Back in 2015, I wrote a piece called “Of movies and music: My top ten favorite movie scores of all time”. As the title promised, I listed my favorite movie scores, but more than that I tried to share why I like movie scores so much.
For me it started way back in 2002. I was watching the special features on one of the Back to the Future DVDs. Back to the Future was one of the movies my sister Katie and I could agree on to watch, so by that time I had seen the movie more than twenty times. In the special features was a featurette about the movie’s score, so I decided to watch it. In the featurette, writer and producer Bob Gale recalls something that director Robert Zemeckis said to composer Alan Silvestri about the score:
I don’t have a lot of money, I don’t have a lot of really big images on the screen in Back to the Future 1, so make the music really big, so that it’ll make the movie seem bigger than it really is.
This notion of using the music to make the movie seem bigger than it really was seemed really cool to me. After hearing that quote, I started listening for the score in every movie I watched. Eventually I started buying scores to listen to on their own, which led me to discover that listening to the scores on their own helped me appreciate them even more within their respective movies.
A good score adds another dimension to a movie, a richness that feels sort of like you can see the movie in more colors. Some scores are subtle, content to stay in the background; others are epic and have a presence in the movie that makes them feel like a whole new character. But whatever the style, good scores make bad movies seem better than they really are and make good movies great.
I work in an open floor plan office so I listen to music about eight hours a day at my desk. I concentrate better with instrumental music, and I usually prefer more modern music, which makes movie scores a natural choice. So I’m always on the lookout for new scores to listen to, and I’m pretty passionate about finding good ones.
When I was getting ready to launch Section 411, I originally planned to simply migrate the top ten list I wrote in 2015 to the new site. But as I reread that post, I realized that a lot had changed: some new scores had come out, some past scores aged better than expected, and some had aged more poorly than expected. But when I originally shared my top ten back in 2015, I was a little bummed that I wasn’t able to convince anyone to share my enthusiasm for movie scores. Maybe it was too long, maybe it was too boring, or maybe I just lost all my credibility on the subject when I omitted The Shawshank Redemption. But either way, there’s not one ounce of quit in me, so I’ve put together a new top ten.
The rules are the same as before: while I’ll try to convince you that the scores I like have merit, the bottom line is that these are just my favorite scores. Some of them are critically acclaimed and well known, but some of them are not, and for the ones that are not, I’ll try to convince you that the critics got it wrong. Also, for the scores on this list that were on the 2015 list, I’ll indicate where they were then and how their position has changed.
(These are in no particular order.)
Interstellar, Hans Zimmer
Interstellar was #10 on the 2015 version of this list, and I noted at the time that it was by far the newest score to make it. There was definitely some recency bias there, but I still enjoy this score quite a bit. The star of this score is definitely the organ and it’s used throughout the score, in the big moments – like the docking sequence or the cornfield chase – and the quieter moments. The result is a sound which is futuristic and suspenseful but also innately human, because in the quieter moments of the score you can actually hear the organ breathe. It’s Zimmer’s best score since Inception, and a reminder that he can be a great composer when he’s not collaborating with Junkie XL.
Gladiator, Hans Zimmer
Gladiator was one of the defining scores of the 2000s, not only because it was a great score in its own right, but because its themes inspired the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. I’ve still never seen Gladiator – give me a break, I’ll get around to it eventually – but I love this score regardless. The battle scenes at the beginning and end of this score make it a great running accompaniment, and the vocals with Lisa Gerrard give this an ancient, Titanic feel.
Apollo 13, James Horner
Apollo 13 is quietly one of the best historical dramas ever made. It missed out on Oscar immortality to Braveheart, but this is a really good movie made by a bunch of people who are at the top of their craft: Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, Ed Harris, Kevin Bacon and Kathleen Quinlan.
