We’ve come down to some of my all-time favorite pieces of instrumental film score ever. These are the songs that have stuck with me, both while watching a movie and long after. Some are well-loved classics, others are minor pieces of beauty. In either case, they are irreplaceable to me.
Here I list numbers 15 through six and talk about these amazing songs in a little more detail than before. Each of the scores are burrowed into my brain and committed to memory. They bring out different emotions in me and they all make their respective films better. Of course, that may not be the same for you, but maybe you’ll come to love them like I do. Write your opinions in the comment section below and tell me your thoughts on these scores and your own personal favorites.
15. Cinema Paradiso – Ennio Morricone
Morricone’s main theme for Cinema Paradiso feels equal parts romantic and mournful. It’s an elegy for lost love but also a remembrance of its importance. Morricone uses very soft piano notes to underscore the entire piece, while saxophone stays in the lead. The theme stays soft and subtle for its entire runtime, keeping it romantic and in tune with the film’s soft and subtle nature.
Cinema Paradiso is all about lost love and the power of memory. It’s also focused on the power of art, film in particular. As usual, Morricone knows just how to convey the core feelings of the film he scores while not overselling it or becoming too obvious. Happiness, sadness, fulfillment, longing – they can all be interpreted from “Cinema Paradiso Titles.”
14. The Ring Goes South – Howard Shore
This is a beautiful blending of intimate emotion and adventurous beginnings, all tied together with a stirring transition. Frodo’s fears and his commitment to saving Middle Earth are both on display here, as is the grand purpose of the Fellowship that forms around him. Like many of Shore’s tracks for The Lord of the Rings, “The Ring Goes South” is not long, but it packs a wallop. It’s hard to rank one piece of Shore’s score over another, but this is a distillation of everything that’s great about it and this track makes an impact on me every time I hear it.
It all boils down to this: Shore’s main theme for The Lord of the Rings is an absolute killer. It’s instantly recognizable, but can be played in so many different contexts. It always has that hint of adventure to it, but there’s also a real sense of emotion. The Fellowship’s journey will not be easy, but it’s a grand adventure that will save the world. “The Ring Goes South” comes in at about the midpoint of The Fellowship of the Ring, and it helps propel the film in a new direction as our heroes set off on their adventure. Fantastic stuff.
13. Superman Main Theme – John Williams
It doesn’t matter how many themes may one day be written for the Man of Steel, John Williams’ “Superman Theme” will always be deeply linked to the character. It’s so intensely linked that when Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel was set to relaunch the character, the director and studio had to officially announce that they would not be using this theme. Common sense dictates that a full reboot of the character would also bring a new score, but that’s how important Williams’ work really is for Superman.
Most people could probably sing the “Superman Main Titles” from memory if you asked them to, it’s that identifiable. And for good reason. It just plain feels like the Man of Steel himself. It’s heroic, majestic, proud, and inspiring. Trumpets blast, strings swirl, and cymbals crash unashamedly. It stands in the light and announces it presence. Listening to Williams’ score makes you want to leap up and start flying. If you blast this song, you may believe you can for just a second.
12. Coming Back Around – John Powell
At last, beautiful triumph for Hiccup, Toothless, and their friends. After danger and terror, Hiccup wakes up to a world he thought he could only dream of, but his love and sacrifice have brought peace and understanding to his people and the dragons. It’s immediately happy. In fact, it’s so fulfilling that the first minute of Powell’s “Coming Back Around” is pure, sweet happiness. And then, we take off to the skies!
The main theme from How to Train Your Dragonkicks in as the full orchestra springs to life. Hiccup, Toothless, his friends, and their dragons blast off into a new world as they triumphantly soar through the sky. The movie ends at this point, but the track continues on, seguing into a full-on march, complete with rolling snare drums. “Coming Back Around” is may just be the most triumphant and fulfilling piece of score I have ever heard.
11. StarWaves – M83 & Joseph Trapanese
The most striking track in all of the Oblivion soundtrack, except for that amazing theme song, “StarWaves” is a transcendent mix of orchestral and electronic. The slow intro sort of just seeps in, keeping the strings low and subtle for most of the first half as the bass begins to pulse. Echoing drum beats make this an extremely moody affair while plaintive strings keep it cool, yet powerfully dark. “StarWaves” is fairly simple, but it’s the feeling, not the technicality that makes it so powerful.
Like the majority of M83’s work, “StarWaves” has touches of the ‘80s to it that makes it feel both futuristic and old school. It’s only in the last minute where the track really asserts itself, but listeners are already sucked in by that point. There’s a certain feeling of unknown sadness that permeates “StarWaves,” but it also feels fulfilling at the same time. That balance of multiple emotions makes this the most memorable piece from Oblivion and a strong enough track to leap in front of so many other pieces that I have heard for years and years.
