Since before the dawn of sound movies have had musical accompaniment to complement and even improve the events onscreen. A great score keeps the story moving, illustrates the protagonists’ inner worlds and even just plain scares the hell out of you. And while many great and even perfect scores are unobtrusive to the point of near-invisibility, a lot of our favorites are completely unforgettable themes from some of the best – and occasionally even the crappiest – movies ever made.
CRAVE would like to dedicate this list of The Best Film Scores Ever to John Barry, who passed away at the age of 77 and composed the iconic scores for the James Bond franchise, Out of Africa and many more, inspiring this list. We’ll get to him later. That’s ‘Top Ten’ material. Let’s start with #30 for now…
The 30 Best Movie Scores:
30. The Terminator (1984) by Brad Fiedel
Da-dum, dum, da-dum… Da-dum, dum, da-dum… Can you hear that? Brad Fiedel composed that pulsing bit of bad-assery, which has become synonymous with the Terminator franchise. The synth-based original score fit the low-budget underdog tone of James Cameron’s original sci-fi classic The Terminator, which Fiedel then updated to grander effect for Terminator 2: Judgment Day. We prefer the original. It beautifully illustrates the looming threat of Cameron’s cyborg killing machines, and it sticks in your head forever. Seriously, if you heard this theme in real life, you’d know to run your ass off.
29. Django (1966) by Luis Bacalov
Ennio Morricone may have been the most famous Spaghetti Western composer – we’ll get to him later – but he wasn’t the only one composing unforgettable themes in the genre. Luis Bacalov composed 143 film scores in his career and won an Oscar for his sweet, romantic music for Il Postino, but it’s the darker music from the cult classic Django that everyone remembers (if they’ve seen the film that is). Django is one of the bleakest westerns you’re ever likely to see, ultraviolent and even ultra crazier, and the haunting score always reminds you that as cool as all the horrific murders are, it’s also deeply tragic.
28. Brick (2005) by Nathan Johnson
The high school neo-noir mystery Brick was one of the best films of the 2000’s, and frankly, if you can’t remember the melancholy theme music you must not have seen the film. Nathan Johnson, cousin of director Rian Johnson, wrote a classic score for Brick over iChat, of all things, since he was in England at the time of production. ‘Emily’s Theme’ in particular is one of the most memorable musical themes of the last ten years as far as we’re concerned, and time will no doubt only be kinder to this unsung film and all the beautiful work by Rian Johnson, Nathan Johnson and all their exceptional collaborators.
27. The Last of the Mohicans (1992) by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman
Michael Mann’s classic The Last of the Mohicans had a classy, epic and thoroughly memorable score by two great composers: Trevor Jones, who had to leave the project before the end of production (due to ‘creative differences’) and his replacement Randy Edelman was classy enough to leave Jones’ work in the film and supplement it with his own material. Somehow the mix is never distracting, and in fact it keeps the score lively and new throughout the entire grand production. From the adventurous hunting music to the sweeping, melodramatic climactic score, The Last of the Mohicans overcame all odds to become one of the best scores ever made.
26. Conan the Barbarian (1982) by Basil Poledouris
Basil Poledouris composed a lot of great film scores in his career – Robocop, The Hunt for Red October and Free Willy among them – but his most iconic work remains the epic Conan the Barbarian score. As Mako’s unmistakably grizzled voice intones the classic prologue Basil Poledouris is only building up steam, finally kicking in with one of the most incredibly propulsive adventure themes in film history. Poledouris didn’t even phone in the (otherwise kind of phoned in) sequel Conan the Destroyer, composing a new, almost equally memorable theme, giving the two Conan movies some of the grandest music imaginable.
25. Requiem for a Dream (2000) by Clint Mansell
Requiem for a Dream was only Clint Mansell’s second score – after Darren Aronofsky’s first film, Pi – but the instantly classic ‘Summer Overture’ theme became one of the most instantly recognizable pieces of music in the last ten years. At turns innocent and spooky, sad and tubthumping, it fits the youthful and tragic tone of Aronofsky’s critically-acclaimed drug abuse drama exquisitely and would later be rearranged into the tense orchestral theme for the unforgettable The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers trailer.
