John Williams is among cinema's most known and respective composers. He has a knack for crafting brilliant arrangements that so perfectly capture the mood and tone of their respective films. Much of his work is timeless, carried through the years via a number of vessels, from video games to sequels
Williams has collaborated with equally prolific filmmakers, from the varied concepts brought to life by Steven Spielberg to the galaxies explored by George Lucas. With over 30 awards under his belt, including five Oscars, Williams' accomplishments have not gone unsung, but we'd love to offer our own praise for some of his most iconic arrangements. Get ready to hum along, because chances are you know all 13 of these by heart.
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1997)
Without Williams, Close Encounters of the Third Kind would have had an entirely different sound. The five-note composition that wound up built into the film’s plot is as iconic as a musical track can get. To land on the high-pitched mathematical language that Spielberg ultimately chose, Williams composed over 300 examples.
The remainder of the score is true to Williams’ style, with building crescendos and a beautiful arrangement of synth tracks. “Main Title and The Vision” valleys between ominous and dark to hopeful and inspiring, a great composition to lead the audience into Spielberg’s tale of extraterrestrial visitors and the pursuit for answers as to what exists in the deepest reaches of space.
2. Schindler’s List (1994)
Unlike Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg wanted a soundtrack for this often-devastating World War II drama. Who better to produce than John Williams, a master of many sounds? The appropriately toned soundtrack is full of somber notes that capture the weight of Schindler’s story.
The score pulls inspiration from classic Yiddish and Israeli songs, blinding emotion and tradition into songs like “Jewish Town” and “Oyfn Pripetshik.” The melodic strings of “Theme from Schindler’s List” are well-recognized and revered and have been the track of choice for figure skaters like Tatiana Navka, Nicole Schott, Anton Shulepov, and Roman Saovsky. Williams’ work on Schindler’s List earned him a win at the 66th Academy Awards.
3. Star Wars Saga (1977-2019)
The “Main Theme” from Star Wars is arguably the most recognizable piece of music ever written. The track we hear sprinkled throughout much of LucasFilm's Star Wars saga is epic, triumphant, and melodic.
Along with the main theme, though, Williams has crafted entire discs worth of recognizable tracks that audience members and Star Wars fans adore. A New Hope's “Binary Sunset” is a lovely, melancholy melody associated with the Skywalker characters, while “The Cantina Band” is an upbeat ditty that is as fun as can be. The Empire Strikes Back's imposing “Imperial March” is as well-known as the main theme, and “Han Solo and The Princess,” “The Asteroid Field,” and “Yoda's Theme” are quintessential Star Wars themes. The prequel trilogy may divide fans, but there's no question that “Duel of the Fates” is reason enough alone to think The Phantom Menace was snubbed at the 2000 Academy Awards ceremony.
4. Indiana Jones Saga (1981-2023)
Indiana Jones' boisterous main theme, “Raiders March,” is the definition of an epic and iconic track. With those first few notes, audiences are immediately transported back to the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, ready for another Nazi-punching adventure with Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones. This theme is an incredible example of music capturing the feeling of the film's era, characters, and essence. The music from this franchise is full of energy and excitement, with melodic, orchestral, and absolutely brilliant cues that can make up for the dip in quality in the later films.
5. Harry Potter Franchise (2001-2004)
John Williams wrote the scores for the first three Harry Potter films, The Sorcerer's Stone, The Chamber of Secrets, and The Prisoner of Azkaban. Although the other films also have lovely scores, the themes Williams composed are the most notable and emblematic of the series. The one we know by heart is “Hedwig's Theme,” the magical and melodic song that casts a spell on moviegoers' hearts and minds.
“Harry's Wondrous World” may not be the primary theme, but it's also synonymous with the franchise. While the first film has the most memorable music, the gorgeous “Fawkes the Phoenix” from The Chamber of Secrets is particularly noteworthy. Likewise, The Prisoner of Azkaban's entire score matches the film's darker atmosphere while still retaining that mystical quality, especially “Buckbeak's Flight,” “A Window to the Past,” and “Mischief Managed,” which brilliantly incorporates the melody from Williams' Shakespeare-inspired “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”
6. Jurassic Park (1993)
Steven Spielberg's thrill ride about one man's dream of creating a theme park full of dinosaurs called for a spectacular score to match the varied moods of the film's most striking moments. Thankfully, Spielberg's frequent collaborator was up for the challenge. Two cues are still burned into the minds of viewers who piled into the theater in 1993 to watch Spielberg's visionary genius unfold on the big screen.
