CLEVELAND, Ohio — Early on in “Tenet,” it becomes abundantly clear something epic is going on. And yet, even if you don’t understand a thing about Christopher Nolan’s complex film, its score does a lot of the heavy lifting for you.
Composer Ludwig Göransson’s music surges through your body with its industrial tones and pulsating electronica. It’s powerful stuff that’s become synonymous with Nolan’s films.
Nolan is one of those directors who knows, since the golden era of cinema to modern-day, music can mean almost everything to a film. That’s why he has three movies on our list of the 40 greatest film scores of all time.
This list will be divisive. Everyone has their own favorite film score, which is usually linked to their childhood. I apologize in advance to anyone who played the theme to “Back to the Future” on repeat throughout 1985. It didn’t make the cut.
These are also scores, not soundtracks. So you won’t see “A Whole New World” or any songs from Celine Dion or Bryan Adams. We also focused on entire scores and not just one great theme. These are compositions that serve as both an essential part of the film and function as amazing stand-a-lone pieces.
Gone With the Wind (1939), Max Steiner
There are several watershed moments from the first half of the 20th century when it comes to film scores, from “King Kong” in 1933 to “The Adventures of Robin Hood” in 1938. But the first truly great movie score that still holds up today as something special belongs to “Gone With the Wind.” The film hasn’t had the best year in 2020 with controversy arising over its stereotypical depiction of African Americans (and rightfully so). Yet, there’s no erasing the fact that “Gone With the Wind” stands as one of the most important films in history due to several aspects, including Max Steiner’s stirring score built around the ionic “Main Title” and its two mesmerizing love themes.
The Third Man (1949), Anton Karas
Talk about groundbreaking. While all other major Hollywood films went the over-the-top orchestral route, “The Third Man” became one of the first film scores to move into popular music territory. Composer Anton Karas played the entire thing on the zither. His “The Third Man Theme” was such a hit that it went to No. 1 on the international music charts, making Karas one of the biggest stars not just in terms of film composing, but in all of music.
Vertigo (1958), Bernard Herrmann
A masterful exercise in setting the mood. What’s most impressive about Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Vertigo” is just how much he understood what Alfred Hitchcock was going for. The musical cues are astonishing, as Herrmann creates an atmosphere of obsession that’s inescapable. The final third of standout “Prelude and Rooftop” is almost dizzying. Herrmann manages to maintain that unsettling feeling throughout the film.
Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958), Miles Davis
You likely know “Ascenseur pour l’échafaud” as one of Miles Davis’ final albums. The French film (known as Elevator to the Gallows in the U.S.) wasn’t exactly a blockbuster. But Davis’ soundtrack could not exist without the movie. Davis and his band stunningly improvised the entire modal and cool jazz sounds in the studio while sequences of the film played on a loop.
The Magnificent Seven (1960), Elmer Bernstein
If you want to explain the joy of westerns to someone, play them Elmer Bernstein’s main theme from “The Magnificent Seven.” It’s the ultimate set up for a movie about cowboys and gunfighters, settling their moral disputes and capturing the hearts of damsels in distress. Bernstein’s work is sweeping. But it’s also essential to the film’s greatest moments, whether two characters are coming face to face for the first time or a shootout is about to begin.
Psycho (1960), Bernard Herrmann
If Bernard Herrmann laid the musical blueprint for thrillers on “Vertigo,” he took things to an unprecedented level on “Psycho.” The string sounds alone on the “Prelude” are enough to make you look over your shoulder. Hitchcock wanted a full jazz orchestra. But Herrmann decided to limit it to strings in order to build the tension that drives the film. He did such an astonishing job, some accused Herrmann of using electronics during “The Murder.” But the sound (one of the most amazing in film history) was captured by working a violin-like it had never been worked before.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Maurice Jarre
If you were to pick a collection of music that best represents what a film score should sound like, it’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” Maurice Jarre’s score sets the stage for a grandiose film. Jarre, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra playing his compositions, uses world music and thunderous drums to beat home the monumental nature of the film. It’s the kind of score that makes going to theater and experience like no other.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Elmer Bernstein
To understand how fitting Elmer Bernstein’s score is for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” you have to go back to the original novel written by Harper Lee. It is told through the eyes of a 6-year-old. Thus, Bernstein’s soundtrack comes to represent the innocence of a child and does so in stunning fashion. Though whimsical on its surface, Bernstein’s score is monumental in its poignancy, something befitting such a classic film.
