Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Movie Musical Scores

Music is so often an undervalued component of any film’s success. A great musical score can enhance not just our excitement, but also our emotional involvement with a story and its characters. In this week’s Roundtable, we highlight some of our favorite film scores.

I suspect that many people’s first instinct will be to reach for John Williams here. From his stirring scores for the ‘Star Wars’, ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Superman’, ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘Harry Potter’ franchises, plus literally hundreds of other memorable movies, the man is a legend. He’s also, I hate to say it, a bit overexposed.

I’d like to consider this a “John Williams Memorial Roundtable” and focus instead on some other great composers. (That’s Henry Mancini in the photo at the top of this post, FYI.)

Shannon Nutt

This is an easy pick for me. My favorite score also comes from my all-time favorite movie, ‘Somewhere in Time‘. Composed by the late John Barry, the score is deeply moving and romantic, and mixes nicely with the 18th Variation of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” which is also used within Barry’s score. In fact, unlike many other motion pictures where the score is almost an afterthought or, at the very least, an enhancement to the movie, it’s hard to think of ‘Somewhere in Time’ without its magnificent soundtrack. It’s one of the few scores that almost seems to be a character in the film.

Mike Attebery

I’ve always been a big fan of Thomas Newman’s ‘Scent of a Woman‘ score. I loved that movie as a kid, and used to listen to the soundtrack while I wrote my amateur movie scripts. It’s a light, fun score that still pops up in movie trailers.

Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)

Music makes such a difference in film. I’ll include one of my all-time favorites as well as one more recent gem.

Blade Runner‘ (Vangelis) – The synth-based, mostly electronic score echoes the somber and bleak yet somehow optimistic outlook of the film. It’s majestic and powerful when it needs to be, but delicate at times too. I can listen to this on its own, which is rare for film soundtracks (for me).

Gravity‘ (Stephen Price) – It’s funny that a film that takes place in space (where no one can hear you scream) is so heavily influenced by its soundtrack and sound design. Wondrous fascination on the vastness and majesty of space turns into a cacaphony of chaos, settling into quiet determination and finally fierce resolve. The soundtrack matches the film’s action in a way that few experienced film composers do. I only wish that everyone who sees the film could hear it in Dolby Atmos, because this film was made for that format. The precise placement of sound brings a new level of immersion and enjoyment to the movie.

Also, speaking of film scores, is it just me, or do ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ have the same soundtrack? I know Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer worked together on several projects, but seriously? When I hear one, I’m still not sure which one it is. Dum dum dum da-dum, dum dum dum DA-dum. Dum dum dum da-dum, Dum da dum DUM! Don’t get me wrong, I actually like these sweeping, majestic, heroic scores. I just have some trouble telling them apart. Meanwhile, John Williams has done so many excellent and memorable scores, but one would never confuse ‘Jaws’ with ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Superman’ with ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. Sorry, was I not supposed to mention John Williams?

Junie Ray

I’ll go with ‘The Pink Panther‘ by Henry Mancini. Who doesn’t want to dress like a beatnik and snap their fingers along to the “Pink Panther Theme”? Or, for that matter, croon along with “Moon River” in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’? Or what about his hits from ‘Charade’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Days of Wine and Roses’? If I wasn’t limited to his movie scores, he also wrote many memorable TV themes: ‘Peter Gunn’, ‘The Thorn Birds’, ‘Newhart’, ‘What’s Happening’, to name just a few. Mancini was an amazing composer, and way more hip than John Williams.

M. Enois Duarte

One my all-time favorite scores is the music to ‘Requiem for a Dream‘, a film so powerful and spot-on to the pains of addiction that it’s difficult to watch a second time. I’ve been a fan of Clint Mansell since his years in the band Pop Will Eat Itself and loved his stuff in Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Pi’, but the guy totally blew me away when he worked with the Kronos Quartet for this soundtrack. The offbeat and deliberately off-note combination of strings playing against darkly twisted and creepy electro-synth rhythms delivers a hauntingly gloomy and gut-wrenching tenor that perfectly complements the story’s melancholic theme. It resonates with an emotional impact that is almost too painful to listen, especially the track “Lux Aeterna,” which you can hear re-orchestrated for various trailers, TV shows, advertisements and even sporting events. It’s a phenomenal score that continues to haunt me.

