We asked composers and arrangers “What are your top three movie scores and why do they resonate with you?”
Here’s what they said:
A wonderful but difficult question! Movie scores have always been a great musical influence and a rewarding part of my personal listening time. I could list everything ever touched by John Williams but I will try and narrow it down and be more inclusive.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by ELMER BERNSTEIN: I can remember the magic this fragile yet hopeful score provided to the spirit of that great film. It has always been my favorite.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST by BERNARD HERMAN: Classic suspense meets romantic lyricism meets urban energy. Herman had a mastery over mystery and his collaborations with Hitchcock created apex musical experiences.
ON GOLDEN POND by DAVE GRUSIN: The opening sequence influenced my own approach to piano arranging with its impressionistic bird calls and its gentle sonic serenity. The NEW HAMPSHIRE HORNPIPE is a stunning piece that leaps off the page even without the joyful images from the film.
These are my top three plus everything ever touched by John Williams!
Awakenings (1991) Original soundtrack by Randy Newman
Perhaps the reason most movie soundtracks impact me (and probably you as well) so deeply is because they incorporate the sense of hearing into the realm of the emotional landscape in such a way that it brings the viewer more intimately into the seeming reality of the film.
In Awakenings, Randy Newman lays down a palate of tender melodies that almost seem to be painting a dream sequence. The film depicts the true story of a neurologist’s efforts to bring patients, who were in a catatonic state, back to consciousness. The film shows how the neurologist was able to use a certain drug to restore his patients to an almost normal state of consciousness and activity. But, just as mysteriously as they regained their minds, one by one, they slipped back into their trapped and catatonic state. Newman uses poignant melodies to bring out the somber dramatic moments of the film.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015) Joe Kraemer
Perhaps, some of the most intense action movies of recent memory are the Mission Impossibleseries. Of these, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is my favorite soundtrack. The music was composed by Joe Kraemer. Of course, Kraemer incorporates Lalo Schifrin’s signature theme from the TV show. The movie starts with action, and the music reinforces it. Overall, the orchestra comes through with one powerhouse theme after another. When it’s not action, it’s suspense, and Kraemer delivers in a way that builds like no other. Kraemer also does an excellent job of blending in exotic flavors, such as the scene in Cuba.
Star Wars series (Since 1977) John Williams
No doubt, the best iconic music ever written for a movie would be the Star Wars films soundtracks by John Williams. Since his two-note theme for Jaws, Williams has brought to the present techniques and devices into the movies such as the leit motif made popular by Richard Wagner. Williams drew from composer greats like Gustav Holst and the Planets series. John Wiiliams scored all of the Star Wars films as well as all the Indiana Jones movies, several of the Harry Potters, E. T., Superman, Jurassic Park, and, of course, Jaws….duuuuh duh!….. Duuuuh duh! ……Duuh duh! Duuh duh!
Fantasia: Brilliant choices and fabulous animation to bring it new life.
Singing in the Rain: Great standards with incredible choreography. Watched it a million times.
Lion King: Amazing, earworm creating music.
Star Wars: I love the full expanse of the orchestra, the soaring brass, the power of its soundscape.
Schindler’s List: This music has depth of passion, and elicits a response from the listener. And one of my heroes, Itzhak Perlman, is featured on the violin.
La Califfa by Ennio Morricone: I first became familiar with “La Califfa” and “Notturno” when I listened to my daughter’s recording of Morricone music, performed by Yo-Yo Ma. The melodies have a beautiful lyricism that draws me into the experience.
Score to Catch Me If You Can. It enhances the whole concept of the movie as the little musical theme that is repeated over and over keeps you running through the whole movie. It has a unique feel to it, and although it is just a little motive, you don’t tire of it.
The Lord of the Rings score really is some beautiful music that sweeps you into the grandeur of the movie. It also sets or creates the mood of the scenes in the series. What a beautiful talent it is to be able to capture the feeling and emotion of every little nuance in the movie.
It may be cliche, but Star Wars is one of the best crafted music scores out there. Each theme is used and reused in so many creative ways, and to go back after so many years and expand and continue the score with the newer series says a lot about the abilities of John Williams. But of course, we all know that already.
Sound of Music – One of the two movies I was allowed to watch growing up, so I watched it over and over. Somehow, I ended up loving the music rather than hating it.
Titanic – the first real movie I saw (other than the two movies I was allowed to watch on TV growing up). The mixture of music and drama left a big impact. People tell me I write theatrical, epic music. I think this is when it started.
The Passion of the Christ – I don’t think I even heard the music as much as I absorbed it during the movie. You can hear its influence come out in the projects I was working on immediately after watching this.
Raiders of the Lost Ark by John Williams (1981). I love the main theme and the way it contributes to a sense of adventure. To me, this work really set the stage for many other drama/adventure scores.
Magnificent Seven by Elmer Bernstein (1960). To me this score really set a new standard in western movies. Everything about it feels Americana and Wild West. Allusions to Copland throughout makes it a masterpiece for the ages.
Star Wars by John Williams (1977). There is probably not a more iconic film score for my generation. The Darth theme, the main theme, the love theme; so much power, beauty and menace. John Williams may be the greatest American composer since Aaron Copland, imho.
