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The Best Movie Soundtracks Of All Time

Photograph of the blog post author, Phoebe Turner

Phoebe Turner

19.6.2020

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Movie soundtracks are often used to enhance film, capturing and intensifying the emotion in any given scene. Therefore, it is not surprising that some of the greatest and most well renowned films of all time also feature amazing scores and soundtracks. In this article, we will review some of the best movie soundtracks of all time, and discover what makes them so profound.

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What Makes A Great Movie Soundtrack?

movie theatre cinema

Music was originally used alongside early films as a method of masking the sound of the projectors. Since then, they have become a vital part of storytelling within movies. When talking about a ‘soundtrack’, we are generally referring to the music that has been placed alongside a scene. This can be either an original score (music composed specifically for the film), or a combination of pre-recorded and released music.

Many people may have their own ideas about why certain soundtracks are so great. After all, music in all scenarios is subjective and down to personal taste. There are those who believe that in film, the music should be barely noticeable. This is true in some respects. Generally, the music shouldn’t draw an audience’s attention away from the film, but help build the world it has been placed in. A great soundtrack has the power to bring us closer to the story and characters. We feel what they feel, and can even understand any subtext that might be hidden within a scene without any instruction. 

When discussing the best movie soundtracks, we are primarily looking at their role within the film. This includes how well it matches, or id it purposefully goes against what is being visually portrayed. Additionally, it is important to look at the music itself. For example, if a soundtrack is more memorable, it often means the melody has been well crafted by the composer. Most importantly, the soundtrack needs to match the tone of the film. If it doesn’t hit the mark, the scene could fall short of its desired effect on an audience.

Best Movie Soundtracks Of All Time

A lot of these lists focus solely on either film scores or films with a soundtrack of pre-released songs. However, I feel it an injustice to separate them in such a way, as they both serve the same purpose. Additionally, I have tried to include soundtracks from a myriad of film genres. Therefore, in no particular order, here are my picks for some of the best movie soundtracks of all time.

Lord Of The Rings

Lord of the Rings soundtrack

There are some that might groan at the idea of watching a small man travel across country with his friends, a wizard, an elf, a king, a dwarf and Sean Bean, all for the simple aim of tossing a ring into what is essentially a volcano. However, this series of films is greatly treasured by many. A particular draw of it is its ability to transport you to another realm of fantasy and magic. The music of Howard Shore brings to life Middle Earth and the characteristics of The Shire, Rivendell and Isengard. Additionally, his use of thematic material and melodic motifs for characters helps to create a closeness, similar to that felt when reading the books. 

The Exorcist

The music in any horror film is so essential to really scaring an audience. It is arguably one of the greatest and scariest horror movies of all time, with a soundtrack to match. Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” has become synonymous with fear, and it is not hard to see why. The repetition of the main motif which gradually adds in instruments is simple in its effect of building suspense. 

(500) Days of Summer

500 days of summer

This list would feel incomplete without some mention of a rom-com. Though ‘The Graduate’ is often heralded as having one of the greatest soundtracks, I thought it best to include something more recent. The appearance of The Smiths, Hall & Oates and Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition” (though somewhat cheesy) adds to the charm of this movie. The quirky combination of songs embellishes the quirkiness of this not-so-typical Indie romance movie.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick famously struggled to work with composers. He is quoted as saying “However good our best film composers may be, they are not a Beethoven, a Mozart or a Brahms. Why use music which is less good when there is such a multitude of great orchestral music available from the past and from our own time?”

Quite the kick in the teeth for any budding film composers… but thankfully not all directors agree. Yet, the use of music in this film is remarkable. The familiarity of such pieces as the Blue Danube used in the context of space give the film an eerie feel. There is a certain coldness to it. It can be said that the regimented structure found within a lot of classical music is suited to a film that focuses on technology. Additionally, the use of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” perfectly matches the epic opening scene. 

Kill Bill Vol 1

kill bill vol. 1

Almost in a similar vein to Kubrick, Tarantino loves to use music as a form of subversion. This is evident in multiple scenes in ‘Kill Bill’. Mostly produced and orchestrated by the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, his collaborative process with Tarantino resulted in a well defined soundtrack. The music matches well to the carnage that ensues throughout the film. A particular example can be seen in the use of the song “The Flower of Carnage”. This pays homage to the 1973 martial arts film ‘Lady Snowblood’, and gives us an insight into The Bride and her motives.

