Like everything, boiling it down to the top 10 best movie scores of all time requires a balance between objectivity and subjectivity. There are some that are clearly better than others, but our own tastes come into play as well.
It can't simply be that the music is good. It has to create an effective atmosphere for the movie scenes, emitting the right emotions for the viewer to amplify the intentions of the director and script writer. This is the core factor taken into account in this list, just like our Best Movie Soundtracks of All Time.
Choosing only ten is difficult, so below the main list we included some runners up and also another section of honorable mentions. If you don't see your favorite movie score, keep looking below. With that said, let's jump into the list of the best movie scores of all time...
#10 - Tron: Legacy (2010)
Composer: Daft Punk
The Tron: Legacy film score was performed by an 85-piece orchestra, arranged and orchestrated by Joseph Trapanese. It's a mix of orchestral and electronic music, all created by Daft Punk. They said that Wendy Carlos, the composer of the original Tron movie score, was their inspiration, along with Max Steiner, John Carpenter, Vangelis, and others.
Usually the movie is created and then the score is written and edited in, but this movie was edited around the score in a reversal of methodology, matching Daft Punk's increasing use of visual media to accompany their music. The score features 22 tracks with as many as 5 extra bonus tracks depending on the version.
Trivia Facts: The song "Computerized" featured lyrics by Jay-Z that were later removed, using only the instrumental. It was meant to be promoted as a single to help the movie. 27 mainstream critics gave the score an averaged rating of 71/100.
#9 - Chariots of Fire (1981)
The Greek composer Vangelis wrote this score, netting him four Academy Awards including Best Original Score in 1981. Vangelis was and is still known for making very cinematic new age music on a synthesizer. The main theme of the movie reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 as a single.
This score changed the game, being mainly electronic but was a period piece set in the past. Many movies later adopted this juxtaposition, breaking a long-standing mold that was stale. The score album itself is re-recorded, using different but similar sounds from those heard on the film.
Trivia Facts: Vangelis used a CS-80 synthesizer for the score. He played every single instrument, including piano, drums, and percussion. It was recorded at his Nemo studio in London. Vangelis was sued by Stavros Logarides for plagiarism of his song "City of Violets" on the song "Chariots of Fire." Vangelis won, which shouldn't have been the case if you listen to both songs.
#8 - The Pink Panther (1963)
Composer: Henry Mancini
Henry Mancini knocked it out of the park for The Pink Panther, so much so that the movie score won a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2001. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score but lost to Mary Poppins. The animators and Mancini worked together to make the music match what was seen on the screen.
The lead theme, which you can probably hear in your head right now, reached the Top 10 on the Billboard adult contemporary chart and itself won three more Grammy Awards. This song has been used on countless movies, TV shows, video games, and albums by other artists now.
Trivia Facts: "The Pink Panther Theme" is composed in the key of E minor, which was strange since Mancini usually used chromaticism. The tenor saxophone solo was played by Plas Johnson.
#7 - Back to the Future (1985)
Composer: Alan Silvestri
The score for this movie is an adventure. The current double-disc version features the full orchestral score on the first disc while the second disc contains the original (or alternate) versions from the early sessions. These are darker and moodier versions of the same songs, which was the direction Alan Silvestri wanted to go, but was made to make them lighter.
Alan Silvestri later went on to write scores for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Cast Away, The Polar Express, and many of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, including The Avengers movies, and many more.
Trivia Facts: Alan Silvestri has won two Academy Awards and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. He's a three-time winner of the Saturn Award and the Primetime Emmy Award. The main theme from the film was later used in the sequels and even the Universal Studios theme parks.
#6 - E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Composer: John Williams
You are now being introduced to a name you'll see a ton here: John Williams, who worked closely with Steven Spielberg. His work on the E.T. score netted him an Oscar, Academy Award, BAFTA award, and a Grammy Award. Williams is known for his huge sounds and leitmotifs, but in this case he created a soft and emotional theme for the extra-terrestrial character of the film.
Williams used polytonality and the Lydian mode to create a feeling of heroism and a dreamlike quality. Spielberg liked his work so much that he edited some scenes to the music instead of the other way around. This score has been re-released in many versions to satisfy the hungry fans.
Trivia Facts: It was recorded at the MGM Scoring Stage in Culver City, California in 1981. The score reaches over 500 pages on paper and is almost 80 minutes long. Williams is the only composer to win all of the possible awards for the same score multiple times, as he did with Star Wars and Jaws.
