Movie Lover

10 memorable film scores

By Wang DexianMovies - 15 December 2015 12:00 AM

10 memorable film scores

Anyone who knows anything about movies will understand the role that music can play towards the overall excellence and quality of a film. Rare is the occasion when there's a musical score so bad or ill-fitting that makes people in the audience react in utter confusion. 

A good score truly changes everything. It can alter dynamics of a scene that a director, actor or screenwriter can't.

With a few musical notes, character traits can be switched and established in an instant. Or, the emotions of a scene can be further enhanced and fleshed out to the audience. And of course, the best scores are the ones that elevate what's happening on screen to such a level that they transcend the medium of cinema. They become iconic.

So put on your headphones and listen along as we revisit some of cinema's most memorable sounds.

Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard – ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)

Highlights: ‘Why So Serious?’ and ‘A Dark Knight’

Hans Zimmer's recent work has been defined by two things: volume, and a steadily-building intensity that explodes into a crescendo of deafening loudness and exhaustion. There may be no other movie that showcases this better than his compositions for ‘The Dark Knight’ with James Newton Howard. To start things off, the score for most superhero films are typcially bombastic and brimming with heroic optimism. Well, not this Batman flick.

The score can be best described as atmospheric, with the emotional dial set somewhere between “hopeless” and “intensely brooding”. From the ominous metallic screech and unsettling throbbing of ‘Why So Serious?’ during the Joker's bank heist, all the way to the sad, yet hopeful ‘A Dark Knight’ when Batman takes the fall and makes his escape, the intensity of the score never drops, and you'll likely be exhausted when the film and music ends. 

The use of the pounding drums, blaring horns and distorted guitars really keeps the viewer off balance, never quite able to see what's coming around the bend. It's a perfect soundtrack, setting the stage magnificently for a Gotham City caught between the unstoppable force of the Joker's anarchy and the unmovable force of Batman's moral code.

Howard Shore – ‘The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy’ (2001-2003)

Highlights: 'The Fellowship', 'The Bridge of Khazad Dum', and 'Helm's Deep'

To bring the world of Middle-earth to life, composer Howard Shore turned to a mix of musical influences to craft together the melodies of Tolkien's fantasy world. Drawing from styles such as North European, baroque and Celtic music, Shore created a homogenous musical world not bound to a singular style or time period.

Instead, he used over 90 different leitmotifs to represent the different Middle-earth cultures. Absent if the typical bombast of Hollywood, and its place, an emotional, operatic and at many a time, a very delicate score. And while the music isn't necessarily the most hummable, it really just fits the world and characters of Middle-earth so well, you'd be hard pressed to think of anyone who could have done better. Now, go listen to 'The Fellowship', think of your best friend who you've been through some tough times with, and shed a tear or two.

Clint Mansell – ‘Requiem for a Dream’ (2000)

Highlight: ‘Lux Æterna’

If you've never seen Darren Aronofsky's ‘Requiem for a Dream’, you're probably recognizing ‘Lux Æterna’ as that track. Yes, it is indeed the go-to song of YouTube sporting highlight reels all over the Interwebs.

Considering that ‘Requiem for a Dream’is a dark independent film about drugs and addiction, Clint Mansell's work remains quite an oddity. The track begins with what would seem like a traditional orchestral approach, but soon, electronica and heavy percussion are added to the mix, creating a sonic assault that's incredibly intense, yet haunting.

Indeed, Mansell's work has become more than the signature theme of a film. It's been featured in so many commercials and trailers over the years. Most famously, a re-orchestrated version with a choir and full orchestra was recorded just for sole purpose of using it in the trailer of ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’. Now, that's transcendent.

Brad Friedel – ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’ (1991)


Highlight: ‘Main Title’ (‘Terminator 2’ Theme)

The theme was actually used in the original movie, but let's forget over the synth-heavy version and instead turn our attention to the one used in the 1991 sequel. BADUMBADUMDUM. The moment you hear those hard pounding drums kick in, you know business is just about to pick up.

The score nicely segues into a bleak orchestral audio landscape... one that's pretty fitting for a movie about impending movie doom. When compared to many other scores on this list, the Terminator theme may seem devoid of complexity but that's exactly why it's awesome. Its heavy metal charm embodies exactly what the movie is about: metal on metal violence, tons of explosions and the fear of a nuclear future.


Danny Elfman – ‘Batman’ (1989)

Highlights: ‘The Batman Theme’ and ‘Waltz to the Death’

The only character to have two different scores on this list, Batman shows what a versatile character he truly is, allowing for different directors to put their own stamp on the character in wildly contrasting interpretations of him.

Danny Elfman's score for the 1989 Tim Burton movie is dark, gothic, and very moody. It's also incredibly aggressive and on the flip side, it sounds exactly like something that would terrify Batman's foes as he swoops in on them in the dark of night. it's very much like the take no prisoners Batman that Michael Keaton portrayed on screen. 

Basically, this is the embodiment of Batman as a character in audio form. It was so widely representative of the character that even ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ didn't bother trying to come up with a new one, they just used this instead.

