The best film scores of all time...
Grab the popcorn, dim the lights and settle in for a run through our pick of the best film scores of all time...
Music and film have had something of a symbiotic relationship since the dawn of cinema, but the film score as we know it today was really born in 1933. There have been some pretty memorable musical scores written for the movies over the last 90 years; here are some of the very best...
Best film scores of all time
King Kong by Max Steiner (1933)
Often referred to as the ‘father of film music’, Austrian-born composer Max Steiner moved to Hollywood in 1929, becoming one of the first composers to craft narrative music for film in a way still done to this day. Among his many successful film scores are The Searchers and Casablanca, with the most famous being Gone With the Wind (1939, see below).
One of his earliest original scores was for RKO's thrilling King Kong, a film seemingly ahead of its time in terms of its visual effects. The big-screen adventures allowed Steiner to flex his muscles and show just exactly what a fully synchronised dramatic score could achieve. The result was ear-opening indeed, Steiner unleashing a battery of brass, percussion and thrilling/soaring strings to create a sense of the sheer scale of the giant Ape, the mysterious fog-bound Skull Island and the most unlikely of love stories.
King Kong – The Complete 1933 Film Score by Max Steiner
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/William Stromberg
Naxos 8.557700 (2005)
Gone With the Wind by Max Steiner (1939)
Steiner was only given three months to compose what ended up being his most famous work, and when the film was released it was the longest-ever film score, at almost three hours. Steiner sometimes worked for 20 hours at a time and it took five orchestrators to help produce the score.
Each character was given its own musical motif with ‘Tara’s Theme’ being the most famous, representing the Georgia plantation. The theme has a rich Romantic quality. In a key scene it is used as Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) is seen in silhouette with her father, a foreboding sunset in the background.
Although the film won ten Oscars, Steiner missed out on getting one for the score, despite a nomination. He was beaten by The Wizard of Oz composer Herbert Stothart.
Gone with the Wind – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
MGM Studio Orchestra/Max Steiner
Henry V by William Walton (1944)
The actor Laurence Olivier and composer William Walton worked together on several Shakespearean films, including Hamlet and Richard III. Henry V, a film that was commissioned by the Ministry of Information to help the war effort and was shot in Technicolor, remains one of the finest that they collaborated on and its score received an Oscar nomination.
The stirring film gradually leads the audience from the confines of the Globe Theatre out to the fields of the Battle of Agincourt where Henry (Olivier) triumphs. The score has plenty of period feel, from brass fanfares, drumming and unusual modal harmonies. Walton even drew upon Auvergne folksongs for his theme for the French princess, Katharine. Walton told Olivier that the film would have been ‘terribly dull’ without the music.
Henry V – Suite
Philharmonia Orchestra/William Walton
Psycho by Bernard Herrmann (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense thriller Psycho (1960) turned narrative convention on its head by bumping off the main character half way through. The famous shower murder, when serial killer Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), dressed as his mother, stabs his victim Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), is accompanied by the unforgettable screeching stabs of high-pitched strings.
This music exists, thanks to the persistence of composer Bernard Herrmann, who resisted the director’s initial requests for the scene to be silent. From the outset Herrmann was determined to only use strings for the whole score, which he thought would complement the starkness of Hitchcock’s black and white photography.
More like this
The feeling of impending disaster pervades the soundtrack: as Marion’s sister, Lila, arrives at Bates Motel to investigate her disappearance, the lower strings ominously creep up while the violins slide down.
Psycho – The Complete Original Motion Picture Score
Royal Scottish National Orchestral/Joel McNeely
Varsèse Sarabande VSD-5765
Lawrence of Arabia by Maurice Jarre (1962)
French composer Maurice Jarre rose to international attention with his score for David Lean’s epic film Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the story of how an Englishman helped the arabs fight against the Ottoman Empire during World War One.
Although the film’s soundtrack won Jarre an Oscar, the credit might have gone elsewhere. He was commissioned after both Walton and Malcolm Arnold were unavailable. And he was initially asked to contribute music alongside Britten and Khachaturian, who both dropped out. It was left to Jarre to compose two hours of music in just six weeks. He took a large-scale approach with a 104-piece orchestra, including 11 percussionists.
The exotic score included three ondes martenots and a cithara. For one of the film’s most iconic scenes, when Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) appears from the shimmering distance in the desert, Lean opts for just natural sounds, including wind, giving a beautiful contrast to Jarre’s immense score.
Lawrence of Arabia – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Maurice Jarre
Planet of the Apes by Jerry Goldsmith (1968)
Jerry Goldsmith (1929-2004) was one of Hollywood's most versatile composers. His music, fuelled by imaginative orchestrations, great energy and fine melodies, graced some of the big (and small) screen's most memorable titles. The Waltons, Dr. Kildare, The Omen, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Gremlins, Basic Instinct, and so much more besides, were each elevated by Goldsmith's art.
