Hollywood humdingers: 10 of the most groundbreaking scores in movie history

As Dublin International Film Festival 2023 arrives, and with the Oscars less than a month away, we press play on some remarkable soundtracks

Subtle or bombastic, plaintive or pounding, the musical score is as integral a part of a film as its acting, direction or editing. As Dublin International Film Festival 2023 prepares to open, on Thursday, and with the Oscars less than a month away, we press play on 10 of the most groundbreaking film scores in Hollywood history.

King Kong: Max Steiner

An Austrian-born child prodigy, Max Steiner would go on to compose the scores for Gone with the Wind (1939) and Casablanca (1942), among many others, but it was his work for King Kong (1933) that was revolutionary. Sound was still in its infancy in Hollywood when Steiner created the first wholly non-diegetic score – which is to say incidental music that the story’s characters aren’t aware of – to enhance the drama, and pioneered the techniques that are still used by film-makers today. It nearly didn’t happen – with RKO investing so much in making Kong’s animation reasonably realistic, there was nothing in the budget for the score, forcing the producer, Merian Cooper, to dig deep into his own pockets to fund Steiner’s use of a 46-piece orchestra at a time when a 10-piece ensemble was generally employed. King Kong’s score takes a while to get going – there is no music at all until the adventurers approach Kong’s lair of Skull Island – but once the music emerges from the blanketing fog, rising above the natives’ primitive drumming, it becomes an integral part of the film and reinvents how we perceive the medium of film itself.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Ennio Morricone

No self-respecting list of film scores would be complete without at least one reference to Ennio Morricone – indeed, you could compile a list of Morricone’s 25 best film scores without straining yourself unduly. The plaintive yearning of Cinema Paradiso (1988) has its fans, as does the ominous beauty of The Mission (1986), but it was with Sergio Leone’s The Man with No Name trilogy that Morricone’s unique take on the film score penetrated the popular consciousness. That the main motif of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), for example, is a two-note melody designed to mimic the howl of a coyote is one thing, but Morricone peppers his score with all manner of discordant effects, including gunfire, yodelling, whistles and whipcracks. Subversively playful, irreverent and radical, Morricone’s scores for the trilogy transcend their origins to define an entire genre: the merest echo of a fading wah-WAH-wah-wah is enough to transport the listener to the grimy, sweaty, heat-baked world of the spaghetti western. That Morricone’s only competitive Oscar win was for The Hateful Eight (2015) is the kind of shock that comes as no surprise.

Psycho: Bernard Herrmann

Bernard Herrmann was a precocious chap who formed his own orchestra at the tender age of 20. As with Steiner and Morricone, we could just as easily pick out his work on Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), his Oscar-winning score for The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) or Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) – but it’s with Psycho (1960), and his canny use of a strings-only orchestra for a thriller, that Herrmann delivers his masterpiece. And if you don’t believe us, ask Hitchcock, who was originally convinced that the infamous shower scene, with its shrieking violins, should have no music at all but eventually conceded that Herrmann’s music delivered much of the film’s tension and foreboding tone. Herrmann and Hitchcock would eventually fall out over the composer’s refusal to write a pop-influenced score for Torn Curtain (1966), but by then Herrmann’s reputation – and those stabbing staccato strings – was so pervasive as to influence George Martin’s arrangement of The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby.


Blade Runner: Vangelis Papathanassiou

A prog-rock veteran with Aphrodite’s Child (alongside Demis Roussos) and an early adaptor of the synthesiser, the Greek composer Vangelis Papathanassiou came to Blade Runner (1982) on something of a hot streak – his score for Chariots of Fire (1981) had won the Oscar the year before, while the film’s theme tune went to No 1 in the American Billboard Hot 100. No pressure, then. Vangelis and the director Ridley Scott had previously worked together on a Chanel ad, however, and now embarked on an usual process: Scott would forward editing-room footage to Vangelis scene by scene, with Vangelis then responding to the visual cues with his own musical prompts and interpretations. The film’s overarching aesthetic was “The future is old”, derived from Carl Jung and enthusiastically embraced by Philip K Dick, from whose novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the film was adapted. The result was a film score that sounded shockingly new in 1982 and retains its timeless quality today.

The Hours: Philip Glass

Stephen Daldry’s film The Hours (2002) revolves around three women and their relationship to Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway, emphasising the women’s connectedness through time and the ways in which their experience is universal. Who better to convey the sense of timeless repetition and subtly nuanced change than Philip Glass, the maestro of minimalism? The Hours ranks alongside Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997) as Glass’s highest-profile film commission, and although it lost out at the Oscars to Elliot Goldenthal’s Frida, it did deliver a Bafta gong. The film’s soundtrack also included some of Glass’s previous work – from Metamorphosis and Satyagraha – with Glass utilising piano, strings and harp along with the less conventional glockenspiel and celesta; the latter is a small upright-piano-like instrument that employs felt hammers, a sound plate and wooden resonators. So now you know.