The Pink Panther (1963), Henry Mancini
You know the theme. That tenor saxophone is part of pop-culture history. Of course, the score to “The Pink Panther” is much more than just one sound. Henry Mancini’s vision for slick, cool jazz thrives with flourishes of different sounds that were fully aligned with the innovative popular music of the 1960s.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), Ennio Morricone
All you have to do is here the first 30 seconds of the theme to know what you’re dealing with. Morricone’s avant-garde style on “Th eGood, The Band and The Ugly” was so arresting (driven by his use of natural sounds that included animals), it would go on to influence future filmmakers, composers and pop stars. There’s a reason you’ve heard “The Ecstasy of Gold” in everything from a TV commercial to Quentin Tarantino films to a Jay-Z song.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), John Barry
The James Bond series has several great soundtracks and scores, many of them done by the great John Barry. But his best work comes on “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” despite the movie itself not necessarily behind considered a Bond classic. The soundtrack stands out for its groundbreaking in his use of a Moog synthesizer. Then there’s the title theme, one of the few times an instrumental was deemed great enough for a Bond opening credits sequence. On a side note, the soundtrack also features one of the final performances of Louis Armstrong – on “We Have All the Time in the World.”
Shaft (1971), Isaac Hayes
“Shaft” toes the line between film score and soundtrack, which is sort of the point. Isaac Hayes, a music star and composer, does perform on the legendary “Theme From Shaft.” But that’s well into the movie’s opening track, which ranks among one of the ultimate movie music moments of all time. The “Theme From Shaft” is undisputedly iconic. But the rest of Hayes’ score is equally effecting in its blend of funk and soul.
The Godfather (1972), Nino Rota
What the main theme of “The Godfather” does is astonishing. Not only does it establish the mood of the film, its Italian influence and an atmosphere of sophistication. In the second part of the theme, it lets you know the story is somewhat a tragedy with humble beginnings. It is one of the most evocative pieces of music not just in film history, but in music altogether. But Nino Rota’s score is far from just one song. The movie’s love theme is just as vital as a coming of age piece for Michael Corleone. Of course, all of this culminates in three final, amazing scenes featuring Rota’s music — “The New Godfather” captures the turmoil inside Michael as he takes power, “The Baptism” is full of vicious drama and the finale is as much an ending as a new beginning.
A Clockwork Orange (1972), Wendy Carlos
Watching “A Clockwork Orange,” it makes sense that the soundtrack features classical music twisted into something off-kilter, dark and modern. Enter Wendy Carlos, a pioneer of electronic music who helped popularize the Moog synthesizer. Carlos, who also went on to do the film score for “Tron,” brings her style to “A Clockwork Orange’s” classical tunes, making them both majestic and alarming. Her work would serve as a precursor to synth-pop.
Chinatown (1974), Jerry Goldsmith
As if you needed another reason to be impressed by Jerry Goldsmith’s jazz score for “Chinatown,” the ultimate neo-noir, consider Goldsmith had to compose it in just 10 days after the original score from Phillip Lambro was rejected. The result is Goldsmith’s most iconic work. The soundtrack to “Chinatown” runs barely more than a half-hour, but it sets the vivid, sensual and haunting mood necessary to paint the ultimate picture of a corrupt Los Angeles during the first half of the 20th century.
Death Wish (1974), Herbie Hancock
Impressed by the sounds of Herbie Hancock’s recent album “Head Hunters,” director Michael Winner handed over the keys to his “Death Wish” soundtrack to the jazz legend. Seems like an odd mix for a vigilante revenge film. But Hancock makes it work by centering the score on a jazz fusion sound that isn’t without its funk influence (check out the guitar sound on “Joanna’s Theme”). And when things need to dark, they get dark. The soundtrack for “Death Wish” is compelling mood music through and through.
