What makes a great music score? Does it need to dominate the soundtrack or can go unnoticed in the background? Should a contemporary movie always use modern music or is it blasphemy for a period piece to include pop songs? Whether you have answers to these questions or not, there’s no denying the power of music in how we experience movies. These are the best movie scores of all time — some you will spot a mile away, others will raise some eyebrows, but all will get you thinking about what music you’ll use in your next project.
MOVIE SCORE DEFINITION
What is a movie score?
A movie score is a piece of original music made to accompany the visuals of a film. Also known as a film score, it is different from the movie soundtrack, which uses pre-existing songs, often with vocals. Typically, movie scores don’t use vocals.
Criteria for the best movie scores:
- Cohesion — How well does the score work with the images and tone of the movie it was made for?
- Standalone value — Do you like this score regardless of the movie it came from?
- Impact and inspiration — How has this affected other scores? Has it become part of pop culture?
Unknown Movie Scores
1. You Were Never Really Here (2017)
Normally on hold for Paul Thomas Anderson or a Radiohead tour, this marks Jonny Greenwood’s second collaboration with director Lynne Ramsay and third with actor Joaquin Phoenix.
Swaying more heavily toward synth and ambient, the score bounces back and forth between a Radiohead vibe, and some of the more aggressive tones we’ve heard in things like The Master, There Will Be Blood, or Phantom Thread.
The score doesn’t have the notoriety or acclaim, but just because something is a bit of a secret doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. This score, much like this film, has gone underappreciated.
Greatest Film Scores of All Time
2. Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock's go-to composer, Bernard Herrmann could have his own section on this list. His credits include Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo, Citizen Kane, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Taxi Driver, and so many more.
The Psycho score is largely string-based, and the frantic scratching of the strings makes it one of the most iconic film scores.
As you listen to the entire theme, you’ll notice numerous sequences and have been ingrained into mainstream film score ever since.
Best New Film Scores
3. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
It might be considered blasphemy to put Blade Runner 2049’s score here instead of the original Blade Runner score by Vangelis, so I’ll play that one too. Two different interpretations of the same world with familiar but wholly unique soundscapes.
On a blind test, I prefer the 2049 score. Call me crazy. Zimmer and Wallfisch had their work cut out to live up to and differentiate from the original, and they succeeded. But it wasn’t without a bump or two along the way. Jóhann Jóhannsson (Denis Villeneuve's go-to composer who made the awesome Sicario score) was the original composer on the film.
Late in production, Villeneuve felt the score needed to be closer to the original Vangelis soundtrack. Jóhannsson was pulled from the project and Zimmer and Wallfish joined at the very last minute (July 2017 for an October 2017 release date). What we hear now was likely influenced by all three composers.
Greatest Movie Scores of All Time
4. Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
The most iconic film franchises tend to have similarly iconic film scores, and there is no franchise more well-known than Star Wars.
This prompts a chicken vs egg question — would we know these themes if the movies weren’t as good? Is there an exposure effect where the more we hear these themes the more we like them?
Either way, there’s no denying John Williams brought the A-game on this Oscar-winning score. From Tatooine to the Death Star to the Cantina, the music from Star Wars is powerful, evocative and one of the best film scores of all time.
Great Movie Scores
5. Halloween (1978)
Creeping into nightmares from decade-to-decade, generation-to-generation is John Carpenter’s eerie piano. It’s so basic, so instinctual, it feels like it could be happening to you.
Interestingly, the composer of the score is John Carpenter, the writer and director of Halloween. In total, Carpenter was paid only $10,000 to write, direct, and score the film. The film went on to gross $70 million.
Iconic Film Scores
6. Dr. No (1962)
Another score almost everyone will recognize, the Bond theme is catchy, energizing, and instantly triggers memories. Since its introduction in Dr. No, the theme has been altered and adjusted with various instruments in subsequent Bond films.
The authorship of the song is a bit of a hot topic. Both Monty Norman and John Barry vie for the credit. There have been multiple lawsuits over the matter, both of which Norman has come away victorious. Norman claims the theme was inspired by his song Good Sign, Bad Sign.
Not sure I hear it there, and John Barry was the composer on Dr. No as well as 11 other Bond films. Seems like he got the short end of the stick. But then there’s Henry Mancini who wrote this song in 1960.
I definitely heard some Bond there, and Mancini went on to write the score for The Pink Panther and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Basically, who knows who wrote the original Bond, but it’s a great score and Monty Norman has gotten paid a lot of money for it.
