What makes a truly great film? Experts would say that a lot of things come into play when it gets down to deciding whether or not a film is any good. All the ingredients of a movie come together and it can result in a truly special piece of cinema… or not. The very best films need amazing acting, smart direction, flawless cinematography, powerful plots, and, of course, stellar scores. And sometimes there’s that certain something that is missing from a film – that X factor that you can’t put your finger on.
Music can either make or break the film. The best film scores elevate the on-screen action in ways where visuals simply do not suffice, adding to the tension of the greatest dramas, terrifying the viewers in classic horror, or tugging at the heartstrings in a particularly emotional scene. Here are some of the best film scores ever created.
A monumental moment for Asian cinema, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was one of the first big-budget Asian films to really make the breakthrough in the American market and become a smashing success all over the world. The film’s score played a huge part in that success, with world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma working alongside leading composer Tan Dun and legendary director, Ang Lee.
Yo-Yo Ma really makes the film his own, which is powerful performances bringing so much to the story. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won over 40 awards and was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, and won Best Foreign Language Film, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score. The film was praised for its story, direction, cinematography, and martial arts sequences.
Some films are lucky enough to have leading artists and musicians lending their talents to the score, and Trouble Man was one of them. This film had none other than Marvin Gaye penning its score, and Gaye was at the peak of his powers at the time. He doesn’t sing too much throughout the film’s score, but his musical creations are truly special, with funky beats and moving grooves matching well with the cheesy blaxploitation action.
The film was featured in the Harry Medved book, The Fifty Worst Films of All Time from 1978. Then in 2009, Complex included Trouble Man on its list of “The 50 Best Blaxploitation Movies of All Time.” New York Times described it as “a horrible movie, but worth thinking about.”
Teesri Manzil (“Third Floor”) is an Indian musical thriller film directed by Vijay Anand. The film became a box office hit. With the music and songs setting records, it is considered among the best works of R.D. Burman’s career. Rahul Dev Burman might not be a name that’s particularly familiar to Western audiences, but in the world of Bollywood, he’s an absolute legend.
He scored no less than 250 films throughout a storied career as one of Bollywood’s most prolific artists. One of his earliest creations, for 1966’s Teesri Manzil, is one of his crowning achievements too. He worked alongside director Vijay Anand for this beloved thriller, bringing in powerful orchestral pieces and groovy rock ‘n’ roll elements that match well with the action on-screen.
Danny Elfman is a veritable giant of cinematic music, and one of his greatest scores can be heard throughout Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. ‘The Batman Theme’ has become synonymous with the Caped Crusader over the years. Elfman managed to tap into the crazy world of Burton and the darkness of Batman beautifully with this score, and he also did an amazing job creating music to match up with the Joker’s obscure antics and outlandish personality.
Elfman was worried as he never worked on a production this large in both budget and scale. Also, producer Jon Peters was skeptical of hiring him for the score, he was later convinced that he made the right decision when he heard the opening number.
To this day, decades later, ‘The Pink Panther Theme’ is still one of the most iconic and instantly recognizable pieces of movie music. Henry Mancini, one of the 20th century’s leading lights in the field of cinematic composition, penned the score for this one. It’s fair to say that the film wouldn’t have been quite as successful, memorable, or entertaining without its music, with Mancini really diving headfirst into the fun and joyful nature of the script.
The soundtrack was released on RCA Victor, with music written by Henry Mancini and performed by his orchestra. In 2001, the album was awarded a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. Then, in 2005, the score was listed at #20 on AFI’s 100 Years of Film Scores.
It was in 1969 that director Moshé Mizrahi was watching the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Completely blown away by the ensemble’s talents and power, Mizrahi only had one idea on his mind: he wanted them to score his film version of the French novel, Les Stances à Sophie.
The result is a fascinating piece of cinema where the visuals and the music can sometimes seem at odds, dancing to different tunes and yet somehow seamlessly integrating together by the end. It’s almost indescribable in its brilliance and has to be seen and heard to be believed.
A recent cinematic release with a stellar score, Jackie’s music was written by Mica Levi, who is emerging as one of the leading lights of modern film scores. She also worked on Under The Skin, but Jackie might be her best work so far.
