The Top 7 John Barry Film Scores

Dr.No | © Johan Oomen/Flickr
Dr.No | © Johan Oomen/Flickr
John Barry (1933 – 2011) was born and raised in York, England, to a classical pianist mother and a father who owned a number of local movie theatres. Taking up the piano at the age of 9, Barry forged a post-National Service career melding together his two loves of film and music, eventually becoming one of the most successful and distinguished film composers of all time. We take a look at the great writer’s long career chronicling his beginnings in the twangy guitar/jazz-rock idiom, progressing through to the more avant-garde meanderings touched upon in the late 1960s. This eventually leads us to the grandly romantic, lushly orchestrated symphonic scores of his later period.
Ian Fleming's Paperback Bonds © Wiki

Dr No

It is generally acknowledged that Monty Norman wrote the iconic signature melody which identifies the Bond theme, but its Barry’s arrangement and overall influence which sets this score apart. The colossal opening signature with a big band swing section gives way to the equally identifiable Duane Eddy-influenced guitar section of the theme. Its easy to forget that these are two bullet-proof pieces in their own right, melded together here to serve as the ultimate spy film accompaniment. Among Barry’s many Bond scores, Dr.No was highly innovative musically and set the pattern for any number of film scores in the same genre.


Barry’s bold and simple score delivered right at the start of his glittering career is heightened dramatically by his already masterful understanding of musical dynamic — especially through his manipulation of those simple penetrating melodies throughout the octave range. His use of high suspended strings as 4 thousand Zulus amass on the hills overlooking the small British detachment at Rorke’s Drift is as chilling as it is memorable. Barry’s employment of apocalyptic rhythms moulded from real Zulu war chants helped make the film an instant classic.

The Ipcress File

inspired by the famous Anton Karas score for The Third Man (1949), this ice-cool score spars with Messrs Mancini and Morricone in their own backyard and cleans up — much to Barry’s credit; a theme that perfectly exemplifies the film’s Cold War context and exports us to some vague Eastern European destination where crisp suited espionage ruthlessly indulges itself. The title theme is precisely executed with Barry’s use of the cimbalom (a concert hammered dulcimer) which creeps deliciously off the back of the beat, evoking the lithe slinkiness of undercover espionage at its invisible best.

The Lion In Winter

This is a gorgeous all-encompassing score for which Barry won an Oscar in 1968. The foreboding brass-led theme excites in its heart pounding dissonance, and musically at times sits somewhere between Wagner at his most urgent and John Tavener or Herbert Howells at their inventive zenith (‘Chinon/Eleanor’s Arrival’). No mean feat — and it is little wonder that this impossibly beautiful and ground-breaking score often gets overlooked despite its early success. Its etherial invention and complex structures diced with golden melodies leave it as somewhat of a Barry question mark, but a masterpiece no doubt — assuring Barry’s presence among the greatest composers of the twentieth century.

The Midnight Cowboy

By the time Barry was commissioned to write the score to John Schlesinger’s 1969 classic Midnight Cowboy he was by now a writer much in demand and on top of his game — and it shows. Supplementing Everybody’s Talkin’, the film’s iconic title song sung by Harry Nilsson, there’s a louche confidence to Barry’s instrumental score which melds full rich orchestral arrangements peppered with tasteful Bill Evans-esque piano melodies. However, it is the haunting simplicity of the film’s lilting signature theme which slices through. Unforgettable, unresolved and endlessly pining — it captures the film’s sense of doomed optimism perfectly.

Out Of Africa

A sweeping Barry melody written in the key of Savannah and now generally regarded as a classic. Soaring strings stretch right across the East African plains of this 1985 film which delivered Barry an Oscar for his 35 minutes of effort in the 2-and-a-half-hour epic. Shamelessly heart-wrenching in its representation of the emotions of its central characters, Barry famously rejected Director Sydney Pollack’s request that it be scored using indigenous melodies, stating that the scenery would speak for itself. Its lush tonic use of climbing sevenths put it right up there with the greatest epic film scores of the last century.

Dances With Wolves

Another Barry orchestral triumph which greatly enhanced Kevin Costner’s production and became another award-winning score. From perfect 3-minute songs such as ‘We Have All The Time In The World’ and ‘Born Free’, it is easy to distinguish the writer’s hand when listening to the main theme for Dances With Wolves. Despite the obligatory marching snare drum military nods, the score is in many ways a close relative to Out of Africa, depicting beautifully the vast surroundings the film inhabits. The sprawling canvas of mid-west America appears as the perfect backdrop evoking Barry’s signature box-office-blockbuster sound; one of forlorn hope, searching determinedly towards the horizon.