#5 - Jurassic Park (1993)
Composer: John Williams
John Williams, the master of film scoring, wrote the most wondrous and adventurous songs ever for Jurassic Park. Alexander Courage, John Neufeld, and Conrad Pope shared orchestration duties. Williams describes the music as "symphonic cartooning" to match the movements of the dinosaurs and the awe and fascination the characters and viewers experience when seeing them.
The large orchestra featured the typical mix of percussion, harps, baritone horns, and a choir. They also needed some woodwinds and opted for the Japanese shakuhachi and piccolo oboe. There are also some synthesizers mixed in quietly and playing in unison with the woodwinds or lower harmonies.
Trivia Facts: John Williams wrote this score in a month but didn't conduct the orchestra due to suffering back injuries during the scoring sessions. It was written at Skywalker Ranch, owned by George Lucas. Steven Spielberg wasn't able to be at the sessions due to filming Schindler's List.
#4 - Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
Composer: John Williams
This is another masterpiece by John Williams, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, one of the best orchestras in the world. It was recorded over 8 sessions in Denham, England at Anvil Studios. Herbert W. Spencer orchestrated the score. The result was that the main title reached #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and a disco remix reached #1.
This album won all of the awards and went certified Platinum by the RIAA. It's preserved by the Library of Congress in the National Recording Registry, being called culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. The original was released as a double LP and has since been re-issued and remastered several times.
Trivia Facts: The original double LP release was printed in such a way that an autochanger record player could switch the vinyl records for you. The first record had side one and side four, while the second had side two and side three.
#3 - Interstellar (2014)
Composer: Hans Zimmer
After scoring Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy, Hans Zimmer was again tapped by Christopher Nolan to knock it out the park for Interstellar, and that he did. It ended up nominated for an Academy Award and for Original Score at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards. The music themes are about being alone and being a father.
Zimmer played every note of the score using synthesizers and computers to aid him, but later used church pipe organs, strings, woodwinds, and piano. The critics nearly gave it a perfect score across the board. The Illuminated Star Projection edition contains almost twice the number of tracks.
Trivia Facts: Zimmer started scoring the film two years before its release, well before the typical time frame. Some of the script was written while listening to his ideas for the central theme of the story. Zimmer isolated himself for a month while writing it, since part of the movie is about being alone.
#2 - The Fountain (2006)
Composer: Clint MAnsell
After scoring the movie Pi and Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky asked Clint Mansell to compose for The Fountain. The music is played by Mansell, the Kronos Quartet, and the post-rock band Mogwai. The challenge was to create one organic sounding theme that could transcend the three story lines within the movie.
Mansell went on to win the Chicago Film Critics Association award for Best Original Score, among other similar accolades. It was nominated for the Golden Globe but didn't win. This score is one of the most unified and congealed I've ever heard. It sounds like one giant overture.
Trivia Facts: Aronofsky wanted David Bowie to provide vocals for some pieces, but this didn't work out. They tried with Antony Hegarty but realized vocals were altogether inappropriate for this film. Many remixes of the songs exist due to a marketing campaign that supplied the tracks to musicians.
#1 - The Lord of the Rings (2001)
Composer: Howard Shore
Without a doubt, the best movie score of all time is The Lord of the Rings by Howard Shore. Have fun finding anyone who doesn't think this is the greatest achievement in film music. Over 13 hours of music have been released. Some of the ensembles contained as many as 400 musicians! The London Philharmonic Orchestra played most of the songs.
The composition contains over 100 leitmotifs, and even more if you bring in The Hobbit films. The score won three Oscars, three Grammys, and two Golden Globes, among many others. It even has a documentary and a research book by musicologist Doug Adams.
Trivia Facts: The Complete Recordings for each film contain as many as four discs per movie, and that still isn't all of the music. Much of it is diegetic songs, meaning the characters in the film themselves hear the music.
Runners Up for Best Movie Scores of All Time
It's hard to choose only ten scores when there are so many great options. For this reason we've included some runners up, because there's still so many that deserve a mention. Below this we quickly list off some honorable mentions, too. If you haven't seen your favorite yet, there's still a chance.
Flash Gordon (1980)
The Flash Gordon score is also the 9th studio album by one of the best bands of all time, Queen. They later did the same for the movie Highlander. Lyrics only appear on two tracks. Later an additional EP was released with six additional songs. The album was highly acclaimed for such a goofy action-adventure science fiction movie (it's a fun watch).
