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2 September 2020, 14:15 | Updated: 3 November 2020, 15:58
Music can make or break a movie. And in a few special cases, it can jump out of the silver screen and take on a life of its own. Here are the 50 greatest film scores of all time, as voted for by you.
In the Classic FM Movie Music Hall of Fame 2020, we asked you: what are the 50 greatest film scores of all time?
You chose soundtracks that didn’t just serve to support the film’s narrative – but that stayed with you long after the feature was over.
Special mention to Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Joker, Philip Glass’s The Hours and Rachel Portman’s Emma, who all made it into the final countdown but snuck out of the top 50. To view the full top 100, click here.
In Frozen, Disney animation moves back to its best form. Christophe Beck, composer for the Muppets’ recent big screen outings, wrote touching music that perfectly complemented the songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.
Zimmer delivered magnificently for Interstellar, receiving an Oscar nod for his soundtrack. Painstakingly composed over two years, Zimmer visited London’s Temple Church to record its historic organ. An ensemble of 34 strings, 24 woodwinds, four pianos, and a 60-voice mixed choir were later added. The feeling of air and breath resonates throughout the music.
The peak of Max Steiner’s noir years, he apparently begged to drop ‘As Time Goes By’ from featuring in the film’s score, but was overruled. And now it’s iconic.
The most famous guitar riff in cinema has featured in every official Bond film since Dr. No (1962), when it accompanied the opening title. It appeared again over the opening credits for From Russia with Love, and from then on became as integral to the James Bond universe as corny one-liners and gadgets. The guitar riff heard in the original recording of the theme was played by Vic Flick, who was paid a one-off fee of £6 for recording the tune.
The movie and the special effects may have dated since Christopher Reeve’s Superman first flew onto our screens in 1978. But the music hasn’t. If anything, it’s grown and become iconic, and that’s probably down to Williams’s ability to capture the essence of the movie in his music. This is John Williams in grand, brassy Star Wars fanfare mode, helping us truly believe that a man could fly.
“In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream.” Luckily we have Jerry Goldsmith’s score compensating for the silence in this terrifying Sigourney Weaver-led space horror.
Using the piano sonatas of Beethoven as his springboard, Marianelli set about writing a soundtrack that sounds as if it could actually have been heard by any of Jane Austen’s characters. Indeed, given that several scenes involve some of the characters playing a piano, Marianelli found himself in the unconventional position of actually having to have music ready well before the film’s completion.
Before embarking on this score, Zimmer was told to let his imagination run wild. What emerged was a densely constructed, imaginative, electronic sound world, incorporating a guitar sound reminiscent of the music of Ennio Morricone played by Johnny Marr, former guitarist of The Smiths. Édith Piaf’s hit, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’, which appears in the film, is also integrated into Zimmer’s score. The film’s iconic brass instrument fanfare even resembles a slowed-down version of the song.
Ten years after James Horner’s career went stratospheric with Titanic, expectations were high for his next collaboration with James Cameron on Avatar. The composer delivered a superb score that fused sweeping orchestral sounds with tribal percussion and synthesised sounds. The mystical world of the Na’vi is captured with tinkling chimes and the closing battle is one of Horner’s greatest with a huge choral climax.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin explored the relationship between Greeks living on the island of Cephalonia during World War II with their enemy occupiers. The mandolin is central to the story and, in an unusual move, composer Stephen Warbeck conceived the score before shooting even began, making the music the basis around which the film was edited. This is a delicate emotional score, pitting the sweetness of the mandolin against the darkness of war.
For his 1968 epic – his first for a major Hollywood studio – Sergio Leone called upon his countryman, the late Ennio Morricone to provide the score. The composer finished the score before filming had even begun so that the music could be played to the actors during shoots. An integral part of the film, with various leitmotifs relating to each of the main characters, the ‘Man with the Harmonica’ cue is particularly recognisable and has been put to use in other productions.
Shakespeare’s timeless play is updated to the hip modern suburb of Verona Beach. Director Baz Luhrmann’s collaboration with Craig Armstrong led to an enduring partnership, including the musical spectacular Moulin Rouge. An unconventional soundtrack to the very unconventional interpretation, the touching piano theme for the Balcony Scene has become the standout moment.
One of the most iconic pieces of film music, the two-note shark motif that made going in the sea terrifying almost becomes a character in its own right. Rarely has a piece of film music so perfectly captured a film’s atmosphere. When Williams first played the two notes to Spielberg on a piano, the director initially laughed, thinking it was a joke. Williams described the theme, performed on the tuba, as “grinding away at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable”.