24. Dragonheart (1996) by Randy Edelman
Randy Edelman makes his second appearance on the list with the score for Rob Cohen’s Dragonheart, a movie which wasn’t nearly as good as its Edelman apparently hoped it was. Cohen’s fairly limp fairy tale about the world’s last dragon facing off against an evil king was repeatedly elevated by Edelman’s incredible score, which has since become infinitely more famous than the film after appearances in countless trailers, Oscar montages and the theme music for the American broadcasts of the 2004 Olympics. Beautiful stuff.
23. Back to the Future (1986) by Alan Silvestri
Alan Silvestri’s score for the first Back to the Future movie is awfully brassy considering that – time travel aside – the film is essentially a romantic comedy in which the two of the characters in the love triangle are the third guy’s parents. But then everything in Robert Zemeckis’s best movie is better than it has any right to be: the cast, the special effects, the astoundingly clever writing (ignoring the ending that doesn’t make a lick of sense), and Silvestri’s exciting score which makes the life of a 1980’s slacker seem like the coolest thing in the world… although admittedly the time travelling Delorean helped too. As the music crescendos before Back to the Future’s credits roll, the inevitable sequel doesn’t just seem like a good idea, it seems like the best idea anyone’s ever had.
22. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) by Bernard Herrmann
Bernard Herrman makes his first appearance on our list of memorable film scores – but not the last – with his groundbreaking work in the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. Former film editor and later acclaimed director Robert Wise helmed this epic film about first contact and world peace that helped usher in a decade of mainstream science fiction movies with important themes, some of them even quite good. But Herrmann’s score was a huge part of why this movie still feels so important today, experimenting with an unlikely combination of Theremins, electric organs, tubas and more to create one of the most original musical scores to date, and still one of the most striking ever made.
21. Beverly Hills Cop (1984) by Harold Faltermeyer
One of the most playful scores to make the list, Harold Faltermeyer’s memorable theme from Beverly Hills Cop is a classic combination of good-natured fun and a promise of action/adventure. Extremely hummable, the original score for Beverly Hills Cop is best known for its synth-y version – it was the 80’s after all – composed with three synthesizers, but the orchestral version is great as well. Let’s just say that Axel Foley had great backup.
20. Chariots of Fire (1981) by Vangelis
Another film overshadowed by its awesome score, Chariots of Fire doesn’t make too many ‘Top 100’ lists these days unless music is involved. Bear in mind this film won the Best Picture Academy Award over Reds and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and yet the only thing anyone remembers is the score. That’s because the score is that good. Seriously, put it on your iPod next time you’re running to the store and feel how absolutely epic that achievement is. It elevates movies, and it elevates your life.
19. A Summer Place (1959) by Max Steiner
The theme from A Summer Place is one of the most recognizable in film history, even if you’ve never seen the film. Give it a listen and you’ll see why (and probably go, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard that one”): the lilting, romantic tones contrasted perfectly with the film’s tale of sexual hypocrisy, as middle-aged parents get in the way of their teenaged children’s love affair even as they regret the missed opportunities in their own lives. A melodramatic film with a classic, melodramatic score. Melodramatic in a good way, incidentally.
18. American Beauty (1999) by Thomas Newman
Not every great film score sticks in your head: Thomas Newman’s distinctive and memorable music from American Beauty lost the Original Score Oscar to The Red Violin, which was also excellent but not nearly as iconic. Sam Mendes’ Best Picture-winning tale of a middle-aged crisis was consistently enlivened by Newman’s surprisingly fun score, which awakened the audience alongside Kevin Spacey’s hilarious – and ultimately tragic – protagonist. Exceptional work from an exceptional composer.
17. Exodus (1956) by Ernest Gold
The movie may not be terribly well remembered today, but give it a listen and then try to get that score out of your mind. We dare you. Ernest Gold’s dramatic theme to Exodus – an epic film starring Paul Newman about the birth of the Israeli state post-World War II – is as rousing as they come. Plaintive, sad and just a little hopeful, film scores never got a hell of a lot better than this. Gold won an Academy Award for his incredible work, even though the movie itself got relatively mixed reviews.
16. Aliens (1986) by James Horner
Like director James Cameron, James Horner took the original Alien and spun it into a whole new direction with an action-packed score that’s often been mimicked but never duplicated. Constantly sampled in movie trailers, it’s impossible to hear Horner’s Aliens themes without wanting to go on a bug hunt of your own. James Horner lost the Academy Award that year to Herbie Hancock’s work in ‘Round Midnight, but would eventually claim Oscar gold for his strong (although not quite strong enough for a Top 30 list) score for Cameron’s historical epic Titanic.