Jaws (1975), John Williams
Two notes. That’s all it took for John Williams to compose one of the suspenseful sounds in film history. The main theme from “Jaws” is the ultimate mood setter. But Williams carries that style throughout an amazing score, ramping things up when the shark approaches and adding strings to embrace the captivating nature of the chase. Williams’ work not only changed the role of music in films moving forward. It also showed how crucial music could be in setting up a blockbuster motion picture.
Rocky (1976), Bill Conti
Long before “Eye of the Tiger” (which didn’t come around until “Rocky III”), the music of the Rocky franchise had cemented its place in film history. Fittingly, Bill Conti’s compositions are an underdog story. Conti’s previous score for director John G. Avildsen’s film “W.W. and The Dixie Dancekings” was rejected. Thus, he wasn’t the first choice for the music to “Rocky.” And yet, Conti delivered the goods on a small budget when Avildsen gave him another chance. Conti’s main theme managed to top the Billboard Hot 100, while the standout “Going The Distance” feels like something ripped out of an epic historical drama.
Taxi Driver (1976), Bernard Herrmann
Bernard Herrmann’s final score before his death is one of his finest. “Taxi Driver” is one of those unique films where the soundtrack is attached to a single character. Herrmann’s objective was to create a dark, sleazy sound to go along with Robert De Niro’s Travis has he drove through and became disgusted by the streets of New York. Every sound builds upon Travis’ disenchantment, leading to a shocking conclusion.
Suspiria (1977), Dario Argento & Goblin
Not the most well-known film to mainstream audiences. But to horror fans, “Suspiria” is a true classic. Stylistically, it is masterful. And much of that has to do with the score created by director Dario Argento and progressive rock band Goblin. The soundtrack’s ominous vibe is bone-chilling while functioning as a standalone body of work that ranks among the most captivating prog-rock albums of the 1970s, which is saying something.
Halloween (1978), John Carpenter
From one of the most stunning horror film soundtracks to the absolute best. Interestingly enough, John Carpenter drew inspiration for the score to “Halloween” from “Suspiria” and “The Exorcist.” But the “Halloween Theme,” along with the rest of the music, has become just as iconic as anything else in the pioneering slasher film. Who needs an entire orchestra when you have a simple piano melody?
The Empire Strikes Back (1980), John Williams
What makes the score for “The Empire Strikes” back better than that of “Star Wars?” Why, “The Imperial March” of course. Consider “The Empire Strikes” back as the iconic “Star Wars” main theme, and then so much more. “The Imperial March” went on to become, perhaps, even more iconic than the main theme. Add that to Boba Fett’s own sinister departure music, Han and Leia’s amazing love theme and a doom-filled “The Battle in the Snow” and you have John Williams’ masterpiece.
Blade Runner (1982), Vangelis
In 1981, Vangelis composed the Oscar-winning score for “Chariots of Fire,” a surprisingly electronic-driven collection that merged perfectly with a historical drama. He would be taking on an entirely different beast with “Blade Runner” a year later. Ridley Scott’s film was, to say the least, complex, drawing on elements of film-noir and futuristic science fiction. But Vangelis was just the guy to pull it off, creating a soundtrack rooted in classical music, but pulsating with electronic and ambient melodies. “Blade Runner’s” new age vibe would prove highly influential, affecting modern films like “Brick,” “Drive” and “Blade Runner 2049,” which itself has an amazing soundtrack.
Once Upon a Time In America (1984), Ennio Morricone
The soundtrack to “Once Upon a Time In America” serves as one of Ennio Morricone’s most beautiful works, as well as one of his most evocative. As a whole, the score is focused on nostalgia. But with that comes a sense of regret and, at times, terror, often all in one song. Morricone’s collaboration with Gheorghe Zamfir, who plays pan flute, would be copied in various films in the proceeding decades.