For a soundtrack that needed to be as sweeping as the action and location, director William Wyler turned to Jerome Moross who had orchestrated dozens of movies and had extensive experience composing for the concert hall, ballet and theatre. While Moross’s Oscar-nominated score is somewhat reminiscent of the wild west ballets of Aaron Copland, The Big Country became his most important contribution to film music, clearly influencing many of the great western scores that followed.
For the biggest film of its time, composer Horner turned his back quite deliberately on the traditional idea of what a film score for a Hollywood blockbuster should sound like. Instead, he focused on the Irish background of Leonardo di Caprio’s character, Jack Dawson, and created a soundworld somewhat reminiscent of the likes of Enya and Clannad. Titanic earned Horner a fortune and two Oscars. And it also made Celine Dion, who sang the theme tune, a few pennies too.
Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer headed a team of 15 composers who worked on this score to get it completed quickly. Composer Alan Silvestri, who had collaborated with director Gore Verbinski on Mouse Hunt and The Mexican, was set to provide the score, but the producers went with Badelt instead. Johnny Depp swaggered and strutted as Captain Jack Sparrow, the music did too – thrilling, surging and just a little bit cheeky.
It could have ended up being an electronic score if director Michael Mann had had his way, but thankfully this glorious 1992 soundtrack from Trevor Jones ended up as an orchestral affair. The film’s main character Hawkeye – played by Daniel Day-Lewis – had little to say, but the music spoke volumes. A majestic, thrilling but ultimately simple soundtrack.
William Walton was originally commissioned to write the music for this World War II drama. When producers decided to drop Walton's score in favour of Ron Goodwin's, star Laurence Olivier stepped in and demanded his name be removed from the credits if Walton's music was removed. Goodwin's gripping score remained but Walton's cue for the battle sequence itself was re-instated. It is Goodwin's theme thought that became a favourite for military bands.
Eric Coates' brilliant theme to the 1955 film, The Dam Busters, is now so popular in its own right that it's often played at military flypasts in the UK. It's not surprising, given its catchy tune.
Alan Silvestri’s Back To The Future is right up there with Star Wars and Indiana Jones as one of those iconic Hollywood themes – brassy, bombastic and thrilling. Silvestri’s score flits around Marty McFly’s increasingly wacky adventures, but among all the chaos and the pop culture references that run throughout the movie, at its heart it still all comes back to that one main theme.
Rota's score for Francis Ford Coppola's gangster epic was removed at the last minute from the list of 1973 Academy Award nominees when it was discovered that Rota's famous 'Love Theme' used the same melody as one he had used previously in Eduardo De Filippo's 1958 comedy Fortunella. Confusingly, his score for The Godfather Part II went on to win the Oscar in 1974, even though it featured the same Love Theme that made the 1972 score ineligible. Whatever. It's an all-time classic.
This Ron Howard-directed drama told the true story of the ill-fated 13th American mission to the moon. At a time when space flights had become routine to the American public, the impending tragedy and heroism of the astronauts and scientists suddenly grabbed headlines again. Horner's Copland-esque score for Apollo 13 is possibly his greatest – understated yet stirring, patriotic but with a reverence and dignity, which at times makes it feel more suited to a historical documentary.
Saving Private Ryan won five Oscars in 1998 but Best Soundtrack was not among them. Spielberg wanted to keep much of the film silent, to concentrate on the true horrors of war and to make sure that the harsh and real atmosphere was heard (and it clearly worked, hence winning the Best Sound Oscar). This put considerable limits on Williams, but he still managed a moving theme, played over the end credits and soon becoming a stand-alone hit, Hymn to the Fallen. The wordless chorus with a trumpet and snare-drum combination certainly tugs at the heart strings.
Set in Austria, this beloved musical tells the story of Maria, who takes a job as governess to the von Trapp family while she decides whether to become a nun. She soon falls in love with the children and their widowed father, Captain von Trapp, and we’re plunged into their world of music, mountains, bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens.
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have a knack for producing great cinematic adventures, and this was certainly the case with Raiders of the Lost Ark, which introduced Indiana Jones to delirious audiences around the world. John Williams's blistering ‘Raiders March’, first heard on Raiders, went on to symbolise the reckless antics of Harrison Ford's Indy for three more cinematic outings. The score received an Oscar nomination but lost out to Vangelis' score for Chariots Of Fire.