Tom Landy

My favorite musical score is from a little cult horror film recently released on Blu-ray: ‘Ravenous‘. The first time I watched this movie, for some strange reason Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn’s repetitive twangy composition actually annoyed the hell out of me. However, after another viewing (or three), it has definitely grown on me. It’s so catchy, unique, and sticks with you so you’ll be humming it for at least a few hours afterwards. It’s just a shame that the Scream Factory Blu-ray leaves a lot to be desired, as this is one of my all-time favorite movies.

Luke Hickman

I’m a huge fan of the score for Danny Boyle’s ‘Sunshine‘. The joint efforts of composer John Murphy and the band Underworld resulted in an amazing score that’s been used in many movie trailers since. However, it’s a double-edged sword. A legal battle (presumably between the band and the label) kept us from getting a soundtrack album of the film’s score for several years. For the longest time, the only version that you could find were fan-made edits that processed the movie’s entire soundtrack through programs that removed dialogue. Finally, some sort of concession was made and it became available on iTunes, but that’s it. As a collector, I’d love to own an actual CD version of the album. For now, I’m still stuck with my iTunes copy.

Josh Zyber

Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of John le Carré’s ‘The Russia House‘ didn’t make much of an impact when it was released back in 1990. For better or worse, the casting of Sean Connery in a new spy drama left viewers craving something a little more like James Bond. Instead, they got a contemplative international romance with a touch of espionage intrigue in the background. As a result, the movie was largely dismissed and forgotten.

Personally, I loved the film instantly, and one of my favorite parts of it is the rhapsodic score by Jerry Goldsmith. I can’t tell you how many times I listened to the soundtrack cassette back in the day. In my opinion, it’s still among the composer’s very best work. This is a movie I would love to have on Blu-ray if MGM would ever dig it out of the catalog.

Honorable Mention to any- and everything Michael Nyman did for Peter Greenaway: ‘Drowning by Numbers’, ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’, ‘Prospero’s Books’, etc. Nyman’s music is practically its own character in each of those movies.

What are some of your favorite movie musical scores? Tell us in the Comments.


  1. Dan007

    He is newer to the crowd, but i have been impressed with Michael Giacchino, I know a lot of people love hating on Abrams as a director, but I find the majority of his movies enjoyable. I believe a huge part of that for me is because of the score.

  2. Mark Bolick

    Holy smokes people. Virtually any Bernard Hermann score on a Hitchcock film but definitely North by Northwest.

  3. Brad Fiedel- The Terminator
    Basil Poledouris- Conan the Barbarian & Robocop
    Ennio Morricone- The Thing , The Good the Bad, & the Ugly, almost everything he does.
    Goblin- Tenebre, some of Deep Red
    Alan Silvestri- Predator
    Also agree with Tom Landy for Ravenous
    Simon Boswell- Demons 2 & Hardware

      • MMM, love me some Carpenter music. From playing the Escape from New York Theme on my Casio keyboard when I was wee to the super cool and scary score to The Fog (the original, not that crappy remake) almost all his music was very fitting to the movies he helped create it for. Prince of Darkness was great too.

  4. Paul J Anderson

    Thomas Newman’s score for The Shawshank Redemption is, hands down, my favorite. Just absolutely beautiful and haunting. The scene where Andy Dufresne arrives at The ‘Shank and you have that amazing flyover of the prison shot by the incomparable Roger Deakins and then add Newman’s music…it’s is my favorite scene from any movie ever. Just raises the hairs on my arms every time. Simply amazing. Newman’s work in Road to Perdition and WALL-E is also stunning. Every year I watch the Academy Awards hoping that this is the year both Newman and Deakins finally get their long deserved statuettes. 23 nominations between the two and nary a win. Scandalous!!

    • Chris Bennett

      I agree man, Shawshank is gorgeous and Roger Deakins is my fave cinematographer, I will watch anything that man shoots.

      • Paul J Anderson

        “The Man Who Wasn’t There”! It’s like sensory overload for the eyes. Deakins is the master.

  5. Chris Bennett

    Oh man what a great topic!

