Music in the movies: James Horner

Recognised as one of Hollywood’s finest composers, we look back over James Horner’s finest early work, from Star Trek II to Field Of Dreams...

James Horner has carved out a reputation as one of the finest composers in cinema, providing rich and memorable scores for a number of high profile films, most recently, his Oscar nominated score for Avatar.

Horner has received a total of eight nominations for his scores over the years, and amazingly, had two nominations in 1995 for his work on Braveheart and Apollo 13. His only win today has come for his score for Titanic, which also saw him pick up an Oscar for Best Original Song.

With his compositions currently accompanying the surprisingly good The Karate Kid remake, I thought I’d take a look at some of his earlier output that includes a lot of classics of geek cinema.

Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan

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Following Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Paramount were unable to secure the talents of Jerry Goldsmith to score the sequel due to a reduced budget. This was good news for Horner, as the score for The Wrath Of Khan proved to be his breakthrough.

A much darker, original and, for the time, modern score than perhaps was expected, Horner’s score utilises a number of leitmotifs, most notably the one composed to accompany Khan, which perfectly portrays the emotional instability of the character.

There is a distinct air of menace prevalent in many of the scenes which is testament to how effective this piece of work is.


Having made a name for himself with his score for The Wrath Of Khan, Horner found his talents in demand and followed it up with the score to fantasy classic, Krull.

Horner came to the table quite late, and, as such, the score was written in something of a rush, although you wouldn’t tell from the quality of the piece. It’s an immensely enjoyable score that finds Horner in a confident mood and seemingly having a great deal of fun in creating an action-packed score that has romantic and mystical elements thrown in for good measure.

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Star Trek III: The Search For Spock

After impressing greatly with his score to the Star Trek sequel, Horner returned for the third instalment The Search For Spock. For his work here, Horner delves deeper into the dark themes he explored for The Wrath Of Khan.

It’s a personal score that enhances the emotional themes on screen. Providing contrast to the themes of melancholy are the elements that are typical of action scores that provide accompaniment to the scenes of threat from the Klingons and draw out high levels of intensity and suspense.

Perhaps not as good as a whole as the score for The Wrath Of Khan, but it’s a mature and considered piece.


Another sequel in one of cinema’s most beloved franchises, and another score that saw Horner follow in Jerry Goldsmith’s footsteps was Aliens.

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The score can sound dated and cliché-ridden by today’s standards, but a large reason for this was the fact that it was so well received that it effectively invented many of the clichés heard in musical cues in the years following the film’s release.

It borrows little more than the overall mood of Goldsmith’s piece, and instead relies on a mix of ambience and interesting percussion to keep viewers on edge.

Not the greatest listen in isolation, but one that works perfectly as an accompaniment to the film.

The Land Before Time

Horner’s lush orchestral score for The Land Before Time is such a large reason why it’s so successful and is one of the finest scores, not just to accompany an animated feature of that period, but any film from it.

So immersive is his work here that the audience’s attention never wanes as he elicits exactly the right moods to suit the imagery on screen. Assisted again by the London Symphony Orchestra and joined by The Kings College Choir of England, dramatic weight was added to his compositions.

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Horner also co-wrote the Diana Ross song that appears on the soundtrack and was a relative hit.


Another one of Horner’s themes that fits the film it accompanies perfectly, but doesn’t make for the best listen in isolation is Willow.

Thematically, it’s quite similar to his work on Krull and uses many things that, at the point of release, were regarded as Horner hallmarks, such as themes for the central characters, the usage of exotic instruments and accompaniment by the London Symphony Orchestra.

It really is a beautiful and effective score. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t stand up that well away from the film.

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Field Of Dreams

Anyone who follows the DoG Twitter feed will be aware how much love Horner’s score for this rather excellent Kevin Costner vehicle gets. A large part of my movie intake when I was younger was the movies of Costner, courtesy of an older brother who was a huge fan of his, so I’ve watched Field Of Dreams countless times over the years.

Horner created a fantastic and perfectly formed soundtrack for the film that plays an essential part in creating the atmosphere that makes the film so successful. Beautiful and emotive pieces sit alongside stirring numbers that make this an incredibly well balanced piece of work that, to this day, remains one of Horner’s finest works.

The Rocketeer

Such is the quality of Horner’s score for The Rocketeer it was used in promotional trailers for a number of other films that didn’t have completed scores. This is one of Horner’s stronger works, so it’s a shame that the film isn’t as widely watched, as this can often be overlooked.

Horner clearly appreciated the level of fun required for the film and relished the opportunity to go over the top on many occasions. It’s always done tastefully, though, and never goes so far that you’re left rolling your eyes. Instead, he installs an immense sense of adventure in the work.

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