Music Break: Top 10 Favorite John Williams Scores

I’ve been meaning to write a tribute for one of my favorite composers for a while and since February 8th is his 80th Birthday, it seems like a good a time as any.

As I’ve mentioned several times on my blog, my two all time favorite music genres are classical and movie soundtracks, so naturally I have a soft spot for John Williams’ Neoromanticism style of music. They’re not only iconic but also beautiful to listen to.

Just a brief history on Mr. Williams courtesy of Wikipedia:

John Towner Williams was born in Long Island, New York. His father was a jazz percussionist who played with the Raymond Scott Quintet. In 1948, the Williams family moved to Los Angeles where he went to school and later attended UCLA, studying privately with the Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. In 1952, Williams was drafted into the U.S. Air Force, where he conducted and arranged music for the Air Force Band as part of his assignments. After that he moved to New York City and entered the Juilliard School. During this time, Williams worked as a jazz pianist in New York’s many clubs and eventually studios, most notably for composer Henry Mancini.

Williams’s first major film composition was for the B movie Daddy-O in 1958, and his first screen credit came two years later in Because They’re Young. Williams received his first nomination for an Academy Award for his film score for Valley of the Dolls (1967), and then was nominated again for his score for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969). With his double Oscar nominations this year for War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin, he is now officially the most Oscar-nominated film composers of all time. Previously he tied the record with Randy Newman’s uncle Alfred Newman with 45 nominations! Williams is not only a prolific movie composer but he also spent over a decade as the Principal Conductor for Boston Pops Orchestra, as well as write music for various TV programs and high-profile events such as the Olympic games.

His longtime collaboration with Steven Spielberg began in 1974 for Spielberg’s feature directorial debut,The Sugarland Express. But it’s their second collaboration in Spielberg’s second film Jaws that perhaps remained his greatest work of all time. That two-note motif is perhaps the most instantly-recognizable score ever conceived and you can’t listen to it without thinking of shark or danger in the water!

I’ve always wondered about the secret of his method, churning out amazing score one after another for the past five decades! This site has a glimpse of insight into his process of writing music for the movies:

My choice always is not to read scripts. I’d rather go into a projection room and look at a film to have that same pristine, unprepared reaction that the audience will have, however special effects (added later) complicate that process.

I’ll run the scene several times and have a timing cue sheet that’s been prepared for the scene, and then I’ll write three or four bars and go back and look at it and then write four bars more and look at it again. And it’s a constant process of writing, looking, checking, running it in my mind’s ear against the film, even conducting with a stopwatch against the action of the film. It’s driven almost measure by measure by the film itself.

Now, though I have quite a few favorite movie composers, I’d be typically hard pressed to name even just five favorite scores from most of them, but the thing with John Williams is, it’s actually more difficult to narrow down to just 10! In any case, here are my top five favorite work that still moves me every time I listen to it. Now, I’m going to be running out of adjectives before I’m even done with my list! 🙂

In any case, here they are in random order:


This glorious main theme definitely echoes the theme of truth, justice and the American way. The rousing score always evokes childhood nostalgia every time I hear it and never fail to lift my spirits. But it’s this love theme is what gets me every time… there’s something so ethereal and otherworldly about it yet sooo romantic. No matter how many superhero movies they’ve made since Superman: The Movie, there’s still no scene that can hold a candle to that ‘can you read my mind?’ scene.


I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this score. I know there is nothing romantic about flesh-eating T-Rex but somehow the music gets me feeling warm and fuzzy. I guess the only word I could find to describe it is majestic… it somehow captures the wonderment the characters feel when they first arrive on the island. There is a hint of something enigmatic and even menacing amidst such a lush sounding arrangement.


Just like the movie, this score awakens your spirit of adventure. It’s so full of energy and sense of fun all around, but towards the middle of the score it gets a bit serious and majestic-sounding, only to start again with another rousing fanfare to finish it off. I always picture Harrison Ford’s crooked smile in his sweaty disheveled glory every time this theme is playing.


Movie music doesn’t get more heartbreaking than this. Itzhak Perlman’s masterful violin solo just touches you right down to your core. If this music doesn’t move you in some way even without having seen the film, you might want to check your pulse. Sometimes music can convey certain expression no words ever could… such as the horror of the Holocaust. Yet no matter how dire life gets, there is always a glimmer of hope, and this haunting score reflects that.


This score is perhaps not as well-known as the others he’s done but I remember really liking it when I saw the film just last year (check out my review). At times it’s jubilant and full of wonder like the young Christian Bale’s character, but at times it depicts the grim and gloomy-ness of the war.

