They are as iconic as the stories and characters they’ve accompanied. They are the movie scores that define their genre and, at times, transcend the very films from which they’ve originated. Here, we count down the top ten movie scores that have become just as much a part of pop culture any image that’s appeared on the silver screen.
Number 10: Halloween (1978)
Composed and performed by the movie’s writer/director John Carpenter in three days, the music’s simple, stripped-down piano/synthesizer melody in 5/4 meter creates a perfect atmosphere of tension and fear. As film critic James Berardinelli said, “Despite being relatively simple and unsophisticated, Halloween‘s music is one of its strongest assets. Carpenter’s dissonant, jarring themes provide the perfect backdrop for Michael’s activity, proving that a film doesn’t need a symphonic score by an A-line composer to be effective. Carpenter’s Halloween main title, one of the horror genre’s best-recognizable tunes, can bring chills even away from the theater.”
Number 9: Titanic (1997)
Composed, orchestrated and conducted by James Horner, the music is epic, hopeful, sweet and, in paralleling the ultimate story of the ill-fated voyage, sad. To date, the soundtrack has sold over 11 million copies in the U.S. alone, which ranks it among the RIAA’s Top 100 Albums of all time. And while the list of James Horner’s movie score credits is quite long and impressive (Aliens, Apollo 13 and Avatar, to name just a few), nothing comes close the score that made this movie, at least for a moment, “king of the world!”
Number 8: Raider of the Lost Ark (1981)
John Williams makes his first appearance on this list with his composition that is pure adventure. Officially titled “The Raiders March” on the soundtrack, is has become synonymous with the thinking man’s hero in the fedora and beat-up leather jacket. It has been used through the film’s franchise (four movies in all), but this first one is the music that makes us want to be Indiana Jones.
Number 7: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
There were hundreds of European Westerns – better known as Spaghetti Westerns. But the one that stands out, thanks in large part to its music, is the third film of the Dollars Trilogy. Scored by Ennio Morricone, the composition uses gunfire, whistling and yodeling and mimics the sound of a coyote. And while there have been other western scores that evoke more romantic visions of the “wild west” (the theme to The Magnificent Seven immediately comes to mind), it hard to think of a “showdown at high noon” and not have the melody run through your head.
Number 6: The Godfather (1972)
Composed by Nino Rota, the music gave the film a distinctly Italian feel, as if it needed any more. Simply put, the main theme, officially title “Speak Softly Love” and sometimes referred to at “Love’s Theme from The Godfather”, is epically haunting and immediately conjures up the idea of loyalty and betrayal and the consequences that both can bring about. Listen to those famous 12 notes and just to not make someone an offer they can’t refuse.
Number 5: Jaws (1975)
John Williams’ second appearance on the list is the first time he teamed up with Steven Spielberg for a composer-director marriage seemingly made in movie heaven. It’s hard to imagine how any other two notes played repeatedly could invoke as much primal fear as that F and F# sequence. And when Spielberg combined that music with the lack of seeing what was below the water for most of the movie, it’s no wonder that for a large chunk of the summer of ’75 and beyond, folks were frightened stick their toes in a wading pool, much less venture out into the unforgiving ocean.
Number 4: James Bond: Dr. No (1962)
The dispute behind who actually deserves fame for creating this iconic piece can rival any confrontation ol’ 007 has been involved with, himself. The two composers involved are Monty Norman, who is credited with writing the theme and has been collecting royalties in 1962, and John Barry, who arranged the music for Dr. No and went on to write the music for 11 subsequent Bond movies. The matter would eventually see legal action twice, where Norman would come out victorious both times. But for whomever is ultimately credited with it, there’s no denying the cultural love of this piece that beautifully blends surf rock, reggae and jazz with sexuality and danger that is quintessentially Bond.
Before we get to our top three, here are a few honorable mentions (in order of year):
Gone with the Wind (1939) Max Steiner
The Magnificent Seven (1960) Elmer Berstein
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Maurice Jarre
The Pink Panther (1964) Henry Mancini
Patton (1970) Jerry Goldsmith
Chariots of Fire (1981) Vangelis
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) John Williams
Back to the Future (1985) Alan Silvestri
Hoosiers (1986) Jerry Goldsmith
Jurassic Park (1993) John Williams
Rudy (1993) Jerry Goldsmith
Forrest Gump (1994) Alan Silvestri
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) Howard Shore
Okay, back to the countdown.
Number 3: Superman (1978)
Here he is again. John Williams makes his third showing in the list with his homage to the man of steel. Jerry Goldsmith, an exceptional movie composer in his own right, was originally picked to write the music. However, he bowed due to scheduling conflicts, and Williams stepped in. From its opening horns, which convey the image of great strength, to the incorporation of the sweet and gentle “Can You Read My Mind?”, this composition, written for the superhero of superheroes, leads us into musical world where, as the movie tagline suggests, we really do “believe a man can fly.”
Number 2: Rocky (1976)
Composed by Bill Conti, the score’s centerpiece is the song “Gonna Fly Now”, but it also features two other arrangements titled “Going the Distance” and “The Final Bell” that epitomize the struggles of the underdogs and why we root for them so hard. It’s almost as if we feel the composition the Conti offers us in Rocky could be the soundtrack to our own daily lives – minus the drinking of raw eggs and tenderizing of beef carcasses in a meat locker.
Number 1: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
Tchaikovsky wrote for ballets. Rossini wrote for operas. John Williams writes for movies. And when maestro Williams lays his pen and baton down for the final time, it is this piece that will allow him to be in the same conversation as one of the greatest composers of all time. This score is the closest thing many of us came to experiencing the birth of a classical masterpiece in our lifetime. Only time will tell if we really did. How iconic is this score? In 2004, the Library of Congress deemed it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by preserving it into the National Recording Registry. Oh, yes, the force is strong with this one.
So, do you agree? Disagree? Think a few things are out of order or shouldn’t be on the list at all? Share your thoughts.
Post-script: Check out the American Film Institute’s list of its 25 Greatest Film Scores of All Time.