The Omen

50 Favorite Film Scores, Part 5: The Top 10

If you’ve been following my posts all week, then you know that I’ve been celebrating my impending 50th birthday on the 19th (last pathetic notice, I promise) with 50 of my favorite film scores. The list, months in the making, turned out far different than I thought. It’s been educational, emotional, illuminating and, on occasion, stressful.

You can hear and read more about the previous 40 scores here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. If you don’t want to bother or if you just want a refresher, here is the list so far:

50. THE SUN COMES UP (André Previn)
49. THE FURY (John Williams)
48. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (Elmer Bernstein)
47. TWO FOR THE SEESAW (André Previn)
46. THE RED VIOLIN (John Corigliano)
45. THE MIRACLE WORKER (Laurence Rosenthal)
44. LILI (Bronislau Kaper)
43. ALL ABOUT EVE (Alfred Newman)
42. BALLAD OF A SOLDIER (Mikhail Ziv)
41. CITIZEN KANE (Bernard Herrmann)
40. GONE WITH THE WIND (Max Steiner)
39. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (Richard Rodney Bennett)
37. THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (Dimitri Tiomkin)
34. THE WIND AND THE LION (Jerry Goldsmith)
33. THE ARTIST (Ludovic Bource)
32. JAWS (John Williams)
31. IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (Ernest Gold)
30. TARAS BULBA (Franz Waxman)
29. THE LION IN WINTER (John Barry)
28. HAWAII (Elmer Bernstein)
27. EXODUS (Ernest Gold)
25. UNDER FIRE (Jerry Goldsmith)
23. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (Maurice Jarre)
21. NORTH BY NORTHWEST (Bernard Herrmann)
20. THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (Bernard Herrmann)
19. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Elmer Bernstein)
18. SPARTACUS (Alex North)
16. MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (Bronislau Kaper)
15. RETURN TO OZ (David Shire)
14. THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL (Jerry Goldsmith)
13. THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (Erich Wolfgang Korngold)
12. THE BIG COUNTRY (Jerome Moross)
11. BEN-HUR (Miklós Rózsa)

And now…drum roll, please…the moment you’ve all been waiting for (tongue firmly in cheek), my Top 10 favorite film scores…at least as of today.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial soundtrack
The Diary of Anne Frank soundtrack


Am I cheating putting all three scores into one? I don’t think so. Whether you like the scores or not, there’s no denying that Howard Shore’s accomplishment is one of the crowning achievements of film music…ever! (And you know I mean it because I used an exclamation point, a punctuational tool I loathe.) The timelessness of Shore’s music will last long beyond my lifetime. If there was one score—or scores, depending on how you categorize them—to rule them all, this/these is/are it/them.


I seldom see movies more than once in the theater. I saw E.T. ten times. If you were around for this cultural phenomenon in 1982, and if you know how much I hate crowds, then you might get some idea how much of a big deal—and a torture—it was to deal with the hordes of moviegoers flocking to this touchstone of a film that summer. Few movies have that rare gift of cinematic magic. E.T. is one of them. It’s not perfect but it’s an awe-inspiring, emotional ride capped off by one of John Williams’s finest scores. A staple in pops concerts, few things are more thrilling for film music fans than hearing the 15-minute finale played live. I’m tearing up just thinking about it. No surprise there.


Anne Frank’s innocent, yet cautionary, tale of life in hiding still evokes emotions of horror and empathy today. George Stevens’s film captures the tension and claustrophobia of those dangerous times, while Alfred Newman’s beautiful score resonates with warmth, innocence, and longing. Not nearly so dire as the circumstances surrounding it, Newman’s music is the epitome of the composer’s style. And those inimitable Newman strings have never sounded more lovely. A heartbreaking work.

Sunset Boulevard soundtrack
The Best Years of Our Lives soundtrack
Peyton Place Soundtrack


Franz Waxman’s Oscar-winning classic is a model of dramatic eccentricity. Much like Gloria Swanson’s unhinged Norma Desmond, Waxman’s music takes us through a variety of moods and styles—from silent movie comedy and dramatic chase music to jazz and Straussian madness. From its opening chords to that final descent down the staircase, Waxman’s score captures the underbelly of Hollywood and fame like no other.


The fear and tension, loneliness, heartbreak, and joy of veterans returning home are at the heart of Hugo Friedhofer’s Oscar-winning score. Though the setting is post-WWII, the music still feels fresh and alive. With spare, open harmonies, Friedhofer keeps the sentimentality at bay without forsaking any of the emotion inherent in the drama. A beautiful, moving score that kicks you in the gut.

5. PEYTON PLACE (1957)

The lush, Americana—or should I say New England—of Franz Waxman’s score is the epitome of 1950s soap opera. Though its lush strings and rich harmonies could easily have tipped into sudsy bathos, Waxman is far too strong a composer for that. The music captures the innocence of the white picket fence and the underlying tension of a town about to be uprooted at its core. A stunning, emotional score that never fails to wring buckets of tears from my eyes.