On the Waterfront: Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein composed only one complete film score, which is probably why he didn’t mess around with any third-rate inspiration: the score to On the Waterfront (1954) was conceived as a docklands take on Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, with Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy and Eva Marie Saint’s Edie as the star-crossed lovers. Much like Brando himself, the score is a blend of the brutal and the delicately fine: the French horn and flute that announce our conflicted but essentially noble hero Terry soon give way to pounding percussion that foreshadows the film’s violence, and some down-and-dirty alto sax alluding to the squalor of Terry’s life. Stirring stuff, although the brief outbreak of heartbreaking yearning strings that underpin the scene in which Charley (Rod Steiger) tries to set his younger brother straight is arguably the pick of the bunch. On the Waterfront won eight Oscars in 1955, although Bernstein lost out to Dimitri Tiomkin’s The High and the Mighty. Still, at least he was a contender.

Star Wars: John Williams

As with Ennio Morricone, Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner, John Williams offers an embarrassment of riches when it comes to movie scores. Whether it’s his ominous two-note introduction of the shark in Jaws (1975) or the soaring strings of Flying, from ET (1982) – or, indeed, a host more – Williams is inextricably linked with some of modern cinema’s most memorable moments. The score for Star Wars (1977), however, pins you back in your seat as soon as the credits start to roll. Inspired in part by Gustav Holst’s Jupiter, there’s a touch of Wagner too to the grandly symphonic overture that opens the film and catapults us forward into a universe far, far away while simultaneously pulling us back into a world of myth and legend. The film’s director, George Lucas, wanted a score reminiscent of the work of Steiner and his peers in their 1940s pomp. What he got delivered an emotional heft that elevated his space opera into another realm entirely.

A Streetcar Named Desire: Alex North

You don’t have to do much to get Hollywood’s interest – with jazz, for example, it only took 50 years or so of blazing a trail as the first bona-fide American art form for the powers that be to finally commission a full-length jazz-influenced score. Alex North employed the conventional studio orchestra in scoring Elia Kazan’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s play but dug deep into the setting – New Orleans – for a jazzy sound that evoked smoky clubs and tight-knit combos. He also alluded to the filthy licks abrewing between Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) and her smouldering brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Hot stuff, indeed – A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) has the dubious honour of being censored by the Catholic League of Decency on the basis of its soundtrack. North would go on to score Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) and Dr Strangelove (1964), among many others. Commissioned by Kubrick to score 2001: A Space Odyssey, North only found out that his music had been abandoned in post-production when he attended the premiere.

Dances with Wolves: John Barry

The western has delivered many memorable scores – Dimitri Tiomkin’s High Noon (1952), Max Steiner’s The Searchers (1952) and Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven (1960), to name but three – but John Barry’s Dances with Wolves (1990) tends to get overlooked. Maybe that’s because Barry will always be more associated with the James Bond theme – as its arranger, eagle-eyed lawyer types, rather than as its composer – but Dances with Wolves is a quiet masterpiece that sets out its stall with the plaintive opening movement, Looks Like a Suicide. The repeated motif of a solitary trumpet reminds us that the hero, John Dunbar (the film’s star and director, Kevin Costner) is an army man wandering the wide open spaces of the old west. The lush, romantic strings give us a sense of how vast and empty the old west really was. Nominated that year for an Oscar, Barry beat Randy Newman, John Williams and Maurice Jarre to take home the laurels.

Sweet Smell of Success: Elmer Bernstein

A prolific composer for film, with more than 150 titles to his credit, Elmer Bernstein (no relation to Leonard) deserves some kind of mention. Only perversity or bias can explain (if not entirely excuse) our overlooking The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), The Magnificent Seven (1960), To Kill a Mockingbird (1964) and My Left Foot (1989) for Sweet Smell of Success (1957), but Alexander Mackendrick’s thriller is a stone-cold noir classic that was something of a landmark, being the first time that a movie had delivered two separate soundtracks, one of which featured Bernstein’s jazz-influenced score, the other consisting of tracks from the Chico Hamilton Quintet. (Hamilton and his quintet can be seen in the movie as a nightclub’s in-house band.) A soundtrack that offers virtually every variation on the era’s jazz, it concludes with the sublime Concerto of Jazz Themes – 16 minutes of uncompromisingly tangled post-bop melody.