Welcome back to my countdown of the 60 greatest instrumental pieces in the history of cinema. These are my favorite instrumental pieces from films spanning the decades. Whether they are major themes or minor pieces, these have all made a major impact on me over the years.
As a reminder, these are purely pieces from film scores and do not have singing. If I’ve left something off or ranked something in a way you disagree with, let me know. Your opinion is always appreciated!
For numbers 60 to 46, visit Part 1 of the countdown. Now, on with the show!
45. Love Theme from The Godfather – Nino Rota
This luscious, emotive piece is all kinds of Italian. Mandolins, accordions, and acoustic guitars give “Love Theme from The Godfather” a romantic vibe, while woodwinds and a chorus eventually kick in to create a greater sense of grandeur. It’s one of the most unforgettable pieces from The Godfather and any fan will recognize it right off the bat. Like the film itself, it has a great balance between quiet intimacy and in-your-face emotion.
44. The Asteroid Field – John Williams
John Williams knows how to score an action scene. “The Asteroid Field” is tense, chaotic, and unpredictable, just like the chase scene that is happening on screen. As Han, Leia, Chewie, R2, and C-3PO make a mad dash through an asteroid field in The Empire Strikes Back, they take exciting risks to save their lives. The piece is full of cymbal crashes and racing strings, with every instrument playing at a frenetic pace as the score swells and recedes at just the right moments. You can practically feel The Empire right on your tail with danger closing in on all sides.
43. Theme from Jurassic Park – John Williams
In part, it’s Williams’ “Theme from Jurassic Park” that gives this film its sense of wonder and awe. It’s beautiful and light for much of its runtime before swelling into its more majestic and well-known second half. If it wasn’t for his score, Jurassic Park wouldn’t seem so beautiful. After all, it’s a film filled with ravenous dinosaurs eating frightened humans. But by placing the theme at certain parts of the film, most notably its end, the audience feels much more at peace then they would without it.
42. We Float – Dustin O’Halloran
It seems as if everything Dustin O’Halloran does is tinged with beautiful sadness. And his score for Like Crazy is a good playground for his depressing leanings. “We Float” is a quiet and simple piece of piano work, but it’s obviously crafted with care and filled with emotion. Rather than become overly complicated, O’Halloran keeps his playing restrained, pulling as much as possible out of slight rises in notes and tempo. It’s sweet and soft, while still feeling appropriately sad.
41. Hedwig’s Theme – John Williams
By the end of the first film, William’s Harry Potter themes had become instantly recognizable. “Hedwig’s Theme” feels like a lullaby at first before segueing into a more mischievous and fast-paced tone. It feels light and fun, with just a hint of danger, which is great for its first appearance in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. As the movies became progressively darker, this still tied them into their fun, magical roots.
40. Harry’s Wondrous World – John Williams
The second half of the instantly recognizable Harry Potter theme, “Harry’s Wondrous World” is more for underscoring Harry’s friendships and help close out the films in a lighter, happier tone. It’s exciting and fun and is definitely all about the childlike wonder on display through many of the films. The horns and strong strings rise higher and higher, only to spiral and float down in beautiful soft tones. Williams is great at fun and happy themes, and this might be the happiest of theme all! And it feels so good.
39. The Adventures of Robin Hood Theme – Erich Wolfgang Korngold
This is the epitome of classic 1930’s scores. Korngold made a theme that is fitting for such an epic, swashbuckling film like The Adventures of Robin Hood. Equal parts march and romantic score, it’s perfect for a hero who is as romantic as they come. The main theme opens and closes the film, but it also plays perfectly for epic swordfights as well as the blossoming romance between Robin and Maid Marian. And like the hero himself, the theme is confident, boisterous, triumphant, and classically charming.
38. TRON: Legacy Overture – Daft Punk
This is the backbone for an insanely great score, some of which will be higher on this list, but incorporate this main theme. “TRON: Legacy Overture” has such a strong balance between electronic and orchestral. Like the rest of the score for TRON: Legacy, the two sides switch back and forth between lead and backing music. They swirl together, rising and falling, sometimes together, sometimes conversely. Like the world of TRON: Legacy, “Overture” has a certain sense of cold majesty while still feeling completely thrilling.
