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Best movie scores of all time, according to the Oscars

  • Best movie scores of all time, according to the Oscars

    The relevance of instrumental music to cinema is impossible to overstate. It could be said that music in film predates actual sound in film since live organists or phonograph recordings would often play alongside silent movies. With the emergence of talkies, instrumental film music achieved new levels of significance and dimension. No longer was the music simply driving the action or filling in for lack of sound—it was now a permanent fixture within the film itself. Thus began the golden age of film scoring.

    Using the academy’s database as a source, Stacker compiled all wins for Best Original Score at the Oscars chronologically from 1934 to 2019. Where the award was expanded into two different categories (Best Original Score and Best Scoring, or Best Original Dramatic Score and Best Original Musical or Comedy Score), Stacker went with the best original score and best original dramatic score winners.

    When composer Max Steiner—aka the “father of film music”—scored original music for the 1932 RKO film “Symphony of Six Million,” it was widely considered the birth of film scores. Steiner’s score was among the first to be used non-diegetically, driving the mood and narrative from off-screen. The following year, Steiner provided the thrilling score for “King Kong,” and movie music was never quite the same. It paved the way for a tradition of iconic scores and classical composers alike, including the late great Ennio Morricone, who scored more than 500 films before dying on July 6 at 91 years old.

    Starting in 1935, the academy handed out an Oscar for best scoring. It was a category that comprised both original movie scores and adaptations of pre-existing material. At first, the music department head of the winning studio would always receive the award in addition to any credited composer. However, everything changed when the 1937 film “One Hundred Men and a Girl” won the Oscar for best scoring, despite having no credited composer. After that, the award was divided into two categories: Best Music Score of a Dramatic Picture and Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. It marked the first time that the academy tinkered with film music categories, but certainly not the last.

    Meanwhile, one might wonder: What’s the difference between a movie soundtrack and a movie score? The answer is that a movie score is purely instrumental, while a movie soundtrack can include both songs and instrumental music. With something like “Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope”—which essentially features no songs—the soundtrack and score are the same thing. For Disney musicals or Martin Scorsese films, the soundtrack incorporates both timeless songs and instrumental music. This shouldn’t be confused with the soundtrack album, which can feature just instrumental music or just songs or a mixture of the two.

    Keep reading to discover the best movie scores of all time, according to the Oscars.

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  • 1934: One Night of Love

    - Composers: Louis Silvers, Victor Schertzinger, Gus Kahn
    - Director: Victor Schertzinger
    - IMDb user rating: 5.7
    - Metascore: data not available
    - Runtime: 84 min

    The first Oscar for best scoring went to this opera-themed drama, which was a box office hit in its day. Released during the early days of the sound era, it made innovative use of vertical cut recording. Director Victor Schertzinger composed the title song with lyrics by Gus Kahn.

  • 1935: The Informer

    - Composer: Max Steiner
    - Director: John Ford
    - IMDb user rating: 7.5
    - Metascore: data not available
    - Runtime: 91 min

    Austrian-born composer Max Steiner was a child prodigy who composed his first operetta by the age of 14, eventually making his way to Hollywood. His first Academy Award came for this 1935 drama from director John Ford, about a young Irish rebel who betrays his former comrade. Steiner composed over 300 scores throughout his career, earning 24 Oscar nominations and taking home the trophy three times.

  • 1936: Anthony Adverse

    - Composer: Erich Wolfgang Korngold
    - Directors: Mervyn LeRoy, Michael Curtiz
    - IMDb user rating: 6.3
    - Metascore: data not available
    - Runtime: 141 min

    Like composer Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was also born in Austria and also a child prodigy. Drawing crowds as early as the age of 11, he later moved to Hollywood as the Nazis rose to power in Germany. When scoring this award-winning historical romance, Korngold cultivated an “operatic” template without arias.

  • 1937: One Hundred Men and a Girl

    - Composer: Charles Previn
    - Director: Henry Koster
    - IMDb user rating: 6.7
    - Metascore: data not available
    - Runtime: 84 min

    Starring conductor Leopold Stokowski himself, this 1937 dramedy uses a score of pre-existing classical music and doesn’t credit an actual composer. Its Academy Award for best scoring went to Universal Studios Music Department head Charles Previn and sparked controversy. As a direct result, the academy created two separate awards for best music score of a dramatic picture and best scoring of a musical picture.

  • 1938: The Adventures of Robin Hood

    - Composer: Erich Wolfgang Korngold
    - Directors: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley
    - IMDb user rating: 7.9
    - Metascore: 97
    - Runtime: 102 min

    Erich Korngold only composed the music for 16 Hollywood films making his two Academy Awards even more impressive. His romantic and sweeping score for this 1938 adventure helped turn it into a critical and commercial smash. Korngold’s uniquely symphonic style on this film and others is considered a clear predecessor to the work of future composers such as John Williams.

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  • 1939: The Wizard of Oz

    - Composer: Herbert Stothart
    - Directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe, King Vidor
    - IMDb user rating: 8.0
    - Metascore: 100
    - Runtime: 102 min

    This iconic fantasy film simply wouldn’t be the same without its signature songs and musical score. MGM composer Herbert Stothart handled the non-vocal contributions, winning his sole Academy Award for best music score. Songwriters Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg took home best original song for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

  • 1940: Pinocchio

    - Composers: Leigh Harline, Paul J. Smith, Ned Washington
    - Directors: Norman Ferguson, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Ben Sharpsteen
    - IMDb user rating: 7.4
    - Metascore: 99
    - Runtime: 88 min

    Pulling double duty, composer Leigh Harline co-wrote the original score and also wrote the song melodies for Disney’s second animated feature. Squaring off against no less than 16 competitors, Harline and his collaborators took home the Oscar gold. The movie also won best original song for “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

  • 1941: The Devil and Daniel Webster

    - Composer: Bernard Herrmann
    - Director: William Dieterle
    - IMDb user rating: 7.7
    - Metascore: data not available
    - Runtime: 107 min

    Despite his well-earned legacy as a brilliant and unique composer, Bernard Herrmann won just a single Academy Award. It was for this classic film about a deal with the devil which was originally released under the name of “All That Money Can Buy.” Having also been nominated for his work on “Citizen Kane,” Herrmann competed against himself in the newly minted category of best music score of a dramatic or comedy picture.

  • 1942: Now, Voyager

    - Composer: Max Steiner
    - Director: Irving Rapper
    - IMDb user rating: 8
    - Metascore: data not available
    - Runtime: 117 min

    Screen legend Bette Davis was at the height of her career when she starred in this acclaimed melodrama, set mostly aboard a cruise ship. Bringing the film’s romantic themes to life is Max Steiner’s rapturous score, which ebbs and flows like the waves. It earned the accomplished composer his second Academy Award.

  • 1943: The Song of Bernadette

    - Composer: Alfred Newman
    - Director: Henry King
    - IMDb user rating: 7.6
    - Metascore: data not available
    - Runtime: 156 min

    Along with Max Steiner and Dimitri Tiomkin, Alfred Newman is widely considered one of the “godfathers of film music.” His nine Academy Awards and whopping 45 nominations put him in the upper echelons of Oscar history. Newman’s work on this 1943 drama earned him his third Academy Award, having previously won twice in the (post-1938) category of best scoring.

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