The album reached #23 on the US Billboard 200 and hit #1 in Austria and #2 in Germany. The main theme "Flash's Theme" was released as a single under the title "Flash." It received a music video and performed well globally. It even appears on Queen's Greatest Hits.
Trivia Facts: Jack Black of Tenacious D sings portions the lead song on of their own albums. Audio from the film is used prominently in the songs on the score. You'd think that'd be annoying but it's not, it makes listening more fun.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Composer: John Williams
Another winning score by John Williams, it actually sold well being certified Gold and reaching #17 on the US Billboard album chart. The Collector's Edition Soundtrack contains 26 tracks totaling 77 minutes, but all anyone really remembers is the five-note theme played by the aliens themselves on their UFO. (Check out the 15 times musicians saw UFOs if you're into that).
This is another example of Spielberg and Williams using music to amplify the success of their films. That five-note theme was and still is a cultural phenomenon. If you're too young to know where it came from, I guarantee you that you've still heard it before and can recognize it.
Trivia Facts: The crazily catchy five-note theme received a disco remix as a free giveaway, and the Billboard rules at the time allowed it to chart, where it peaked at #17. La-La Land Record's 40th Anniversary release contains a second disc of alternates and additional music.
Composer: John Carpenter
I had to choose one, so I picked Halloween since it was John Carpenter's first big hit. He scores all of his own movies and is known for creating amazing themes by himself on a synthesizer. His songs are simple but nail the exact emotions you need to arise to make the scenes scarier, etc.
The 20th Anniversary Edition is the one you want to hear, with 28 tracks at just under 52 minutes of music. Then, if you enjoyed that, you should check out his scores for his newer movies. His own skills increased over time. But the main Halloween Theme is probably the most well-known, because even the song itself is frightening.
Trivia Facts: John Carpenter has seen a resurgence in popularity as a musician (as opposed to a film maker) due to the resurgence of the 1980's synthesizer driven music. He's released some albums in the past five years or so to great acclaim of the fans of the synthwave sub-genre.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Composer: John Williams
You're probably sick of the Spielberg / Williams team, but nobody does it better. Williams composed the film score and the London Symphony Orchestra once again played the Herbert W. Spencer orchestrations. The score received a nod for the Academy Award for Best Original Score but lost out to Chariots of Fire by Vangelis, mentioned above.
The score originally contained only 9 tracks and was later expanded to 19 tracks. Williams later scored the rest of the Indiana Jones movies as well. It was so celebrated that it was later re-recorded by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.
Trivia Facts: Three minutes of music featured in the movie are still unreleased on CD but appear on LP. Those tracks are "Marion Into the Pit" and "Indy Rides The Statue." The track "Desert Chase" is incomplete on most releases, only completely represented on the Concord release.
Honorable Mentions for Best Movie Scores of All Time
And finally, we come to the honorable mentions, where we list off the rest that were nominated in our discussion but didn't receive as many votes as even the runners up. But they're still worth mentioning. Here they are:
- Braveheart (1995) - Composed and conducted by James Horner and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
- Jaws (1975) - Written by John Williams, conducted by Joel McNeely, and re-recorded by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
- Rocky (1976) - Composed by Bill Conti.
- Gone With The Wind (1939) - Written by Max Steiner and performed by a five-member small orchestra.
- The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly (1966) - Composed by Ennio Morricone.
- The Godfather (1972) - Composed by Nino Rota and conducted by Carlo Savina.
- Suspiria (1977) - Composed and performed by the Italian band Goblin led by Claudio Simonetti.
- Akira (1988) - Composed and conducted by Shoji Yamashiro, it features elements of Japanese noh music and Indonesian gamelan music. It's not to be missed but is niche so not everyone will love it.
All of these are iconic. If you've seen the movies, you'd recognize the scores if you heard them on their own. That's how you know they're powerful and impactful. Some of them are referenced in our culture constantly now and will never go away.
If you enjoyed this list, you'll probably get a kick out of the Best Movies About Music and the Best Music Documentaries of All Time. And of course, we linked to our list about soundtracks at the top. Music makes up a huge aspect of our lives, and an even bigger part of movies, even if we don't recognize it. We do here at LedgerNote and thus honor the best movie scores of all time.