The composer, the late James Horner, is no exception. His score for Apollo 13 is out of this world (sorry, couldn’t resist). It’s patriotic and proud, sentimental and suspenseful, and I’m a sucker for trumpets in a score, which Apollo 13 uses well and often. It’s saying something that of all the scores Horner wrote in his legendary career, this is one of his best.
Jurassic Park, John Williams
Jurassic Park has the classic John Williams themes (think “Welcome to Jurassic Park”), a few modern innovations (“Dennis Steals The Embryo”), and the precise and dazzling orchestration that he brings to all of his scores. It’s incredibly enjoyable and technically superb.
I wrote in 2015 that for most composers, a score like Jurassic Park would be a career-defining score. But John Williams isn’t most composers: his career includes Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Superman, Harry Potter, and countless others. So while Jurassic Park is relegated to the second tier of the Williams canon, this says a lot more about the composer than the score.
Homeward Bound, Bruce Boughton
Here’s where I start going a little more off the beaten path.
I’d venture a guess that most people reading this have seen Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. I’d further guess that if you’ve seen the movie, the final moments of the film made the room get a little dusty.
A big part of the emotion of that final scene is the score. If you don’t believe me, try listening to the final moments of the score without vividly picturing the ending or getting chills. And while I’ll concede that composing emotional music for an emotional scene isn’t much of a stretch, it’s the rest of this score that sets up the ending that makes it memorable for me. Composer Bruce Boughton isn’t very well known, but this score he wrote for Homeward Bound deserves more recognition than it has received: it’s patriotic and sentimental with a hint of whimsy and each character gets their own unique and enjoyable theme.
A Christmas Carol, Nick Bicât
One more honorable mention before we get to the real list, because I can’t leave this score out. Nick Bicât’s score to the 1984 version of A Christmas Carol is not only my favorite score from a Christmas movie, it’s some of my favorite Christmas music to listen to during the holiday season. Much like Homeward Bound, Bicât gives this movie – which was originally made for TV – a much better score than the producers could have hoped for. It’s Victorian, it’s elegant, it’s spooky and it’s Christmasy. Last year I found myself listening to this score in February – breaking my own “no Christmas music outside of November and December” rule – because I enjoyed the music that much.
My only complaint with A Christmas Carol is that for the longest time, it was pretty hard to get a hold of. I first tried to buy it way back in 2006, as a gift idea for my dad. I couldn’t find the it on iTunes or Amazon, so I e-mailed the composer directly to see if he would sell it to me. He never replied, but I kept checking his website periodically over the years to see if he had released this album there. Finally he did, and I bought the album as soon as I found out, around Christmas 2015. It’s a good thing digital copies don’t wear out like cassette tapes used to, otherwise I’d be on my third or fourth copy by now.
10. La La Land
Composed by: Justin Hurwitz
La La Land has only been out for a couple months, and it might only be on this list because of recency bias, but I’m putting it on here anyway because I can’t stop playing it. I’m obsessed with the piano in this score; because it plays such an important part in the plot of the movie, it’s naturally just as prominent in the score.
One of La La Land’s themes as a movie is the battle between retro and modern. The glue between the retro and the modern themes is a riff that Justin Hurwitz calls “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme”: a simple but beautiful piano piece that shows up over and over in the score, varying in emotion and volume. On the retro side, “Another Day of Sun” is an upbeat and happy number; on the modern side, “City of Stars” is more melancholy and uncertain.
The score moves quickly and doesn’t let any theme keep center stage for too long. Each of the themes alternate and battle for position, all the way until the track sampled above, when it finally all seems to work together, in both the movie and the score. It’s a wonderful payoff that feels earned because the individual themes were equally good and had equal time to shine before the big reconciliation.
La La Land comes in two different versions: you can buy the score album, like I did, which only has one vocal track, or you can buy soundtrack album which includes all of the vocal tracks and most of the instrumentals. If you liked the vocal tracks too, I’d recommend the soundtrack album (the cover of which looks like the movie poster).