Gone with the Wind, Max Steiner, 1939. Steiner wrote sound tracks for many motion pictures of his day. We should pay tribute and recognize the work of those talented composers and musicians before the days of computer assisted production. The marriage of melody and drama in GWTW is inseparable.
The Firm, Dave Grusin, 1993. Though there are some traditional songs in the movie, the drama is carried and underscored by solo piano. The effect is mesmerizing and demonstrates the power of the modern piano well played and well recorded.
Superman, John Williams, 2002. No list of movies with impressive sound tracks could possibly omit the work of the great John Williams. His use of the symphonic orchestra using Wagnerian principles is unsurpassed. Superman is just one of many great scores. The soaring theme personifies the fantasy of the story perfectly.
LOST, Michael Giacchino – An exercise in beautiful simplicity. My favorite TV show ever, in no small part because of the music (hence my email address).
Princess Mononoke (The Symphonic Suite version), Joe Hisaishi – Sweeping melodies in the strings, which I’m a sucker for, and lush chords.
The Parent Trap (1998 version) – A fun, whimsical score by Alan Silvestri. Also includes a guilty pleasure set of oldie feel-good songs.
The Terminal: It’s John Williams! But in a completely different way. The solo clarinet is fantastic! The fact that the clarinetist, Emily Bernstein, had Stage Four cancer at the time and would pass away shortly after its release makes it all the more powerful.
The Great Escape: Elmer Bernstein wrote so many memorable movie themes (think The Magnificent Seven), but this movie, based on a real life story, is one of my favorites of all time. I love the cheerful theme that sticks with you and returns throughout the movie bringing a sense of hope.
Anything that’s Hans Zimmer: I say this not only because I love his music but because my oldest son, who has recorded the trumpet tracks for several of my Shawnee pieces, just got finished touring with his live show. I’m a proud dad!
The Firm because of Dave Grusin and all piano.
ET because of John Williams and flying bicycles.
Yentl because of Michel Legrand and Barbra Streisand.
I love “A Beautiful Mind.” The late James Horner (“Titanic”) was a prolific and amazingly talented writer who loved writing lush, sweeping scores that helped carry the theme of the movie.
Any music written or arranged by Hans Zimmer is a favorite. (“Pearl Harbor, “Pirates of the Caribbean”, “Dunkirk”.) He is adept at superbly writing for powerful brass, as well as for writing for a soaring string section.
Of course, the great John Williams is an all-time favorite. Favorite tracks include “Superman,” “Schindler’s List” and “Star Wars”. His ability to write in such a broad range of styles makes him the master! (Once, our daughter Emily Drennan was fortunate to meet with John Williams to discuss a possible workshop for an off-Broadway show. She mentioned he seemed very knowledgeable, as well as nice, and after returning home and Googling him, she realized who he really was!)
Hook by John Williams. The emotional depth of this score is what makes this so special for me. The plethora of gorgeous themes that are fully realized in just one movie
Angela’s Ashes by John Williams. I love heartbreakingly sad music. Everyone loves John Williams for his amazing blockbuster scores (insert really long list here), but his ability to communicate on a smaller, intimate setting is what gets me here.
Signs by James Newton Howard. His musical portrayal of water throughout the film is very effective. It’s subtle and unnerving at first, but the music gives sight to what is often not seen (the aliens) throughout the story. Signs is also, in my opinion, one of the best non-Christian Christian films.
The Natural. Randy Newman perfectly captured the combination of mysticism and Americana needed for that script. Plus, the horn motif for the home run never fails to induce chills.
Glory. James Horner and the Harlem Boys Choir, what can I say?
Victor/Victoria. Great songs and a great score by one of the most under-rated Hollywood composers ever – Henry Mancini. Mancini would be in the the Hollywood Hall of fame for even one of his famous themes. And he wrote at least a dozen that are instantly recognizable. The Pink Panther, Moon River, Charade, Peter Gunn, The Days of Wine and Roses, baby Elephant Walk…
E.T. – Very early in my writing career, I listened to the E.T. sound track over and over. I figured that movie scores were as adventurous as the general public were ready for.
What’s Up Doc – Not a movie score, but I still love the Warner Brother cartoon music (Bugs Bunny, etc.) I talked to NC Symphony members after a WB cartoon concert and they said it was some of the hardest music they had played.
O Brother, Where Art Thou – This has made such a huge impact of our musical culture. It opened many ears to the power and the heritage of folk music. For composers of sacred music, “Down to the River to Pray” has been a gift that keeps on giving.
SOMEWHERE IN TIME – The main theme is such a romantic, sweeping melody, and the use of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” in the soundtrack is beautiful. Add to that the setting of the movie (Mackinac Island, MI) and it’s the perfect combination.
IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD – So, “sweeping” and “epic” music, it is not, but.. it’s another case where the music perfectly matches up with the comedy and silliness of the movie. And it’s one of my all time favorites, since childhood… and I can recite almost every single line from memory, much to my family’s “delight!”
THE GODFATHER – A haunting opening theme with music that just embodies the period and overall vibe of the film.
LONESOME DOVE: This is my favorite movie, and the score, written by Basil Poledouris, captures the drama, adventure, and romance of the American west perfectly.