10. James Bond Theme – John Barry
Is there any theme and character more perfectly linked than “The James Bond Theme” and 007 himself? Barry’s guitar-heavy theme has been present since the very first film. And while it has gone through many different iterations, instruments, and degrees of usage, it has always been unmistakable. It represents everything that people love about James Bond: danger, mystery, excitement, charm, and cool confidence.
The power of the track is in its versatility and ability to spice up a scene. Think of all its different uses. Shootouts, bare-fisted brawls, infiltrating villainous headquarters, even walking around a hotel to get a key (nice one, Dr. No), they all feel more exciting with this theme. Even its two-note cameo at the beginning of Skyfall is enough to immediately suck viewers into the film. Nobody does it better than Bond, and this theme is a big part of the reason why.
9. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – Ennio Morricone
Don’t let the countless pop culture references fool you, Morricone’s “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” is a striking and powerful piece of film scoring. In fact, the film opens up with a lengthy credits sequence just to make sure to introduce the theme and its many parts before the action gets away. Coyote-like whistling, hooting horns, and galloping drums make the theme itself feel like a Western, and its sets the right tone for a truly epic film.
Everyone recognizes the whistling and guitar work, but did you know that this piece of score is actually three themes in one? The main refrain is repeated in three ways: flute for Blondie (The Good), ocarina for Angel Eyes (The Bad), and whistling for Tuco (The Ugly). These separate themes are frequently played to punctuate the actions of their respective characters and frequently intertwine as their characters clash. The theme from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is just as iconic as anything else on this list and remains thrilling to this day.
8. Married Life – Michael Giacchino
The first 10 minutes of Up are some of the most emotional ever committed to film. And it’s almost all done without words. It’s Giacchino’s incredibly moving and intimate score that sucks the viewer into the romance and marriage of Carl and Ellie. Like real life, their time together is filled with ups and down, tragic losses and love, and eventually death. By the end, you’re a complete wreck, and also fully emotionally invested in the story of Up.
Giacchino takes a refrain and plays it so many different ways throughout “Married Life,” using various instruments and timing to transition it into happiness, hopefulness, sadness, and tragedy. All the while, it feels truly loving and tender. Carl and Ellie find happiness and true love in their marriage. It’s also a life story that feels like it could happen to any one of us. It’s all done in just a few minutes, but Giacchino makes the audience feel every single emotional beat without ever becoming hokey or cartoonish. It’s storytelling through music at its finest.
7. The Ecstasy of Gold – Ennio Morricone
Songs don’t get much more sweepingly majestic than this. Finally finding the graveyard where $200,000 in gold is buried near the end of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Tuco dizzily runs through hundreds of graves, looking for the one where the money is buried. The camera spins and zips back and forth while the man frantically searches, all while Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold” grows in power. It’s the length of the scene and director Sergio Leone’s confidence in cinematography, acting, and score that make it so mesmerizing.
For a scene fully dedicated to aimlessly running around a graveyard, it’s beautiful and exhilarating scene. The refrain for “The Ecstasy of Gold” is played over and over again, first by a single, soaring female voice, then trumpets, then both at once. The piece dips down for moments, only to swell once again, more powerful than ever. The intensity rises and rises as the search continues, swirling and twirling along with the camera until it comes to an abrupt halt. The gold has been found, but the battle is just beginning.
6. The Legend of Ashitaka Theme – Joe Hisaishi
Director Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke is a film that quickly transports you to another world. It’s a world filled with equal parts danger and wonder. And it’s Hisaishi’s score that helps make that transition so smooth. While it’s on display throughout the entire film, “The Legend of Ashitaka Theme” is at its strongest and most fully formed during the end credits. Like the film itself, Hisaishi’s theme has elements of wonder, adventure, romance, darkness, and beauty. It’s difficult to define, but grabs your heart quickly and completely.
“The Legend of Ashitaka Theme” has all the elements that you would typically find in a classic film score – strings that bring out a feeling of adventure, quiet piano to bring an emotional element, clashing cymbals for the high points – but it all has so much feeling behind it. Every piece has some sense of mourning behind it. Every adventurous moment is met with something dark and contemplative. High points in the score suddenly drop out from under you into moments of quiet sadness. Together it forms a piece that is immediately impactful, just like this remarkable, utterly unique film.
And that brings us to our top five. Click here for my five favorite pieces from film score of all time!