9. The Incredibles
Composed by: Michael Giacchino
Despite valiant efforts over the years by Ratatouille, Up and Inside Out (all composed by Michael Giacchino, incidentally), The Incredibles remains my favorite score from any Pixar movie.
One thing Michael Giacchino is great at – and he’s asked to do this quite often – is emulating other composers' styles. He wasn’t the first choice to score The Incredibles; director Brad Bird’s first choice was John Barry, the legendary composer of the early James Bond films and the iconic James Bond theme. Bird wanted The Incredibles to feel like an early Bond movie, especially in the beginning of the film. Giacchino isn’t John Barry, but his score takes some distinctive traits from the early James Bond scores: a smooth jazzy rhythm, muted horns, and big brassy action sequences. Combined with the gorgeous cinematography, it’s incredibly effective at recreating the mood of the early Bond movies, and the result is a Pixar movie that looks and feels unique, even among other Pixar movies.
Giacchino is able to add his own musical flourishes as well, and these shine later on in the album as the story progresses and the music gets more modern. But what makes this his best score, and one of my favorites, is this ability to channel John Barry to create a mood similar to his movies. The track I picked above is the best representation of this: a smooth jazz riff with clarinets, saxophones and muted horns.
8. Star Wars
Composed by: John Williams
Back in 2015, it had been ten years since a new Star Wars film, and over thirty since a good Star Wars film. So while I appreciated the music, it wasn’t exactly fresh in my mind when I made the original version of this list and I relegated Star Wars to the honorable mentions.
Then The Force Awakens came out, which renewed my interest in the franchise as a whole, but also reminded me that no matter what other problems the Star Wars franchise has had over the years, the music has never been one of them. Even in the seventh theatrical release, John Williams is still finding ways to make the music of Star Wars both new and familiar at the same time.
The ubiquity that the music of Star Wars enjoys is partially because of the massive success of the franchise, but there are plenty of successful movies with forgettable scores. (See: any Marvel Cinematic Universe movie.) The reason everyone knows the music from Star Wars is that the music itself is just that good. I’d even argue that a large part of what made the Star Wars franchise successful is its music, rather than the other way around.
Everyone knows the opening fanfare. Everyone who’s been to a baseball game and heard the stadium announcer introduce the opposing lineup has probably heard the Imperial March. There are probably a lot of people who can even identify the movie if you played the Cantina Theme for them. But the track I’m sampling above is from the iconic first score, which famously plays as Luke looks out into the binary sunset of Tatooine and longs for adventure. It’s a quiet moment, and the music provides most of the emotion of the scene, while also foreshadowing that Luke is about to get more than he bargained for.
7. Lord of the Rings
Composed by: Howard Shore
I have a small confession to make: I’ve still not seen the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. Over the years I’ve started and stopped a few times but each time I’d eventually lose interest and give up. But this year, thanks to the enthusiastic recommendation of my girlfriend Sara, I’ve now seen the first two movies and am looking forward to finishing the trilogy soon.
But my motivation for making another attempt at this trilogy started long before Sara and I started dating. It started a couple years ago, when I bought the Fellowship of the Ring score on a whim, despite having never seen the movies. For a while, I was obsessed: in the first month or so that I owned this score, I listened to it at least four or five times a week.
I kept coming back to it because I kept getting more out of it; there’s so much depth to each of these scores. There are plenty of epic moments, but they all feel earned: there are no cheap thrills here. Similarly, I love how Shore uses his brass section in these scores. But if he only used his brass section, if he didn’t make the strings sound so effortless, the brass moments wouldn’t sound nearly as awesome.
In fact, that’s what makes these scores so great. It had to have been really tempting to just blow the doors down with a loud and epic score (i.e. Transformers). But Shore shows excellent restraint and the result is perfectly balanced.
For more on The Lord of the Rings, the Nerdwriter has an excellent video that explains better than me why this score works so well.
