Definitively the greatest film scores of the 21st century so far

14 May 2021, 15:10 | Updated: 1 June 2021, 09:01

The 15 best film scores of the 21st century
The 15 best film scores of the 21st century. Picture: Paramount Pictures / New Line Cinema / Disney

By Siân Moore and Maddy Shaw Roberts

From symphonic battles among pirate-infested waters to the music that brought a new dimension to galactic exploration, we explore the most memorable modern film scores.

The 21st century in the movie universe has been a time for experimental writing, daring instrumentation and haunting minimalism.

From the exquisite piano musings of Philip Glass to the eerie electronic workings of Hildur Guðnadóttir, we’ve whittled down the top 15 film scores from the year 2000, to the present day.

Ready for the goosebumps?

Read more: The 50 best film scores of all time

  1. Requiem for a Dream – Clint Mansell (2000)

    The John Williams to Darren Aronofsky’s Steven Spielberg, British composer Mansell reflects the doomed stories of the psychological drama with this haunting minimalist score. The stand-out piece ‘Lux Aeterna’, whose relentlessly hammering strings drive one of cinema’s most gloriously melancholy scores, has taken on a life of its own, appearing in Assassin’s Creed among other video game soundtracks and film trailers.

  2. Gladiator – Hans Zimmer (2000)

    From its Wagnerian anthems of war to Lisa Gerrard’s meditative vocal lines, Hans Zimmer and Gerrard’s stunning soundtrack was instrumental to the success of Ridley Scott’s historical epic – towering colosseums, armour-clad gladiators and all.

    Performed by the Lyndhurst Orchestra under the baton of Gavin Greenaway, the album scooped the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score.

  3. Harry Potter – John Williams, Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper, Alexandre Desplat (2001-2011)

    Four composers worked their magic when composing for the wondrous world of Harry Potter. The combined efforts of John Williams, Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper and Alexandre Desplat lift J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard off the page and into Harry’s world of Hogwarts and spells, through a flurry of strings and a haunting solo celesta. While, incredibly, snubbed by major awards shows (including the Oscars), Williams’ ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ took on a life of its own, becoming the leitmotif we hear throughout all eight instalments of the franchise, as well as in follow-up trilogy Fantastic Beasts.

    Read more: Pianist instantly transforms John Williams’ Harry Potter theme into epic Baroque counterpoint

  4. Lord of the Rings – Howard Shore (2001-2003)

    As our eye keenly followed one hobbit across three movies and an array of vast New Zealand landscapes, as he sought to destroy the One Ring, Howard Shore matched every moment of the journey with sweeping, epic and heart-wrenching music.

    And who could forget the chirpy, joyous flute sounds of The Shire? Let’s turn back and remember where it all began, with the sprightly ‘Concerning Hobbits’ and The Fellowship of the Ring. Second breakfast, anyone?

    Read more: The Lord of the Rings soundtrack: all you need to know about Howard Shore’s score

  5. The Hours – Philip Glass (2002)

    Like an hourglass pouring back and forth, Glass’s minimalist score to The Hours, a tale of three women of different generations who are connected by the 1925 Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway, does not dominate, rather enriching the film’s highs and lows, and acting as an audio jack-shaped connector of the women’s lives.

  6. Pirates of the Caribbean – Klaus Badelt, Hans Zimmer (2003-2017)

    Klaus Badelt found his pot of gold with Pirates, the German-born composer’s first ever lead role on a big-budget film. You just can’t listen to the spritely ‘He’s a Pirate’ without picturing billowing sails, choppy waters and of course... the unflappable Captain Jack Sparrow. Many of the film’s melodies were unsurprisingly inspired by Irish sea shanties, with Hans Zimmer’s trademark ostinatos making an appearance as the Black Pearl is steered into deeper waters.

    Read more: The ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ theme, but it’s played by three electric toothbrushes

  7. Atonement – Dario Marianelli (2007)

    In a move away from his exquisitely delicate Pride and Prejudice suite of 2005, Marianelli enters a darker, more expressive soundworld for this Academy Award-winning score. From the arresting typewriter rhythms to the diegetic choir-laced ‘Elegy for Dunkirk’, it is truly original – and boasts some of the best classical names in the biz, English Chamber Orchestra and French classical pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

  8. There Will Be Blood – Jonny Greenwood (2007)

    Another Hollywood film score debut, this time from Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who crafted an ambient, string-led accompaniment to the Daniel Day Lewis epic. While its inclusion of non-original music, including (a rather surprising placement of) Brahms’ jubilant Violin Concerto and works by minimalist composer Arvo Pärt, made it Oscar-ineligible, the soundtrack is beautifully unsettling and widely admired.

