A great film score creates a synthesis with the imagery, enveloping the audience into another world, another flow of experience. If a soundtrack is good enough, it can even be listened to on its own. Great scores are often built to be emotionally moving, to help moviegoers feel the story more deeply.
So, when it’s time to leave the theater and go back to real life — studying for a test, doing the dishes, building a protocol droid in the garage — a soundtrack can be just the right theme music to our otherwise banal lives. And music that is as sentimental as a great film score can even help us tap into feelings that may not have come up otherwise. This catharsis can help us to see life in new and exciting ways.
And so, here is a list of 13 Best Original Movie Scores.
13 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the rule-breaking Italian masterpiece of the western genre. Directed by Sergio Leone, the film chronicles the travels of the Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood), a steely drifter with a moral code and a quick trigger. A tad under three hours, the epic was filmed across Spain and Italy, with yawning vistas, sandy villages, and plenty of close-ups of craggy, sand-blasted faces as they readied for grand shootouts.
For all of this visual splendor, the film needed a robust score, so Leone called on long-time collaborator Ennio Morricone to work his magic. What Morricone delivered was a thrumming tour de force that braced the film perfectly.
Highlight Track: “The Ecstacy of Gold,” in particular, captures the essence of the cinematic west: lonesome, breathless, with piano and strings backing ever-ascending horns and vocals.
12 Amelie (2001)
Who says movie scores can’t stand on their own? Few auditory experiences rival the carefree zest of Yann Tiersen’s soundtrack to the French film Amelie. For it, Tiersen crafted little truffles of song that perfectly fill the air of the Parisian setting.
A waitress at a cafe, Amelie is timid, highly creative, and curious. She finds joy and wonder in the smallest details of life, and one day, events in her life take a turn to help her discover more about her life and help others. It is a charming film from director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, starring Audrey Tautou. The best thing about Amelie, perhaps, is her innate sense of justice, and it is this contrasted with her innocence that makes her such a pleasing heroine.
Tiersen enjoys using light horns, organ, and accordions to give us the sense that we too are living in a world of quaint cafes lining the cobblestone streets of Montmartre.
Highlight Track: The soundtrack was popular when it came out, charting throughout the world, and its sole single, "Comptine d'un autre été : L’Après-midi” - which translates to "Rhyme of Another Summer: The Afternoon" - is a piano solo with a sweetly melancholic melody.
11 The Hours (2002)
Along with being one of the best modern classical composers, Philip Glass may be one of the better movie score composers as well. His music has made its way into dozens of well-known films, where it has left an impact on audiences with its trademark brooding minimalism.
Watch The Truman Show, for instance. Can you imagine that movie without Glass’s mesmerizing score? Probably not. Nor would you want to sit through Koyaanisqatsi, the art-house doc without a plot, which would be little more than a bleak series of images if not for the astounding symphony that pairs with it so inextricably, so hypnotically.
Perhaps no film better encapsulates the composer’s cinematic acumen than the underrated The Hours. Stephen Daldry’s 2002 tale about the parallel lives of women living in different times won Nicole Kidman an Oscar. Co-stars Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore also give some of the best dramatic performances of their careers. Glass’s music is soft, labyrinthine, and emotionally stirring. For his efforts the score was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe, and it won at the BAFTAs.
Highlight Track: The highlight of the album has to be “The Hours,” a seven-minute treatise that showcases the breadth of Philip Glass’s repertoire and might be unparalleled when it comes to somber movie sound work.
10 Barry Lyndon (1975)
When it was released, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon astonished critics and moviegoers, though not in a good way. Similar to the reaction fans had with Woody Allen after Stardust Memories, Barry Lyndon felt quite different from the cinema Kubrick had become world-renowned for.
A period piece set in 18th-century England, the film centers around Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal), a man of little means who charms and cons his way through society to a life of great wealth. In the time since its initial release to befuddled audiences, the film has been vindicated as a classic. It is without argument visually stunning, and although the way it looks is the film’s crowning achievement, Leonard Rosenman's score is also fantastic. Classical songs featuring piano, harp, and strings give the film in turns an air of sorrow and ritual.
Highlight Track: Franz Schubert’s “Piano Trio in E-Flat” is dramatic and over-mannered, a perfect fit for the film’s comic take on high society in early modern England.
