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So You Want to Listen to Movie Scores

By Elizabeth E. Choi, Contributing Writer

A movie is a unique work of art where countless elements from the cinematography to costume design, come together to create a single story. One component that many often overlook is the music of a film, which became a key aspect of onscreen storytelling even before spoken dialogue. Prior to the invention of talkies, solo musicians or live orchestras performed in theaters to fill up the silence and set the mood of scenes. Now, soundtracks play an even bigger role, with awards spotlighting them and the ubiquitous impact of theme songs that have become instantly recognizable. Below are some classic and fan-favorite original scores from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and the more recent past.


High Noon” composed by Dimitri Tiomkin (1952)

Tiomkin was a giant (no pun intended) of mid-twentieth-century American film music composers. The High Noon soundtrack, whose theme song is “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin,’” imbues a spirit of heroism and sacrifice in the film that influenced future Westerns for several years following its release.

“East of Eden” composed by Leonard Rosenman (1955)

The music of the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s magnum opus deserves more recognition than it currently gets in the cultural mainstream. Rosenman’s sweeping, initially frantic composition matches the struggle between good and evil in the story. Particularly touching is “Ferris Wheel,” which plays while Cal Trask and Abra Bacon recognize their growing feelings for each other.

“Ben Hur” composed by Miklós Rózsa (1959)

Not to be forgotten is the masterpiece that is featured in Ben Hur. It is only fitting that a three-and-a-half-hour-long epic has a score just as grand. The theme and its reprises convey a sense of triumph over inner conflict, appropriate to the message of the film.


Jules et Jim” composed by Georges Delerue (1962)

While it is a standard of the French New Wave movement, Jules et Jim arguably boasts a score even more enjoyable than the actual film. Some melodies are carefree and youthful — almost meandering, as Jules, Jim, and Catherine’s earlier days are — other pieces in the soundtrack are dramatically tragic to reflect the movie’s ending.

Doctor Zhivago” composed by Maurice Jarre (1965)

Although some doubted that Jarre could compose music for “Doctor Zhivago” equal to his impressive score for "Lawrence of Arabia," he proved them wrong. His use of instruments such as a zither, a shamisen, and balalaikas elevates the score as one of the greatest in cinematic history.

Two for the Road” composed by Henry Mancini (1967)

It seems strange that a film centered on a strained marriage has such a gorgeous soundtrack, but Mancini does not disappoint. Supposedly his favorite of all his compositions, the score is perfect as the characters reminisce about easier times in their dysfunctional relationship while driving through Europe.


“Love Story” composed by Francis Lai (1970)

Although mocked every year during Harvard’s first-year orientation, it is undeniable that the film has a great score (it’s probably the best part about the movie). Incorporating Jenny’s love for classical music and the Beatles, Lai produces an evocative and haunting sound to accompany the film.

“The Godfather” composed by Nino Rota (1972)

There is no such thing as a perfect movie, but The Godfather certainly comes close. Its excellence extends to its score, whose melodies — including that of the love theme — are dark and brooding, complementing the tone of the film.

“Star Wars” composed by John Williams (1977)

This list would be incomplete without the music from Star Wars, just one of Williams’ many superb scores, though perhaps his most iconic. The London Symphony Orchestra performs the score with an energy that punctuates the excitement and adventure of the space opera. Besides its widely known main title, a highlight is “The Princess Appears.”

More recent past

“Cinema Paradiso” composed by Ennio Moriccone (1988)

Cinema Paradiso would not have been nearly as moving as it is without its score, which flawlessly captures Salvatore’s wide-eyed childhood, teenage years of all-consuming love, and successful but jaded adult life. A stand-out piece is “Tema D’Amore - Version 2”; the swelling instrumental and fading notes emphasize the hope and heartbreak Salvatore experiences.

“Emma” composed by Rachel Portman (1996)

Many film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels have quality scores, and Emma is no exception. The light, graceful score in Emma highlights the eponymous character’s comfortable life and amusing attempts to matchmake others before finding romance herself. Portman was also the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Original Score —Best Original Musical for Comedy Score at the time —for her work with Emma.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” composed by Howard Shore (2001)

Shore helps bring the fantasy world of Middle-earth to life with his score for “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” At separate times cheerful, ethereal, and foreboding, the music brilliantly encapsulates the journey of the fellowship as it ventures to destroy the One Ring.

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