“Theme from Jurassic Park” is the perfect track to capture the awe and wonder surrounding an island full of impossibly magnificent creatures while “Journey to the Island” amps up the energy as the brilliantly composed introduction to John Hammond's island. Williams even developed the perfect villain track for Dennis Nedry in “Dennis Steals the Embryos,” a sort of understated synth track full of mystery and intrigue.
7. Home Alone (1990)
Being the ever-humble man, Williams has often said how much influence he gets from classical composers, not believing he can compare to their brilliance. Of course, his music can sit proudly right alongside the likes of Beethoven and Bach. The score from Home Alone is an incredible example of hearing the classical influence while creating a new and timeless score.
The “Main Theme from Home Alone” captures the comedic and sneaky nature of the film's plot, which involves a pair of bumbling burglars who serve a legitimate threat to young Kevin, who is accidentally left at home by himself. You can hear Tchaikovsky's influence in the frantic “Holiday Flight” and the melancholy “Star of Bethlehem.” But the true heart of the score is “Somewhere in My Memory,” the film's brightest star that evokes the warmth and spirit of the Christmas season.
8. Superman (1978)
The “Prelude and Main Title” from Superman is the most well-known from this score. It's also one of, if not the most quintessential superhero themes, rivaling the themes from The Avengers (2012), Batman (1989), and Spider-Man (2002). Williams' score is triumphant and epic. It's uncanny how he can evoke just the perfect feeling of watching the Man of Steel soar on high, speeding off to save another hapless victim or protect the world from a new threat. This theme is every bit a part of Superman's legacy as the giant red “S” on his chest.
9. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Those of a particular generation feel like John Williams wrote the soundtrack of their childhoods. The iconic theme from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, “Flying,” is the music that most embodies this idea. At the film's climax, Elliott flies through the night sky on his bicycle with the titular alien in his basket. As their silhouette flies across the moon, the sweeping music swells to a glorious crescendo and creates one of the most iconic movie moments. It's a remarkable accomplishment, but also a staple of Williams' compositions as he always knows the perfect placement for shifts in tone and energy.
10. Jaws (1975)
Jaws is incredible because, with two notes, Williams creates a boding sense of fear and menace. As the “Main Title” from Jaws continues, those notes expand and quicken, mimicking the threatening quality of the shark stalking its prey. As Jack Black says in The Holiday, “Two notes and you got a villain.” I agree with his assessment, and it's through this astounding track that Williams was able to help Spielberg add a sense of horror to Jaws without plastering the oversized shark all over the movie. It lent to the subtlety of the fear-inducing film style that Spielberg adapted to accommodate a janky mechanical shark.
11. Catch Me if You Can (2002)
One of Spielberg's most underrated movies features one of John Williams's most under-appreciated scores. The most iconic and well-known cues from Catch Me If You Can, “Main Title” and “Learning the Ropes” are light, effervescent, and capture the film's tone and 1960s era. The incorporation of finger snaps is inspired and reflects the protagonist Frank Abagnale's wily and quick-witted nature. While this is more of a deep cut, it's still one of his quintessential compositions.
12. Hook (1991)
Hook is the story of a grown-up Peter Pan who returns to Neverland after Captain Hook kidnaps his children. It's a whimsical, moving, and adventurous film, and the music perfectly reflects all those feelings. Audiences were enamored with the “Prologue” and “The Arrival of Tink and the Flight to Neverland,” both equally rousing and warm as we get our first introductions to yet another fantastical Spielberg film.
It would take a great composer to rival the music from the 1953 version of Peter Pan, and Williams steps up with a soundtrack that soars as high while adding a layer of emotion, especially in cues like “There You Are Peter.” Hook's music is truly as magical as Pan's return to Neverland.
13. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
With compositions performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Saving Private Ryan soundtrack is a fitting backdrop to the World War II film. Williams treated the subject respectfully, opting, along with Spielberg, not to use music over battle scenes. When he did compose for the movie, Williams shifted away from his more operatic and grand scale, instead shifting to a more subdued tone that fit the movie's darker themes. The closing credits were played over “Hymn to the Fallen,” an emotional score that allowed audiences to reflect on what they'd just watched.