Best Movie Scores of All Time, Ranked for Filmmakers - Featured

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)

Listen to Tree Synthesizers

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 Bloodor 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.

80%
Cohesion
95%
 value
70%
impact
82%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Experimental Sounds
  • Great Build Up
  • Hallucinogenic
  • Underground
  • N/A
  • N/A

You Were Never Really Here

Conclusion

Ranking high in listenability, lower on recognizability, this song makes the list the hard way.

Greatest Film Scores of All Time

2. Psycho (1960)

Listen to the Psycho Score

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 Driverand 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.

Psycho  •  Shower Scene

As you listen to the entire theme, you’ll notice numerous sequences and have been ingrained into mainstream film score ever since. 

100%
cohesion
95%
value
100%
impact
98%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Love the Strings
  • Sample-Ability
  • Highly Disturbing
  • Competes With Vertigo
  • Sporadic
  • N/A

Greatest Movie Scores of all Time - Psycho

Conclusion

Herrmann is an icon, and perhaps no score more iconic than this one. It’s the OG suspense score.

Best New Film Scores

3. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Listen to the Blade Runner 2049 Score

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.

Listen to the Blade Runner (1982) 

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.

100%
cohesion
90%
value
75%
impact
88%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Sprawling
  • Atmospheric
  • Meditative
  • Compared to Original
  • Lots of Composers
  • N/A

Best New Film Scores - Blade Runner 2049

Conclusion

Despite a tumultuous creation and heavy expectation, this score delivers in a big way. It perfectly fits the awesome visuals. I can listen to this score for days.

Greatest Movie Scores of All Time

4. Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

Listen to the Star Wars Theme

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.

100%
COHESION
75%
value
100%
impact
93%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Implies Spectacle
  • Holds Attention
  • Great Transitions
  • Lacks Intensity
  • Too Nostalgic
  • N/A

Greatest Movie Scores of all Time - Star Wars

Conclusion

We’ve all heard it a thousand times, and, yet, it still delivers. Certain scores just feel larger than life. This is one of them.

Great Movie Scores

5. Halloween (1978)

Listen to the Halloween Theme

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.

100%
COHESION
95%
value
100%
impact
98%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Nightmare Factor
  • Simple Piano
  • Nazi Zombie Influence
  • Victim of Sequels
  • Easily Parodied
  • N/A

Great Movie Scores - Halloween

Conclusion

Three notes that will haunt your nightmares, this score is not for the faint-hearted, but it’s definitely effective. I wanna check underneath my bed already. 

Iconic Film Scores

6. Dr. No (1962)

Listen to Original James Bond Theme

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.

Listen to 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.

Henry Mancini, Bond Inspiration?

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.

100%
COHESION
80%
value
95%
impact
90%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Simple
  • Stylish
  • Never Gets Old
  • Nostalgic
  • No Emotion
  • N/A

Iconic Film Scores - Bond Theme

Conclusion

Whether playing airsoft, or posing for a photo, I’ve hummed this song many times. It makes you feel like an international badass.

Best Musical Scores

7. Her (2013)

Listen to Her Score

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

90%
COHESION
95%
value
80%
impact
89%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Two Songs
  • Introspective
  • Emotive
  • N/A
  • N/A
  • N/A

Best Musical Scores - Her

Conclusion

Peaceful and pleasant on the ears, there is nothing bad to say about this score. If you're on a walk, on the computer, or drinking wine, play this score.

Best Musical scores

8. Moonlight (2016)

Listen to the Moonlight Score

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.”

95%
COHESION
95%
value
80%
impact
90%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Introspective
  • Modern Violin
  • Unique
  • Overshadowed
  • N/A
  • N/A

Best Musical Scores - Moonlight

Conclusion

Very layered and classical, much like the film it lies within, this score is Oscar-worthy.

Famous Movie Scores

9. Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Listen to Requiem for a Dream Score

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 Dreamit helps illustrate a graphic downfall.

95%
COHESION
95%
value
100%
impact
97%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Intensity
  • Hype Effect
  • Memorable
  • Gruesome Imagery
  • Sports Association
  • Overkill?

