We all know movie magic isn’t just on the screen — it’s also in your ears. We’re not just talking about excellent sound design or breathtaking surround sound technology like Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. We’re talking about the music itself.
Long after you exit the theater and floss the popcorn out of your teeth, the best film soundtracks stick in your head. Sometimes you hum along to them with your family and friends — the incredible first line of Star Wars is a great example (you’re hearing it right now, aren’t you). Other times, you’re not even aware how integral they really are (the hollow austerity of Interstellar, for example). But they’re always there, viscerally drawing out your emotions.
To celebrate these cinematic musical masterpieces, we’ve put together a list of our favorite film soundtracks, separated by scores and soundtrack compilations, in no particular order. Whether you’re a lover of the purpose-composed epics that propel your favorite films’ plot points, or a fan of the perfectly assembled playlist that colors a film’s overall tone, you’ll find something to love below.
Best original scores
Star Wars saga — John Williams
Arguably the most iconic film music ever written, John Williams’ epic themes for the Star Wars films are not only instantly recognizable around the globe, but they also created a film score renaissance, bringing back the grandiose scores from cinema’s earlier days. To create the Star Wars backdrop, the legendary composer drew heavily from space-themed classical compositions like Gustav Holst’s Planets series, using diverse layers of strings and horns sewn with unforgettable melodies to capture the emotions of the space opera set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. As for Williams, get used to hearing about him, as the iconic composer’s name is repeated heavily throughout this list.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy — Howard Shore
Massive choirs, huge drums, and epic brass ensembles join soft and supple woodwinds and strings in composer Howard Shore’s soundtrack for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s a diverse array of sounds that showcases a wide universe of creatures and magic, using techniques like odd time signatures and Celtic violin melodies to spawn feelings of tension and release that fit well inside the epic three-part storyline.
Indiana Jones series — John Williams
John Williams uses various percussion instruments and dissonant melodic structures to bring a sense of adventure to the Indiana Jones franchise’s music. He also draws on concepts like simple repeating melodies — in this case among the catchiest film themes ever written — to help propel the story through each act.
‘Interstellar’ — Hans Zimmer
Slow, sparse, and haunting, Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar score moves through your ears like a dust cloud in the vast emptiness of space. Strings and organ float languidly throughout director Christopher Nolan’s space epic, creating a musical backdrop that invites deep introspective thought, and brilliantly draws your eyes to the beautiful shots on screen.
Jurassic Park series — John Williams
Shimmering bells and slow-moving vocal backgrounds mark the scores of the Jurassic Park films, a series of works that Williams once called “these kind of funny ballets.” To mix the primal and the modern, the score includes a plenty of percussion instruments and subtly mixed synthesizers, pitting ancient sounds against the most contemporary tones (and, for you music nerds, that epic flat 7).
‘The Godfather’ — Nino Rota
There is a distinct tinge of the old world in the warbly trumpet and string tones composed by Nino Rota for the Godfather score — a group of melancholy compositions with an eye firmly planted on classic Italy. Beautiful accordion-driven waltzes meet jazzy swing music, with all the songs woven together by dark and somber orchestral music.
Christopher Nolan’s ‘Batman’ trilogy — James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer
Co-composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard did well to avoid superhero tropes in their score for Christopher Nolan’s dark Batman trilogy, going so far as to hold back introducing a main theme until almost the end of the first film. Instead, the pair used deep drum, synthesizer, and brass tones, and helped create a Batman franchise that felt more primal than anything before it. Holding off till nearly the last moment makes the theme all the more dramatic when it finally does arrive.
‘Back to the Future’ trilogy — Alan Silvestri
There’s a playful and mysterious nature to the sounds of the Back to the Future trilogy, with composer Alan Silvestri using shimmery harp and percussion tones for fun-loving moments, as well as deep horn cues for fast-paced intensity. Like many others on this list, recurring melodic themes play a huge role in drawing your ear, with the main theme typically appearing in a cloud of brass and strings. And while the orchestral numbers are fantastic, we can’t leave out Huey Lewis here, who pumped out some of his catchiest ’80s hits for the original film. That’s the power of love, folks.
‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ — John Williams
The spirit of the wizarding world is perfectly captured by John Williams on Hedwig’s Theme, a mysterious keyboard-driven ballad that appears throughout the first Harry Potter film. In general, Williams shows off his intimate side on this score, with many quick-paced horn and string lines underlying the longer, more melodic elements of the music.
‘Jaws’ — John Williams
The bold, ominous main theme crafted by John Williams for the Jaws franchise is a work of simple and elegant genius. Slowly creeping into your ears like the sight of the massive shark itself, the composer builds tension over time, eventually bursting into your head with sharp, tooth-like tones.
‘Psycho’ — Bernard Herrmann
The slow-building, high-pitched string wail composed by Bernard Hermann for the iconic shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho remains among the most panic-inducing sounds in the history of modern cinema. The remainder of Hermann’s strings-only soundtrack perfectly complements the black-and-white classic, creating a constant air of suspense throughout what remains one of cinema’s best thrillers.
‘The Great Escape’ (1963) — Elmer Bernstein
The essence of the intrepid, creative prisoner of war film, was perfectly captured by composer Elmer Bernstein in his classic (and utterly whistleable) theme for The Great Escape. It’s a gently flowing string melody with quick-paced woodwinds, brass, and percussion cues. In fact, the soundtrack is so catchy, it was repurposed by fans in the English Premier League in the 1990s as one of their massive, full-stadium chants.
‘E.T. the Extra Terrestrial’ — John Williams
The score for E.T. the Extra Terrestrial resembles John Williams’ work on the original Star Wars trilogy in many ways. Though not quite as melody-focused as the Star Wars compositions, the musical landscape is driven by deep woodwind tones, shimmering strings, and soft flutes — a group of sounds that helps humanize the strange alien on screen, and showcases his overall emotion and fear of the darker side of humanity.
‘Blade Runner’ — Vangelis
Classic ’80s synthesizer tones and epic string arrangements transport the listener instantly to Ridley Scott’s dark dystopia, with recurring bell tones that call out through a constant musical mist. Though each song feels unique — from the saxophone-laden Wait for Me to the soft female vocals of Rachel’s Song — there is a reverb-soaked mystery to everything on Vangelis’ soundtrack that helps the elements of the film flow together.
‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ — Burt Bacharach
The playful and poetic nature of both main characters in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is well-reflected in the musical accompaniment of Burt Bacharach, who uses classic tones like out-of-tune piano and melds them with more modern string and horn arrangements. It’s a score that sounds equal parts Broadway musical and country classic.