Levi brings the film beyond the boundaries of a simple biopic, elevating it to whole new territory and lending such emotion and drama to scenes that are already filled with feeling.
Koyaanisqatsi is a fascinating film in many ways, not least the fact that its director, Godfrey Reggio, refuses to acknowledge what the film is even about. Regardless of your interpretation, we can all agree that Philip Glass’ score is sublime.
Glass’ music runs throughout almost the entirety of the film, with very little pause for thought, and it’s a testament to his prolific nature and innate ability that sounds like ‘The Grid’ and ‘Slo-Mo People’ add so much to the experience, never detracting or distracting for a single second.
A masterpiece of the horror genre, Suspiria is renowned for its bold visuals and over-the-top action, but its soundtrack might have proven to be the most enduring element of all. Italian prog rockers, Goblin, did the score for this one, as well as a few other horror films.
Radiohead’s Thom Yorke did a fine job scoring the 2018 remake, too, but the original still holds up, and Goblin’s unique, Halloween, and Exorcist-inspired synths and beats really enhance the drama and dread.
David Lynch is the kind of man who chooses his words and actions carefully, and he didn’t want just any music playing throughout his 1986 masterpiece, Blue Velvet. He charged young composer, Angelo Badalamenti, with creating a “song that floats on the sea of time.” An ambitious undertaking for any composer, but Badalamenti succeeded with aplomb.
His ‘Mysteries of Love’ is a deep and distinctly Lynch-ian mix of synths and soothing vocals. Lynch himself wrote the lyrics, but Badalamenti’s contributions throughout the film cannot be understated.
The movie that made so many people scared to step foot in the ocean, Jaws just would not have been the same without its score, particularly the iconic repeating notes, growing louder and more intense as the shark draws nearer.
The Jaws theme, composed by John Williams, is simultaneously one of the simplest and most effective pieces of music in all of cinema history, proving that complexity isn’t always needed.
The Tale of Genji is actually regarded as the first novel ever written, being penned by a woman named Shikibu Murasaki way back in the 11th century. It was turned into an anime movie in 1987.
Legendary Japanese composer Haruomi Hosono crafted the score, with his signature electronic beats heard throughout and enhanced with elements of Japanese court music and beguiling ambient melodies that helped to enhance the mystery and intrigue of the on-screen action.
When it comes to film scores, few composers have been quite as prolific as Ennio Morricone. With Morricone having made over 500 different scores throughout an unparalleled career, it’s hard to pick a standout, but Once Upon a Time in America is one of the best.
‘Deborah’s Theme’ is the cornerstone of the entire score and manages to convey so much emotion in each and every note.
An early 70s classic from Nicolas Roeg, this film charts the adventures of a pair of British kids, lost in the Australian Outback, and guided back to safety by an indigenous boy. There’s barely any dialogue in the film, so its music, composed by John Barry, plays a huge role.
Pieces like ‘The Children’ and ‘The Journey’ guide us through the film and draw us into the story just as much, if not more, than the visuals on screen.
Anatomy of a Murder marks an important moment in cinematic history; it was the very first time a black composer had been responsible for the score of a major motion picture. Duke Ellington was given the job and vowed to play purely “Duke Ellington music” throughout.
That’s exactly what he did. Ellington’s thumping, moving, big band tunes permeate the film throughout, but his more subtle and melancholic compositions are perhaps even more effective in the more troubling scenes of the movie.
Back at the time when Ceddo was being made, Cameroonian saxophone star, Manu Dibango, was a huge name and decided to test himself with something new. He got in touch with Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene to score the movie, Ceddo.
A powerful and no-holds-barred film that takes a grim look at Islam and Christianity in Africa, Sembene’s film was banned in his own country but moved many audiences elsewhere, and Dibango’s blend of sax, vibraphone, and piano music brings a lot to the experience.
One of Audrey Hepburn’s greatest performances, Breakfast at Tiffany’s charts the life of the somewhat naive but terribly charming Holly Golightly, a café society girl in NYC.
Henry Mancini was responsible for the score for this one, drawing us in with cheerful tunes and charming melodies, while also composing some darker tracks and more mysterious music that helps to convey Holly’s status as a single girl in a huge city.
