List: Top 10 John Williams Themes

Originally posted at

This year Williams reached two milestones: becoming the person with the second-highest number of Oscar nominations (only behind Walt Disney), and most importantly, he reached his 80th birthday. With that in mind, I thought it would be appropriate to dedicate one of our Top 10 lists to him by listing the top 10 themes he’s composed since they always tend to take on a life of their own and can sometimes outdo the films he’s written them for (such as The Phantom Menace). So, here I present my picks for the top 10 John Williams music themes.

10. “The 1960s: The Turbulent Years/ The Meeting With Mao” from Nixon

I don’t very much care for Oliver Stone’s Nixon, but this theme by Willliams is a thing of beauty. It’s as bombastic as one would expect from an epic presidential biopic by Stone and has a “bigger-than-life” feeling about it just like Richard Nixon himself. This track alone tells you much of what you need to know about the man, as you can actually hear some of the same notes as the “Imperial March” from Star Wars, and it also tells you that, as Bad Boys II so eloquently put it, shit’s gonna get real. He gets into the core of what made the film’s subject tick (a huge achievement itself), and made beautiful music with it.

9. “The Adventures of Tintin” from The Adventures of Tintin

Williams got a well deserved Oscar nomination for his work in Steven Spielber’s adaptation of Hergé’s iconic character, and the best part of his work here is the track that plays during the opening credits. It is a jazzy and playful theme that perfectly gets us in the mood for the energetic roller coaster ride that will start immediately after the opening credits. The rest of the score doesn’t quite live up to the fun of this one track, but it shows that after all these years, the man still has what it takes to put just about every composer to shame.

8. “Wild Signals” from Close Encounters of the Third Kind

The climax of this film is one of the most exciting and magical in the history of cinema. Spielberg’s direction, the performances, the cinematography are all terrific. However, it would be absolutely nothing without the music composed for this scene. Througout the film they make sure that we know about the music as the characters can hear it, the army deciphered a message as music, etc. So the music during that scene had to be great, and Williams just blew all expectations aways.

7. “Raider’s March” from Raiders of the Lost Ark

There’s really not much to say about this legendary piece of music. Just listen to it, and it will all make sense. It’s exciting, arousing, and it actually makes you want to go out and have dangerous adventures just like Indy.

6. “Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

The overall score for this film was disappointing, as Williams doesn’t always do his best work on children’s films. But, there is no denying that this track, the piece of music that came to define the franchise, is powerful stuff. It accidentally was perfect for those entranced by J.K. Rowling’s books, from the innocent and quiet beginning that mirrors the lightness of Sorcerer’s Stone to the playfulness that perfectly captures aspects of Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire, and ending with bombastic notes that would have been perfect for Deathly Hallows. It’s already pretty iconic so I wouldn’t be surprised if it one days joins his other works like Indiana Jones andStar Wars in the pantheon of legendary film music.

5. “The Chairman’s Waltz” from Memoirs of a Geisha

I enjoy Memoirs of a Geisha purely on its aesthetic because Rob Marshall sucks at anything that isn’t a musical number. As a result, we don’t feel as much for the characters as we should. But thankfully, John Williams manages to save it a bit in that department, especially with this theme. In the story, the Chairman, played by Ken Watanabe, is supposed to be a symbol of romance, someone that leads the protagonist from when she was a little girl to put some effort into succeeding in her profession if only to one day have a chance to be his. This track gives the character a personality that Marshall wasn’t able to give him, and from what Williams tells me, the Chairman is an amazing character.

4. “Imperial March” from Star Wars

Every bad guy in every film wishes they could have a theme song as awesome as this. Although not necessarily a terrifying piece of music, when it starts, I can’t help but get chills as I know that bad things are about to happen. Much like the ending of Close Encounters of the Third Kind,Star Wars just wouldn’t be the same without this theme as Darth Vader and his army would not be as badass without it.

3. “Main Theme ” from Jaws

Imagine the Jaws opening without this theme playing. The opening shot of the water would only work to establish that the film takes place in an ocean area. It sounds like a different film already, no? That’s the difference two simple notes had on the history of cinema. With those two notes, we know that something dangerous is lurking about, and every time we hear them afterwards, we know the shark is going to appear, and just like the characters, we feel helpless because we can’t do anything about it but watch in horror as the next victim is taken. Jaws is a great film, but I believe that without its theme it would not have had as great an impact.

2. “The Reunion” from A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Say what you want about it being overtly saccharine, but I just love the ending of A.I. Seeing David finally reunited with his “mom” after thousands of years makes for a beautiful and somber moment. But, that scene is not about thinking that afterwards David is going to become a lab rat, but about seeing our hero be properly loved for the first time. The music that plays during this scene only adds to the beauty of it. It’s a simple theme that consists of only piano and violin, but it captures the feeling of happiness with a touch of melancholy that also makes you feel the same when listening to it without the film. Every time I listen to it my heart is touched.

1. “Schindler’s List Theme” from Schindler’s List

Music on its own rarely makes me feel sad or teary-eyed, but this track always manages to do it. It’s not because of the images that that it accompanies as it’s been years since I’ve seen it (although back then it had the same effect), but this track really does capture the sadness, the helplessness, and the spirit of Spielberg’s passion project. It’s easily one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard, and that’s why it is my favorite John Williams theme.


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