STAR WARS – Duel of the Fates

I know that the main Star Wars theme is the most celebrated and I do agree it’s one of the best and most identifiable of all his work, but I love this one in particular from the prequel trilogy. It takes place during the epic battle scene between two Jedi masters Qui-Gon Jinn & Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Per WikiWilliams stated the chorus was introduced to give a religious, temple-like feel to the epic lightsaber duel. Williams compared the setting of the battle to a pagan altar, and that the duel itself “seems like a dance or a ballet, a religious ceremony of some kind, probably ending in the death of one of the combatants.” I actually love this score so much that I used it as the accompaniment to a trailer for Face/Off I did in a video class.


Oh the nostalgia this music brings. The first time I saw this movie I was a wee kid, but the music always brings back my memory of the most famous extra-terrestrial being ever put on film. It’s so wholesome and sweet, nothing science-fiction-y about it, simply a marvelously magical relationship between a boy and his weird-but-friendly-looking alien friend.

HARRY POTTER – Hedwig’s Theme

Now that I’ve listened to this theme again, somehow it reminds me a bit of the Home Alone score he did years before. Hey there’s nothing wrong with recycling one’s own music. Hans Zimmer does it all the time and I’m sure so do other famous composers. Again, the second you hear the twinkling sound of this score, you instantly know it’s about that boy who lived. The magical-sounding tune is just gorgeous and it has that aura of mystery yet innocent feel about it.


If I could only bring ONE score of John Williams to a desert island, I’d easily take this one. I adore the movie and fell in love with the soundtrack. In fact, for quite a while the CD is a staple listening every night for me, it’s so dreamy and romantic. Like the protagonist, there’s something so inherently graceful about this music… and when she is in Paris and La vie en Rose is playing, I just want to be transported to Paris right then and there. The two songs in the soundtrack, How Can I Remember and Sting’s In The Moonlight are absolutely breathtaking as well.


Part of what I love about Spielberg’s movie is John Williams’ energetic and whimsical score! I don’t know if Mr. Williams actually read the comics as part of his research… he must have as he somehow just nailed that adventurous spirit of the Belgian journalist and his quirky relationship with the mercurial Captain Haddock. It’s also the score that doesn’t  bear too much of Williams’ signature style, making it sound fresh and even youthful.

Well, those are my top ten favorite… now join me in paying tribute to this great composer by sharing some of your favorites from his prolific work.

38 thoughts on “Music Break: Top 10 Favorite John Williams Scores

  1. John Williams has always been one of my favourites, ever since I can remember watching Star Wars when I was little. It was one of the first melodies I ever tried to play by ear on the piano! 😛 I also had a little fangirl moment when they decided to pay homage to the iconic Hedwig’s Theme in Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2. Great post!

    1. Glad to hear it, Ruth! I must’ve tried playing Superman on the piano/organ when I was a kid, too. Yeah, that Hedwig’s theme is just brilliant isn’t it? Even just a few notes instantly makes you think of HP, that’s the genius of Williams’ work.

  2. These scores are all amazing. Williams is truly a one of a kind. That Jurassic Park score is epic!

    Most of my favourite composers are ones that a lot of people haven’t heard of, but I’ll name one: Zbigniew Preisner. A difficult one to pronounce but his music is pure genius. Here’s one of my favourites, from the soundtrack of the film THREE COLOURS: BLUE. It’s possibly the most epic piece of music ever recorded, the whole way through:

  3. Matt Stewart

    Oh what a brilliant composer!! One of my all time favorites (he is in my top five, actually) but my favorite of his must be Schindler’s List, followed by Harry Potter. He always does a great job though no matter the film.

    Great post Ruth!

  4. Ted S.

    I love John Williams too, his themes for Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark always brought me back to the first time I saw those films. I was about maybe 9 or 10 years old when I saw Superman and I love that music. In fact I think I’m going to watch the original Superman film this weekend.

    I don’t think he’s done a bad soundtrack yet, I think his theme for Mel Gibson’s The Patriot maybe his weakest work but it’s still better than most soundtracks that year.

    1. Awesome, Ted. You’ve got the Superman movie in BD now right? I listened to part of The Patriot and it’s ok, but not top 10 worthy obviously.

  5. ET, Superman, Indiana Jones, Star Wars and Jurassic Park are my most memorable John Williams scores. They’re just so epic and intimate at the same time. I can’t not hear the opening bars of Jurassic Park’s main theme and not get chills.

    The only thing – sometimes when I’m humming Indy I manage to move onto Superman… !

