John Williams is often regarded as the greatest film composer of all time. With a career spanning six decades, 25 Grammy Awards, five Academy Awards (52 nominations – second only to Walt Disney), four Golden Globe Awards, and seven British Academy Film Awards, it’s hard to not have stumbled upon the maestro at least once in your life. With his 88th birthday today, February 8th, here are his 20 best pieces of music.
20 – Buckbeak’s Flight, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Beginning with a booming drum solo, Williams beautifully articulates both the anxiety and excitement Harry portrays while flying Buckbeak the hippogriff for the first time. This is one wonderful example of how Williams is able to encapsulate the magic of the Wizarding World.
19 – Main Title “Somewhere in Memory”, Home Alone
Williams presents the joy and wonder of Christmas in a way one can interpret young Kevin Mcallister’s experiences in Home Alone. This piece also notably includes the reunion between Kevin and his mother, the emotional climax of the film and an unforgettable scene.
18 – Hymn To The Fallen, Saving Private Ryan
Steven Spielberg’s infamous war film Saving Private Ryan is clearly amplified by Williams’ somber but beautiful soundtrack. This is a clear example of Williams’ ability to present variety in his work as it opposes most of the joyful and uplifting pieces he usually composes.
17 – Luke and Leia, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
Williams never fails to present his ability to evoke emotion in his pieces, and shows us just as much in this beautiful piece dedicated to siblings Luke and Leia Skywalker.
16 – Aunt Marge’s Waltz, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
This piece is quite different and stands out in Williams’ discography for both being a waltz and comical in nature. Williams perfectly presents the sheer hilarity of Aunt Marge’s inflation and flight in a way only he can.
15 – Harry’s Wondrous World, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
This piece beautifully summarizes the first Harry Potter film as it encapsulates all of the emotions Harry went through, from first finding out who he really is to being catapulted into such a vast and wonderful world. It also alludes to further danger and adventures ahead, setting up the next film perfectly as well.
14 – Across the Stars, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
The Star Wars prequels are many things but one cannot criticize Williams’ excellent scoring of the trilogy. Looking past sand rants and dragging scenes on Naboo with Anakin and Padme, the viewer is introduced to one of Williams’ best pieces of work. “Across the Stars” beautifully articulates Anakin and Padme’s love as well as the fear they share in allowing it to blossom.
13 – The Throne Room and End Title, Star Wars: A New Hope
An incredibly powerful trumpet and percussion duet punctuates the success of the rebel alliance in the concluding moments of the first Star Wars film. This piece also includes the first end-credits musical section of the Star Wars saga.
12 – Hedwig’s Theme, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Much like Harry’s Wondrous World, Hedwig’s Theme tells the story of young Harry Potter and the sudden excitement he has found in his life after learning his true identity. This piece is synonymous with Harry Potter and pop-culture, and rightfully so.
11 – Raiders March, Raiders of the Lost Ark
John Williams had presented Steven Spielberg with two pieces of music he believed fit as theme for the story of an Archaeology professor turned treasure hunter. Spielberg would then ask Williams to combine the two, and thus the Raiders March was born. This piece is full of excitement and romance, and almost makes you want to go on your own adventure.
10 – Theme From Superman, Superman
John Williams’ piece gives flight to Christopher Reeve’s Superman in a extremely memorable way. The fanfare, which is supposed to sound like someone yelling “It’s Superman”, stands out as one of the best superhero themes and themes in general to ever be composed.
9 – The Imperial March, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
This piece perfectly embodies the power and might of Darth Vader’s Galactic Empire as it stands to destroy the Rebel Alliance. Often called “Darth Vader’s Theme”, this piece gets the viewer ready for the revenge and heartbreaking plot soon to find our heroes.
8 – The Hologram/Binary Sunset – Medley, Star Wars: A New Hope
One of the most moving and powerful pieces in the original Star Wars trilogy and rightfully so. “Binary Sunset” or “Luke’s/The Force theme”This piece perfectly symbolizes how Luke feels about watching his life go by right in front of him (or in this case two binary suns) when there is plenty more out there to do and explore. Williams beautifully crescendos in this piece, a moment that will no doubt leave you with goosebumps.
7 – Yoda’s Theme, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Williams composes a beautiful piece here for everyone’s favorite hermit Jedi Yoda. Perhaps the best character-based theme in the Star Wars saga, Williams once again wonderfully articulates Yoda’s words through his music…”Do or do not. There is no try”.
6 – Theme From Schindler’s List, Schindler’s List
A tragic film needs a tragic soundtrack and Williams does not fail to deliver on this daunting request. The Best Picture-winning film cements its place in history with a hauntingly beautiful piece. Led in its entirety by a solo violin that sounds as if its crying through its strings, this theme encapsulates the struggle and sadness of the Holocaust to a level of perfection expected only by the maestro.
5 – Duel of the Fates, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
The piece is a reminder again that the Star Wars Prequels gave us some of the best music of the Star Wars saga, and the first installment comes with no exception. It is perhaps the most epic score on this list as it fills us with excitement during a fantastic light saber battle. The choir backtrack only adds to the excitement of the piece and scene it plays it over.
4 – Main Title And First Victim, Jaws
It is no surprise Williams’ first hit came with his longstanding contributor Steven Spielberg. This now infamous piece embodies the fear, adrenaline, and excitement the viewer has when watching the shark stalk its first victim. Who knew two notes together could be so horrifying? John Williams obviously.
3 – Flying Theme, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Again working with Steven Spielberg, John Williams brings a sense of joy and excitement to Elliot and E.T.’s adventure as it comes to life onscreen. Williams proves yet again his ability to evoke emotion in such a fantastic and enjoyable way.
2 – Theme From Jurassic Park, Jurassic Park
The second-last piece on this list comes from Spielberg’s Sci-Fi epic Jurassic Park . In perhaps his best example, Williams shows off his exceptional ability to build worlds and accommodate the excitement of seeking the unknown. Everyone remembers their first gaze on the park’s doors or the infamous line “Welcome to Jurassic Park”. All of these moments are made possible through the brilliance of John Williams.
1 – Main Title, Star Wars: A New Hope
Was there ever any doubt? Williams’ career-defining piece comes in the opening moments of the original Star Wars film, a film that would not be the same without it. Beginning with the triumphant blaring of a trumpet, the piece sets the tone of the epic space opera from the text crawl onward. This piece amplifies an already excellent score and has brought passion, enjoyment, and excitement to viewers for years.
. . .
- Battle of the Heroes, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
- Leaving Hogwarts, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
- The Asteroid Field, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
- Fawkes the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
- Mischief Managed!, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
- A Window to the Past, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
- Yoda and the Force, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
. . .
John Williams has and continues to leave a legacy that shall live on forever in the hearts and minds of film-goers everywhere. He has laid the foundation and wrote the blueprint for film scoring, inspiring current and future composers for years to come. I could not imagine a world without John Williams’ work and am extremely grateful to be able to cherish it. A Spotify playlist with all pieces can be found below as well for your own listening pleasure and let me know if there is anything you feel is missing!
Without John Williams, bikes don’t really fly, nor do brooms in Quidditch matches, nor do men in red capes…We do not wonder. We do not weep. We do not believe.
– Steven Spielberg