Thomas Newman used a range of percussion to create a complex rhythmic soundtrack for Sam Mendes's award-winning movie, including marimbas, pianos, xylophones and bongos, as well as more unconventional tools such as metal bowls. The pensive and thoughtful music perfectly encapsulates the ennui of the mid-life crisis being experienced by Kevin Spacey's lead character. Newman's soundtrack doesn't so much drive the narrative forward as float it along and it's one of the reasons that American Beauty's denouement is so powerfully shocking.
John Barry's popular theme song for the true story of Elsa the lion cub nearly didn't make it into the film. The producers thought it uncommercial and cut it from the print shown at the film's royal premiere. Singer Matt Monro and lyricist Don Black lobbied the producers to restore it and succeeded; it finally appeared over the closing credits, which enabled it to qualify for an Academy Award. It won, as did Barry's expansive soundtrack which gives just a hint of his Out of Africa score 19 years later. ‘Born Free’ even pops up in the 2012 video game Silent Hill: Downpour.
Max Steiner is one of the founders of film music as we know it today and his name is now attached to the annual 'Max Steiner Award' for film music which recognises his pioneering role in the early development of the craft. Steiner was drafted in to provide the music to Gone With The Wind and his sweeping score has really stood the test of time, still able to send shivers down spines and create goosebumps.
Producers of the 1941 film Dangerous Moonlight had their eyes on Rachmaninov to write their score. The lugubrious Russian wasn't that keen, so the job of penning the music went to Richard Addinsell. Despite all that, it's fair to say that even he passed on much of the work, too: it fell to the arranger and orchestrator Roy Douglas to knit together the melodies and turn them into a fully orchestrated, heart-on-your-sleeve concert piece, known as the Warsaw Concerto. Full of indulgent harmonies and grand Romantic gestures, the piece remains hugely popular today.
Jarre became involved in the 1962 epic after both William Walton and Malcolm Arnold had proved unavailable. Despite this, and the brief six weeks he was given to write the score, Jarre came through with music that perfectly captures director David Lean's vast desert setting and Peter O'Toole's Oscar-winning turn as Lawrence. One of cinema's most famous themes, Jarre's mix of orchestra and exotic percussion captures the romance of the desert.
As Mel Gibson, playing Scottish nationalist William Wallace, cried "Freedom!", James Horner's stirring score helped transport us back to the 13th century. There were Horner's trademark traditional Celtic and Scottish influences, and not a few eyebrows were raised at the inclusion of some Irish themes, and a Kena flute from the Andes. Combined with the orchestra and a spine-tingling boys' choir, they create a stirring and beautiful, romantic score.
Composed in 1982 and presaging the ambient music genre that would follow in the wake of house beats by almost a decade, Vangelis’s music perfectly captures the mood of the dystopian, rain-lashed Los Angeles in which the film is set. Evocative and seductively melancholy.
This delightful French comedy set in Montmartre became an unexpected global smash. It tells the story of the whimsical, shy waitress who decides to change the lives of those around her for the better. Yann Tiersen provided a charming Gallic score, with touching piano moments, and a little accordion making it all very authentic.
British composer Ron Goodwin created an iconic theme for this World War Two saga of heroism and bravery in which an RAF squadron is assigned to knock out a German rocket fuel factory in Norway. Goodwin’s big tune – with its rhythm of 6-3-3 – has become an evergreen piece for brass bands and remains one of British cinema’s catchiest themes.
Undoubtedly one of the greatest Western themes ever, Bernstein drew upon Copland's Wild West ballets to create a galloping, expansive romp that has remained a worldwide favourite. Along with the iconic main tune, the score also contains allusions to twentieth-century symphonic works, including a reference to Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra in the tense, quiet scene just before the shoot-out.
John Williams’s close relationship with Steven Spielberg and the director’s own meteoric career meant that he was the composer for many major films of the period, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman and of course, E.T. for which Williams won his fourth Oscar. No one does the magic and wonder of childhood better than Spielberg, and no one could have produced more sympathetic and timeless scores.
John Williams conjures up another magical score reminiscent at times of Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre. The first Harry Potter film introduced the instantly recognisable ‘Hedwig’s Theme’. With its use of the celesta in its introduction, it evokes another magical moment from musical history, Tchaikovsky’s ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ from The Nutcracker.
