Movies are not just about what you see onscreen. The auditory component of many cinema classics is just as integral (if not more) than the visual pastiche of images that flood your local theater’s screens. Effective sound design is a crucial component, but our focus today is the scores and soundtracks of Hollywood’s finest. Think of how many times you’ve walked out of memorable movies. You may find yourself humming the melodies from several key scenes in the flick, whether you intended to or not. Movie music has a way of working itself into your mind, acting as a spiritual counterpart to the images of the silver screen.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is the musical scribe behind a number of Paul Thomas Anderson features. There Will Be Blood marks the pair’s first collaboration, and the results are quite haunting. Looming orchestral overtones create a soundscape straight from a slow-pulsing horror film. A particularly iconic oil derrick disaster scene is accompanied by a Greenwood solo piece called “Bodysong” that moves rhythmically with the fiery disaster occurring onscreen.
Unnerving, bizarre, and mercilessly restless, The Shining is framed with a musical backbone like no other. It features stark electronic compositions from the likes of Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. Moody synth work and echoing jungle-like sounds are staples of the monumental horror film, tones that seemingly reverberate down the endless halls we follow Jack Torrance down and throughout. With ballroom music making its entrance halfway through the film, it’s like the listener is moving back in time to the glory days of the Overlook Hotel.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 essence of this intrepid, creative prisoner of war film was perfectly captured by composer Elmer Bernstein in his classic (and utterly whistlable) 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.
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 help humanize the strange alien on screen, and showcases his overall emotion and fear of the darker side of humanity.
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.
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.
Best compilation soundtracks
Alright, alright, alright. With a fade-up set to Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” there’s truly no better way to start a film, and it only gets better from there. Linklater’s day-in-the-life for a band of misfit ’70s high-schoolers is loaded with rock classics like Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” Deep Purple’s “Highway Star,” and Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane.” As characters weave in and out of scenes, the music seamlessly moves with them.
Outside of its status as an iconic ’90s comedy, Dumb and Dumber is a priceless gem of a soundtrack film, too. Packed with a medley of popular road rock tunes of the era, Gigolo Aunts’ “Where I Find My Heaven” and “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” by the Crash Test Dummies serve as melodic complements to the bonkers buddy flick. A dream sequence overlaid with “The Rain, The Park, and Other Things” by The Cowsills could be one of the best moments of the film altogether.
Producer T Bone Burnett’s playful handpicked mix of Appalachian folk songs has been certified eight times platinum since the film’s release — easily ranking among the most successful compilation soundtracks of all time. The songs are elegant interpretations of classics that feature acoustic guitar, mandolin, and various other folk instruments, and are often driven by beautiful vocal harmonies.
The producers of this rom-com centered around music snobs reportedly listened to more than 2,000 different songs to come up with the film’s 70 musical cues — a job that resulted in one of the most critically acclaimed indie music soundtracks ever assembled. Previously obscure recordings like The Beta Band’s The Three E.P.’s saw a massive increase in popularity following the film’s release and helped the film encapsulate the world of rock nerds in a way that feels (and sounds) utterly authentic.
Director Martin Scorsese decided to pick only music that could have been heard at the time each specific scene was set for his gangster classic Goodfellas. But though that was his only hard-and-fast rule, in general, the director has said his jazz-driven choices were designed to coincide with the emotions of the characters and the happenings in each scene. As such, music plays a key role in the film, with various vocal lines from jazz classics often intersecting with on-screen dialogue.
The gritty surf rock and soul music at the heart of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction adds a certain something to the long, wordy scenes in the film, releasing tension in a cathartic and cool manner throughout. Tarantino’s choices also helped revive the then-fading genre of surf rock in the American and international consciousness, with musicians like Dick Dale seeing a revival in popularity throughout the ’90s.
Classic songs from groups like Led Zeppelin, Yes, and David Bowie help fully develop the time stamp of Almost Famous, which centers on an up-and-coming band during the 1970s. Contemplative musical choices also provide context to each character’s thoughts and emotions, adding an important depth to what you see on screen.
From the very first scene in the film, dark electronic music by Kavinsky and composer Cliff Martinez lays the foundation for this dark contemporary drama, helping to draw viewers into scenes with sparse dialogue and striking visuals.
Spike Lee’s classic urban comedy/drama Do The Right Thing relies heavily on a compilation of cassette hip-hop, pop, and rhythm and blues, and provided a launchpad for now-famous songs like Public Enemy’s Fight The Power. In addition to helping grow hip-hop’s popularity, it also serves as a true-to-era backdrop for late-’80s Brooklyn, making the film feel more authentic overall.
Director Danny Boyle’s film about the drug-filled U.K. underground features the sounds of iconic musicians like Iggy Pop and bands like Primal Scream and New Order. It’s a rough-and-tumble group of songs that fits the heroin addicts’ dingy lifestyle like a glove and has been long hailed by audiences and critics alike as among the best ever compiled.
Though some of the songs performed on the Once soundtrack by songwriters and co-stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová were written explicitly for the film, most were already recorded by the pair on an album called The Swell Season. Subtle and moving, the duo’s vocal-driven folk helped propel the film about a struggling musician to international acclaim, as well as grow their own careers as independent artists.
Actor/director Zach Braff made huge waves in the music world with his song choices on classic indie film Garden State, helping send now-legendary indie acts like Iron and Wine and The Shins to huge new heights.
Produced by modern hip-hop icon Kendrick Lamar, the soundtrack to Marvel’s fantastic Black Panther paired perfectly with the film, much of which took place in the fictional hypermodern nation of Wakanda. Performances by Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates like SZA and Schoolboy Q favor modern beat music and help draw viewers even further inside of the action on the screen.
Softly sung ballads from folk legends Simon and Garfunkel accompany the sticky conflicts that appear throughout The Graduate. Complex and haunting songs like The Sound of Silence appear numerous times throughout the film, helping to drive the plot — and the audience’s perspective — to new and interesting places.
While the gorgeous acoustic covers of David Bowie classics sung in Portuguese in Wes Anderson’s Life Aquatic were performed by guitarist Seu George specifically for the film, they are joined by numerous hits from Bowie and artists like The Stooges and The Zombies. It’s a group of songs with a unique and interesting outward aesthetic, a reworked bit of modernity that joins well with Anderson’s heavily curated visuals. We could have picked any number of Anderson films for this one — his love of The Kinks helped make the band cool for a whole new generation — but this one really hits home.
Classic comedy The Blues Brothers relies heavily on a raucous soundtrack full of vintage blues, jazz, and R&B songs, reinterpreted to fit the adopted personalities of the two lead characters and their band. It’s a high-energy compilation with deep grooves and great horn accompaniment that gives the film an extremely fun-loving feel.
Epic classical works from composers like Johann Strauss II and Aram Khachaturian provide the epic and eerie musical backdrops in Stanley Kubrick’s iconic sci-fi classic, giving the beautiful, revolutionary effects and camera work a deep sense of mystery.
Director Edgar Wright’s musical heist film Baby Driver choreographs entire fight scenes to classic tunes by The Beach Boys, T. Rex, and others, with subtle on-screen references to each track bringing an extra dimension to the drama. With sounds coordinated to perfection by a team led by two-time Emmy nominee Julian Slater (Mad Max: Fury Road), the film blends music, choreography, and action in an incredibly vibrant and unique way, easily ranking the soundtrack among the most interesting of all time.
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