American Beauty

Even if you haven’t seen this movie, chances are that you have heard the music. Thomas Newman’s score can be heard in countless other documentaries and TV shows. There is a certain thoughtfulness that Newman places is his music that plays into our characters’ thoughts and emotions as they are being played out. The use of percussion plays a vital role in much of his music, rhythmically driving the story forward. 

The Bodyguard

the bodyguard movie

It can’t be denied, The Bodyguard has one of the best-selling film soundtrack albums of all time. Obviously, the majestic voice of Whitney Houston has a great bearing on this. Co-produced by Houston and Clive Davis, ballads such as “I Have Nothing” and “I Will Always Love You” created the backdrop for a film dripping with romance and drama. 

The Full Monty

I am sad to say that so far, the list has mainly consisted of male composers and supervisors. Therefore, it seems important to mention Anne Dudley’s soundtrack. The phrase, “you can leave your hat on” is enough of a testament to the memorability and brilliant use of music within this film. It is just a joyful movie with an uplifting soundtrack to match. 

The Little Mermaid

the little mermaid film

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman changed the face of animated movies when they reimagined the music for Disney’s films, and brought it back from a series of failures. The music became an integral part of the storyline, and played out more like a musical. Each song is filled with a character’s emotion. Winning an Academy Award for Best Original Score and Best Original Song (Under the Sea), it is a clear example of how impactful music can be in film. 

The Godfather Trilogy

Any Gangster movie is incomplete without a good soundtrack to make all the action seem even more badass. The Godfather is the epitome of this. Written by Nino Rota, he really captures the essence of these characters and their motives. The instrumentation perfectly paints a picture of Italy, and his echoing melodies leave an underlying sense of menace and purpose. The waltz feel in the main theme presents a nostalgia for the past as how things used to be. Whilst there is a softness and a sense of melancholy in the ‘love theme’. 

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

the good the bad and the ugly movie

This ground-breaking score by Ennio Morricone set a new standard for Film Music. The use of howls, whip cracks, ocarinas, guitars and even prepared piano creates a unique blend of sounds that result in this mesmerising score. The use of a two-note motif throughout symbolises different characters through the use of different instrumentation of the same motif. Blondie (Clint Eastwood) is represented by a flute, Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) an ocarina, and Tuco (Eli Wallach) a choir. This certainly is one of the best film soundtracks.  

The Piano

The beauty of this soundtrack is undeniable, tugging on the heart strings in all the right ways. Composed by Michael Nyman, the use of minimalism works well, as the repetitive motifs are representative of the emotional and physical journey the characters embark on. It is also well suited to much of the scenery, matching the relentlessness of the waves the piano sits against. 

Inception

Inception

Hans Zimmer probably has one of the best CV’s a film composer could hope for. He has composed so many fantastic scores for film that it can be hard to choose a stand-out one. This one in particular, however, had a great effect on how we compose for film today. It is very electric sounding with its heavy uses of synth and guitar. Throughout the film, Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” can be heard. In reference to this, Zimmer uses a slowed down version of the instrumentation from the song in his score. The music so masterfully adds to the overarching philosophy of the film, and helps in creating the atmosphere the characters are travelling through. 

Back To The Future

Though memorability isn’t the main goal or signifier of great film music, the catchiness of this melody is undeniable, and leaves a lasting impression on the listener. The excitement and tension of the film is so fantastically matched in this amazing score by Alan Silvestri. The same can be said by Huey Lewis’ addition to the film. “The Power Of Love” became an anthem for the movie, and went on to become a recognisable hit in its own right. The typically 80’s feel of it perfectly sets up the tone of the film. 

Honourable Mention: John Williams

Jaws John Williams

Creating some of the most memorable and recognisable film scores, John Williams’ music stands in a category of its own. For anyone who isn’t aware, he is the composer for Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones and Jaws (to name a few). All of these scores stand out in their own right, making it hard to pick out the best. One can be certain, however, that John Williams unlocked the door to how cinematic music should sound. A budding film composer should be sure to check out Williams’ work because here lies the formula for any major blockbuster film soundtrack. 

From the two note dread that is Jaws to the soaring melodies in E.T., Williams is a master of film music. The wonderful partnership with director Steven Spielberg has produced some unforgettable classics. Itt is hard to say where the world of cinema would be without them. 

Summary

There are so many more fantastic film soundtracks that haven’t been mentioned, but these are just some that have been most prominent in film history. The musical choices made in film are an essential part of how a film is received. Those who passionately and thoughtfully score the music or consider what song is best suited to each scene certainly reap the rewards and go down in history. Check out our list of the best filmmakers of all time to get inspired!

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