  6. You beat me to it Ruth! 🙂 I was just about to start my list last night but then got my arm twisted into watching Frasier (which isn’t very difficult to do) so I didn’t get it started. I’m doing my own tribute to the great man, from a slightly different angle. Great choices Ruth, though I’m surprised not to see JAWS in there, perhaps Williams most iconic score? His record is incredible, thanks for this Ruth!

    1. OH I LOVE Frasier! Was that on TV or did you watch it online? That’s one of my favorite shows along w/ Wings. I just love Niles!

      I mentioned Jaws as Williams’ iconic score in the intro, it didn’t my favorite list as it’s not something that enjoyable to listen to.

  7. My top 3 “can listen to it anytime” Williams scores would be (in no particular order)

    The Last Crusade (improves on the score from Raiders, IMO)
    Return of The Jedi (some of the most amazing score work e.v.e.r. )

    Mind you, it’s like picking a favorite from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Difficult.

    1. Yeah I know Rodney, it’s tough to whittle this list down to 10 as there are so many good ones from Williams. It’s amazing how enduring his scores are over the years.

  8. I gotta say even though John wrote some of the most iconic film scores in history that as a soundtrack collector and musician I don’t own a single one of his soundtracks. While I find they work great in the movies they are in they have no repeat listening value outside of that for me. I much prefer Philip Glass, Thomas Newman, Michael Nyman, Ennio Morricone, Cliff Martinez etc. If I had to pick my favorite it would be Schindler’s List. Ironically that is such a sad soundtrack I find myself not wanting to listen to it.

    1. I like Glass and Morricone but I don’t have their soundtracks, well I do have the song version of Cinema Paradiso if that counts. But I own a couple of John Williams CD and they’re just excellent. Schindler’s List is really sad indeed, I can’t listen it in the car or I’ll be bawling uncontrollably that I can’t drive.

  9. chandlerswainreviews

    Oddly enough, I think Williams’ association with Spielberg and his subsequent elevation as the dean of franchise cinemafantastique has crippled his creative imagination. Nothing he has written in years can approach the musical intelligence of his scores for “The Cowboys”, “The Fury”, “The Witches of Eastwick” or “Images”.

    1. Hi Chandler, welcome to FC. You sound like you are very well-versed on Williams’ work. Hmmm, I don’t know about his crippling creative imagination, I guess I’m no music expert but to me, I think he’s still a master at what he does.

  10. Great picks Ruth. I still haven’t seen Tintin but am really looking forward to is (oin home video by now probably) But A.I. and Saving Private Ryan are pretty great and, as you called out at the top, the old old-school Williams favorite JAWS which never gets old:)

    BTW Rodney, I’m with you Last Crusade TOTALLY improves on Raiders!

    1. Are you a fan of the Tintin comics, Marc? If so I think you’ll appreciate the movie. I had to mention JAWS even though it’s not my fave, but you can’t deny its brilliance and enduring quality.

  11. Wow, great list, Ruth! John Williams is responsible for so many iconic movie scores, and you nailed some of his best. I think Jaws may be my favorite, though.

  12. EMPIRE OF THE SUN was such a legendary film!
    Music composers are usually the bright part of the film business.
    BTW I have news on our Henrylicious Cavill over at my place 🙂

  13. Ruth, what a fantastic post on John Williams! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your favorites and why they’re your favorites. I also like that little bit you included about him talking about writing for film. Absolutely love it! I will definitely link my post to this one.

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  15. So many unforgettable tunes, John Williams truly is a legendary composer. I also love the Jurassic Park theme as well as the Schindler’s List one. And of course, Hedwig’s theme has become so strongly associated with Harry Potter that the two are now inseparable. Nice post Ruth!

  16. I am so pleased to see this tribute here Ruth. I didn’t do one since I did the 79th bday one last year. Thank you for doing this! You know I love John Williams work. So much that he did is highly recognizable! Glad to see him dually nominated for Oscars this year!

    Fantastic tribute that I am sure he would be proud to read. 🙂

  17. Kind of John Williams related but withing the realm of movie music composition, if you can find it you should see if you can get your hands on the BBC Proms at the movies. Awesome compilation of music. The Williams tie in is that Keith Lockhart was conducting the orchestra – Lockhart replaced Williams as the head of the Boston Pops.

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  19. I’m partial to the other Indiana Jones soundtracks over the original, but they’re all pretty fantastic. Williams is a composer who could always do bombast incredibly well, so when he manages something tender– like that Sabrina soundtrack (thanks for linking it!)– that it’s a nice surprise. Of course, he doesn’t always score a homerun. His efforts on Crystal Skull and War Horse have been lacking, but it’s hard to blame a man who’s so innately become a part of the American film-goer psyche.

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