9 Schindler's List (1993)
Legendary composer John Williams created the score for Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s harrowing Holocaust memorial. Williams had previously created many classic themes for Spielberg, in films like Jaws and the Indiana Jones series. To imagine those films without Williams’s sweeping orchestral energy would be impossible.
Unlike any of the projects Spielberg and Williams had worked on prior, Schindler’s List was a bleak film that conveyed to the audience in black-and-white (literally) the horrors and tragedy of the Holocaust. Liam Neeson stars in the role of his career as Oskar Schindler, a real-life German industrialist with Nazi ties, who risked it all to save the lives of 1,200 Jews by employing them as necessary workers at his industrial facilities.
Highlight Track: For such delicate and sorrowful fare, the film’s theme music needed to be understated, elegant, and played with an extraordinary hand. The filmmakers recruited violinist Itzhak Perlman — an Israeli virtuoso who had to his credit over a dozen Grammys. Perlman’s masterful rendition of Williams’s melody is beautiful and memorable.
8 Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream is an especially startling film, which is saying something considering that Aronofsky's resume also includes the bleak psychological thrillers Pi (1998) and Black Swan (2010).
Requiem is a movie about addiction and the vicious cycle that chemical dependency and craving for connection has on its victims. The film stars Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Ellen Burstyn, and Marlon Wayans as family and friends who lose a grip on their lives and fall into fantasizing for a better life. The film perfectly shows the loneliness and psychological torment brought on by serious drug addiction. By the end of the film, the characters are relegated to their horrid fates, and viewers are left bothered and in need of sunshine.
Composer Clint Mansell developed the film’s soundtrack, which is a melange of ethereal string portions and pulsing electronic beats. It is the perfect otherworldly soundscape for a film about addicts.
Highlight Track: The Kronos Quartet supplies wonderful instrumentals, especially with the score’s theme, “Lux Aeterna”. It is some of the most emotionally arresting music ever put to film.
7 Inception (2010)
Perhaps no one is better at making the soundtrack for the modern action movie than Hans Zimmer, and the man’s resume certainly gleams of that quality. He’s composed scores for the Dark Knight trilogy, Crimson Tide, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Rock, and many other muscular Hollywood flicks. A regular collaborator of Christopher Nolan’s, Zimmer has worked on five of the director’s projects, and perhaps nowhere is the sound-work more Zimmer-esque than in Inception.
The movie is about a band of agents who are hired by large companies to steal business secrets from the dreams of their competitors. They must race through different levels of consciousness to secure their objectives before they themselves become targets. It’s a cool idea, and is well-executed by Nolan, Zimmer, and the ensemble cast. The composer’s orchestral crescendos work perfectly with the movie’s mind-bending action.
Highlight Track: The composer at his most epic, “Time” is a fantastic orchestral piece that builds from extended silence to a crashing peak.
6 Gladiator (2000)
The great historical action flick from acclaimed director Ridley Scott, Gladiator was a box-office smash and became one of Russell Crowe’s best-known roles. It starred Crowe as Maximus, a general in the Roman military who is stripped of his rank when Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) comes to power. Far different from his benevolent father, Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), Commodus is a despot who uses all of his power to further his own desires no matter what the cost. Maximus is consigned to fight in gladiator death-matches for the city’s entertainment, taking on both humans and beasts. But his natural leadership makes him and those who fight with him into heroes of the coliseum, bolstering the peoples’ hope for liberation and infuriating the tyrant.
Gladiator is a crackerjack action flick, and its score — yet another from Hans Zimmer — is appropriately grand. The sound-work is relatively subdued action fare, with intermittent orchestral buildups, and some nice Middle Eastern instrumentals.
Highlight Track: Irish-Australian vocalist Lisa Gerrard is featured prominently in the tune “Now We Are Free”, a beautiful song that transports the listener to another time.
5 Jaws (1975)
When Jaws was released to theaters in 1975, it was a breakthrough in scary. The sequences of a shark stalking oblivious swimmers so shook audiences that many opted to take a break from the beach for a while. Spielberg regular John Williams delivered the film’s soundtrack, and in so doing made the movie what it is with his extraordinary theme music.
