Top 10 Unforgettable Film Scores by John Williams

Written by Brandon Stuhr

The composer is known for composing some of the most incredible and unbelievable pieces of music ever to accompany movies on the big screen, but which is his best? WatchMojo Presents the Top 10 Greatest Film Scores to be made by John Williams. But what will take the top spot? The sinister Jaws, Jurassic Park's sweeping powerful symphony, or the iconic music of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope? Watch to find out!

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He has composed some of the most iconic orchestral movie scores ever. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 film scores by John Williams.

For this list, we’re looking at John Williams’ career as a Hollywood film score composer, and are choosing those scores we feel are the most iconic, memorable and which add the most to the films in which they appear. However, we’ve decided to exclude films like “Fiddler on the Roof” because, although he won an Oscar for it, Williams was the arranger and not the composer of that score.

#10: “Empire of the Sun” (1987)

If the first entry on our list is of such admirable quality, you know that this is a list filled with serious contenders. “Empire of the Sun” follows a young Christian Bale on his journey from rich expat to Japanese prisoner of war during the Second World War. Williams’ score creates an aural landscape that matches the horrors of war and captivity in a way that no listener can ever forget. This brilliant score earned not only well-deserved Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy nominations, but also won the BAFTA. Just one in a long list of awards.

#9: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)

On the heels of his Grammy and Academy Award-winning work on “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” Williams was tapped by Steven Spielberg once again to bring to screen a sense mystery and wonderment associated with the unknown. Similar to his work on “Jaws,” Williams focused on a five-tone theme that ran throughout, even functioning as a plot point within the movie itself. Not only did these notes communicate with alien life forms; they became ingrained in popular consciousness as well. As seems to be a running theme on this list, Williams earned yet another Academy Award nomination for “Close Encounters”; but unfortunately, he lost… To himself and “Star Wars.”

#8: “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (2001)

After a relative dry spell, Williams was able to stretch his fantasy score muscles once again for our next entry. Given the opportunity to take the music in any direction he wished, Williams crafted a score that set off the characters, quests and quidditch perfectly. And, his magnificently eerie piece referred to as “Hedwig’s Theme” became synonymous with the entire Harry Potter universe – books and films alike. Critics seem to think so too, as he was also nominated for an Oscar. Think about it: who else could’ve crafted a fantasy score that would include the perfect theme for the entire Harry Potter franchise?

#7: “Superman” (1978)

Who do you call when you need a monumental score filled with heroism? Do you even have to ask? Williams’ take on our favorite Kryptonian matched the mood of the film, conveying the theatrical and in some ways cartoonish feel of heroic deeds instead of being too serious. Fun fact: veteran Hollywood composer Jerry Goldsmith was originally in charge of the score, but Williams took the position due to scheduling conflicts. That worked out well for everyone, as Williams nabbed another Oscar nomination for his work.

#6: “Schindler’s List” (1993)

Have your tissues ready. This time around, with the help of director Steven Spielberg, Williams uses his music to depict the sheer tragedy and loss suffered during the Holocaust. Unlike the majority of his other works, “Schindler’s List”’s is a much more intimate score, with famed violinist Itzhak Perlman performing some of the melancholy music. Williams’ delicate work on the soundtrack adds to the feeling of dread that accompanies one of the world’s darkest periods in history. This emotion-invoking score allowed Williams to bring home his fifth Oscar because, let’s face it, Williams is a magician with music.

#5: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981)

Our next entry is arguably the mother of all adventure film themes. This score provides another example of Williams’ expertise in invoking excitement, most notably through his “Raiders March” which would eventually become synonymous with all of Indy’s adventures. Beyond that, Williams is also able to add just the right amount of horror when needed. Later be regarded as one of Williams’ masterpieces, this score snagged the composer another Oscar nomination. Now it’s time to go on an adventure with Dr. Jones.

#4: “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)

For his next trick, Williams will warm your hearts with this marvelously uplifting score. With his work on “E.T.,’” wanted to portray a sense of innocence, showing audiences exactly how wide his range is, and the results blew everyone away. He also proved he has a sense of humor, by including a snippet of “Yoda’s Theme” from “The Empire Strikes Back” in the film when E.T. runs into a child dressed as the green Jedi. Rightfully earning its place as a John Williams concert staple, this is by far the most enchanting of his scores. So much so that “E.T.” obtained Williams his fourth Oscar win. He just can’t stop winning Oscars can he?

#3: “Jurassic Park” (1993)

There’s a reason Williams is the “go-to” guy when it comes to fantastical and magical themes; he inspires us and makes us feel awe and excitement through his music, which is exactly what he accomplishes in “Jurassic Park.” Williams’ music increases the sense of amazement we feel when traveling to Isla Nublar, and when we first see the dinosaurs onscreen. At the same time, he doesn’t neglect to amp up the intensity and fear when the Tyrannosaurus Rex attacks. Williams knows exactly what we are supposed to feel and we happily follow along.

#2: “Jaws” (1975)

Quiet: we hear an Oscar win coming. Widely considered by fans and critics alike to be one of Williams’ most impressive pieces, Williams two-note tuba theme made multitudes of people scared to venture back into the water again. The score as a whole is incredibly well done, moving the plot along with mounting tension and primordial dread, as evidenced by such tracks as “Out to Sea” and “Sea Attack Number One.” But it’s the main theme that proved exactly what Williams is capable of. Need to build some suspense? Take note from John Williams.

Before we orchestrate our final pick, here are a few honorable mentions:
- “Saving Private Ryan” (1998)
- “Hook” (1991)
- “Home Alone” (1990)
- “Catch Me If You Can” (2002)

#1: “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” (1977)

This shouldn’t have been a surprise. The combined talents of composer John Williams and director George Lucas take us to worlds we couldn’t possibly dream of. Williams blows us right out of the gate with the epic opening theme. But all of it, from lurching around the seedy Mos Eisley Cantina to the ending ceremony, is amazing. Throughout, Williams portrays a sense of familiarity while exposing us to new lands. And this isn’t just our ruling, as many critics list the “Star Wars” score as the best score ever composed.

Do you agree with our list? What’s your choice for John Williams’ best film score? For more awe-inspiring top 10s published every day, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.
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