    Number one for me has got to be Alan Silvestri’s score for “Back to the Future”. I cannot think of another film that fuses the music so perfectly with the action onscreen. It is at times thrilling, somber, mysterious, ominous and uplifting. Even to this day during the chase sequence near the beginning when Marty slams it into gear to see if “those bastards can do 90” and the music swells, I get chills every single time. Or a few moments earlier as the Libyans approach and the sense of foreboding and dread that’s created by the low notes and cymbals. The whole score is absolute, pure genius and heaven for movie goers.

    A few honorable mentions:
    Pacific Rim- The music gets you so pumped up to see those Jaeger’s kick some Kaiju ass.

    Heat-Fantastic, tense soundtrack during the heist sequence and the amazingly powerful piece that plays at the very end after the chase and shootout at LAX. Actually the last shot of that movie coupled with the static image of the two leads holding hands is my favorite shot of all time…

    The Thin Red Line- I’m sure it’s been said many times but, Hans Zimmer is a genius and this score is one of his best (and most underrated).

    Batman Begins and The Dark Knight- While I enjoy the music in TDKR as well, it seemed like Zimmer got a little too carried away with the percussion for the third one (possibly because he wasn’t collaborating with James Newton Howard like the previous two), I thought the first two films in the trilogy struck the perfect balance of rhythm , percussion and melody to drive the action forward.

    Signs- Although a lot of people like to trash the movie these days, I really liked how they were able to use such a simple, 3-note motif in so many ways.

    Thief and Sorcerer- Both scored by European electronica duo Tangerine Dream, fit the tense atmosphere to a “T”

    On the lighter side,
    I really enjoyed the soundtrack to Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It was fun and energetic and really kept the momentum of the movie going at full clip.

    Beverly Hills Cop- How cool was Axel Foley’s theme song?

    My wife would also like to submit Kindergarten Cop and Terminator 2…clearly she’s an Arnold fan.

  6. Chris Bennett is right on the money. Alan Silvestri’s work for ‘Back to the Future’ is a masterpiece. My second favourite would be Dave Grusin’s grand, emotional, majestic, sweeping score for ‘The Goonies’. We fans had to wait ages for an official release, and once it arrived, it didn’t disappoint.

  7. jakdonark

    Wow, where do I start? Well I’ll get it out of the way, John Williams is my favorite composer, and no other person (except maybe my daughter!) has sent me through so many emotions.

    Okay, if I HAVE to narrow it down, I would go with James Horner’s score for Star Trek II. I know he’s bad for borrowing, especially from himself, but this score is perfect for every moment on screen, from building tension before the first attack on the Enterprise, to the triumphant final face off, to the touching integration of Amazing Grace into the score before the final few notes that lead us back to the main theme. I hadn’t seen most of the films when I was younger in the 80s, then in the early 90s Starfleet Academy was released for the SNES. It used this score and I think that was a major reason why this score has stuck out so much for me. I also love his work on Aliens and Zorro.

    Jerry Goldsmith is a very close second. Although his contributions for Star Trek, Rambo, and Verhoeven films are immeasurable, my favorite of his is for The Mummy. It’s a grand, sweeping score with great action beats, softer tones for the romantic moments, and it has a great overall exotic feel.

    John Barry is James Bond. OHMSS and Moonraker are two of my favorites, but Dances With Wolves is like a warm blanket. I’d like to just sit down on a cold day and wrap myself in it.

    Michael Kamen was instrumental (pun intended) to action movies of the 80s and 90s. Die Hard has a near perfect score with wonderful inclusions of Christmas music themes in the score, Singin’ In The Rain, as well as the overall theme of Beethoven’s ninth running through the score, being performed by the characters, and full orchestrations. Lethal Weapon, Last Boy Scout, Iron Giant, Highlander, so sad a man gone before his time.

    Michael Giacchino is one of my favorite newer composers. The Incredibles was, well, incredible. Too bad they didn’t get him to do the new Bond Scores. Star Trek, Mission Impossible, can’t wait to see what he does next.

    Alan Silvestri for me only has a few memorable scores, but the two biggest are of course Back to the Future and Predator. Also when I was a kid I loved the Delta Force theme. Hadn’t watched it in years, put the movie on awhile back, and yup, still loved it!

    John Ottman did what Ken Thorne couldn’t. Took the great Superman theme and reworked it with some wonderful new pieces. The “Night Flight” is one of my favorites, touching, romantic, and bittersweet all at the same time.

