I’ve been listening to film scores in earnest for several years now. I can rattle off facts about films and details about their scores and composers that stagger most of my friends. But I forget the fact that not everyone is familiar to the music behind our favorite movies, so my passionate rants usually end up receiving blank stares. Whenever this happens, I suggesting some places to start listening, based on my own experience. Most people like to listen to music that is engaging and keeps their attention, which, unless you are a fan of classical music, is hard to do without lyrics. But at the same time, some of the most emotional scores include some portions that are harder to follow along with on the first go.
(I have avoided scores by John Williams, not because he’s not a good composer – he’s absolutely amazing! – but because he’s the one composer most people will recognize, having scored so many universally recognized films – Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Jaws, and E.T., just to name a few)
So keeping that in mind, drawing from a huge list of popular movies and attempting some diversity between composers (though, seriously, almost anything by Hans Zimmer is great for a new listener) here are my top 10 choices for film scores to listen to if you have never listened to one before, along with some honorable mentions:
1: The Lion King (1994) by Hans Zimmer
The Lion King is a classic, more than any other score in this list. I know very few people who have not seen this movie, and even fewer who wouldn’t recognize the music. Many people know that Elton John did most of the songs for this movie, but Hans Zimmer won an Academy Award for the score, though he initially didn’t want to score it because he didn’t like musicals or children’s films. But he accepted the job so that he could take his young daughter to the premiere, and later found that the death of Mufasa in the film helped him emotionally deal with the death of his own father (Daily Mail, 2017). The way Zimmer transfers from the cinematic drama of the major action scenes to the absolutely gorgeous African choir section makes this one of my absolute favorite scores.
2: National Treasure by Trevor Rabin
I have loved this movie since I was a kid, and when I became interested in film scores, I went back and listened to the score and realized just how memorable this score is. Try listening to tracks like “Preparation Montage” and “Foot Chase” – Trevor Rabin has a rock background (trevorrabin.net, n.d.) and you can really hear that in this score. Then listen to the more orchestral, moving tracks like “Ben” and “Treasure” and you’ll realize why I love this score so much. Additionally, it’s under an hour long, so it won’t take as long as other scores to listen to the whole thing.
3: Up by Michael Giacchino
This is one of the sweetest and best Pixar movies out there, in my opinion. Michael Giacchino’s talent and feel for the heart of a movie really comes out in his Pixar scores. The track “Married Life”, is my personal favorite, because it was written for that heartbreaking montage at the beginning that made even critics cry. Ellie’s theme is really the highlight and the main idea of the entire movie, and this is one of the best places to hear it. Another good track is “Stuff We Did”, which features Ellie’s theme in a much more subdued and sorrowful light as you remember all the things that Carl and Ellie were going to do together that never happened. This score captures the highs and lows of the story perfectly, and is great to listen if you’re feeling relaxed.
4: The Avengers (2012) by Alan Silvestri
How could I not put The Avengers in here? This score was one of the first scores I bought for myself when I was first getting into film scores a few years ago. It’s so iconic, and every track brings something new and exciting that really helps you remember without half trying what was going on in that scene. Take “Red Ledger”, for example – the conversation between Loki and Black Widow. It’s almost hard to tell who wins in that quiet battle of words – Natasha’s dark Russian theme weaves around Loki’s mysterious alien one so well that halfway through the track you aren’t sure which is which anymore. And one of my other favorites, “One Way Trip”, you can hear the moment that Tony disappears into the wormhole, and the tiny, one-time motif that plays when the Hulk snatches him out of the sky and saves his life.
5: Once Upon a Time in the West by Ennio Morricone
This score is exciting because I actually didn’t learn about it until I was watching Hans Zimmer’s Masterclass on film scoring. Zimmer said that Once Upon a Time in the West was one the very first movie he ever saw, and that Ennio Morricone was one of his greatest influences (The Telegraph, 2012). So I went and listened to this score and was absolutely fascinated because I could hear so many of Hans’ scores in this music! So much of Hans Zimmer’s style is adapted directly from Morricone’s music and it’s amazing to listen to the similarities. We truly stand on the shoulders of giants.