Best Musical Scores
7. Her (2013)
Two scores for the price of one here, which admittedly, is kind of cheating, but I couldn’t resist. The pleasant, simpleness of the piano perfectly suits the gentle melancholy of Her.
Composed by members of the band Arcade Fire, it's a bit of a surprising contribution. Arcade Fire’s music tends to be a bit more melodic and catchy. Her is the only film Arcade Fire has scored to date, even though their songs have been used in a few soundtracks, including the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are (2009), also directed by Spike Jonze.
Best Musical scores
8. Moonlight (2016)
The Moonlight vs. La La Land saga continues, and while Moonlight took home Best Picture Oscar gold, it was La La Land that grabbed the Academy Award for Best Original Score.
As a silver lining, while composer Nicholas Britel didn’t win for Moonlight, he was nominated again for this If Beale Street Could Talk score and won an Emmy for his opening titles score in Succession.
That’s not to diminish the beautiful sharp violin in this track. Director Barry Jenkins asked for a score that could split the difference between classical and codeine. What results is an aesthetic of orchestral music that’s been “chopped and screwed.”
Famous Movie Scores
9. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
This song has been used in so many sports highlight videos it’s easy to forget where it came from. That place is from conductor Clint Mansell, the composer on nearly all of Darren Aronofsky’s films (The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan, Noah).
The track is undeniably epic and has outstanding build-up. Both Sunshine and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers used the track in their trailers. Here, the song accompanies epic battles, whereas, in Requiem for A Dream, it helps illustrate a graphic downfall.
Best Musical Scores
10. Phantom Thread (2017)
This romantic score might paint a glamorous impression of the often cold, dramatic Phantom Thread, but it’s perfect montage music.
Jonny Greenwood’s (lead guitarist and keyboardist of Radiohead) second score on the list, he has been making amazing scores in the 2010s. Greenwood scored There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice, and Phantom Thread.
In a trend you’ll see a few times on this list, Anderson repaid the favor by directing a couple Radiohead music videos and a short film.
Great Movie Scores
11. Inception (2010)
It’s rare a film composer can successfully pull off a world tour, but it’s even more rare to find someone as talented as Hans Zimmer, perhaps the most sought after composer in Hollywood.
I’ll say numerous variations of this statement throughout the article, but you can’t make a “best movie scores of all time” list without Hans Zimmer. With so many scores to choose from, Inception’s score thrives off its simplicity, build up, and spectacle. A few chords serve as the basis for the entire track.
Other great songs from Zimmer’s work on Inception include Dream is Collapsing, and his manipulation of the great Edith Piaf’s Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.
The go-to composer for Chris Nolan, Zimmer scored Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, Dunkirk, and also The Lion King, Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean and countless other blockbuster titles. He even has an asteroid named after him.
Best Movie Scores of All Time
13. Shaft (1971)
The Oscar winner for Best Original Score in 1972, this could ignite a score vs soundtrack/song debate. There are lyrics here, but sparse ones, and since it’s the theme of the movie, I think it counts. It did win the Oscar after all.
The first song with a curse word (if you count “damn” as a curse) to reach #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 list, the theme is considered as one of the first-ever disco songs. The song had widespread popularity in nightclubs and has been reused and parodied over and over again in everything from Sesame Street to Beavis and Butthead.
Fun fact, apparently Isaac Hayes only agreed to score Shaft after being allowed to audition for the lead role. Hayes had no acting experience, never auditioned, but still scored the film.
Greatest Film Scores of All Time
14. Jaws (1975)
Most people think of the Jaws theme as two notes, so it might be surprising to see a 3-minute video. The intermittent static sounds, the tuba, and the pounding provide a horrifying build-up for about 50 seconds, and then the score turns.
It becomes adventurous, action-filled, and much less horrific. The final build-up is louder than the first, but not nearly as triggering.
But what lives on is the two notes, E and F, alternating in increasing speed. John Williams, who won an Oscar for this, said the score is “grinding away at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable.” I couldn't agree more.
Best Movie Scores
15. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
A truly heart-pounding, head-throbbing score belonging to the only movie that deserves it. This track starts with a huge bang and holds from start to finish. My favorite part comes in the second half when the score softens, allowing for an epic violin build up.
Composer Tom Holkenborg workshopped the score for an entire year after seeing 3 hours of film from the movie. The deluxe edition of the Mad Max: Fury Road tracklisting includes over 2 hours of original music, longer than the film itself.
