darth vader with hand outstretched to Luke in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
(Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

John Williams’ 12 Best Film Scores, Ranked

[Ominous but awesome "Imperial March" plays in the background]

John Williams is probably one of the—if not the—greatest film score composers of all time. There are, and have been, many brilliant composers working in Hollywood, but John Williams was there for some truly genre-defining stories and helped make them even more unforgettable.

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A New York City native and a graduate of Juilliard, with a career that spans over seven decades, he composed some of the most recognizable and memorable tunes in film history—many of which have become cultural staples.

Look at him go!

And he’s earned a massive number of awards and nominations for his work—5 Academy Awards, 25 Grammy Awards, and 4 Golden Globes, just to cite a few. With his 54 Oscar nominations, he’s actually the second-most nominated individual ever, just 5 nominations short of Walt Disney’s 59.

Like many other soundtrack composers, John Williams has established strong and fruitful collaborations with several directors throughout his career—the most famous being the one with Steven Spielberg, which has produced some truly iconic tunes.

You’ll see many Spielberg movies in the list down below—which includes the 12 scores that I would consider the best of the best of John Williams’ work, both musically and culturally. Picking only 12 was definitely a struggle —and you can probably find some of my 90s’ baby bias in it—but here they are:

12. Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Directed by Rob Marshall and inspired by the 1997 novel of the same name by Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha and its soundtrack—which features cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma and violin solos by Itzhak Pearlman —earned John Williams a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and a Grammy. And it wasn’t even the only Williams score up for awards that year—Munich was also there— just to prove, once more, how rich and prolific his career has been.

Among the eighteen tracks of the Memoirs of a Geisha soundtrack, the most recognizable is definitely the main theme, which takes its name after the movie’s main character—”Sayuri’s Theme”.

11. Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

The highest-grossing film of its year and an adaptation of the sixties musical of the same name, Fiddler on the Roof, and its adapted soundtrack gave John Williams his first Oscar win—when the category of Best Scoring was still being awarded.

10. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

One of the most iconic war movies out there, Saving Private Ryan’s soundtrack actually covers only about half of the movie’s runtime—the score is around one hour long, while the movie goes well past the two-hour mark.

It was a very deliberate choice on the part of Spielberg and Williams—the long and extensive battle scenes were left without music as a narrative choice, while the score returns in the more dramatic sequences to better help audiences absorb the brutal fights they just witnessed. 

9. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978)

This is The John Williams Experience™—a sci-fi or fantasy story that has shaped the genre with a soundtrack that becomes a pop culture landmark. With an added bonus of having a very distinct musical motif relying on just a handful of notes—in this case, the iconic five tones that scientists use to communicate with the visiting spaceship. With the added added bonus of being a Steven Spielberg collaboration.

The movie’s main theme —”Theme from ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind'”—became a hit in the United States in the year of the movie’s release and won a Grammy Award, while John Williams also brought home an Academy Award, BAFTA and Golden Globe nomination for his work on the soundtrack.

8. Superman (1978)

From here onward everything is just iconic and immediately recognizable just one after another. The “Superman March” has essentially become Superman’s theme in all of our minds, popping up immediately as soon as we think of his red-caped figure—and it’s just one of the many fanfares created by John Williams that have had their hand in shaping the history of pop culture. More to come on this towards the top of the ranking, if you know what I mean.

7. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

Even though John Williams didn’t stay as the composer for the entirety of the Harry Potter franchise, he was there for its beginnings—he created the scores for Philosopher’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets, and Prisoner of Azkaban before passing the role onto Patrick Doyle for Goblet of Fire, Nicholas Hooper for Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, and finally, Alexandre Desplat for the two parts of Deathly Hallows.

And because he was there for the franchise’s beginning, it was John Williams who created all of the themes that have carried the series until the very end— “Hedwig’s Theme,” first and foremost.

6. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

If you take George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and John Williams and put them together, what do you get? Something unique and culture-defining—and that’s what Indiana Jones is. John Williams worked on the soundtrack for the entire series and helped create the, by-now, immensely famous main theme—known as “The Raiders March” —that accompanies all of the heroics and action scenes that feature Harrison Ford’s adventurous archaeologist.

5. Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park is the start of one of the highest-grossing movie franchises of all time, as well as pretty much what sparked everyone’s fascination with dinosaurs—so much so that it’s included on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. And of course, it features another iconic theme from John Williams—one that is capable of capturing the immense wonder and awe that Doctors Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler feel at seeing dinosaurs alive and walking the Earth again after having studied their bones for so long.

4. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

The challenge of composing the soundtrack for Steven Spielberg’s E.T. —another one of the great sci-fi works that John Williams has scored—was creating musical pieces that would sound alien while also helping the audience feel empathy for the strange-looking E.T.

Something that John Williams definitely managed, since the soundtrack won the Academy Award for Best Original Score.

3. Schindler’s List (1993)

Widely considered one of John Williams’s best works, the soundtrack for Schindler’s List won almost everything it could possibly win—including an Academy Award, a BAFTA, and a Grammy Award. Its most famous and recognized track, “Theme from Schindler’s List,” features a violin solo from violinist Itzhak Pearlman—with whom John Williams would work again on the score for Memoirs of a Geisha in 2005.

2. Jaws (1975)

Jaws is a prime example of how iconic and genre-defining a musical leitmotif can be. The two alternating tones of the main “shark theme” have become almost synonymous with not only shark attacks but also with suspense and the idea of immediate danger approaching. So much so that it has become immediately recognizable, right by its first notes.

1. Star Wars (1977)

And if we’re talking about iconic-ness, then nothing could be at the top of this list but Star Wars. John Williams worked on all the movies and created all of the musical motifs that have by now become iconic, from the opening fanfare to the Imperial March passing through the masterpiece that is Anakin and Padmé’s love theme, “Across the Stars,” as well as one of my favorite pieces from the entire soundtrack, the “Victory Celebration” from The Return of the Jedi.

The soundtrack for what has by now become Episode IV has won, once again, everything that it could possibly win from an Academy Award to a Grammy Award—and it was also selected as the “greatest American film score of all time” by the American Film Institute in 2005.

What do you think? What would your ranking of the best John Williams scores of all time look like?

(featured image: Lucasfilm)


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Author
Benedetta Geddo
Benedetta (she/her) lives in Italy and has been writing about pop culture and entertainment since 2015. She has considered being in fandom a defining character trait since she was in middle school and wasn't old enough to read the fanfiction she was definitely reading and loves dragons, complex magic systems, unhinged female characters, tragic villains and good queer representation. You’ll find her covering everything genre fiction, especially if it’s fantasy-adjacent and even more especially if it’s about ASOIAF. In this Bangtan Sonyeondan sh*t for life.