Famous Movie Scores - Requiem For a Dream

Conclusion

This song earned its oversaturation, and if you ever need to hype yourself up for anything, it makes the playlist.

Best Musical Scores

10. Phantom Thread (2017)

Listen to Phantom Thread Score

This romantic score might paint a glamorous impression of the often cold, dramatic Phantom Threadbut 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 Viceand 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.

95%
COHESION
95%
value
80%
impact
90%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Enticing Piano
  • Majestic
  • Elicits Feeling
  • Period Piecey
  • Too Rosey
  • N/A

Famous Movie Scores - Phantom Thread

Conclusion

Another track for your walk playlist, another track you wish you could play on piano. This song makes you wanna fall in love.

Great Movie Scores

11. Inception (2010)

Listen to Inception’s Score

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 BeginsThe Dark Knight, Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, Dunkirkand also The Lion King, Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean and countless other blockbuster titles. He even has an asteroid named after him.

100%
COHESION
95%
value
95%
impact
97%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Highs & Lows
  • Emotional
  • Bookends
  • Lost in Zimmers Library
  • Slowish Start
  • N/A

Great Movie Scores - Inception

Conclusion

Zimmer uses simplicity to ground the spectacle of Inception. The score is emotional, epic, and feels like a Nolan movie.

Best Synth Film Score

12. Social Network (2010)

Listen to Social Networks Score

The second Oscar winner so far, this marks one of three Oscar wins for The Social Network (Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing). The Reznor and Ross combo has churned out several synthy, intense scores in recent years, notably for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, Watchmen, and the upcoming David Fincher film Mank. Basically, if you like David Fincher movies, chances are you like Ross and Reznor.

The tandem also performs in a rock band called Nine Inch Nails. In fact, a Nine Inch Nails song was featured in an episode of Twin Peaks (2017). Reznor and director David Lynch have also worked together on numerous projects.

90%
COHESION
90%
value
90%
impact
90%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Unique Sounds
  • Tension
  • Atmospheric
  • Lacks Variety
  • Hard to Hum
  • N/A

Best Synth Film Scores - Social Network

Conclusion

The perfect song to contemplate. Maybe you’re not getting sued for billions, but if you need to get lost in thought and re-evaluate life, play this.

Best Movie Scores of All Time

13. Shaft (1971)

Listen to the Shaft Theme

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.

90%
COHESION
100%
value
100%
impact
97%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Isaac Hayes
  • Dance Factor
  • Style
  • Reboot Effect
  • Iffy Movie
  • Very '70s

Best Movie Scores of All Time - Shaft

Conclusion

The funkiest score on the list, you can put this song on your iPod without being self-conscious. It’s a perfect representation of a specific moment in cinema and music.

Greatest Film Scores of All Time

14. Jaws (1975)

Listen to Jaws Theme

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.

100%
COHESION
85%
value
100%
impact
95%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Humability
  • Iconic
  • Simple
  • Overplayed
  • Star Wars Resemblance
  • Peaks Early

Greatest Film Scores of All Time - Jaws

Conclusion

The most iconic score ever? Could be, but there is a surprising range to this one if you listen all the way through.

Best Movie Scores

15. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Listen to Mad Max: Fury Road Score

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.

100%
COHESION
95%
value
80%
impact
93%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Balls-To-Walls
  • Audio Forward Film
  • Awesome Bridge
  • Overwhelming to Some
  • No Flaming Guitar
  • N/A

Best Movie Scores - Mad Max: Fury Road

Conclusion

It’s not easy to keep up with Mad Max: Fury Road’s epic intensity, this score should not be taken lightly. Great song.

Classic Film Scores

16. Once Upon A Time in the West

Listen to Once Upon A Time in the West Theme

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.

Once Upon a Time in the West Harmonica Theme

Despite incredible scores for films like Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and Cinema Paradisoit took until 2016 for Morricone to win an Oscar on Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight

Tarantino + Morricone = Match Made in Heaven

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.

