Several months ago, I did a countdown of The 30 Greatest Movie Theme Songs. It was a lot of fun to create and sparked requests for a list counting down instrumental themes. So due to popular demand and my own obsession with film scores, I present my 60 favorite instrumental pieces from film!
A couple notes on guidelines, as always. These are instrumental pieces written for movies and do not have lyrics, but some light choir work is allowed! Their titles and length are determined by their track listings on official albums. These aren’t just main themes either. If I included only them, I’d be excluding a lot of great music!
Of all the lists I have written, this has the greatest room for oversight, since there is no way I could ever have a comprehensive knowledge of all film scores. If I left something out that you love, let your opinion be heard!
60. Your Hands Are Cold – Jean Yves-Thibaudet
From the 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, “Your Hands Are Cold” feels like a piece of classical music that has been around for centuries. It never overplays the romance happening on screen or bashes you on the head with overly romantic sentiment. Rather,Yves-Thibaudet’s piece beautifully underscores the relationship playing out on screen, only swelling at the right moments to squeeze your heart.
59. Stark – Brian Tyler
It took them long enough, but Marvel Studios finally gave Tony Stark a recognizable theme in Iron Man 3. Tyler’s “Stark” is a great mix between the hero theme and frenetic action scoring, making the helicopter attack set piece exciting, dangerous, and heroic. Iron Man’s theme feels much more fitting for a super hero than previous efforts, with strong brass standing out among the other instruments and announcing the hero’s presence on screen. It may be not as strong as other hero themes you’ll see on this list, but it is definitely a step in the right direction for Marvel.
58. Captain America – Alan Silvestri
This is how you score the most patriotic superhero of all time. Silvestri’s Captain America theme is the musical equivalent of the American flag blowing in the wind. The heavy emphasis on brass and soaring strings makes it feel like something from the 40’s and the rolling snare drums give it that military edge. Captain America himself is bold and powerful, so his presence on screen needs to have that strength. This theme does him justice.
57. Mark II – Ramin Djawadi
Until Iron Man 3, the Armored Avenger never really had a theme song, but if there had to be one that most defined him, it’s this. “Mark II” is not nearly as big and bombastic as other hero themes, but its mix of electric guitars and electronic blips give it a modern feel appropriate for the technology-focused hero. A great score for both making new armors in a workshop and slugging it out with an armored bad guy in the streets.
56. Over Hill – Howard Shore
A lot of The Hobbit’s score is somewhat forgettable, often with bits and pieces taken from Shore’s work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But “Over Hill” is the strongest piece so far in the new trilogy and it firmly plants itself in the new themes Shore has created. Most compellingly, it takes large pieces of its melody from the dwarves’ “Misty Mountains” song. It gives the score a more cohesive feel and implants the ideas of an epic quest with a firm goal in the minds of viewers.
55. Happy Ending – Danny Elfman
This is an appropriately sweet yet quirky way to finish a film that’s all about flawed people finding happiness. Like the story of Silver Linings Playbook, Elfman’s “Happy Ending” finishes on a positive yet realistic note. The light guitar, quiet piano notes, and soft singing that have faded in and out throughout the film come back strong to finish things out. It gives a sense of closure, warmth, and hope that goes great with the themes presented one of the favorite films of the last several years.
54. Duel of the Fates – John Williams
This is easily Williams’ most iconic piece from the Star Wars prequels, and probably the best thing to come out of The Phantom Menace. With its huge choir singing inscrutable Welsh lyrics at the top of their lungs and a full orchestra playing till their arms fall off, you can tell that “Duel of the Fates” is trying to be as epic as possible. And it works! It gets a bit exhausting by the end (just like these prequels), but the song has become as inseparable from Lucas’ films as any other piece by Williams.
53. Hope and Memory – Howard Shore
For being only 1:46 in length, “Hope and Memory” quickly runs the gamut between soft emotions and sweeping grandeur. By this point in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, viewers were already swept away into Middle Earth. But tracks like this helped to cement them further in the world. It’s just one of the many pieces of Shore’s score, but it’s a perfect example of why the soundtrack became so ingrained in the minds of film fans.
52. Star Wars Main Title – John Williams
It’s big. It’s bombastic. It’s iconic. Fans can’t really think of Star Wars without memories of Williams’ score and the opening scroll running through their heads. The two are forever inseparable. It’s also really in your face, lacking the subtlety and nuance of some of Williams’ other Star Wars work, but its iconic place in film gives the “Star Wars Main Title” an automatic place on this list.
51. Art Gallery – Mychael Danna & Rob Simonsen
(500) Days of Summer is known for the many great pop songs that are played throughout the story, but its score by Danna and Simonsen helps give the film real heart. “Art Gallery” is sweet and subtle, helping the on-screen romance feel tender and hopeful, just like Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character Tom. Ukulele, bells, and piano form this very loving piece of music. Their bright tones help the film always feel positive and light, despite the heartbreak that informs much of the movie’s focus.
50. The Third Man Theme – Anton Karas
Played completely on a zither by one man, this jaunty theme opens this iconic film noir, underscores many of its moments, and ties it to the Vienna setting. What makes “The Third Man Theme” great, besides its expert composition, is that it stands in stark juxtaposition to the dark story playing out on screen. The Third Man is full of murder, deception, and underhanded dealings, but the theme feels light, happy, and carefree.
49. Why So Serious? – Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard
While most of Zimmer and Howard’s work on The Dark Knight Trilogy is firmly based in orchestra, their theme for The Joker in The Dark Knight is a sharp contrast. The piece has a focus on rough electric guitars and an psychotic electric cello. “Why So Serious?” feels schizophrenic, like a mad man hiding in the shadow and ready to pounce at any moment. A whining single C note, two notes (D and C) hammered away on the electric guitar as punctuation, and an almost sub-audible bass give it a thrilling blend of punk rock and chaotic evil.
48. Collette Shows Him Le Ropes – Michael Giacchino
Like the rest of Giacchino’s Ratatouille score, “Colette Shows Him Le Ropes” is fun, light, and French. The piece feels like a romantic dance. It’s quite appropriate for the romance blossoming between the characters on screen. Lead instruments constantly switch throughout its three minutes with guitars, strings, and bells all playing the refrain at different points. It seems like Giacchino had loads of fun making this piece, along with all of the film’s score. It’s a feeling that easily transfers to listeners and the film as a whole.
47. Yojimbo Titles – Masuro Satoh
Satoh’s main theme for the samurai showdown film Yojimbo is brassy, swaggering, and very sure of itself. So it’s a perfect complement for its hero. While it opens and closes the film, it is also often played to accompany the main character as he moves from place to place, giving him a legendary feel. While Yojimbo is fairly grounded in reality, the score help it to feel a little larger than life, especially once the action becomes bombastic. Even when the odds are stacked against the nameless protagonist, the cocky score helps assure the audience of his coming victory.
46. The Son of Flynn – Daft Punk
This is a bubbling, dazzling piece of synth work by Daft Punk. Played near the beginning of the film, “The Son of Flynn” helps bring viewers into the world of Tron: Legacy and the type of score that will accompany the film throughout its run time. It’s almost hypnotic in its repetition, as the synth notes rise higher and higher while orchestral undertones drop down lower and lower. The mix of electronic and orchestral is just a small example of what makes the Tron score so great.