While he could match John Williams in terms of orchestral heft and romantic sweep, he was also brilliantly skilled in creating unusual, avant-garde sonorities. A standout score in that regard is Planet of the Apes, the film that sees an astronaut stranded on a planet ruled by intelligent apes, only to discover he has stumbled into Earth's distant future. The score sees Goldsmith unpack all manner of unusual percussive and tonal sounds, sitting within the more traditional brass, strings and piano of the Fox Orchestra; together they chop, saw, bang and hoot their way through what is a truly evocative piece of 12-tone composition.
Planet of the Apes – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Studio Orchestra/Jerry Goldsmith
Varèse Sarabande VSD-5848 (1997)
The Godfather by Nino Rota (1972)
An iconic film, with an iconic score. The first part of Francis Ford Coppola's epic Corleone saga is one of the most quoted/referenced of all time, lines of dialogue and full scenes etched into audience memories. The music is by Italian composer Nino Rota (1911-79), who had created a lasting artistic partnership with legendary director Federico Fellini in their home country.
For this relatively rare Hollywood venture, Rota turned in a relatively sparse, but vital dramatic accompaniment and some killer themes. At the heart of the score is 'The Godfather Waltz', a now iconic melody for lone, foreboding trumpet, and the grandiose 'Love Theme from The Godfather', synonymous now with all things mafia. For the latter, Rota actually re-used a theme he'd written for a 1958 Italian film called Fortunella (albeit with a different rhythm and colouring), and it's for that reason his music for The Godfather wasn't eligible for an Original Score Oscar nomination.
The Godfather – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Studio Orchestra/Nino Rota; Carmine Coppola
Varèse Sarabande VSD-5848 (1997)
John Williams has written some of the most memorable film music of all time, including Indiana Jones and ET. But the soundtrack to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is the one that really established him. This got him noticed by George Lucas, leading to the collaboration on Star Wars in 1977.
With Jaws, Williams undertook the challenge of portraying an animal that lives underwater with music rather than sound effects. Spielberg recalls fondly how Williams first introduced him to the Jaws theme, playing it on a piano. ‘What he played… with two fingers on the lower keys was dun, dun, dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun… sometimes the best ideas are the most simple ones and John [Williams] had found a signature for the entire score.’
Williams’s brief rhythmic theme consisted of three repeated bass notes. ‘I thought that altering the speed and volume of the theme, from very slow to very fast, from very soft to very loud, would indicate the mindless attacks of the shark,’ he recalls. At this year’s Oscars, Williams has a nomination for his score to Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Jaws – The 25th anniversary edition
Music composed and conducted by John Williams
Decca 467 0452
Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope by John Williams (1977)
It's hard to imagine a time before Star Wars, writer/director George Lucas's homage to the Saturday morning serials of his youth, not to mention all manner of mythical tropes and samurai films. This adventure 'in a galaxy far, far away' went on to spawn eight more instalments over an impressive 42 years.
Given Lucas's desire to conjure a bygone era of storytelling, it makes sense that the music should do the same and so composer John Williams - fresh from his Oscar for Jaws, set about creating his own love letter to the past, in music. Williams's score is knowing in its references, whether it's ceremonial Walton, rollicking Holst or thrilling film scores by Korngold.
It all makes for a great old-fashioned narrative thrillride, with memorable leitfmotifs for key characters, places and things, not to mention some edge-of-your seat orchestral set pieces as the Rebellion fights the evil Galactic Empire.
It went in so small way in whetting a renewed appetite for symphonic film scoring in Hollywood, the London Symphony Orchestra finding itself in demand for years to come. Oh and it won Williams another Oscar.
Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
London Symphony Orchestra/John Williams
Walt Disney Records D002585302
The Mission by Ennio Morricone (1986)
Ennio Morricone is one of the most prolific film composers of all time, with several hundred film soundtracks under his belt, including iconic 1960s Spaghetti Westerns like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
Among Morricone’s finest soundtracks is the Oscar-nominated score to Roland Joffe’s 1986 film The Mission about a Jesuit priest's attempt to try and convert a South American tribe. The famous ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’ theme appears when Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) tentatively plays a tune to befriend members of the Guaraní tribe.
The composer apparently took inspiration from actor Jeremy Irons’s random finger placements on the oboe. The subsequent uplifting theme, with its string accompaniment, has become famous in its own right.
The Mission – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Ennio Morricone
Interstellar by Hans Zimmer (2014)
Christopher Nolan's film about a former NASA pilot-cum-Farmer who finds himself leading an expedition into the farthest reaches of space to find a habitable planet is mind-bending and brilliant. It's science-fiction.. or is it? Science-faction perhaps, given the level of research and detail that went into every inch of celluloid.
Nolan turned to his regular composer Hans Zimmer for the music, and the Hollywood titan birthed what is probably the best things he has ever written... so far. Okay, he won as Oscar for Dune, but he should have won for this. The score is expansive, occasionally quiet to the point of inaudibility, but with a meditative tranquility that enraptures the listener. Zimmer creates an unusual soundscape, but populates it with traditional orchestral elements and his trumpt card: a ver real pipe organ - performed by Roger Sayer in London's Temple Church. This is epic music and occasionally so transportive you think you, too, have travelled to another world.
Interstellar – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Roger Sayer (organ); London Voices; Studio Orchestra et al
Sony Classical 88875048122