Top 10 Favourite Movie Score Tracks

Awhile back a friend and I were talking about our favourite movie score. To supplement the discussion I decided to gather up a shortlist. My initial shortlist was 66 tracks long. I started to condense the shortlist into a top ten. I only had two rules: I could only pick one track per movie, and it had to be a movie score track, rather than a soundtrack song (as in, instrumental music written for the movie rather than an already published song included in the movie).

As I narrowed the list I realized I was choosing movies that meant the most to me. In the end I wasn’t looking for my favourite overall movie score, but a track from a movie that encapsulated scenes, or moments, or overall feelings from movies I loved. When I finally showed my top ten list to my friend he didn’t recognize a lot them. So I decided to write up what made those tracks meaningful to me.

So spoiler alert: In some cases I not only had to describe the foundation of the movie, but the overarching plot or themes as well. Some of the tracks were more involved than I thought. I tried to remain away from spoilery plot details wherever possible, but in moments where the movie score track accompanies the climax / ending, that was unavoidable. I’d also like to note that I only have very basic music training so where I’m talking about the music itself, I’m simply doing my best to communicate how the music makes me feel.

Here are my top ten favourite movie score tracks (in no particular order):

The Princess Bride – Guide My Sword. Mark Knopfler

Manny Patinkin’s role as Inigo Montoya in Princess Bride is one of those landmark performances that follow actors around for a lifetime. It’s worth noting that in Manny doesn’t mind. He told a New York Magazine interviewer that even though people quote his famous line from the film to him every day, he loves it.

For the uninitiated, Inigo’s legend is this:

This is one of those rare times that places the right actor in the right role at the right time in their life. There’s a reason that line resonates with generations of people. Because for Patinkin, part of him believed that if he played his role and if his character achieved his goal, that Patinkin’s own deceased Father would come back and visit him.

“Guide my Sword” is Inigo’s unofficial theme. It first plays when he sits Wesley down and tells him his story.

A single trumpet call carries the tune. Trumpets are frequently the instrument that sound the journey from one world to the next, from life to death. A soft melody plays behind the trumpet. A gentle harp. And an occasional chime. The song is like a mythological call, lulling us into another world.

But it is that single trumpet that elevates us alongside Patinkin’s performance, that makes us believe in fairy tales, true love, and that one can swear an oath as a heartbroken little boy, and keep it as a man.


Condorman – Meet Laser Lady. Henry Mancini

Condorman would never work if Michael Crawford didn’t play his character, Woody, so straight. The movie is an implausible story about a man who draws and writes comic books about Condorman, a super hero with a fiery-coloured, flying, condor suit.

Woody has an unfortunate set of beliefs about comics. He foolishly thinks that his comics have to be based on reality. He tells his friend Harry (who works for the CIA):

“That’s the way I create, you know that. If Condorman can’t do something in real life then I won’t have him do it in one of my comic books. Kids all over the world read my stuff — they trust me. They know if I fake it.”

Through Harry, Woody is asked to take some papers to Istanbul. Harry asks Woody to do this because the mission requires a civilian, but when Woody meets his contact, the beautiful Natalia (Barbara Carrera), he tells her he’s a top agent and his code name is Condorman. This eventually leads to him living out his puerile fantasy of rescuing a damsel, and getting every kind of super hero tech he can conceive of to do it.

It’s campy, but Condorman isn’t just about that, it’s about love. After their initial meeting Woody draws Natalia from memory. Longing violin strings play as the camera slowly travels to Woody sitting at his drawing desk. When Woody begins to draw, a brief, music-box-like melody plays over top the strings. Music boxes are like soothing lullabies that hint at more serene, magical worlds.

The scene, much like the music box tune, is a canvas for us to project our imagination onto. The camera faces the canvas as though we are Woody’s eyes; as though we are the dreamer. From that angle we project the same desire and longing for Natalia that Woody has. Then, propelled by the ethereal music box tune, we fall in love.


Back to the Future – Overture. Alan Silverstri

Choreographer Panna Rittikrai once described martial arts movie star Tony Jaa as being superhuman. He said Tony Jaa “can float in the air a little longer than most people.”

That’s like Back to the Future. It seems to have just a bit more magic than other movies. Carry us just a little higher. And Alan Silvestri’s music helps hold us up there.

Marty McFly is a screw up from a family of screw ups. His old man is a pushover who gets bullied at work and doesn’t believe in himself, and Marty is the same. Right before his band’s audition for a school concert he frets, “What if they say I’m no good? I just don’t think I can take that kind of rejection.”

Marty gets chewed out by the school’s principle for being late for school. He turns up speakers too loud and blows them up. He oversleeps when he’s supposed to meet his inventor friend, Doc.

When Doc invents a time machine and inadvertently sends Marty 30 years back in the past, Marty must reunite with Doc’s younger self to get back to the future. While in the past, Marty screws up by inadvertently causing his Mother to fall for him instead of his Father. To fix it, he starts coaching his Father on how to be more confident and how to attract her. And that’s when Marty starts changing.