15. Suspiria (1977) by Dario Argento & Goblin
Horror movies often rely on music to scare their audiences, but the score for Suspiria is just plain scary all by itself. The light, repeated bells lull you into a false sense of security as Goblin – with help from horror maestro Dario Argento, who also directed the classic shocker – starts adding spookier and spookier riffs, from unholy chanting to synthetic takes on the recurring theme. By the time they pick up the tempo, you’re almost too distracted by how badass it sounds to be scared. Almost. Utterly unforgettable, and one of the best horror scores ever written.
14. Super Fly (1974) by Curtis Mayfield
Perhaps the greatest score ever composed for a not-quite-that-great movie, Curtis Mayfield’s revolutionary work on the blaxploitation film Super Fly remains an iconic achievement in movie music, combining pop soundtracks with traditional scores so fluidly you almost can’t tell the difference. But it’s still the perfect accompaniment to an imperfect film, about a cocaine dealer trying to make one last score to escape ‘the life.’ Perhaps the only score on the list you can put in the background of kick-ass party, and easily the one most likely to get you laid.
13. The Great Escape (1963) by Elmer Bernstein
Elmer Bernstein made World War II fun with his delightful travelling music score to John Sturges’ adventure epic The Great Escape. Constantly pushing the movie forward despite (or perhaps because of) its repeating, whistle-able tune, the chipper music nevertheless gives way to fine dramatic moments, be it Steve McQueen’s awe-inspiring motorcycle jump over a barbed wire fence (a stunt actually pulled off by the great Bud Ekins) or the tragic end to the great characters who didn’t quite, well… escape. One of the all-time greats.
12. North by Northwest (1957) by Bernard Herrmann
Take a minute and listen to the clip. Even if you’ve never seen it before, and even if you’ve seen it dozens of times, Bernard Herrmann’s rousing score to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic North by Northwest makes you want to watch this movie right now. And you should: the witty spy-thriller is as exhilarating and refreshing today as it was in 1959. Herrmann’s score is an indelible part of one of the greatest entertainment experiences in film history, thrilling when it needs to and sometimes – just to be funny – when it doesn’t.
11. The Magnificent Seven (1960) by Elmer Bernstein
Elmer Bernstein makes another appearance on the list with his absolutely incredible score to The Magnificent Seven, still one of the best westerns ever made. As huge as it is fun, Bernstein’s fantastic score tells you that not only is this film great, but it’s getting started. You’re about to see something absolutely wonderful, and thanks to John Sturges and one of the biggest casts of stars ever assembled in one film – Steven McQueen, Yul Brynner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson and more – the film makes good on that promise. Bernstein lost the Academy Award to our #17 pick, Exodus, so while we disagree with that decision we do have to admit that it was one hell of a year for the Best Original Score category. Wow, what a great score…
10. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2004) by Howard Shore
Expectations were high for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy: if one cog in the machine were even the tiniest bit out of alignment, the whole apparatus would have broken. Like the rest of the crew, Howard Shore brought his ‘A’ game and composed one of the greatest scores ever written, filled with one classic theme after another that would become indelibly linked to Tolkien’s grand fantasy. From the spritely “Concerning Hobbits” theme to the romantically heroic “The Fellowship” to… aw hell, every piece of music in the trilogy just plain nails it. Shore was a great composer before this, contributing classic music to Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs (the latter of which was just barely edged off our list), but he outdid himself here and won two well-deserved Oscars in the process.
9. The Pink Panther (1963) by Henry Mancini
Aw yeah, let’s kick this list up a notch: Henry Mancini’s jazzy theme to the Pink Panther isn’t just one of the best movie themes ever composed, it’s also one of the most memorable pieces of music ever written. Sexy and just a little mysterious, the brassy theme gets you ready for entertainment like few scores ever do. Mancini won four Oscars in his incredible career as a film composer and had over 203 movies to his credit, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Days of Wine and Roses to Ghost Dad, of all things. Mancini passed away in 1994 but he’ll live on forever as the composer of this perfect composition.
