Film score composers are masters of emotion. Movies become extraordinary when the music is not just a bed but most another character unto itself, creating a sometimes-subliminal experience for the audience tailored to the cues of the film. A good film score can resonate with you long after the credits roll.
This list of my favorites isn’t an attempt to be comprehensive, so you can be forewarned that the classically-obvious selections – like Star Wars (1977), brilliantly-composed by John Williams, the epic score for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, composed by Howard Shore and Titanic (1997), the romantic and haunting composition by James Horner – are not included. But I hope to open your eyes (and ears) to some movies you might not have thought of before and to suggest you take a close listen to the beauty of the score entwined with these films. Without further ado, here are my 30 film score favorites (in no particular order).
Casablanca (1942), score composed by Max Steiner, likely ranks on most any “best of” movie list I’ve ever made (like this one, and this one). Its score is ageless. I could listen to it over and over again. And, in fact, I have.
Little Women (1994), score by Thomas Newman, is an adaptation of the novel by Louisa May Alcott – sidebar: this is one of my favorite books, of which I own multiple editions. This film score warms my heart, much like the story. The strings. The trumpets. The flutes. The melodies evoke strength, beauty and intimacy.
North by Northwest (1959), score composed by Bernard Herrmann, is among my favorite Hitchcock films. You can feel the chase and dissonance. Hearing the thrilling sound of the orchestra playing the theme makes we want to re-watch this spy movie on the spot.
Back to the Future (1985), score composed by Alan Silvestri, is everyone’s favorite 1980’s time-travel flick. Next time you watch, listen for how the score builds anticipation and drama with crescendos and swells in just the right moments.
The Holiday (2006), score composed by Hans Zimmer, is a romantic comedy by Nancy Meyers with a star-studded cast. The music is uplifting and delightful. Plus, the appreciation for film scores is baked right into the storyline, paying homage to some great composers.
La La Land (2016), score composed by Justin Hurwitz, might be better-known for its musical numbers sung by the cast. But the score is a starry-eyed, jazzy masterpiece on its own.
Schindler’s List (1993), score composed by John Williams, is a compelling drama about a tragic event in history. The violin cries out. The emotional layers of this music are both subtle and bold.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994), score composed by Thomas Newman, is a drama about an unlikely friendship inside a men’s prison. Its stoic film score is woven together with elegant piano melodies and powerfully-plucked strings.
An American Tail (1986), score composed by James Horner, is an animated story about an immigrant family of mice. And while you might not expect it on the surface, this film score carries with it hope.
Edward Scissorhands (1990), score composed by Danny Elfman, is a fantasy film directed by Tim Burton. Its music is mystical. The chorus, dark and ghostly. And somehow it reminds me of Christmas.
Erin Brockovich (2000), score composed by Thomas Newman, is a drama based on a true story. The score contains a mixture of soft piano story arcs as well sassy, jazzy tunes that develop and grow as the characters do.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), score composed by Ennio Morricone, is a western starring Clint Eastwood – one of my dad’s favorite actors which is why this film was part of my early movie-education. The whistling and the swirrling “wa, wa, wa” from this score is emblematic for films of this genre.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), score composed by Thomas Newman, is a life-affirming comedy based on the book by Deborah Moggach. Its vibrant film score is arranged beautifully with sitar and tablas.
Casino Royale (2006), score composed by David Arnold, was the debut film for Daniel Craig playing the role of James Bond. The symphonic music reinvented the Bond theme while remaining true to the dramatic and flashy legacy of Monty Norman’s iconic tune.
Hidden Figures (2016), score composed by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams and Benjamin Wallfisch, is a drama about three brilliant women at NASA based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly. The score is lyrical and airy, weaving orchestra and vocal tracks smoothly.
The Truman Show (1998), score composed by Phillip Glass, is a comedy about one man’s life who, unbeknown to him, is watched by the world. There’s a sentimental theme throughout the film score that nurtures the audience and your emotional investment in the lead character played by Jim Carrey.
Chocolat (2000), score composed by Rachel Portman, is an adaptation from the Joanne Harris novel. Its film score is a mystic dance between fluters and gypsy guitars, blended with breezy orchestral ballads. In a sea of male composer’s I must give a special shout out to Rachel Portman, who was the first woman to ever win the Oscar for Best Original Score for Emma (1996).
The Da Vinci Code (2006), score composed by Hans Zimmer, is Ron Howard’s adaptation based on the bestselling book by Dan Brown. The film score is full of texture and brooding emotion and suspense. This music stands on its own, taking the listener on a journey.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959), score composed by Duke Ellington, is a murder mystery based on the novel by John D. Voelker. This film score was Ellington’s first. And he came out swinging with moody music that balances sounds of danger, compelling darkness and meanwhile, levity.
Sherlock Holmes (2009), score composed by Hans Zimmer, is a murder mystery action film based on the character from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books. The film score is quirky, plucky and wonderfully-percussive with all its twists and turns.
The Insider (1999), score composed by Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke, is a story about a tobacco industry whistle-blower. This haunting film score is blended with ambient, new age vocals and an incredible guitar solo by Gustavo Santaolalla.
Sense and Sensibility (1995), score composed by Patrick Doyle, is a film adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic romance. The film score is rich with romantic, albeit predictable, melodies mixed with soprano vocal solos.
Hugo (2011), score composed by Howard Shore, is a Martin Scorsese movie based on the novel by Brian Selznick. The score contains notes of fancy and intrigue with piano and brass. There’s both warmth and a tone of intrigue to this work that enhances the story.
The Apartment (1960), score composed by Adolph Deutsch, is a romantic comedy-drama directed by Billy Wilder. The film score is rooted in the sultry, orchestral song “Jealous Lover” by Charles Williams. It beautifully captures love and loneliness.
Big (1988), score composed by Howard Shore, is a fantasy movie directed by Penny Marshall. Its film score is an elixir of nostalgia and innocence.
Spellbound (1945), score composed by Miklos Rozsa, is a film noir psychological thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Its music is a tense web of eerie sounds and bellowing instruments.
You’ve Got Mail (1998), score composed by George Fenton, is a romantic comedy by Nora Ephron based on The Shop Around the Corner (1940). The film soundtrack is a mix of familiar tunes and an ephemeral score, which together evoke oodles of romance and charm.
The Pelican Brief (1993), score composed by James Horner, is a thriller based on the novel by John Grisham. Its film score is quiet, contemplative with bursts of jabbing piano chords that build suspense as a young Tulane law student runs for her life.
What are your favorite film scores?