10 Personal Favorite Film Scores

First, a quote:

“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” – Steve Martin

There, I feel so much better…

When you hear or read the words “film score” or “original score,” what melody do you hear first?

Maybe you hear something composed by somebody considered one of the greats. Maybe something from Steven Spielberg’s go-to guy John Williams – Star Wars, JawsIndiana Jones, Harry PotterE.T., a little Superman perhaps? If not Williams, maybe Jerry Goldsmith, the man behind the scores of Chinatown, Planet of the Apes, and L.A. Confidential. Or maybe your cup of tea is a composer who just happened to make his mark in the film world. In this case, it’s hard to name something better than the score for The Pink Panther by Henry Mancini.

You could be less about the person responsible and focus more on a particular genre of film. Naturally, epics have their fair share with offerings like Maurice Jarre’s score for Lawrence of Arabia and Max Steiner’s for Gone With the Wind. How about one of the many great scores for an Alfred Hitchcock suspense, like Vertigo or Psycho (both by Bernard Herrmann)? I know – something from a Western. The Magnificent Seven by Elmer Bernstein? High Noon by Dimitri Tiomkin? How could you possibly go wrong with Ennio Morricone’s classic for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly?

These are all wonderful scores that have been given the proper accolades, but it’s hard to imagine every single one of them appealing to just one person (unless that person has no problem being told what to like). I present a list of ten of my own personal favorites. Some have recently won Oscars. Some are extraordinarily underrated. At one point or another, I have caught myself whistling all of them – really all the explanation you need for each of my choices. Feel free to click the links to listen to what I believe is some of the best music to hit the silver screen.

I truly believe this is one of the best movies of all time. A big part of why is Karas’ score, entirely performed by zither. An incorrigible example of the perfect element found from outside the norm.

Your face just lights up upon hearing it, no matter that it comes courtesy of one of the longest and most unusually light-feeling POW dramas ever. A much more pleasing tune than that Bridge on the River Kwai march.

I totally sympathize with Peter Boyle’s bald beast when he hears this music, all but trying to grab it out of the air myself. See the movie for a bitchin’ interlude by Marty Feldman’s Igor.

In his early days, Elfman would tend to primarily either play up the carnival-like whimsy (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Back to School, etc.) or wallow in the ominous tones (Batman, Dick Tracy, etc.). The Beetlejuice opening theme was the best of both worlds and succinctly set the mood of the film.

The reason most of the best scores are from Westerns is that the “up-an’-at-’em” fervor of a big brass section lends itself so well to the United States’ southern vast desert landscapes. Shaiman knew this, but he also had to bring the feel of a light comedy.

I’ve had this melody stuck in my head for the past two weeks. It’s insane to me that it wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar.

Newman is my favorite film composer. Nearly all of his works have a sort of mild curiosity to them – I can tell right away when I’m hearing one of his. I don’t know if this adaptation of the Stephen King short story would have been nearly as phenomenal without this music. Frankly, I don’t want to know.

  • Fargo (1996) – Carter Burwell

Every time I shovel snow into the bed of my truck, Burwell’s tune finds its way into my mind. I haven’t the foggiest why…

Morricone was originally chosen to compose completely original music for this film. When it became obvious he couldn’t do it, some of Morricone’s past compositions were inserted to the film instead. This included “Rabbia E Tarantella”, now largely recognized as “the Basterds theme”. Just as charismatic as the film itself.

  • Up (2009) – Michael Giacchino

I’m repeating myself when I say this, but Giacchino’s score is a gigantic assist to the tearjerker montage of Carl’s journey into senior citizenship. One could easily picture Charles Chaplin doing what he did best (no, not womanizing – the other thing) to this accompaniment.

Any personal favorite scores of yours I neglected to mention? Any you’d like to debate as misunderstood classics like – oh, I dunno – the one by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman for Ravenous? I implore you: Light up the comments section below!

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