My 10 Favorite Original Scores
Music is the unsung hero of the feature film. Sometimes the original score of a film could ruin the experience or it could be the defining feature of the film. The mark of a perfect movie score is a balance of many things. It should fit the film, it should enhance the visual experience, and at the end of it day, it should be nice to listen to. I decided to round up what I consider to be the 10 best original film scores of all time, some of which some may argue have surpassed the legacy of their original film.
#10. The Lord of the Rings, Howard Shore
I’d imagine that when Howard Shore approached Peter Jackson to with the score of the monumental Lord of the Rings series, the only word Jackson said was “Epic”. LOTR is the pinnacle of the orchestral score. Massive ensembles, lush assembly, and unforgettable motifs. The music transports you not only to Middle Earth, but an indescribable headspace of adventure. Listening to the score on its own elevates any activity into a matter of life and death, coupled with the immense experience that is the LOTR series, and you have a match made in heaven. An orchestra has never sounded more important than it has in LOTR. Each note played telling part of the story of Middle Earth, and it’s a story that will remain eternal.
Best Moment: The powerful strings and horns signifying that war is approaching during the lighting of the beacons.
#9. Requiem For a Dream, Clint Mansell
Requiem for a Dream is a dark, disgusting, and cruel film; however, it is above all else, sorrowful. Clint Mansell harnessed this pitch-black sorrow and transformed it into some of the most haunting music ever recorded. The strings of Requiem are violent, but never harsh. They feel like a final gasp for air before you sink into an inky black sea of drugs and crime. The score of Requiem elevates stressful scenes into an audiovisual cacophony of quick cuts and off kilter instrumentation. At the same time, when the score strips itself back to just strings, it once again reminds the audience that this tale, while fast and hyperbolic, is above all else, a tragedy.
Best Moment: The return of Lux Aeterna during the final moments of the film never fails to absolutely decimate my tear ducts.
#8. Finding Nemo, Thomas Newman
Finding Nemo is the closest Pixar will ever get to an epic. The scope of Finding Nemo covers the whole ocean while never once sacrificing scale for heart, the score reflects this. Thomas Newman was presented with the daunting task of scoring a vast oceanic adventure as well as an intimate story about a family coping with loss, but the results speak for themselves. Newman’s score is the definitive music for the ocean. It’s wide and slow, with echoey instruments occasionally permeating the blanket of strings with soft notes. It’s mournful, carrying the mystery and hurt of the story, while also capturing the beauty and redemption it showcases. One of the most influential scores of all time, animated or otherwise.
Best Moment: The strings swelling to the main theme as the camera zooms on Nemo’s face as he hears the lengths his dad is taking to rescue him captures the intimacy and expanse of the film.
#7. Halloween, John Carpenter
John Carpenter’s score for Halloween is the most instantly recognizable horror theme of all time. Carpenter’s synth heavy score paved the way for unconventional horror scores that would define the next few decades of horror. Besides innovation, the music is positively dreadful. The slow stalker that is Michael Myers is made ever more menacing by jumpy keys and crushing bass. Chase scenes are faster, kills are scarier, and the danger is given a motif. Ahead of its time in every way, the Halloween score is still running circles around contemporary horror scores.
Best Moment: The slow zoom out from a young Michael brandishing a bloody knife as the score lets us know that evil has a theme song.
#6. Up, Michael Giacchino
Up’s music is often associated with the heartbreaking opening sequence, and for good measure, but that sells Michael Giacchino’s masterpiece of a score short. The sweetness and nostalgia of Up is punctuated with muted trumpets and lively strings, which are also able to be reversed to make sad scenes ever more potent. Giacchino’s motifs are as catchy as they are beautiful, not overly complex but enthralling, nonetheless.
Best Moment: Call me cliché, but that opening is truly unmatched, and the music is large in part for that legacy.
#5. Spirited Away, Joe Hisashi
Joe Hisaishi’s work with pioneering animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli is the stuff of legend, and the score for Spirited Away if the shining example of why. Combining elements of traditional Japanese instrumentation with a unique fantasy sound, Spirited Away’s music is just as beautiful as the film. Equally ambitious as it is emotional, Spirited Away’s score is one of a kind.
Best Moment: Hisaishi’s score becoming as dangerous as it is wondrous as night falls for the first time.
#4. The Social Network, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
Nine Inch Nails masterminds Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross crafted one of the most distinct scores of all time for David Fincher’s magnum opus, The Social Network. Taking inspiration from electronic music, ambient music, and their previous work with NIN, The Social Network’s score feels like a digital funeral march. Its idiosyncratic sound adds drama to otherwise mundane scenes of conversations and coding. Yet, it’s the soft piano that sells the score, reminding the audience that beneath this digital and legal battlefield are people hurting people.
Best Moment: The gradual fade in of "Hand Covers Bruise" during the opening sets the scene for the tragedy to come.
#3. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Ennio Morricone
It is largely known that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly would not be as legendary as it is were it not for Ennio Morricone’s score. Each motif is almost mythological in the canon of popular film, and deservedly so. Strings, trumpets, guitars, even choirs work with each other to create a sonic landscape of danger and adventure. Each instrument works alongside one another, but they remain distinct, creating a jumbled but extremely effective method of instrumentation. Legend has it that Morricone laughed out loud when Sergio Leone presented him the final duel without music. With Morricone’s timeless score, a laughable scene has become one of the greatest in cinematic history.
Best Moment: The monstrous crescendo before the final shots are fired during the three-way duel.
#2. Suspiria, Goblin
Suspiria’s symphony of sight and sound wouldn’t be possible without the monstrous progressive rock sore from Italian band, Goblin. A film as violent, colorful, and unique as Suspiria deserves an equally violent, colorful, and unique score, and Goblin delivers on every front. Hushed whispers, explosive drums, wild guitars, everything creates a whirlwind of sound that complement Suspiria’s wild visuals. The score rarely lets up, always overbearing and fast, even with loud droning fills during slower scenes. Goblin crafted a prog rock masterpiece as singular as the film it's for.
Best Moment: Goblin creating a massive cacophony of sound as the academy crumbles around Suzy.
#1. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Philip Glass
The name Philip Glass should be enough to warrant a number one spot on any list. Philip Glass’ score for Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is some of the most beautiful and moving music ever composed, not just in film. The music takes on a life of its own while also complimenting the phenomenal visuals supplied by Mishima. It’s complex string music that conjures up unmatched sensations of grandeur and emotion. Philip Glass’ score for Mishima is truly unmatched.
Best Moment: The sublime closing sequence. Words cannot do it justice.