8. Gone with the Wind (1939) by Max Steiner
Max Steiner returns to our list with the exquisite score to Gone with the Wind, a film that has fallen out of favor thanks to political correctness but nevertheless remains one of the greatest movies ever made. Steiner’s immortal score tells the epic story of the Civil War in practically every scene of a film that, technically, is still the most popular and successful in film history. Tara’s Theme is as romantic as movie music gets, and is burned into the cultural memory of film fans around the world. Max Steiner contributed 245 film scores in his career, but even if Gone with the Wind was the only one he’d still be considered one of the greatest movie composers who ever lived.
7. Batman (1989) by Danny Elfman
There are thirty great, classic, even perfect film scores on our list but few of them seem as important as Danny Elfman’s revolutionary score for Tim Burton’s Batman. Every film has a responsibility to entertain, and many have aspirations of brilliance, but Batman had to redefine a character – even an entire medium – to an entire world that was unprepared to take it seriously. Batman begins with an extended credits sequence and lets Elfman’s unexpectedly gothic score do all the heavy lifting, preparing audiences for an experience like nothing they could have anticipated. Batman could be taken seriously for the first time because Elfman laid the groundwork, and comic book movies would never be the same. A classic score if ever there was one.
6. The Third Man (1949) by Anton Karas
If Danny Elfman’s Batman theme was unexpected, then Anton Karas’ score to Carol Reed’s noir The Third Man was an absolute shock. Performed entirely on a zither, the surprisingly lively score to Reed’s tale of murder and mystery in post-World War II Vienna gives the already exceptional film a distinctive sound that has never been replicated. Reed reportedly discovered Karas in a nightclub before hiring him to score the film, and the jaunty theme song made the composer a best-selling musician who would go on to open a Viennese nightclub called – What else? – “The Third Man.”
5. Dr. No (1962) by Monty Norman and John Barry (uncredited)
The bombastic James Bond score is damn near the most memorable piece of music in film history, appearing in almost every Bond film since Dr. No, the film that started it all. Cool as a cucumber, this score announces that Bond has arrived, wants you know that he’s arrived, and that he will shoot you in the face if he has to. Monty Norman is credited as the composer of the score, but John Barry – who would go on to score eleven Bond films and cement the musical style of the franchise – insisted that he also contributed to the iconic theme, eventually taking the matter to court, and losing, in 2001.
4. Psycho (1960) by Bernard Herrmann
Bernard Herrmann’s score to Alfred Hitchcock’s revolutionary horror film Psycho was pretty revolutionary itself, relying entirely on a violent string section to create the film’s signature chills. Hitchcock originally planned to leave the iconic shower sequence completely silent but Herrmann scored it anyway, and Hitchcock ended up doubling his salary for the film, eventually stating “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” Maybe even more. It remains one of the most incredible pieces of film music ever composed, and one of the most frightening.
3. The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966) by Ennio Morricone
We’re as shocked as you are that there isn’t more Ennio Morricone on this list, with Once Upon a Time in the West, The Untouchables and Danger: Diabolik all just barely failing to make our cut. But The Good, The Bad & The Ugly is something else entirely: the coolest film score ever written, literally screaming its way into pop culture history as it propels the film ever forward with unstoppable intensity. Once heard, this score is never forgotten, and the movie itself is just as remarkable. We’d write more, but we wasted so much time listening to the score all over again for this article that we just have to move on now.
2. Halloween (1977) by John Carpenter
There’s never been a better argument for “less is more” than director John Carpenter’s incredible, simplistic theme to his own classic slasher Halloween. Carpenter wisely opens the film with a slow push in on a jack o’lantern, letting his tinkling, repetitive theme worm its way into your brain, freaking you out with its relentless consistency. As the film progresses it becomes a constant, disturbing presence, promising terror where none is yet to be found, and understating the horror once the body count starts rapidly rising. Carpenter wrote many of his own scores, including such classics as Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York and Prince of Darkness, but his score for Halloween is practically perfect in every possible way.
1. John Williams
Yes, just John Williams. We know this feels like a cheat but hey, if we didn’t play this card this would have been a pretty boring list: Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Catch Me If You Can, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Saving Private Ryan, Home Alone, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Superman, The Poseidon Adventure… And he’s still going. Williams’ unforgettable arrangements and pitch-perfect themes are an indelible part of filmmaking history. We couldn’t pick just one, and we couldn’t slight the incredible works of all those other composers just to make room for every one of these striking musical scores. So just take a load off and enjoy the work of the most iconic film composer who ever lived: