John Williams’ 10 greatest movie soundtracks

25 January 2024, 15:48

John Williams’ 10 greatest movie soundtracks
John Williams’ 10 greatest movie soundtracks. Picture: Getty/Alamy
Classic FM

By Classic FM

He’s the most successful film composer of all time, with over 120 film scores to his name. Here are the 10 greatest soundtracks by movie music maestro, John Williams.

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John Williams is without a doubt one of the greatest film composers all time. Inventor of magical musical worlds from Harry Potter to Star Wars, and some of the most heart-rending melodies from Schindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan, he’s the most Oscar-nominated person alive today – and with good reason.

Reigning supreme over the soundscape of the silver screen for more than 50 years, we have hundreds of hours of brilliant music to thank him for.

Here are the 10 greatest soundtracks of his extraordinary career...

Read more: All of John Williams’ record-breaking 54 Oscar nominations so far

  1. Star Wars (1977)

    For a film in the ‘space opera’ genre, only a soundtrack of operatic proportions could suffice – and it’s safe to say that John Williams delivered in spades. With a Wagnerian devotion to musical themes and motifs, Williams’ score to the entire Star Wars franchise wraps you up in every hostile and romantic turn, from intergalactic battles to star-crossed lovers.

    There’s the Prokofiev-flavoured ‘Imperial Theme’ best known as ‘Darth Vader’s March’, and even John Williams’ own favourite: ‘Yoda’s Theme’. He told Classic FM: “The simplicity of the tune – combined with the logic of its intervals – seems to carry some gravitas with it. It’s a combination that’s hard to produce if it’s too eagerly sought after.”

    Read more: Orchestra interrupts Prokofiev with Star Wars ‘Imperial March’ in hilarious prank on conductor

    Classic FM Live: Star Wars Finale – Anna Lapwood and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

  2. Schindler’s List (1994)

    It’s hard to imagine a more perfectly poignant score for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List than the one that John Williams wrote, but even the composer himself had his doubts. When he was first asked to write the score, Williams told Spielberg: “You need a better composer than I am for this film.”

    “I know,” came Spielberg’s response. “But they’re all dead!”

    Williams’ score has gone down in history as one of the finest ever written, the most faithful musical counterpart to Spielberg’s film telling the horrors and heartbreak of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany.

    Legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman performed the score with immense passion and intensity, and the heartbreaking simplicity of the main theme earned Williams his fifth Oscar.

    Read more: Soloist is left in tears after an emotional performance of ‘Schindler’s List’

    Classic FM Live: John Williams' Schindler's List theme by violinist Braimah Kanneh-Mason

  3. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

    As the wise director Steven Spielberg once said, “Without John Williams, bikes don’t fly” – and this is precisely the score that proves it.

    When E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was released in 1982, the titular alien character was a marvel of animatronic achievement. But despite its expressive abilities and Spielberg’s artful direction, it was going to take a very special soundtrack to endear E.T. to his audience.

    A job like this calls for the genius of John Williams. With his special brand of soundtrack sorcery, this bug-eyed alien creature is transformed into the most lovable member of the cast.

    Spielberg was such a huge fan that he broke one of Hollywood’s golden rules, and edited the final cut of the film to fit the music, rather than the other way around.

    Read more: Unearthed footage reveals Steven Spielberg and John Williams composing music for E.T. together

    John Williams Conducts Flying Theme From E.T (John Williams) [1080 Remastered]

  4. Jurassic Park (1993)

    No one does awe and wonder quite like John Williams – and his main theme for Jurassic Park is no exception. You can’t help but get a sense of the magnificence and sheer scale of these prehistoric creatures from his stately music.

    But there’s also the inevitable suspense and drama that comes along, when reviving dinosaurs turns out not to have been such a great idea. While it never quite reaches the dizzying heights of E.T. or the bombast of Star Wars, Jurassic Park is technically brilliant and complements the movie’s action at every level.

    Read more: Conductor leads full orchestra in ‘Jurassic Park’ theme – dressed as a tiny-armed T-Rex

    Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra perform epic 'Jurassic Park' at Classic FM Live

  5. Superman (1978)

    A mighty fanfare of a theme that quite literally screams “SUPERMAN!” at full belt, John Williams is the man that put the wind in the cape of one of cinema’s most legendary superheroes.

    His Oscar-nominated score captures all the heroism and beguiling nature of Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel, and the main fanfare theme has flown into the repertoire of orchestras around the world ever since.

    Read more: Hans Zimmer 'daunted' by John Williams' Superman theme

    Superman • Main Theme • John Williams

  6. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

    For his graphic depiction of the invasion of Normandy in World War II, Steven Spielberg decided to leave the major battle scenes without music to make them more realistic.

    Other than a few atmospheric cues along the way, what John Williams was left with was the opportunity to provide a heart-stirring concert piece over the final credits to serve as a tribute to the soldiers who died.

    ‘Hymn to the Fallen’ is the most memorable moment of the score and Williams so perfectly highlights the presence of the music, to make those silent moments all the more poignant.

    Hymn To The Fallen (From "Saving Private Ryan" Soundtrack)

  7. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

    Just when you thought John Williams had run out of barn-storming, high-octane adventure themes, here he comes again with the music for Harrison Ford’s first outing as the fedora-wearing archeologist.

    The anthemic ‘Raiders March’ is now etched on our consciousness as the musical representation of a great movie hero – Indiana Jones. Hold on to your hats, and have a listen to this...

    Read more: John Williams emerges from behind curtain, to conduct surprise ‘Indiana Jones’ at US premiere

    Indiana Jones ‘Raiders March’ blasts through Royal Albert Hall | Classic FM Live

  8. Jaws (1975)

    With two haunting notes, John Williams heralds the arrival of Bruce, the Great White Shark that lurks ominously in the depths of Amity Island’s idyllic beaches.

    Borrowed from the triumphant third movement of Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony, this threatening shark motif played a huge part in making Spielberg’s film a major hit, and also won its composer an Oscar.

    Williams described the theme as “grinding away at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable.”

    And although Spielberg was not initially impressed by Williams’ idea when he heard it on the piano, he was eventually won over, and even allowed Williams to play clarinet on the final recording!

    Read more: ‘I played the shark theme to Spielberg and he said, “you can’t be serious!”’ – John Williams on composing Jaws

    Main Title/John Williams/Jaws (From The "Jaws" Soundtrack)

  9. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

    In 2001 John Williams pulled off the most magical move ever committed by a Muggle, with his bewitching score to the first Harry Potter film.

    Flourishing strings, lilting woodwind, twinkling percussion and enchanting melodic leaps encapsulate all the dangers and delights of the wondrous wizarding world, with just a sprinkling of Williams’ signature magic musical touch.

    Although other composers would take the reins for later films in the series, John Williams’ ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ is the only piece to make it into all eight films in the franchise.

    Read more: Harry Potter’s Tom Felton was ‘desperate’ as a child to become a professional violinist

    John Williams conducts ‘Harry Potter’ with LA Philharmonic at Hogwarts Castle

  10. Hook (1991)

    John Williams actually wrote several musical numbers for Hook ahead of filming, when director Steven Spielberg was still considering making it a musical film.

    That idea was ultimately scrapped, but what was left is an exquisite orchestral score full of Peter Pan’s youthful optimism and heroics, the perils of Captain Hook and his treacherous left hand, and all the wonders of Neverland.

    The Flight to Neverland (From "Hook")

Love the music of John Williams? Join Jonathan Ross every Friday and Saturday night at 7pm for a celebration of great film music just like this, on Classic FM at the Movies.