6. The Lion King
Composed by: Hans Zimmer
In the storied canon of Walt Disney Studios, The Lion King stands alone as the best movie the studio has ever made. It’s beautifully animated, it’s incredibly casted – it doesn’t get better than James Earl Jones as Mufasa or Jeremy Irons as Scar – and the vocal music, written by Elton John and Tim Rice, is certainly in the top two or three of all Disney Studios movies.
While the Disney animators, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Elton John and Tim Rice brought decades of experience to their roles in The Lion King, composer Hans Zimmer was a virtual novice. But Zimmer’s score is spectacular. The Lion King is bombastic, tribal and epic, and uses a ton of instruments. But it’s also emotional, which unlike the former traits is not something Zimmer always excels at.
The track I embedded above is a great example of all of this. It’s majestic but it’s also tender, it has a cheerful moment but it also foreshadows the darkness that will come later on in this movie. The score also has a couple of great action sequences, like “Stampede” and “The Rightful King”, which are vintage Hans Zimmer and what he’s most famous for today.
The Lion King is Zimmer’s only Oscar win, and it’s well deserved. It’s probably his most complete score. But it’s not quite my personal favorite.
5. The Dark Knight Trilogy
Composed by: Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard
I’ve listened to scores from The Dark Knight trilogy (which are Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) at least 600 times total for one simple reason: they’re my favorite scores to listen to while running. I could say something about why the driving rhythm helps keep me focused and motivated, but the main reason I keep coming back to the trilogy for a run is much more simple: when I’m running and and that score is coming out of my earbuds, there are moments I feel like Batman. It’s a pretty awesome feeling, and I highly recommend it. (Don’t let the words “comically delusional” dissuade you.)
The critical reviews of the trilogy’s scores are mixed, but I’d say most critics would agree that Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are at least decent, and that The Dark Knight Rises was a little less decent (maybe due to the fact that Hans Zimmer decided to go it alone on Rises). Those assessments are probably fair: there’s probably some truth to the fact that none of these scores break any new ground. But in listening to these scores hundreds of times, I’ve noticed a few features that I’ve come to appreciate.
Take the evolution of the main Batman theme throughout the trilogy. It’s a minor third; you can hear a version of it about six seconds into the track I sampled above. In Batman Begins, you don’t hear the theme until you’re well into the score, and when you do it’s murky and unclear. It represents Batman still figuring out who he is, figuring out what he can be. In The Dark Knight the theme appears a lot earlier, and it’s crisper, with a heavy percussion background. This represents Batman at the height of his powers: he’s physically in his prime, he’s as mentally stable as we see him throughout the trilogy, and he knows his mission clearly. But by the time we reach The Dark Knight Rises, the theme again is slow to appear, and when you do finally hear it again it almost sounds tired, like you coaxed it out of retirement. It’s a subtle difference, for sure, but I’m pretty sure it’s intentional and I love the way the theme follows the arc of the movies.
I also love the villain themes. In Batman Begins, the villains are the mob and Scarecrow, and they both rely heavily on fear, so their themes sound dark and murky but ultimately human. In The Dark Knight, the Joker relies on chaos and disorder, and his theme is famously a single note that clashes gratingly with Batman’s two-note theme. Finally, in The Dark Knight Rises, Bane raises an army and uses it to put Gotham under siege, so his theme is rhythmic and machine-like. Catwoman’s theme in Rises is also noteworthy, with a nimble piano theme that reminds you of a cat walking across a piano keyboard.
“A Watchful Guardian”, the track I sampled above, plays during the final scene of The Dark Knight. Batman, who has just saved Gotham from the Joker and Gordon’s son from Two Face, realizes that Two Face’s murders threaten to undo all the progress he made throughout the movie. Batman agrees to take the fall for the murders and the movie ends with him fleeing the police while Gordon gives the “he’s the hero we deserve, not the hero we need” speech. The music starts heroically and triumphantly as Batman saves Gordon’s son, then turns sad and melancholy as it becomes clear what Batman has to do. But as Batman escapes the police and rides up a tunnel towards the light, a symbol that the dawn is coming, the music swells once more and the credits roll.