In the orchestra, the strings play softly for a while, lying low like a shark in wait. Then, some drums and horns chirp up in the distance, alerting us to danger. This pattern occurs a couple of times, subtly raising and lowering the tension for the audience. And then out of nowhere, an expansion of strings and more of the orchestra well up louder and louder. When paired with a fin poking out of a vast ocean — that fin attached to a massive great white shark — it is a pretty rousing experience.
Highlight Track: As if a twenty-five-foot, three-ton shark wasn’t scary enough, the main theme for the film really makes your hair stand on end.
4 The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Set in 1757 during the French and Indian War, The Last of the Mohicans is based on a novel of the same name by James Fenimore Cooper. Directed by Michael Mann, the movie does not get the same amount of fanfare and name-dropping as his other movies like Heat, which is a shame because it is simply awesome.
The film stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Russell Means, and Eric Schweig as the last vestige of the Mohican tribe and culture, men who are tasked with escorting the young Munro sisters (Madeleine Stowe and Jodhi May) across dangerous territory rife with bloody battle, and death-dealing ambushes by Magua (Wes Studi) and his Huron war party.
Mann brought in Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman to handle the movie’s score. The two got hold of a little-known song called “The Gael” from musician Dougie Maclean, and they repurposed it for an orchestra. This would become the film’s main and overarching theme music, with rhythmic Scottish fiddles, thunderous drums, and haunting horns. It’s the perfect music for running through a battlefield and coming out the other side unscathed.
Highlight Track: “Promontory” is the rumbling high point of this movie’s soundtrack, taking Dougie Maclean’s original ballad and building it into a sinewy, captivating work.
3 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
The powerful Ring of Sauron falls into the hands of Frodo Baggins, a gentle hobbit, who determines that he must leave the shire and make the journey across the land to destroy the ring. With the help of eight companions, Frodo makes his way towards the Black Land of Mordor, where he will throw the ring into the Cracks of Doom. But there are evil forces out there that want the ring for themselves.
One of the most popular film scores in history, the Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack charted around the world and has sold over a million copies. Composer Howard Shore used for the most part elaborate orchestral pieces, with strong and driving rhythms. It has the intensity and dramatic zeal of Wagner. The London Voices provide excellent choral work as well.
Highlight Track: Enya’s original song, “May It Be”, is a beautiful bit of relief after hours of churning hobbit endangerment.
2 Ex Machina (2015)
Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow created quite a soundtrack for Ex Machina. It has a cool, spacey quality throughout, riding the line between curious and frightening. All this is perfect for a film based around artificial intelligence and the unknown.
The film stars Domnhall Gleeson as Caleb, a smart, young programmer at Bluebook (a fictional amalgam of Google and Apple), who wins a workplace lottery to be part of a cutting edge experiment at the CEO’s high-tech wilderness compound. Working one-on-one with his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), Caleb takes part in lab tests to measure the artificial intelligence system housed within a female bot. But soon enough, Caleb falls for the beautiful being, who confides that she is afraid of what will happen to her when Nathan discovers a next generation of programming to replace the old.
Ex Machina was a sleeper at the box office, pulling in a modest $25 Million. But it’s a sleek sci-fi thriller with great performances and a captivating soundtrack.
Highlight Track: Of all the songs on the score, the synth-filled “Bunsen Burner” makes its way to the top of the heap because it accompanies the film’s excellent finale. The space-age ambience puts an eerie weight on the pivotal scene.
1 Star Wars (1977)
Oh John Williams, what would we do without you? The composer has scored countless Hollywood favorites, but even among them, there’s one theme that stands out above the rest.
It’s that Star Wars title crawl that you have always loved. Yes, the man who helped Jaws scare everybody out of the water also conducted the greatest main title sequence in movie history. From the aptly named “Imperial Attack”, to the merry “Cantina Band”, to the thrilling “Rescue of the Princess”, the classic sounds are completely linked to the imagery.
Listening to this soundtrack gives one a new appreciation for how important the composer is to any project. The 1977 space opera spawned a new generation of filmmaking, included some of the best special effects out there, and has become an indispensable pop-culture icon.
Highlight Track: The “Main Title” is quite simply one of the best movie themes of all time.
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