Cinema Paradiso (1988), Ennio Morricone
The score for “Cinema Paradiso” was a different kind of project for Morricone. While many of his iconic film scores were meant for westerns and mob movies, “Cinema Paradiso” was all about joy, love and passion for cinema. To capture that beauty, Morricone collaborated with his son Andrea. The result is a soundtrack that feels as timely as ever in expressing how essential movies are to culture and happiness.
Edward Scissorhands (1990), Danny Elfman
You may have been expecting to see Danny Elfman’s score for 1989′s “Batman” on this list. And who can blame you? Elfman’s theme for Tim Burton’s film shifted the overly bright style of superhero music “Superman” made popular to something much darker. But the truth is, Elfman outdid himself a year later with “Edward Scissorhands,” another Burton collaboration. On paper, it would seem impossible to craft something that combines such beauty with timid darkness. Yet, Elfman does just that. Everything comes with a whimsical sense of heartbreak that impossible to escape. And yet, Elfman centers the soundtrack on “Ice Dance,” one of the most beautiful pieces of film music of the last 50 years.
Legends of the Fall (1994), James Horner
We couldn’t go through this entire list without choosing a score from one of the over-the-top historical dramas of the 1990s. Braveheart, Dances With Wolves, Robinhood Prince of Thieves, Titanic? Take your pick. For us, it’s “Legends of the Fall.” The reason the film’s score works so well is that James Horner leans into the sweeping nature of it all. As a film, “Legends of the Fall’s” beauty speaks for itself. The same can be said for Horner’s majestic score.
Requiem For a Dream (2000), Clint Mansell
As you’ll notice, we only have a few film scores from the 1990s, as the decade became about original songs. Even a great score like the one for “Titanic” has a hard time stepping out of the shadow of Celine Dion’s corresponding song. But the 21st century saw the emergence of a different generation of filmmakers and composers, starting with Darron Aronofsky’s and the absolutely crushing soundtrack Clint Mansell made for “Requiem for a Dream.” At times, Mansell’s electronic-driven score feels like too much. The sounds explode, matching the powerful emotions and often uncomfortable moments in the film. But that neo-classical style would prove very influential. Odds are you heard the track “Lux Aeterna” somewhere else for the first time. But it existed with “Requiem,” in all its gut-wrenching magnificence, first.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-03), Howard Shore
Some people will simply chalk up “The Lord of the Rings” to nerd culture (Though, odds are those same people have seen the films from the original trilogy multiple times). Yet, there’s no denying what composer Howard Shore accomplished. His work covers 558 theatrical minutes (686 if you’re going with the extended cuts). Within that is a wide array of sounds, from the happiness of the shire to the second film’s stunning battle to the arrival of Gollum. Those visuals and more get brilliant musical accompaniment by Shore.
The Fountain (2006), Clint Mansell
Whereas Mansell’s soundtrack for “Requiem for a Dream” serves as a collection of jarring compositions, “The Fountain” feels like one lengthy overture in its cohesiveness. And the emotion it evokes is astounding. Darren Aronofsky’s film is quite insane. It’s a love story that travels across space and time and features a bald Hugh Jackman floating around in a bubble. Yet, somehow Mansell’s soundtrack suits it perfectly. There’s never a moment where you don’t feel the power of love.
There Will Be Blood (2007), Jonny Greenwood
Of all Jonny Greenwood’s fantastic soundtracks (See also: “Phantom Thread” and “You Were Never Really Here”), “There Will Be Blood” is the best, probably because it’s also the most difficult. The movie itself begins almost like a silent film. Throughout much of it, Greenwood’s score and Daniel-Day Lewi’s acting are asked to carry the show. And carry it they do. Greenwood’s contemporary orchestral score carries a weight to it that is unlike any of his work with Radiohead.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is not for everyone. It’s a long, slow-moving film. But to say that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ soundtrack matches it perfectly is no insult. This is an amazing body of work that paints this mythical aura around Jesse James while expressing the tortured soul within the coward Robert Ford. The contrast between the two standout themes, one for James and one for Ford, tells one heck of a story within itself.