    Read more: 10 iconic uses of classical music in film

  9. Up – Michael Giacchino (2009)

    You’d be hard-pressed to find a Disney soundtrack with more heartstring-tuggling power than Michael Giacchino’s Up. The particularly tear-inducing ‘Married Life’, which begins with a light, jazz-infused melody and culminates in a heart-wrenching piano solo, perfectly captures the life and loss of Carl and his beloved Ellie.

    Up was the first Disney film since Pocahontas, which came out 14 years prior, to bag the Academy Award for Best Original Score.

    Read more: Grandparents perform a beautiful piano duet of 'Up' theme on their 60th anniversary

  10. Under the Skin – Mica Levi (2013)

    Classically trained Levi made a name for herself as a film composer with her skin-crawling experimental score for this chilly Jonathan Glazer film, starring a Scarlett Johansson-shaped alien succubus. Harmonics take a big role in the atonal, discordant and completely beguiling musical supplement to this unnerving picture.

    Read more: Discover Mica Levi’s music and background

  11. Interstellar – Hans Zimmer (2014)

    Breathtaking visuals needs breathtaking music to match. From German composer Hans Zimmer for Christopher Nolan’s 2014 Interstellar, came an awe-inspiring sci-fi soundtrack originally composed on a humble church organ. In a film set beyond the stars, only Zimmer could make an audience feel as though they were there with Matthew McConaughey too.

    Nolan himself said of the soundtrack: “I believe that Hans’ score for Interstellar has the tightest bond between music and image that we’ve yet achieved.”

    Read more: The ‘Interstellar’ theme on one of the world’s weirdest musical instruments is spine-tingling

  12. The Hateful Eight – Ennio Morricone (2015)

    Proving it’s never too late to scoop your first Oscar, the now-late Italian genius Ennio Morricone picked up a ‘Best Score’ award for scoring the 2015 Tarantino film after 70 years in Hollywood. The nods to a horror soundworld are noted, as Morricone repurposes music from The Thing (1982) and The Exorcist II. After 30 years away from writing movie scores, the octogenarian threw out his whistle-driven ‘spaghetti Western’ sound in favour of this deliciously tense and moody seven-and-a-half-minute overture.

  13. Black Panther – Ludwig Göransson, Kendrick Lamar (2018)

    Black Panther was a record-breaking addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe when it first hit screens in 2018. Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson was tasked with bringing the world of Wakanda to life, by creating a score that struck a balance between “traditional African instrumentation and the swooping orchestrals that typically soundtrack superhero battles,” Pitchfork reported. Göransson found inspiration from his visits to villages in West and South Africa, where he learned about local music and traditions in order to capture those themes in the movie’s unique soundtrack.

  14. Joker – Hildur Guðnadóttir (2019)

    When Joaquin Phoenix danced beneath the flickering fluorescent lights of a dingy bathroom as Todd Phillips’ latest reincarnation of the villainous Joker, it was Hildur Guðnadóttir’s eerie string theme which completed the sinisterness of the scene. Guðnadóttir, who is a classically trained cellist, plays a Halldorophone during the chilling sequence – an electro-acoustic cello that has, alongside the four traditional strings, a set of resonating strings that are mic’d and fed into a speaker. Feeling a little uneasy? Well, that was the intention.

    Read more: What’s that eerie ‘cello’ theme from the Bathroom Dance scene in Joker?

  15. Soul – Jon Batiste, Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor (2020)

    Taking us into the year 2021 with a healthy dose of jazz hands (quite literally – composer Jon Batiste’s real hands, in animated form, played all of jazz musician character Joe’s piano moments), is Disney and Pixar’s Soul, which scooped the Best Score prize at the 93rd Academy Awards. With Juilliard-trained jazz musician Batiste on all the jazz sequences, Nine Inch Nails members Reznor and Ross created a unique sound to denote the ethereal world of unborn souls – which Joe falls into, just before his big first break on keys.

Honourable mentions go to: Life Of Pi – Mychael Danna (2013); Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Tan Dun (2001); La La Land – Justin Hurwitz (2017); Carol – Carter Burwell (2015); The Grand Budapest Hotel – Alexandre Desplat (2014)

On Bank Holiday Monday, we celebrated the greatest film scores with Classic FM’s Movie Music Monday. Catch up here on Global Player, the official Classic FM app.