37. To The Architect – Mychael Danna & Rob Simonsen
After riding the ups and downs of Summer and Tom’s relationship, we finally reach our hopeful conclusion. Danna and Simonsen bring back the many different themes that have been used in the film while still keeping a sense of subtlety in the piece. Once the signature whistling kicks back in, “To The Architect” fully blossoms into a bright and joyful work of art that tugs on the heartstrings. By the end of the film and the entire score itself, this sense of realistic optimism truly feels earned. It’s just one of the many reasons why the score to (500) Days of Summer is one of the most sweetly romantic soundtracks in years.
36. Earth 2077 – M83 & Joseph Trapanese
The strongest parts of M83 and Joseph Trapanese’s collaboration on the score for the sci-fi action film Obliviondeftly mix classic orchestration with future-tinged electronica. “Earth 2077” is one of the highlights of the score – a propulsive and grand piece of widescreen film scoring. Rhythmic keyboard notes create a driving pulse as full-bodied strings rise higher and higher above the rest of the score. These elements blend together to create a sense of wonder and excitement, a potent match for adventuring across a wide open post-apocalyptic world.
35. Prime – Steve Jablonsky
Thankfully, Jablonsky’s score isn’t nearly as boneheaded as the rest of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. “Prime” is an epic-feeling main theme that feels appropriate for an ancient mechanical race of aliens. Its equal parts majestic and dark, with heavy brass arrangements and drums giving a sense of foreboding doom while rising strings provide a sense of wonder and heroism. Very appropriate scoring for Optimus Prime and his band of giant transforming alien robots.
34. The Bridge of Khazad Dum – Howard Shore
This might be the most epic song in a trilogy filled with epic pieces. Shore’s “The Bridge of Khazad Dum” goes from epic to terrifying to tragic, all in the span of five minutes. The Lord of the Ringstheme kicks in at just the right times, announcing the triumphs of The Fellowship and feeling like it echoes through the endless Mines of Moria. Deep chanting and imposing horns announce The Balrog, a terrifying beast from hell that is one of the entire trilogy’s most memorable moments. But when the beast is defeated, Gandalf falls, leading to a quiet yet powerfully sad elegy led by a single voice echoing from above.
33. Discombobulate – Hans Zimmer
Like Sherlock Holmes in Guy Ritchie’s films, Zimmer’s main theme “Discombobulate” is manic and somewhat psychotic. The piece walks a fine line between classic and chaotic, with Zimmer using banjos, violins, dulcimers, and a piano that he personally broke to create a theme that feels barely held together. It is Zimmer’s modern takes on scores mixed with instruments that feel a century old that make the theme stand out so easily. Robert Downey, Jr’s Holmes feels like a man consistently on the edge of sanity, so it’s appropriate that his theme would feel the same way.
32. The Fight Will Be Your Own – Steve Jablonsky
For a movie all about giant robots blasting each other to bits with copious amounts of collateral damage, “The Fight Will Be Your Own” and the scene it accompanies in Transformers: Dark of the Moon are stunningly beautiful. Plaintive strings and horns bubble and echo beneath the surface for minutes, feeling like more of an elegy instead of an anthem for saving the world. The entire orchestra slowly rises, gaining power but never losing a sense of sadness fitting for the supposed death of the film’s heroes.
31. Jack Sparrow – Hans Zimmer
Zimmer’s score for one of the most memorable characters in recent film is as off-kilter and unpredictable as Jack Sparrow himself. This piece is so strong and iconic that the rest of the score from these four films (and counting) doesn’t seem to matter. “Jack Sparrow” creeps along, lurches, and then springs into action, much like Johnny Depp’s pirate does on screen. In fact, the piece can be separated into the character’s drunken theme and action theme, which are used in their appropriate settings. It takes its time before rushing headlong into action, creating a sense of anticipation and adventure that would not be there if it wasn’t for this dichotomy.