An odd film in many ways, but one with a powerful lesson to teach, La Planète Sauvage follows the story of a giant, blue beings who keep human-looking creatures as pets. It touches on human rights, animal rights, and other themes.
Alain Goraguer, who worked with legendary French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg many times, was given the task of creating the soundtrack. From funky beats and psychedelic tunes to moving choirs and grim horns, the score covers a spectrum of sounds.
After penning the score for The Theory of Everything, the late Johann Johannsson really started to become more and more known for his ability to bring a film to life with nothing but sound, and his work on Sicario was simply flawless.
A non-stop action thriller, Sicario is a tense and dramatic film from the first second to the last, and Johannsson’s score helps to keep that tension alive while also toning things down a little from time to time.
Ryuichi Sakamoto was tasked with crafting the score for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Sakamoto would later win an Oscar for his score on The Last Emperor, but Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a fine example of his talents.
Sakamoto even appeared in the film as a guard alongside leading man, David Bowie. The composer’s slow, gradually building piano notes and more bombastic battling anthems permeate the on-screen action and lend so much emotion to several scenes.
A tough film to watch in many ways, but a brilliantly made one nonetheless, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is a Peter Greenaway classic from 1989, with British composer Michael Nyman behind the wheel of the score.
Nyman’s minimalistic approach can be spotted throughout the film, but he often surprises the viewer with powerful crescendos and unexpected flourishes, as witnessed in tracks like ‘Memorial’ and ‘Fish Beach.’
One of Hitchcock’s undisputed classics, Vertigo, is a fascinating tale of fear and intrigue, and the director’s long-time collaborator, Bernard Herrmann, was the man responsible for the movie’s music. It’s some of Herrmann’s finest work.
His string-centric, highly moody and atmospheric music is almost like a character in and of itself, playing a vital role in the movie’s growing sense of tension and palpable dread as it builds to a dramatic conclusion.
A typically French film with a lot of love, passion, anguish, and despair, Le Mépris takes a deep look at the gradual breakdown of a marriage, intertwined with the epic Homer’s Odyssey.
French New Wave legend Georges Delerue makes a move his own, crafting moving, jolting symphonies that perfectly capture the torrents of emotion experienced by the on-screen couple played by Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot.
This list simply couldn’t be complete without at least one Star Wars entry, and its Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back that makes the cut. Still viewed by many as the best ever Star Wars film, this one undoubtedly had some of the finest music.
John Williams is an undisputed legend when it comes to blockbuster scores, and his work on Star Wars is unmatched, with the sinister ‘Imperial March’ and gentle ‘Yoda’s Theme’ being standout tracks.
A mysterious exploration of new and traditional science-fiction elements, Annihilation is a fascinating film that goes in directions the viewer simply doesn’t expect, and the music by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow does the same.
As the plot begins to unfurl and the characters’ minds begin to unravel, the music really comes to life, charting their turmoil and anguish right up to the final, dramatic lighthouse scene with matching fog horns.
Bruce Langhorne was something of a mercenary guitarist, appearing here and there, wherever the wind took him. He featured on Bob Dylan’s ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ and ended up contributing the music to Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand.
Using a blend of intriguing Americana instruments like Farfisa organ and Appalachian dulcimer, Langhorne’s work is arguably the highlight of the whole movie. It was released in 2000 and has garnered many new fans since then.
A movie that introduced many Western audiences to anime and proved that animated movies could go far beyond the realm of a fairy tale, Akira is still being watched and enjoyed for the very first time by many people today. Japanese collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi helped to create the sounds of Neo-Tokyo.
A mixture of chanting choirs, Balinese beats, and dramatic organs all blend together to create a rushing, almost overwhelming score that really embodies the irreverence and dread of the movie’s world.
This list simply had to have at least one Bond film, and 1967’s Casino Royale easily features some of the best music in the entire catalog of British spy flicks. It’s an extraordinary film, filled with conflicting ideas, but the music by Burt Bacharach and Herb Alpert remains addictive to this day.
As bold and daring as every other element of the movie’s production, the score is loud, bombastic, and powerful. If you happen to have a copy on vinyl, hold onto it as it’s one of the rarest records around.