The Song of Bernadette soundtrack
Close Encounters of the Third Kind soundtrack


For a heathen like me, this is as close to heaven as I’ll probably ever get. Alfred Newman’s Oscar-winning classic is a two-hour reflection on the power of faith and fear. Newman’s music captures young Bernadette’s innocence and belief as she sees the vision of a beautiful lady in a French grotto. Newman paints visionary musical pictures rich with emotion. As the title card says, “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.”


The score that sealed the deal with my love of film music. My parents bought me the soundtrack LP for Easter and hid it in a bookshelf. I can see the books and surrounding figurines with stunning accuracy 35 years later. Such was the impact of this film and this music on my 15-year-old self. Out of five simple notes, John Williams created a musical language that spanned the galaxies. Few compositions—film or otherwise—illuminate the illusive power of music like CE3K. Re, mi, do, do, so

Star Wars soundtrack
The Omen soundtrack

2. STAR WARS (1977)

My first film and film music obsession. Like many film music fans, I wore out the original double-LP of John Williams’s classic score. The pops, hisses, and scratches are still emblazoned on my brain even today (and probably taking up some valuable brain space). One of the few pieces of music that still infuses me with unadulterated teenage joy. Even as my body decays and my brain turns to mush, Williams’s music never gets old. May that force always be with us all.

1. THE OMEN (1976)

For anyone who has known me for any longer than five minutes, this should come as no surprise. THE OMEN was my first soundtrack purchase and a defining moment in my life. It looks ridiculous in print, but it’s true. Jerry Goldsmith’s bombastic Black Mass jumpstarted a passion that remains to this day and probably contributed to my pursuing of music in college and certainly my current career. Are there “better” Goldsmith scores out there? Arguably yes. That I define part of who I am by this Satanic masterpiece probably says a lot about me. But I’d rather not dig too deep to figure it out. Let’s just say, “You have been warned…”

* * * * * *

So that’s it! For those of you who stayed with me over the last five days, thank you. I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane. If you’re just joining me, thanks as well! Now enough about me!

What are your favorite film scores?

  1. OMG, a lot of Williams at the top 10, that’s unexpected! hahahaha.
    Very glad you put The Omen in the first place, my favorite cue of that score is “The Demise of Mrs. Baylock”.
    I read in another post that you didn’t know a lot about Michael Nyman, you should listen “The Piano” score, is great!
    I’m very surprise that I didn’t see this scores in this top 50:
    American Beauty
    Who’s Affraid of Virginia Woolf
    Dance with Wolfs
    The Schindler’s List
    Nothing of Ennio Morricone T_T
    But anyway, great top :P

    1. All of those were considered, they just didn’t make the list. That was what was so stressful about it all——ranking all these great pieces of music and putting myself on the line as to all the fantastic stuff I had to leave out.

  2. Big list! I don’t check out many older scores. Nothing to do with the music, the recording quality often just drives me nuts. I think I’ve only heard about 10–15 of them. Lots I’ll have to go through.

    My top:

    Abel Korzeniowski – Copernicus’ Star
    Bear McCreary – Battlestar Galactica, Season 3
    Brian Tyler – Children of Dune
    Danny Elfman – Black Beauty
    Greg Edmonson – Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
    James Horner – Casper
    James Newton Howard – Blood Diamond
    John Powell – How to Train Your Dragon
    Patrick Doyle – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
    Tan Dun – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

  3. Jim:

    A fantastic list. Always enjoy your posts, and unless I misread or misunderstood, happy birthday.

  4. Jim:

    An additional comment…

    Howard Shore’s music for the Lord of the Rings trilogy IS the crowning achievement in film music. The scores for each film are too interlinked to separate, and the trilogy of music moves as one giant symphony, albeit in three movements. I am not sure if your top 50 list is in your preferred order, but on my list, these scores–as one–would be my #1. If there was/were any score(s) that prove(s) film music is today’s symphonic music, and should be played by orchestras as part of regular concert programs, this is it.

  5. Great read! Thanks for including the cues, it helps me decide which of the unfamiliar ones should be first on my list.

    I was happy to see two of my most cherished scores, Ben-Hur and To Kill a Mockingbird, highly ranked. Although I will second Mauricio’s comment about Morricone because The Mission is another of my absolute favorites.

  6. With all there was to choose from, you did a great job, and we have a lot of favorites in common.
    My current top 10:
    1. THE BIG COUNTRY (Moross)
    2. EL CID (Rozsa)
    5. THE SAND PEBBLES (Goldsmith)
    6. THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD (Herrmann)
    7. HAWAII (Bernstein)
    8. PICNIC (Duning)
    9. THE SANDPIPER (Mandel)
    10. ROMEO AND JULIET (Rota)

  7. Jim Happy Birthdat. I am so happy that Hugo;s Score for Best Years of Our Lives made your top 10.
    For me this a perfect film. If the scene with Dana Andrews in the junk yard B17 with the music William Wyler’s direction and the Gregg Toland’s genius camera work does not get to you, your beyond help.