However, it wasn't all darkness in Elfman's score for the film. Pieces such as ‘Waltz to the Death’ showed off a much more playful side of the movie, in line with Jack Nicholson's killer goofball take on the Joker.


John Williams – The Original ‘Star Wars Trilogy’ (1977-1983)

Highlights: ‘Main Titles’, ‘Imperial March’, ‘Hologram/Binary Sunset’ and ‘The Last Battle’

John Williams has composed some truly memorable scores, but if there's a magnum opus, a work that stands tall above all the others, it's his work on the original three Star Wars movies. Some people may think of movie scores as overlong and unexciting but Williams' works are the exact opposite of that. His pieces never overstay their welcome and will almost always leave you humming them for weeks on end.

And it's not like he's a one trick pony too. The scores for the three films run the full emotional gauntlet, tackling heavy drama, action, romance and quiet introspection with ease. The main theme is bold, and upon hearing it, you just know you're in for a hell of an adventure. Plus, it's the world's most famous title crawl music ever.

The Richard Wagner-esque ‘Imperial March’ is the probably the most recognised military anthem in the world... and it's not even one from the real world! There's tender and delicate moments to be found in ‘Yoda's Theme’ from ‘The Empire Strikes Back’thrill seekers will appreciate the heart-pumpingadrenaline of The Last Battle’ from ‘A New Hope’.

One of the more powerful moments is the ‘Binary Sunset’ moment from ‘A New Hope’. The scene itself is nothing special, just Luke Skywalker looking at Tatooine’s twin suns, yearning for a change and reason for him to leave his uncle's moisture farm. However, when the music kicks in, you get it instantly. It's a truly hair-raising moment and the perfect send off for Luke as he heads off for a life-changing adventure.

And you know it's spectacular because these pieces of music are still being used to get us insanely excited for ‘The Force Awakens’ in the trailers. And to Williams' credit, even outside the original trilogy, he's delivered. For example, in ‘The Phantom Menace’, a movie about absolutely nothing happening, Williams almost saves it with an amazing track in the form of ‘Duel Of The Fates’. It's clear to see that a big reason why ‘Star Wars’is still so beloved even after almost 4 decades, and three bad movies is the brilliant music of John Williams.


Nino Rota – ‘The Godfather’ (1972)

Highlights: ‘Godfather Waltz (Main Theme)’ and ‘The Love theme from The Godfather’

Unlike most iconic scores, which often feature a driving rhythm section or grandiose horns, Nino Rota's work on ‘The Godfather’is a lot more restrained. Sweeping strings and delicate horns define his work, crafting the sounds to Francis Ford Coppola's world of familial tragedy.

It's a beautiful piece of work and captures the melancholy and old-world values of trust, blood and bond that have come to define the movies. Plus, don't you think it's rather fitting that an Italian composer was the one to compose this for the most famous fictional Italian family of all?


Ennio Morricone – ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’ (1966)

Highlights: 'The Ecstasy of Gold' and 'The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Theme'

A whole other generation of people may recognise 'The Ecstasy of Gold' as the song that Metallica  plays at the start of their concerts. And for good reason, because once you listen to it, you'll be able to hear why it gets everyone so pumped up. It rouses you to your very soul and before long, the adrenaline hits and your finger's on the trigger, ready to fire off in a Mexican standoff. This is quintessential music of the old west at its best, and Morricone's work is the very definition of it. Blending a myriad of instruments together, including guitars, weird wind instruments like ocarinas, and some stirring backing vocals, he's redefined music of the Western genre for decades to come.

The film's main theme is just as memorable. This is what you immediately think of when you think of the term “lone wolf”. Just brilliant.


Monty Norman – ‘Dr. No’ (1962)

Highlight: ‘James Bond Theme’

One of cinema's most recognisable and timeless musical pieces begins with a surf-rock guitar riff. It then rides along on a sleek bass line before finishing with a flourish of horns. Now, what makes this piece of music so amazing is that it just works for the character, regardless of the era we're in. 

Whether it's 60s Sean Connery or modern era Daniel Craig, it just fits the character's constant flirting with sex and danger like a glove. Plus, the ‘James Bond Theme’ is that one constant. Actors can change, and along with every new movie, a new theme song and a new singer... but the James Bond Theme will always be there.


Bernard Herrmann – ‘Psycho’ (1960)

Highlights: ‘Prelude’ and ‘The Murder’ 

Bernard Hermann has done some incredibly interesting work for Alfred Hitchcock, including the sheer thrill of his score for ‘North By Northwest’, but none of his work has left a bigger mark on cinema than his work on ‘Psycho’.

'Prelude' sets up the film with an eerily air of mystery -- you know something is about happen, you just don't know what it's going to be.

And then there's the iconic shower scene. The violin strings screech, you're disturbed to your very core, and the deed is done. Simple and iconic.

Word is  Hitchcock wanted to have the scene done in complete silence, but Hermann decided to just score it anyway. Hitchcock would double his salary after hearing it, adding that a third of ‘Psycho's’ effectiveness was due solely to Hermann's work. It remains still, one of the most chilling piece of music in cinema history.

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