When some bullies start chasing Marty he runs from them on a mock skateboard, shooting sparks from the back as he quickly corners to get away from them. It’s not that Marty is privy to information, technology, and abilities people from the past don’t have, it’s that he’s finally gaining confidence in himself. Even still, as he’s fleeing he crashes into a couple of people and topples over.

It’s these constant reminders of Marty’s failures that make his successes so relatable. That quickens our heartbeat when we see the sparks fly from his skateboard, because Marty’s victories become our victories.

Alan Silverstri’s overture encompasses this entire story. The warm strings and the soft trumpet that soothe us into feeling at home. The single flute that precludes mystery and adventure. The thunderous drums sound like they accompany someone falling down. And the steady, marching drum beat that climbs as Marty struggles forward (which is a good one third of the song) leads to the menacing piano as Marty is being pursued. And finally, back to the triumphant brass section, french horns blaring that familiar chorus that we associate with the the flaming tire marks, headed back to the future.


Gattaca – The Other Side. Michael Nyman

The violins that dominate Gattaca‘s main theme suggest (at times) that someone has died. These violins bookend the film; they are at the start and they are at the end. But Gattaca isn’t about death, merely the struggle of one underprivileged man in a dystopian society.

Yet the mournful strings are pervasive and ceaseless. Anyone who watches the film remembers their tune. So what does the tune mean? The tune oscillates from lone, sorrowful violin, to a second group of strings with a faster tempo. Gattaca‘s theme song isn’t about death — it is about rebirth.

Set in a not-so-distant future where the genetically enhanced are offered every social advantage, Gattaca follows the dreams of one un-enhanced man, Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke). In addition to his inferior genes, Vincent is also hindered by a heart disorder which makes his dream of space travel impossible in the eyes of potential employers. Desperate, he illegally poses as Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), and covertly passes security checks by using Jerome’s superior DNA.

The film is a parable on the pursuit of happiness. Jerome is born with every advantage, but lives in crippled misery asserting, “he wouldn’t have it any other way.” Vincent desperately wants to leave his world; every morning he violently brushes his skin, trying to eradicate as much of himself as possible. Yet he tackles his dream with ferocity – something few of us dare do.

Gattaca‘s soundtrack title, “The Other Side,” mimics the film’s theme. It infuses the audience with Vincent’s perspective. He is less than he should be, less than he can be. He often feels alone in his struggle. As the second set of strings joins and increases the tempo we become excited and invested in Vincent’s efforts. And then we return to a solitary tune with a different instrument, like a flute. The track is a constant back and forth between melancholy and perseverance. Between Vincent’s misery at the bottom-most rung of society and his iron-clad resolution to climb to the stars.

Michael Nyman captures the film’s heart like few composers do. In those brief, serene moments with a single violin, we feel Vincent’s isolation. And as Vincent gazes up at the stars we adopt his dreams as our own, and rejoice with every step upward, from beneath the heel of society’s boot, passed the heavens, and beyond.


Braveheart – Sons Of Scotland. James Horner

Braveheart is the tale of one Scotsman, William Wallace, in the year 1316 who rebels against the English rule of his country and inspires an army to fight for Scottish freedom.

It feels like parts of “Sons of Scotland” plays throughout the film, but the tune accompanies the first major battle in the Scottish rebellion and the movie’s famous speech about life, victory, and freedom.

As the track begins, menacing, low horns play alongside foreboding trumpets. The English army unleashes its ranks to the Scottish army’s view. The Scots stir and lose hope. Some begin to leave the battlefield. Then William Wallace arrives and the tune changes. A symbol crashes as descends upon the field on his horse surrounded by his men. And the tune changes from foreboding, to warm.

To the men, William Wallace is a legend. “William Wallace!” one says. “Can’t be,” another replies. “Not tall enough.” And then William he speaks to them. Low trumpets play at first as he tries to convince the men to stay and fight, followed by light, wavering strings.

The men resist at first, but gradually the tempo rises and a slow pulse of drums begins as Wallace rides alongside of the army, and you see the eyes of the once distaught men, following him as he rides by. They are entralled with him, this legend who is a man just like them, who has decided to do something meaningful with his life. And as Wallace’s inspirational cry is echoed by the men, the bagpipes, the symbol of Scotland, blare along with an army inspired to fight for freedom.


Apollo 13 – Main Title. James Horner

Apollo 13‘s main title track is as much about triumph as it is about the potential loss and mourning America nearly faced when three astronaughts: Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Jack Swaggert (Kevin Bacon), and Fred Hayes (Bill Paxton), almost lost their lives in space.

It begins with a quick, marching drumbeat, before a lone bugle plays, eerily similar to the bugle call you might hear during a military funeral. The track then goes between the two (drums and bugle) connected by searching strings.

The title track is a parable for the human condition. Adversity and loss. Three men are as far removed from humanity as possible, in the cold, treacherous jaws of space, while a unified world of hope, prayer, and resolute efforts attempt to bring them home.