The Dark Knight (2008) Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard
It’s almost impossible to make a list about movies of the 2000s and not include “The Dark Knight.” And that goes for Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s score as well. Some will point to the marriage between Christopher Nolan and Zimmer on “Dunkirk” and the latter’s most impressive work. But “The Dark Knight” is far more dynamic. The music had to be grounded. “The Dark Knight” doesn’t call for huge orchestral sounds. It’s a gritty crime thriller. And right from the start, as the film zooms in on that building window and we’re introduced to the Joker, you feel its power and urgency.
The Social Network (2010) Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
As far as musical moments in movies of the 2010s goes, it’s hard to beat Mark Zuckerberg walking across the Harvard campus to his dorm room as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ piano melody plays, backed by a touch of sinister strings. And there you have the dark ambiance of “The Social Network.” The industrial rock sounds of Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails are present. But here, along with Ross, he gives them a human quality befitting a film about the success one can achieve when they’re willing to do anything to anyone.
Inception (2010), Hans Zimmer
The score for “Inception” is mind-blowing for two reasons. First, friggin’ cool, matching the captivating nature of Christopher Nolan’s scenes from the film. Second, it takes on the theme of playing with time that “Inception” is built around. The score hijacks and slows down the notes from Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne Regrette Rien,” the song the characters play to snap themselves out of a dream. Um…what? Who does that? Hans Simmer when you’re trying to match Christopher Nolan, jaw-dropping blow for jaw-dropping blow.
Drive (2011), Cliff Martinez
Perhaps no modern film soundtrack feels more influenced by Vangelis’ “Blade Runner” than Cliff Martinez’s “Drive.” Much like “Blade Runner,” director Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” puts one foot in the realm of film noir and the other into the futuristic. That makes Martinez’s score – with its hipster-friendly, awesome synth-wave vibes – essential to the story.
Under The Skin (2014), Mica Levi
You may have walked out of “Under The Skin” thinking, “WTF.” Mission accomplished for director Jonathan Glazer, whose film seeks to focus on an alien’s perspective of the human world. But what stays with you most is Mica Levi’s soundtrack. Levi’s haunting soundscapes are built around feelings. His score expresses what it’s like for the film’s protagonist (Scarlett Johansson) to go through human experiences such as birth, love, taste and death. So, if you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to burn alive, this is the amazing film score for you.
Interstellar (2014), Hans Zimmer
Zimmer became a go-to film composer in the 1990s and early 2000s, winning award after award for movies like “The Lion King,” “The Thin Red Line” and “Gladiator.” But Zimmer’s best work has come in recent years. And at the top of that list is “Interstellar,” the most emotionally rich soundtrack Zimmer has ever composed. As the story goes, he was given just a single page from director Christopher Nolan with the story of a father leaving his child for work. That’s what “Interstellar’s” score is built around and why it’s so effective.
Sicario (2015), Jóhann Jóhannsson
One of the great film composers of his generation was taken from us at the far too young age of 48. Influenced by some of the great electronic composers of all time, Jóhann Gunnar Jóhannsson put together the amazing scores for films like “The Theory of Everything,” “Prisoners” and “Arrival.” But his finest work comes with “Sicario,” where Johannson’s music serves as the ultimate mood-setter. Try listening to “The Beast” and not feeling like you’re trapped in a horror film. “Sicario” is an action-thriller of the highest order whose intensity is only matched by its score.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Nicholas Britell
The final film score on this list is also the one most likely to have you balling your eyes out. James Baldwin’s novel “If Beale Street Could Talk” is one of the ultimate stories of the black experience, which is (sadly) as relevant today as it was when it was released in 1974. The film finds two young lovers at the intersection of happiness and tragedy. Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation captures this amazingly in no small part due to the music of Nicholas Britell. The film’s score strikes a balance between the purity of true love and a racist society trying to crush it. Listening to a track like “Agape,” you find yourself overcome by its beauty and optimism, only to realize such things are fragile.
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