10 Best Original Score Winners That Are Worth Watching for the Soundtrack Alone
A great soundtrack elevates a film, but these Best Original Scores make a film. With the Oscars on the horizon, fire up your speakers and revisit some of the best music to come out of Hollywood.
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The Top 10 Best Original Score Winners
Films move us in many ways, whether it’s from incredible performances, striking cinematography or great storytelling. But there’s one component that strikes a chord in all of us: great music. From the looming danger of deep strings as a massive great white shark closes in, to the swelling chorus of violins as two lovers part on a runway in Casablanca, the film score has the power to move us, terrify us and even make us weep.
While the Academy Award for Best Original Score has had a few name changes over the years, it’s always been about the same thing: recognizing the movie industry’s top musical talent. Some winners might not be in your daily rotation, but their scores stand the test of time, and continue to enchant listeners generations over.
The Sound of Music (1965)
What’s more iconic than Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp twirling on a mountaintop? Maybe a family of singing children bidding you farewell, or perhaps a Do-Re-Mi lesson in the idyllic countryside? Released in 1965 to both critical and commercial acclaim, The Sound of Music quickly became a phenomenon—and it’s not hard to see why. The film is chock full of hit after hit thanks to the incredible songwriting of Rodgers and Hammerstein, along with the help of Irwin Kostal’s screen arrangements. Give it a watch and you’ll likely be humming the tunes for days to come.
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The Wizard of Oz (1939)
A lion, a scarecrow, a tin man and a girl from Kansas walk into Oz… The Wizard of Oz needs no introduction; from Dorothy’s dazzling red shoes to the terrifying flying monkeys and everything in between, this Technicolor wonder is an established classic that’s ascended into a league of its own. While songs like “Over the Rainbow,” “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” and “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” have edged their way into the cultural zeitgeist—even for those unfamiliar with the source material—composer Herbert Stothart’s score helps flesh out L. Frank Baum‘s fantastical world. It’s a beautifully moving and unabashedly classic Hollywood score.
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West Side Story (1961)
Electrifying choreography, glorious set design and music that’s stood the test of time—Shakespeare, eat your heart out. This loose adaptation of Romeo and Juliet brings the Bard’s classic tragedy to 1950s New York City, freshly updated with prescient social commentary and enchanting work from Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal. Despite deserved criticism for its flagrant use of Brown-face, West Side Story has remained a landmark entry in the musical film canon, and even inspired a remake that was nominated for seven Oscars in 2022.
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Photo: The Criterion Collection
The Last Emperor (1987)
What happens when you combine the talents of a Japanese electronic-music pioneer, a celebrated Chinese composer and one of the most influential musicians to come out of New York City’s new wave scene? A score worthy of accompanying Bernardo Bertolucci’s sprawling epic! The Last Emperor follows the life of Chinese monarch, Puyi, from his coronation at the age of two through to the cultural and political upheaval of China in the 20th century. Ranging from grand and bombastic to soft and serene, this Best Original Score is an incredibly moving component of an already-impressive film.
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The Little Mermaid (1989)
Back in the ’80s, Disney was a far cry from the entertainment powerhouse of the present. Coming off of one of their biggest box office failures with 1985’s The Black Cauldron, the company needed a hit. Corporate restructuring eventually led the team to two prominent members of the Broadway music scene: Alan Menken and Howard Ashman—both of whom had made a name for themselves with The Little Shop of Horrors. Despite being his first foray into film, Menken helped usher in the Disney renaissance of the ’90s, pumping out a score filled to the brim with magic and wonder—thanks in part to infectious lyrics by Ashman.
Available to stream on Disney+
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Midnight Express (1978)
The orchestral score goes hand in hand with the Oscars, but every now and then something a little more experimental breaks through. Case in point: Italian electronic-music legend Giorgio Moroder’s synthesizer-heavy score for the 1978 prison-drama, Midnight Express. Moroder’s work with artists like Donna Summer helped pioneer an iconic sound of the late ’70s and ’80s, filled with grooving synth hooks and infectious beats. Look no further than the track “Chase” for a taste of Moroder’s magic; the frenetic melody puts you right in the middle of Midnight Express’s most nail-biting scene. While other artists at the time had dabbled with electronic film scores—like fellow Italian group Goblin and their work with horror legend Dario Argento—few achieved Midnight Express’s critical acclaim.
Available to stream on CTV Movies
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Purple Rain (1984)
In 1984, the world found out what it sounds like when doves cry. A landmark entry in the musician-turned-actor film canon, audiences delighted in seeing Prince in his first acting role. Not only did the film lead to one of the mononymous superstar’s most iconic—and unabashedly purple—outfits, Purple Rain would also go on to be his best-selling album—and forever shape his legacy. With hits like “Let’s Go Crazy,” “When Doves Cry” and the title track, it may not be the typical Best Original Score recipient, but it’s certainly well deserved.
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The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Adapting one of the most celebrated fantasy series in the history of literature was a tall order for director Peter Jackson and his creative team. While it had been done in the past with varied success, Jackson’s efforts led to one of the most successful film trilogies of all time. A large part of that success was due to the masterful work of Canadian composer Howard Shore. At times quaint and idyllic, grandiose and menacing, Shore’s score for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring effortlessly provided a sonic backdrop for Middle Earth and all its inhabitants. Shore would also go on to win the same award two years later for his work on the trilogy’s finale, The Return of the King (2003).
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The Social Network (2010)
If you went back to the ’90s and told moody teens that the guy from Nine Inch Nails would turn out to be one of the most exciting composers in Hollywood, they’d never believe you. Not only did The Social Network’s score mark an exciting development in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s careers—the two having previously collaborated on a number of projects—the electronically driven tracks also helped carry the torch from Giorgio Moroder. This Best Original Score perfectly transplanted the sensibilities of Nine Inch Nails into a work that mirrored the story of Facebook’s contentious rise, and also gave a taste of the duo’s future success in Hollywood.
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Photo: Stefano Buttafoco / Shutterstock.com
Star Wars (1977)
Ten words on a black background about a galaxy far, far away, followed by a brief pause. And suddenly, trumpets blaring triumphantly alongside two words in big yellow letters: Star Wars. It’s one of the most memorable intros in movie history, and one that still resonates with fans around the world. Taking inspiration from composers like Gustav Holst and his “The Planets” suite, alongside the swashbuckling scores of films like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Williams helped usher in a new era reminiscent of the golden age of Hollywood. These days, Star Wars is a cultural institution, and there’s no doubt that’s partly due to the unforgettable score.
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