Composed by: Hans Zimmer
Inception moved down a couple slots since 2015, but it’s not because I like it any less; the three scores ahead of Inception are just slightly better, or are just slightly more important to their movies.
What I love about the Inception score is how composer Hans Zimmer and director Christopher Nolan use the score to help tell the story. All movie scores do this to some degree: all good scores are used by their movies as emotional hints, to clue you in, as the viewer, to how you should be feeling.
But Nolan and Zimmer’s collaboration in Inception takes that one step further. If you haven’t seen Inception, here’s the general plot: in the near future, technology has been invented that lets people share dreams. With this technology, criminals and corporate spies are able to infiltrate their competitors' minds to steal and implant priceless ideas. High-value targets in this world know about potential dream heists, so they prepare themselves and their subconscious, which means the infiltrators have to be a little more creative so they can infiltrate undetected. One of the tricks they use is a dream within a dream, which serves to confuse the dreamer and make them more likely to trust the infiltrators.
Make sense? It’s a lot to process, but Nolan does this really well in a variety of ways. One way is by using the score as a cue.
Open this YouTube link in a new tab, and start it playing (it should start at around 1:34). The music starts to swell Nolan begins one of his famous cross-cut sequences across all three levels of the dream. A cut from an Edith Piaf song starts us off, indicating the “kick” to the team on each of the three levels. On the lowest level, a huge battle is going on between Fischer’s subconscious and Eames. (It’s like 1 vs. 50. Eames is the real MVP.) Time is moving fastest on the lowest level, so it’s represented by the fastest part of the music, an intense and action-heavy track.
On the second level, Arthur’s battle is over but he’s still trying to arrange everyone so they’re where they need to be for the kick. This part of the music is a little slower, a little less heavy, but still tense. And finally, on the highest level, the van that the chemist is driving is about to hit the water. But since time is moving so slowly in the first level relative to the lowest level, the only sound that’s distinguishable is the long, loud horn sounds (BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWW!).
By the end of this track, all three parts of music are playing at once, which brilliantly cues the viewer that all this is happening simultaneously but at different speeds. This is incredible storytelling, and the score is actively helping you understand what’s going on in the plot.
The other track I sampled above, “Time”, is also a beautiful piece of music. But it’s also doing a little storytelling of its own. It plays at the end of the movie as Dom tries to determine what reality he’s in. The music is hopeful and positive, but hints of the same themes that played in the dream echo quietly, indicating that there’s a little uncertainty. And as the movie ends, the music starts to swell one last time before it’s abruptly cut off. Even the score ends on a cliffhanger.
3. TRON: Legacy
Composed by: Daft Punk
There’s no movie on this list – or any list – that’s more defined by its score than TRON: Legacy’s. The movie’s characters and plot are fairly forgettable, so it gets 100% of its coolness from the visuals and the music.
Because the movie’s score was composed by Daft Punk, I wasn’t surprised that it sounded cool, modern and hip. What did surprise me was how orchestral the score was. The interplay between the electronic and classical parts of the score is wonderful: the score initially presents the themes separately before eventually fusing them all together into a mind blowing and epic conclusion. Some highlights along the way are the tracks “The Son of Flynn”, “Outlands”, “Adagio for Tron”, “Derezzed”, “Flynn Lives” (sampled above) and “TRON: Legacy” .
2010 was a really crowded year for movie scores, but even so, it’s baffling that TRON: Legacy wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. That had to be a case of the Academy judging the quality of the movie rather than the score, because while it’s true that TRON: Legacy isn’t a good movie, it’s at least partially redeemed by a truly special score.