As Bill Conti read through the script of Rocky while trying to prepare his score, he decided he wanted to play with the audience’s expectations a little. He knew that Rocky was destined to be a loser, to finish the film with a loss, but the audience didn’t need to know that until the very end.
So Conti crafted an inspiring, upbeat score that really makes us believe anything is possible for the underdog boxer. The music was so enduring it featured again in multiple sequels. And even a few elements made their way into 2015’s Creed.
A film focused on the unattainable reality of perfection, Phantom Thread’s music encapsulates the film’s concept and message. It was written by Jonny Greenwood.
The adagio of ‘For the Hungry Boy’ is an evident highlight, charming the audience and always daring to go higher, but never quite reaching beyond its grasp, while ‘Barbara Rose’ and ‘Sandalwood I’ also stand out as memorable pieces in an overall faultless score.
Werner Herzog always aims high, and his ambition for Aguirre, Wrath of God, was tremendous. It would take a very special score to live up to the director’s vision, but prog-rockers Popol Vuh managed to pull it off.
Their score was as powerful and palpable as Herzog’s direction, with the movie’s unforgettable main theme-matching beautifully with the mysterious fog and mystical mountains of the opening scenes.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn was listening to a lot of Kraftwerk in the build-up to making his masterpiece, Drive. He loved the way that electronic music blended so well with the concept of his movie, all about a lone drifter and his car.
Cliff Martinez’s score help to give the director exactly what he was looking for, taking its inspiration from electronic beats of the 70s and 80s, bringing in synths and arpeggios that conjure up images of neon lights and luminous city skylines stretched across black nights.
Solaris tells the story of the mysterious planet and the ‘ghosts’ it conjures up among the crew of an orbiting ship. It’s a fantastical and terrifying tale in equal measure, and the score is simply flawless.
It captures all of the mystery and intrigue of the plot, as well as its more fearful elements, and composer Eduard Artemiev made terrific use of an old Soviet synthesizer called the ANS to generate unique, otherworldly sounds befitting of this sci-fi epic.
Paul Schrader’s 1985 classic, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, takes a look at the life of right-wing writer and nationalist, Yukio Mishima, a man who ultimately killed himself after failing to catalyze a coup.
Philip Glass was brought in to make the music for this one, and his music really helped to shine the spotlight on Mishima’s character and the inner workings of his mind, rather than his actual deeds and acts.
Music is such a vital part of all of David Lynch’s work, being just as vital as the visuals, the casting, and the cinematography, all key elements the director’s signature approach. For 1977’s Eraserhead, Lynch turned to sound designer Alan Splet.
The director actually worked alongside Splet, taking an active role in creating a soundscape that could do justice to the industrial intensity and dark undercurrents of Lynch’s debut film.
Legendary musician Neil Young was tasked with writing the music for 1995’s Dead Man, and his tracks remain perhaps the most enduring part of the film’s legacy. For this film, young played his signature 1953 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop.
It’s a guitar the singer affectionately nicknames ‘Old Black,’ and he seems to create his very best work with it. His deep, brooding pieces seamlessly bland with the black and white on-screen action, and he actually improvised most of the score.
Anton Karas’ zither score for The Third Man was groundbreaking back in 1949, and the impact of his creation can still be felt today.
The film introduced audiences to an instrument and sound they hadn’t known before, all performed and written by a man who was similarly unknown to most. Director Carol Reed clearly saw something special in Karas before anyone else, and The Third Man’s score was a major hit with audiences worldwide.
There are arguably two leads in Taxi Drive: Robert de Niro as sociopathic Travis Bickle and the movie’s score by Bernard Herrmann. It is both fitting and tragic that this would be Herrmann’s last ever score.
It seeps into the underbelly of Bickle’s mind and the seedy city that he sees around him, with Herrmann’s music poignantly capturing the eerie elements and malevolence of Bickle’s life, bouncing from hope to despair in a matter of seconds.
One of the main visual cues repeated time and again throughout Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is the sight of pigeons taking flight. The pigeons help to represent Ghost Dog’s humanity, his real self beyond the hitman persona.
RZA’s relatively minimal yet powerful score helps to bridge the gap between the two sides of Ghost Dog’s life. Just like those pigeons, it takes flight, soaring above and beyond Ghost Dog’s world and worries, filled with hypnotic melodies that convey Ghost Dog’s almost trance-like state of existence.