3:10 to Yuma – Bible Study. Marco Beltrami

“Bible Study” is the musical culmination of all 3:10 to Yuma‘s different stories. It is a chase between a one-legged Father, Dan Evans, and a group of outlaws as Dan attempts to bring infamous fugitive Ben Wade to justice. It is about the unusual loyalty between Charlie Prince and Wade, and Prince’s dogged determination to set Wade free. It is about Evans and Wade who have different lives and hate, admire, and envy each other. It is about a Evan, a shamed Father, trying to redeem himself in his son’s eyes.

Marco Beltrami’s “Bible Study” plays during the climax, while all these plots are blossoming during a chase sequence. Beltrami used only 19th century instruments (even if they were digitally created). A guitar plays the main chase sequence, which escalates in tempo while a set of strings (to help relate the emotional story of the characters) rise with that tempo. Both instruments struggle against each other to dominate until at last a trumpet enters mimicking the strings, like something we might hear in a Ennio Morricone western.

“Bible Study” is little elements of all the musical themes we’ve heard throughout the film that have helped define the plot, the characters, and their motivations. The tune signifies a remarkable moment when a weak man becomes a hero, a bad man becomes a good man, and a son becomes his Father.


Rudy – The Final Game. Jerry Goldsmith

      Rudy (The Final Game) - Rudy

Rudy may be small, but the music in the film makes his dreams big enough to carry all our collective hopes, aspirations, and belief in ourselves.

Rudy isn’t smart enough to attend Notre Dame and he isn’t tall enough to play football there. At least, that’s what he’s been told all his life. But Rudy isn’t going to listen anymore. He spends years trying to improve his grades at a smaller college to get accepted into Notre Dame. Trying, failing, trying, failing. It would be painful to watch if not for Jerry Goldsmith’s score.

Goldsmith starts low and soft at the beginning of the film, while Rudy is starting his journey. Quiet, yearning strings introduce us to Rudy, with a playful, gentle piano. As Rudy tries harder, the strings become louder, until the trumpeting brass joins.

In the track, “The Final Game,” the strings furiously prance back and forth while the brass thunders in when Rudy makes the final sack of the game. As his teammates carry him off the field, a brass instruments rise above the rest of the music to mark his individual triumph, before sweeping into the theme that reminds us: Never give up. Never stop believing. Never stop chasing. Follow your dreams.


Unbreakable – The Orange Man. James Newton Howard

I keep coming back to this Unbreakable track.

Most of Unbreakable‘s soundtrack is searching, much like it’s characters. David is a security guard who is slowly learning and understanding that he is unbreakable. Elijah is fragile comic art seller who is both trying to convince David of his special abilities, while simultaneously trying to understand why his own bones are so brittle. Elijah insists there is a purpose.

The soundtrack is light for the majority of the story; understated. Sometimes we just have light piano or strings. It’s almost droning. So when David finally uses his abilities and attacks the orange man there is a swell of emotion in the music. The strings flourish and a lone trumpet raises up and carries the melody to triumph.

We get a similar swell when Eli admits to David who he really is at the end. Because in these two moments they are both realizing who they are. David is a hero and Eli is a villain. And this is the moment I think of every time I hear that flourish of strings and that trumpet. I get goosebumps thinking of Eli’s speech as he cries out to David:

“I should’ve known way back when … You know why, David? Because of the kids.”

And then softly:

“They called me Mr. Glass.”


Man Of Steel Soundtrack – What Are You Going To Do When You Are Not Saving The World? Hans Zimmer

When I first saw Man of Steel and people asked me about it, I told them about the line where Superman says the symbol on his chest isn’t an “S,” that on his world it means hope.

Despite it’s failings, there is a lining of hope surrounding Man of Steel. It exists in a few moments, like when Clark’s Mother helps him when he’s just a young boy in school. Clark’s super hearing manifests and, overwhelmed, Clark hides in the maintenance closet.

“The world’s too big, Mom.”

‘Then make it small. Focus on my voice, pretend it’s an island.’

It’s one of the few emotional moments that works in Man of Steel. And that start of Hans Zimmer’s track plays during it. A lone piano. At first, it is only a few notes. But gradually, the notes are echoed from a lower octave.

And then the drums begin.

The tune of the piano gets replaced by brass. A steady, but low group of strings plays, oscillating back and forth and climbing along with the drums. Until a single group of strings breaks out and builds us to a thunderous rise of trumpets and swell of every other instrumental part.

And then the music falls low again.

When Man of Steel begins, Clark is alone. He has his parents, but he’s so different from everyone else around him. He hides away from the world, curled up in a ball. But as the film progresses he grows: He grows in power, he grows in self-knowledge, he grows more confident in his place in the world.

The track mirrors that journey. Clark as a boy is the two notes on the piano, and by the end his power and stature is so strong the music is nearly cacophonous.

In spite of Man of Steel‘s failings, this quest and growth is echoed perfectly by Hans Zimmer’s score. Its pursuit of triumph swells inside us just as Jor-El’s speech promises:

“You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun.”

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