Classic Film Scores
16. Once Upon A Time in the West
Sweeping, sorrowful, familiar, many words describe this beautiful score by one of the greatest composers ever. Ennio Morricone, who died in July 2020, composed over 400 scores in his lifetime, perhaps none greater than his work here. Just listen to this harmonica theme.
Despite incredible scores for films like Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and Cinema Paradiso, it took until 2016 for Morricone to win an Oscar on Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.
Tarantino, a long time fan of the Spaghetti Western, got to repay the favor and help get Morricone his long-awaited Oscar gold. Now, whether that track is more deserving than any of the aforementioned, who's to say, but at least he got it.
Best Synth Movie Scores
17. Only God Forgives (2013)
I mean even the fonts… come on! But we are here to talk about scores, so sit back and enjoy, cause this is a good one. It’s synthy, dark, and gets you ready for action.
Best Film Scores of all Time
18. La La Land (2016)
The Oscar winner for Best Original Score in 2017 (an amazing year for scores), La La Land is built around music. When the soundtrack was released, it reached #2 on the US Billboard 200 list, and #1 in the UK.
It’s hard to pick one specific song from the tracklist, so instead, I chose the Epilogue, composed of a mixture of nearly every musical number. Running for nearly 8 minutes, there’s highs, lows, swells, crescendos, and nearly every musical instrument you could think of.
Best Synth Score
19. Under the Skin (2014)
Synth scores can be quite cheesy… but as we’ve seen a few times already, when done right, there’s nothing like it. Waves of nostalgia have fueled a synth renaissance in recent years, but this one is as original as ever.
Mica Levi’s first-ever film score, director Jonathan Glazer wanted a new composer to enhance the alien nature of the script. It’s unrelenting, a bit eerie, and fits the strange movie perfectly.
Best Film Scores of All Time
20. The Dark Knight (2008)
Zimmer strikes again, this time along with an assist from James Newton Howard (Pretty Woman, The Fugitive, King Kong, The Hunger Games). There are so many amazing cues on The Dark Knight tracklist, from Why So Serious? to A Dark Knight I could’ve featured any of them.
The creativity here is out of control, Zimmer used razor blades on the string instruments for the Why So Serious? to represent chaos and anarchy. Bits and pieces of this score appear in all 3 of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. The intense, pounding, but also accessible scores play a large part in establishing the darker, grittier superhero franchise.
Best Movie Scores of All Time
21. Vertigo (1958)
Written by Hitchcock's go-to composer Bernard Herrmann, this score was composed and recorded by Muir Mathieson due to an American musician strike. With swirling notes and quiet, tip-toe like harps the score is full of mystery and intrigue. Herrmann says the track was inspired largely by Richard Wagner's “Tristan und Isolde.”
No matter where he draws his inspiration, Herrmann is one of the best film composers of all time. We documented his list of iconic scores earlier, and this marks his second installment on this list. Shockingly, his only Oscar win came in 1941, his first year scoring films, for The Devil and Daniel Webster.
Iconic Film Scores
22. Rocky (1976)
Is there any score more iconic than the Rocky theme? Perhaps the most well-known song on this list, Gonna Fly Now has been hummed and recreated time and time again since it fueled the original Rocky training montage in 1976.
Gonna Fly Now was used as the primary training scene in Rocky & Rocky II until the equally iconic Eye of the Tiger was written for Rocky 3.
Both Gonna Fly Now and Eye of the Tiger reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, Eye of the Tiger held that spot for 6 weeks.
Best Movie Scores of All Time
23. The Godfather (1972)
The best score of all time accompanies what many view as the best movie of all time, hardly a coincidence. It’s somber, poetic, catchy, and instantly recognizable. I can hear Marlon Brando’s raspy voice now.
The track was nominated for Best Original Score but got disqualified because the Rota had previously used a different version of the song.
Ironically, he then won in 1974 for The Godfather II even though it used the same piece. The Oscars, am I right? (eye roll).
In 1972, Andy Williams released a version of the song with lyrics, but it doesn’t hold the same effect.
It’s too positive and romantic, so if you want to hear it one more time… here’s Guns N’ Roses guitar player Slash playing it.
Best songs used in a movie, ranked
Now that we've covered the best movies of all time, let's switch it up a bit and look at the best songs used in a movie. Otherwise known as "needle drops," we'll look at the most iconic moments where the right song is married to the right scene.