Nigel Hess struck gold with Classic FM listeners with his music for Charles Dance’s 2004 film. Set in picturesque 1930s Cornwall, the sweeping, lyrical score perfectly matches the stunning scenery and ocean vistas. For the main theme, Hess employs a full symphony orchestra alongside a solo violin, performed on the original soundtrack by the star violinist Joshua Bell.
This touching 1988 Italian film celebrates both childhood and cinema. In keeping with the film’s study of a relationship between a child and a father figure, composer Morricone collaborated with his son Andrea for the film's score and their work won them a Bafta. While Morricone is best known for the experimental nature of his earlier work scoring westerns for Sergio Leone with natural sounds, electric guitars and harmonica, Cinema Paradiso is a more traditional orchestral score. However, it is a perfect accompaniment to the sentimental and romantic nature of the film itself.
David Lean’s screen version of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was a sumptuous, sprawling, epic about the life of a Russian doctor-poet who, although married, falls for a political activist's wife and struggles against all the odds to survive the turmoil of war. It won numerous Academy Awards including one for Maurice Jarre’s moving score. While the music largely lets the movie speak for itself, the memorable love theme, Lara’s Theme, is a constant reference point and became a worldwide hit.
Written in the same year as Schindler’s List, which was a major award-winner in 1993, John Williams’s score for Jurassic Park may have been somewhat overshadowed. However the dinosaur blockbuster enabled him to use an array of compositional techniques which he employed in many of his 1990s film scores. The minute this theme was first aired, it sounded like it had been around for millions of years, instantly an old friend. Majesty is somehow written into the score and befits the wonderful, enormous creatures that Spielberg brought to life on the screen.
Italian master, Morricone, certainly created one of the most iconic pieces of film music with his main theme, and the rest of the score to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly comes complete with all the classic Morricone traits – including whistling, yodelling and gunfire.
Greek synthesiser wizard Vangelis opted for a very modern, electronic score in contrast to the film's 1920s setting – a decision that worked. The famous theme has lived way beyond its original purpose and is widely used for sporting events in real life, forming a memorable moment at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, with Sir Simon Rattle, the LSO and Mr. Bean! Vangelis won an Oscar for his soundtrack.
In 1977, Star Wars caused a revolution; Williams brought a new hope to movie soundtracks, reviving the golden age of grand symphonic scores. He’s since composed for most of the Star Wars movies and most recently worked on ‘Episode 9: The Rise of Skywalker’. From the brass blasts of ‘Imperial March’ to Princess Leia’s theme, every one of Williams’s motifs is pure class.
Morricone created his most successful score for the Oscar-winning 1986 film. It tells the story of a Spanish priest who goes into the South American jungle to build a mission and convert a community of Guarani Indians, while fighting off the dastardly Portuguese colonials, who are trying to enslave the community. Morricone’s score skilfully mixes Amazonian rhythms with the Baroque style of the Jesuit missionaries.
Reflecting the movie's political and ecological themes, Barry rejected the usual western clichés for a gentle depiction of the story's wide-open plains. As well as the hugely popular 'John Dunbar Theme', the 'Love Theme' is eloquent and ever so slightly haunting; while the music used to accompany Two Socks (the 'star' wolf) is also beautiful.
John Barry – with a little help from Mozart's Clarinet Concerto – provided tender accompaniment to Streep and Redford's doomed, sub-Saharan love affair. The soundtrack, evoking the expanse of the landscape, won Barry an Oscar for Best Original Score and also sits at No.15 in the American Film Institute's list of top 25 film scores.
An Oscar-nominated score for the epic that revived the sword and sandals blockbuster. For Gladiator, Hans Zimmer uses a simple but stirring melody throughout and, as a result, the film joins the ranks of those movies for which the music is a key part of its success. Lisa Gerrard’s haunting voice added a timeless and atmospheric quality.
Canadian composer, Howard Shore, may have seemed an unusual choice for the most ambitious production in cinema history, but he triumphed. Nothing in recent years has come close for scale, drama, melody and skill. Shore’s score – which features some 80 different themes and motifs representing the various characters and locations – won him three Oscars, four Grammys and three Golden Globes.
John Williams initially thought this heartrending movie would be too challenging to score, telling director Steven Spielberg: “You need a better composer than I am for this film.” Spielberg responded: “I know, but they’re all dead!” As it turned out, Williams captures perfectly the traditional music and sad plight of Europe’s Jewry, and the shame of man’s inhumanity to man.