  8. Happy Birthday, Jim! I just discovered your site and it looks great. I teach 5th-8th grade band and during each rehearsal, we listen to an excerpt or selection of music (5 min or less). This year, the entire focus is going to be film music from my stash. I’m actually going to subject them to heart-wrenching/romantic pieces and am sticking to films/movies they wouldn’t have likely seen (i.e. Angel, Amelie, Dangerous Beauty, September Dawn, Coco before Chanel, Memoirs of a Geisha, Becoming Jane, Cinema Paradiso, Miss Potter, The Red Violin, Emma (BBC series), The Mission, etc.) Okay, admittedly, I must play a few selections from Finding Neverland and Hugo, as well. I’m going to look on your site for other suggestions but if you haven’t posted a “romantic” or “heart-wrenching” list, it would be welcomed! Thanks!

  9. Your 2 & 3 would be my 1 & 2, followed by Superman at 3. Those three Williams scores are literally the soundtrack of my childhood and my first experience with film music. I still have the original LPs I bought 30+ years ago!

    It would be interesting to know which of your Top 50 scores are available for purchase (particularly the older ones) and/or which recording you consider the best.

    Great list. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I think everything on the list is available in some form or another. BALLAD OF A SOLDIER has no CD release and a suite from MILAGRO is available only on Grusin’s “Migration” album. You can always check outlets like if you’re looking for any of the more obscure titles. Some may be out of print and you might have to look for used copies on Amazon or eBay.

  10. Jim this is such an expansive and impressive list. Of course it’s personal but isn’t every list of favorites. I would have kept about half your choices but have done some major rearranging.

    Some of my own inclusions would have been Herrman’s PSYCHO, Goldsmith’s THE SAND PEBBLES and SECONDS, Horner’s LEGENDS OF THE FALL and GLORY, and Vangelils’ 1492 THE CONQUEST OF PARADISE.

    Going over this and hearing samples was great fun and kindled wonderful memories. Thank you my friend.

    Oh and I know I’m in a very small minority here but I wouldn’t have included Shore’s lumbering and uninspered LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY on this list at all.

  11. These kinds of challenges are such fun, so thanks for that. No need to stress over it, Jim. Favorites are favorites because they work for personal reasons for each of us. Justifications of terms like “best” are based on different, perhaps more academic criteria. I like your entire list, and because I’m older than you and heard some of the earlier scores when I was young and impressionable I would place them higher in number. Also, different scores became more important during different moods and situations in my life.

    Probably my earliest favorites were the Carl Stalling scores from Warner cartoons. They provided a heck of an early survey course in Classical music. Steiner’s King Kong score stayed with me from childhood on. Interestingly, his GWTW score stayed in my emotional favor while I grew to dislike the film more and more over the years. As a kid it was easier to enjoy the North by Northwest score, but once I was old enough to have a bad breakup, Herrmann’s Vertigo score assumed primary affection. When I became politicized as a teen, I got obsessed with the Theodorakis score for Z, partly because it was so full of percussion and different sounding instruments than traditional orchestras. Lately I like the loud minimalist leitmotifs in Zimmer’s scores for Nolan’s Batman reboots. I have no idea what I’ll need to like best in the future.

  12. As one who relies on iTunes and the internet for his film music needs, and most other music, for that matter (I paid the price when a virus piggybacked from a score onto my laptop), it still distresses me to be unable to find things like the complete score for Spartacus, or Walter Schumann’s “Night of the Hunter” (surprised not to see that on the list). Any idea where I could find those at a reasonable price?

  13. I’ve only just stumbled upon this site and I have to admit to a sense of joy in discovering the existence of a community of film score-lovers. Though, reading through your comments and your extensive lists, I understand my knowledge and experience of film scores is more limited than I knew.

    Still, I’d love to contribute to the discussion, so if you don’t mind, I’ll leave my own top ten. My list is varied and quirky, contemporary and perhaps its fair to say, ignorant?

    Pleasantville – Randy Newman
    The Hours – Phillip Glass
    King Kong – James Newton Howard
    American Beauty – Thomas Newman
    Amelie – Yann Tiersen
    The Return of the King – Howard Shore
    Knowing – Marco Beltrami
    Up – Michael Giacchino
    Jurassic Park – John Williams
    The Thin Red Line – Hans Zimmer

    These are in no particular order. I’m sure I’m perhaps the only person I know who loves the Pleasantville score. Does anyone on here have my back?

  14. Probably the ‘big three’ for me, at least, would be: “Auntie Mame” by the man with the ‘song in his heart’, Bronislau Kaper, for its sheer, sensuous and exuberant musical pleasure; “In Cold Blood” by maestro Qunicy Delight Jones for his unprecendented, strikingly inventive and breakthrough blending of jazz and orchestral forms and, finally, “Fahrenheit 451” by Bernard Herrmann for its stark, somberly beautiful and virtually unequalled exposition of the deepest dramatic elements of a film story in a genre — science-fiction — that up to that point had mostly resisted that kind of revelatory musical commentary.

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