), there isn’t a dud in this entire score. “The Imperial March” and the theme for the opening crawl are instantly recognizable almost worldwide. Plus, Williams uses a technique that isn’t used as much nowadays (and it should be): leitmotifs. Each character has their specific theme: Luke, Han, Leia, Darth Vader, Yoda–even Jabba the Hutt. These musical cues provide excellent foreshadowing and add even more to the plot of this stellar franchise.
Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts on the top 10 film scores of all-time? Comment down below!
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