95%
COHESION
95%
value
95%
impact
95%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Emotion
  • Ultimate Classic
  • Two Great Scores
  • N/A
  • N/A
  • N/A

Classic Film Scores - Once Upon a Time in the West

Conclusion

The music in this film is amazing and hasn’t aged a bit. From the soft theme to the intense harmonic, it’s one of the best movie scores of all time.

Best Synth Movie Scores

17. Only God Forgives (2013)

Listen to the Only God Forgives Score

Wait, is that the Stranger Things score? Nope, that’s the buried Only God Forgives score that came out three years prior. If this score was used in Drive instead, it would be much more well-known. 

Stranger Things Comparison

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.

50%
COHESION
100%
value
95%
impact
81%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Catchy
  • Stranger Things
  • Hypnotic Synth
  • Repetitive
  • Lost in Bad Movie
  • N/A

Best Synth Film Scores - Only God Forgives

Conclusion

Maybe my favorite synth score, this one gets lost in a bad movie. But just cause it’s lost doesn’t mean it should be forgotten. If you like the Stranger Things score, this is better.

Best Film Scores of all Time

18. La La Land (2016)

Listen to La La Land Soundtrack

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. 

100%
COHESION
95%
value
100%
impact
99%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Fun
  • Sprawling Emotions
  • Creates Imagery
  • Divisive
  • Romanticised
  • N/A

Best Film Scores - La La Land

Conclusion

Larger than life and romantic at times, the score is majestic and touching. La La Land took home 5 Oscars, but the music makes the film. 

Best Synth Score

19. Under the Skin (2014)

Listen to Under the Skin’s Score

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.

100%
COHESION
100%
value
80%
impact
95%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Synth
  • Surrealism
  • Off Beaten Path
  • Lesser Known Film
  • Inaccessible to Some
  • Lack of Variety

Best Synth Scores - Under the Skin

Conclusion

A score that would make every science fiction movie better, this makes life feel like slow motion. Close your eyes and listen.

Best Film Scores of All Time

20. The Dark Knight (2008)

Listen to The Dark Knight Score

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.

100%
COHESION
95%
value
95%
impact
97%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Zimmer Horns
  • Instantly Recognizable
  • Numerous Great Tracks
  • Superhero Connotation
  • Middle of Trilogy
  • N/A

Best Film Scores of All Time - The Dark Knight

Conclusion

The best superhero movie of all time gets a score to match it. It’s the gold standard and will be extremely hard to surpass. 

Best Movie Scores of All Time

21. Vertigo (1958)

Listen to the Vertigo Score

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.”

Vertigo's Inspiration

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.

95%
COHESION
95%
value
95%
impact
95%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Trend Setter
  • Hitchcock Bump
  • Implied Mystery
  • Overshadowed by Psycho
  • Lost in Time
  • N/A

Best Movie Scores of All Time - Vertigo

Conclusion

This score makes me wanna look behind my shoulder, yet hunt for clues at the same time. But there’s no secret, Hitchcock and Herrmann are one of the best duos to ever do it.

Iconic Film Scores

22. Rocky (1976)

Listen to the Rocky Theme

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.

100%
COHESION
100%
value
100%
impact
100%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Widespread Popularity
  • Humability
  • Montagability
  • Overplayed
  • Often Imitated
  • N/A

Iconic Film Scores - Rocky

Conclusion

What more needs to be said? We all know it, we’ve all run stairs to it, it’s the ultimate training song. It has to be on the list.

Best Movie Scores of All Time

23. The Godfather (1972)

Listen to The Godfather Theme

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.

Comedy Version of Godfather Theme

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.

Godfather Theme with Lyrics

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.

Slash Plays The Godfather Theme

100%
COHESION
95%
value
100%
impact
100%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Best Movie Ever?
  • Violin
  • Simple
  • Overplayed
  • An Obvious Choice
  • N/A

Best Movie Scores of All Time - The Godfather

Conclusion

Choosing something to end any list is tough. When in doubt, just go with The Godfather, it’s normally the right decision.

UP NEXT

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. 

Up Next: Best needle drops →
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