A groundbreaking movie that showed us the inner workings and behind the scene drama of one of the world’s most popular social media sites, The Social Network was masterfully made, with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross responsible for the score.
Director David Fincher allegedly demanded a ‘synth landscape’ from Reznor and Ross, and the pair delivered with style. Droning guitars and erratic digital sounds match beautifully with the real-life tension and technological aspects of the movie’s rollercoaster ride.
John Carpenter was one of the most talented men to ever step foot in the world of moviemaking. Not content with simply sitting in the director’s chair and penning terrifying horror stories and scripts, Carpenter also created one of the most enduring scary movie themes ever.
The main theme for Halloween is right up there alongside the strings of Psycho and the two-note repetition of Jaws as one of those pieces of music that instantly strikes fear into the heart of any listener.
The ultimate blaxploitation flick, Shaft was and still is a powerful, fun, thrilling ride from start to finish, and the music by Isaac Hayes really helps to bring the action to life.
The movie’s iconic ‘Theme From Shaft’ is still instantly recognizable today, even to people who haven’t actually seen the film, and it changed the way that producers, directors, and composers thought about how music could be used in cinema.
Bernard Herrmann was on hand once again to create the music for Psycho, backed up by the full might of the National Philharmonic Orchestra. Once again, this veteran composer proved his worth, crafting a score filled with dread that begins low and calm but bubbles up into something terrible and terrifying by the end.
Herrmann’s score for Vertigo was deeper and more versatile, but his creation of the Psycho shower scene violin wails is perhaps his most compelling contribution to the world of cinematic composition.
Ascenseur pour l’échafaud was released under the name ‘Elevator to the Gallows’ in the West. Miles Davis was brought in to make the music, and this initially had to seem like a strange choice for an outside observer.
The film is a noir thriller involving murder and adultery, while Davis was best known for funky jazz tunes. In practice, however, the film’s visual and audio aspects meld together seamlessly, with Davis’ lonely trumpet proving the perfect backdrop for the film’s seedy setting.
Music plays a big role in the plot of A Clockwork Orange, and it was absolutely vital for director Stanley Kubrick that the score be as close to perfection as humanly possible. Wendy Carlos was the perfect person for the job.
She managed to take classical melodies – lead character Alex is obsessed with Beethoven – and combine them with spooky synths and droning electronic notes to craft the perfect soundtrack for a grim and bizarre dystopia.
Ennio Morricone was the man behind the music of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, a seminal Western classic. The movie’s music has endured to this day, with its classic fanfare theme being one of the most emblematic pieces of Western cinematic music ever made.
Director Sergio Leone wanted his movie to be over-the-top and almost absurd, and Morricone matched the director’s ambition, providing the perfect sounding send-up of the genre’s tropes and traits.
Sofia Coppola, for her first-ever production, managed to transform Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides into something a little lighter and more romantic than the original work. The movie’s sounds and music helped to make it something special.
She teamed up with French electronic duo Air. Air brought influences of prog to the film’s score, imbuing each and every one of their tracks with a heavy dose of mystery and almost wistful contemplation.
One of the finest films of the 21st century so far, There Will Be Blood, is a violent and grim take on corruption and greed in the Old West, masterfully made by director Paul Thomas Anderson.
Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood was called in to make the music for this Oscar-winning hit, with tracks like ‘Open Spaces’ and ‘Proven Lands’ matching seamlessly with the characters and plot playing out on screen.
Mica Levi was the talent behind the score for 2014’s Under the Skin. She claims that Disney films played a part in her creation of the movie’s music, but the results are far from anything heard in the likes of Toy Story or The Lion King.
Menacing, brooding, and moving, much of the movie’s music almost seems like something one might expect to hear in a seedy strip club a few decades into the future, blending digital trickery with droning notes.
An iconic piece of cinema any way you look at it, Blade Runner is one of the greatest films ever made and can also boast of having one of, if not the very best score ever written.
Vangelis composed the score for Ridley Scott’s classic live out of his London studio, composing each and every note in time with the action on screen and improvising almost everything along the way. Vangelis wanted his score to be just as awe-inspiring and impressive as the visuals, and he succeeded.