The 25 best Oscar-winning film scores of all time

11.28.14 3 years ago 47 Comments

Musical theorist Michel Chion coined the term “synchresis” to define the forging of picture and sound, the way artistry on both sides of the line blurs into our favorite movie moments. Sound design can manifest and warp reality, but film scoring has its own synchresistic effect, albeit one that's rather bizarre.

There's no reason music should ever be playing against a film aiming for truth. Yet over 100-plus years of filmmaking, a composer's touch – or restraint – has become an essential part of the medium's power. A musical cue stamps an iconic scene, a director's vision and a film's legacy. There are sense memories connected to the opening notes of an iconic theme.

Nevertheless, it took the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences a few years to recognize film music's weight-pulling at the Oscars. Film's transition into a synced sound medium kept the business resisting the honor until the 7th Annual Academy Awards in 1935. Even then, the statue went to various studios' music departments, the composer merely a cog in the machine. In 1938, composers were finally dignified with the “win.” And the field was highly competitive – until 1945, studios were guaranteed a nomination simply by submitting a qualified entry.

Throughout Oscar history, film scoring demanded division based on the films in the mix. In the early years, there was “Best Original Score” and, for musicals or adaptations, “Best Scoring.” In 1962, the distinction morphed into “Substantially Original Score” and “Scoring of Music Adaptation or Treatment.” The 1970s saw another shift into “Original Dramatic Score” and “Original Song Score and Adaptation.” It wasn't until the 1980s that the Hollywood musical's lifespan diminished enough to collect musical submissions into one “Best Original Score” category, the Academy deeming scores adapting existing material ineligible. But soon enough, the organization revived the “Dramatic” and “Comedy/Musical” distinction between 1995 and 1998. While it may have felt like an overextension, the split allowed for Rachel Portman (“Emma”) and Anne Dudley (“The Full Monty”) to become the only two female composers to pick up Best Original score honors to date.

So, to honor nearly 80 years of film score winners, we're presenting the 25 best. But to keep ourselves level-headed, our list is relegated to champions of the Best Original Score, Drama or Comedy categories. No musicals or adapted scores (this time). The list is a fusion between our two individual picks, the highest ranking scores finding common ground between us. Compiling the best of the best involved leaving a few amazing scores out of the mix, however. You won't find Max Steiner's “The Informer,” Francis Lai's “Love Story,” James Horner's “Titantic,” A.R. Rahman's “Slumdog Millionaire,” John Barry's “Dances with Wolves,” Hans Zimmer's “The Lion King” or Marvin Hamlisch's “The Way We Were” on this list, but know they were close.

Find out what did make the cut below, and feel free to throw out your own lists in the comments.

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