2. The Shawshank Redemption
Composed by: Thomas Newman
Here it is: my single greatest omission from the 2015 version of this list. The Shawshank Redemption is Thomas Newman’s finest score. It plays to all of his considerable strengths perfectly. It’s a string-heavy mix that’s emotional, poignant, and inspiring. But it also features some Depression-era riffs to fit in with the setting, as well as some of Newman’s vintage whimsy during some of the more lighthearted scenes at the prison.
But while most critics will agree that Shawshank Redemption is an excellent score, my connection to it is even deeper. You may have heard that this past June, the Cleveland Cavaliers played in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. I watched most of Games 1, 2, and 3, then only a little bit of Game 4 as the Warriors opened up a 3-1 lead on the Cavs in the series. At the time I felt like the writing was on the wall: the Warriors were going to win, raising their second consecutive banner, sending the Cavs to their second consecutive excruciating defeat. I didn’t want any part of that, so on a whim, instead of watching Game 5, I watched Shawshank Redemption.
By now you know that the Cavs won Game 5, but you probably don’t know it was because I watched Shawshank Redemption instead of the game. (You’re welcome, Cleveland.) Not wanting to mess up a good thing, I watched Shawshank Redemption again two nights later, and sure enough, the Cavs defended their home court in Game 6 to force a Game 7.
By this point, I had most of the dialogue memorized. But as I watched Shawshank Redemption again during Game 7, I had a hard time paying attention to the movie and kept checking Twitter for updates. As soon as I saw confirmation the game was over and the Cavs had won, I switched to ESPN to make sure Twitter wasn’t lying to me. Even as I watched the images of the celebration on TV I could barely believe it. It was then that I realized my apartment was too quiet, that it needed some music with which to celebrate a time like this.
What music do you think I chose?
Composed by: Steven Price
Much like TRON: Legacy, part of what makes Gravity’s score so impressive is that the movie relies on it so heavily. But where TRON: Legacy relied on the score mostly for mood, Gravity’s score is almost solely responsible for the emotions in the movie.
Even more impressive is that composer Steven Price – a relative newcomer – didn’t seem to be intimidated by that fact. It would have been easy for him to try and make the score sound huge and bombastic during those quiet moments, to compensate for the lack of sound.
But Price resists that temptation and stays minimal. The score is tense, emotional, melancholy, and finally near the end, triumphant. The sample track above, “Shenzhou”, is the penultimate track on the score, and listening to it on its own is sort of out of context. But it’s such an awesome piece of music. It starts somewhat tense and foreboding, but fast. Until this point, the score has brooded along more methodically, but finally now, in the movie and in the score, events are reaching a head. Director Alfonso Cuarón is using these opening seconds of “Shenzhou” to establish the spacecraft as it begins its final journey, and the score is telling us that while Sandra Bullock’s character has had an emotional catharsis, her physical safety is still very much in question.
As the spacecraft zooms into Earth’s atmosphere, the music lets each section have its say, sort of like Price is saying to each section in turn, “okay, you guys carry the melody for a bit”. The melody is the same theme that first appeared in the opening moments of the score, but it sounds different now. In the beginning of the score, the theme was slow and peaceful, beautiful music to accompany a scene of unimaginable beauty. But as the situation worsened, that theme evolved to be more ominous and scary. Finally now, as the spacecraft is on its final journey, that theme is bold and triumphant. And as the spacecraft crashes into the water, we’re left with a little more tension to be resolved in the final track (“Gravity”).
It’s a simple theme but Price uses it incredibly well. I’m a sucker for a good ending and Gravity’s ending is soaring, exhilarating and earned. And that’s why Gravity is my favorite score of all time… at least for now.
Some scores that just missed the cut: Up and Ratatouille by Michael Giacchino, The Thin Red Line by Hans Zimmer, Oblivion by M83, The Social Network by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Band of Brothers by Michael Kamen, Bridge of Spies by Thomas Newman, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by Alexandre Desplat. Did I miss any of your favorites? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks to Sara Rowe for reading several early drafts of this post.