Think back to the opening night of Star Wars in 1977. For those who were able to catch the premiere, you might remember Luke Skywalker looking up and watching the twin sunset on Tatooine, all set to the swelling of hopeful music—and the Skywalker saga is born.
And then in 2018, The Last Jedi hits cinemas. Luke Skywalker looks out over the waters of Ahch-To with his imminent death looming before him—and as he watched the sun set, he fades away to become one with the Force, and the music tells the whole tale.
In both cases, the scores were the work of one man: John Williams. His movie scores and soundtracks have been one of the most influential elements of modern movie and pop culture. He’s been nominated for 52 Academy Awards and won 5 of them.
He’s the envy of every other film composer, and his legacy is cemented. But which of his movie scores were his best? Which ones are iconic, memorable, and everlasting? Let’s revisit the best movie music composed by John Williams.
8. Harry Potter
When J. K. Rowling’s fantasy sensation was adapted for the big screen, it needed some big names to push it forward. In front of the camera, it starred greats like Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, and Richard Harris. But behind the camera? The biggest name was John Williams.
Williams helmed musical composition for the first three movies, setting the tone—literally—for those who came after him. The Harry Potter theme (“Hedwig’s Theme”) is instantly recognizable and evokes a sense of magical youth and mystery.
7. Schindler’s List
Schindler’s List saw John Williams working in a different light due to the tone and devastating premise of Steven Spielberg’s film. As a result, the score feels more restrained—and more pained.
For most of his other projects, John Williams employs a style of music that feels bold and adventurous. But in Schindler’s List, the music is there to match the overall somber feeling of events and never quite attaches itself to any particular character.
John Williams deservedly walked away with an Academy Award for his work on Schindler’s List’s music.
6. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
The first time we watched E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, we all wanted to be Elliot—the child who befriends an alien in his shed.
Who could forget that sequence where the children are riding their bikes away from government forces, only to look up and see more. Then, E.T. lifts Elliot and his friends’ bikes into the air, accompanied by a swell of music—a moment to remember for the rest of our lives.
Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a phenomenal motion picture that’s made all the more lovable by John Williams’ wondrous score. It made us believe that we could fly, and you can’t put a price on that.
Everybody knows the theme of Jaws. Simple. Iconic. Terrifying. Perfectly fitting for the original summer blockbuster movie that changed cinema forever when it hit theaters in 1975.
Steven Spielberg’s film about a giant shark that terrorized Amity Island by eating several of its residents was his first big project. It was a nightmare to shoot—the mechanical shark didn’t like water—and the budget ballooned up along with the extended shoot.
However, John Williams’ work on the film could not have been better. The film’s score is a big part of its notoriety, and all these years later, you still don’t want to hear that music near a body of water.
The triumphant overture. The red, white and blue imagery. And then, it kicks in: “Superman March” by John Williams. His iconic theme for The Man of Steel is one of cinema’s most recognizable pieces.
To see Christopher Reeve flying through the air on his way to save some unfortunate victim from an accident or evil, paired with the most famous superhero theme music, is still magical all these years later.
Richard Donner’s first film showed everybody that special effects could be good and that Superman could work on the big screen. What John Williams did with his score is make sure that Superman had a legendary anthem for all time.
3. Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park is still as watchable today as it was when it came out in 1993. But one major aspect of the film that led to its enduring legacy—on top of the wonder, the excitement, the horror, the T-Rex and Velociraptors—is the musical score.
John Williams’ work on Jurassic Park encapsulated all the emotions of the characters in one swift move. It’s full of disbelief, power, corruption, and the edge of something more sinister in play. John Williams and Steven Spielberg. Does it get any better?
2. Star Wars
As a singular scene in a motion picture, there may not be a better merging of music and imagery than that of a young Luke Skywalker looking out over the twin sunset of Tatooine.
From that point, Williams’ work took on a life of its own. All of the work he has done for the Star Wars saga since 1977 has captured the emotions of the audience perfectly, and there isn’t a more well-known theme in all of cinema than “Binary Sunset.”
For the Skywalker saga, John Williams has been as important as any of the directors, the writers, or the actors—because it’s much down to his musical score that Star Wars has become what it is today. Without his music, it wouldn’t be nearly as memorable or affecting.
1. Indiana Jones
Indiana Jones is where John Williams put in his best work, resulting in the most adventurous feelings that music can give. Everybody knows the theme to Indiana Jones—it goes hand-in-hand with Harrison Ford as one of the most integral elements of the film.
Looking at his musical scores for the Indiana Jones movies, Williams constantly captured the essence of adventure and danger. From the cart escape in Temple of Doom to the tank crash in The Last Crusade, each scene is knitted together by John Williams and his orchestra.
In the end, it’s Williams’ scores and soundtrack for the Indiana Jones movies that feels the most complete—which says a lot about a man who perfects most of the scores he does.