6: Beauty and the Beast by Alan Menken
This takes me back into my early childhood, one of the first themes to stick in my memory. I chose the newer version of this score because Alan Menken expanded and broadened the themes from the original animated version, but otherwise kept them the same (Billboard, 2017). So basically, it’s the same music, there’s just more of it. This theme is just so memorable and gorgeous I couldn’t not put it on this list. So lyrical and evocative – doesn’t the music make you want to go watch the movie again?
7: Thor (2011) by Patrick Doyle
This was the other score I bought for myself when I first got into film scores, being a hardcore Marvel fan. I love this score in particular, because, out of all the other Marvel scores, this one has a very lyrical, Shakespearian feel to it. Patrick Doyle works with director Kenneth Branagh a lot (ClassicFM, 2018), and you can hear that Doyle knew exactly what Branagh wanted for this score. It’s so gentle and yet so impactful it really deserves its place on this list. Check out “The Compound” and listen to Thor breaking into the SHIELD compound to retrieve his hammer, only to find out he can’t lift it, or “Letting Go”, at the very end, when Loki falls into the wormhole.
9: Edward Scissorhands by Danny Elfman
I am ashamed to say I have not actually seen this movie yet. But ask anyone who knows their film scores will mention this as a top Danny Elfman score (Filmtracks, 2016). In my own experience, having listened to the score without seeing the movie, I feel that the music is self-explanatory. No, I don’t know what goes on in this story – but I can guess based on the emotion I hear in the music. Ups and downs, action and emotion – that’s all captured within this score. And of course, the Ice Dance track. Amazing!
8: August Rush by Mark Mancina
This is a lesser known movie than all the others on this list. I watched it a few years ago with my family and was not wowed by the storyline, but I was blown away by the music. This particular track kind of encompasses the main character’s entire journey through the movie, a young boy attempting to find his parents by following the music in his head. You can hear the noise of the traffic in New York City, the guitar that earned him money on a street corner, and the voice of the girl who became his friend and support. Using unconventional instruments and a creative composing style, Mark Mancina has definitely nailed it with this score.
10: Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) by Harry Gregson-Williams
This score is special to me. It was the first score I ever listened to – at ten years old – and I was fascinated from the very start. One of my most favorite tracks, “Evacuating London” is kind of a transition track between WWII London and a little house in the country and a magical world waiting in a wardrobe. It’s moving and relaxing and really wakes up your imagination in a way that not much else can. And this track, “The Battle”, is so amazingly evocative of the images in the story. Close your eyes when listening to it and imagine the battlefield of the movie. Do like I did and assign different characters to different instruments, and try to pinpoint the exact moment when the White Witch stabs Edmund and it goes into slow motion. It’s sure to send shivers of pleasure down your back!
Some honorable mentions I want to include are the scores for the Lord of the Rings trilogy by Howard Shore, which is gorgeous but also so incredibly long that a beginner listener might give up after a few tracks. If you stick it out, though, it’s worth it. So many motifs! I could go on and on. Also, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies by Hans Zimmer and Geoff Zanelli have some amazing music. These are easy to listen to but I couldn’t just pick one movie to put in the list as they are all equally action-packed and evocative. And lastly, I have always loved the score for The Polar Express by Alan Silvestri. The only problem with that is that the official score only has three orchestral tracks alongside the rest of the songs from the movie, so there’s not too much there to listen to. But go ahead and listen to them, please!
If you listen to all the scores on this list, you are well on your way to being a better informed moviegoer than all of your friends! I would encourage you to incorporate film music into your regular playlists as it will help you connect with your favorite movies and also broaden your knowledge of how music works to tell a story.