    Henry Jackman (not Hugh!) first came to my attention with Wreck It Ralph. Every bit was perfect, turning what could have been generic video game music into something that would fit in with any live action movie. I liked the main theme for Kick Ass and found out that was him too. Definitely big things in his future.

    Although Hans Zimmer is now known for his mostly big action scores, my current favorite of his is Inception. Simple score but very effective. Always makes you feel like something is a bit off, otherworldly, dreamlike. I can’t think of that movie done by anyone else.

    Too many favorites, not enough space. Danny Elfman, Elliot Goldenthal, Eric Serra, John Carpenter, Ennio Morricone, Bernard Herrmann, Wendy (Walter) Carlos, Tangerine Dream, Howard Shore, David Arnold, Thomas Newman, Graeme Revel, Trent Reznor, even Daft Punk! Can you tell I’m a soundtrack nut?

  8. William Henley

    Well, since John Williams is out….

    Mary Poppins (the music as well as the songs)
    Blade Runner
    Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country
    Star Trek: Generations
    Star Trek: First Contact
    Star Trek: The Motion Picture
    Batman (1989)
    Top Gun (music and songs)
    Iron Eagle (music and songs)
    Bill & Teds Excellent Adventures (music and songs)
    Flash Gordon (music and songs)
    Team America (music and songs)
    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Pretty much anything Danny Elfman)
    The Bible: In The Begining
    Sound of Music (music and songs)
    Lost In Space (yes, the movie. The show was done by Johnny Williams, so I cannot choose that)
    Any James Bond movie
    Pirates of the Caribbean
    The Dragonball Z movies (US version – yes, the rocking Funimation soundtrack)
    The Sailor Moon Super S movie (original Japanese)
    Summer Magic
    Song of the South

    I am sure there are others, but those are what comes to mind

  9. Mr Apollo

    The one score for me is and will always be the original Conan the Barbarian soundtrack by Basil Poledouris. It is a landmark piece in terms of where music was at the point in time in cinema and is always overlooked. The way it starts out with it’s huge sound is great, but what makes it great is the way that Basil Poledouris is able to go in a completely different direction and become soft and supple. Very kind and pleasing to the ear. It is that way throughout the movie and really accompanies it very well. I surely do miss him. There are plenty of others that I do love but this has been one of my biggest inspirations for me in music.

  10. Bernard Herrmann – North by Northwest
    Michael Kamen – Brazil
    Michel LeGrand – Umbrellas of Cherbourg
    Mike Oldfield – The Killing Fields
    Jon Brion – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

  11. Jerry Goldsmith is the finest film composer; “Patton”, “ST-TMP, “Planet of the Apes”, “Blue Max”, “Night Crossing” and tons of other films.

    Bernard Herrmann: “Psycho”

    Elmer Bernstein: “To Kill a Mockingbird”

    Miklos Rozsa: “Ben-Hur”

    Many, many more that I am not listing.

  12. Scott H

    I’v been a Michael Giacchino fan since his Medal of Honor game soundtrack and many other game scores, as far as film goes, up, mission impossible 4, Incredibles and super 8 are great. I love jerry goldsmiths scores for total recall, and alien. James Horner for aliens, brave heart, American tail. John ottmans x-2 score was great. Lawrence of Arabia by Maurice Jarre is one of my favorites. Also though I’m not a fan of chronicles of narnia the lion witch and the wardrobe, I did like the music and during the last half of a colorado symphony orchestra Danny elfman tribute concert Harry gregson Williams came out to conduct the cso in music from the movie. It was great. If you have never been to a symphony concert of movie music, you gotta search it out. Hearing starwars music live never gets old. There’s so many great soundtracks and not enough room to list them.

  13. Anthony S.

    As an addendum, I would add that my other favorite is Vangelis’s Bladerunner but that my preference is for the unauthorized Esper Retirement Edition and not the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.

  14. Was already mentioned above but Ramin Djawadi was not called by name. He is the man who like John Williams got his start on TV with shows like Person Of Interest and Game of Thrones. Pacific Rim is great and I can’t wait to see what he does next because he is very talented.

  15. August Lehe

    For me,, I have to mention The Big Country by Jerome Moross, Red River by Dimitri Tiomkin, The Manchurian Candidate by David Amran, Spartacus by Alex North, Ben Hur by Miklos Rosza, and Advise and Consent by Jerry Fielding….

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