The most iconic orchestral movie soundtracks take you to the heart of the story in an instant. Here, we explore the best of the last forty years – including Forrest Gump, Lady Bird and Star Wars.
BEST HARRY POTTER SOUNDTRACKS
- 30 Mar
Whether you’re a Gryffindor or a Hufflepuff, a Ravenclaw or – heaven forfend – a Slytherin, the magical world of Harry Potter has a huge fandom. From the books to the films – and the spin-off Fantastic Beasts series – the Potterverse is full of adventure, thrills, fabulous imagination, intrigue, romance and friendship.
One of the main ingredients that made the films such a stand-out was their terrific soundtracks. Music for film and trailers helps to set the scene, power up your emotions and, of course, add to the magic onscreen. So, how do the Harry Potter soundtracks rank in terms of the best movie soundtracks? We’ve picked our Top 10 Harry Potter songs, and done a deep dive on the soundtracks – showcasing the composers and what their unique contributions were to the franchise.
Four different composers lent their talents to the Harry Potter soundtracks – John Williams, who scored the first three, Patrick Doyle (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), Nicholas Hooper (Order of the Phoenix and The Half Blood Prince) and Alexandre Desplat, whose work brought to life the final two films (Deathly Hallows Part 1 and Part 2).
The Top 10 Harry Potter Songs
10. Lily’s Theme – Alexandre Desplat
‘Lily’s Theme’ appears in Deathly Hallows Part 2 and was written by Alexandre Desplat, who also composed the soundtrack for Deathly Hallows Part 1. He said that the theme, ‘kind of ghosts the film all along and [will] be the music thread that will take us from the beginning to the end of the film.’
The composer revealed that his goal, when writing the theme was ‘to find something as sweet and as kind as a lullaby… it’s a very simple melody that anyone can hum, child or adult, and we found this incredible singer, Mai, who has a very pure voice, almost like liquid gold. So it will haunt the film and Harry all along the last episode.’
The theme is ethereal, and plays over an opening sequence showing Snape at a window, and then segues to Harry, subtly showing that Lily – whom they both loved – links the two together.
9. Leaving Hogwarts – John Williams
‘Leaving Hogwarts’ appears at the end of the first film, The Philosopher’s Stone, and is also in the final moments of Deathly Hallows: Part 2. The first time the track appears, Harry is at Hogwarts station, leaving for the summer holidays and saying an emotional goodbye to Hagrid. The track brings in various themes from the soundtrack, including ‘Harry’s Theme’ and ‘Hedwig’s Theme’, suggesting that Harry will return to his magical world soon. Coming full circle at the end of Deathly Hallows: Part 2, it marks a poignant end to the series, as Harry and his friends send their own children off to Hogwarts…
8. Harry’s Wondrous World – John Williams
Played by a full orchestra, this is the track that opens Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Magical and majestic, it really sets the tone for the audience’s entrance into a world of wonders. It features ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ in the first few bars, before diverging into a new theme created just for Harry. The theme is used in the closing credits of both The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets. It’s both lyrical and hopeful, and full of excitement, joy and triumph, with a heroic feel.
7. Fawkes the Phoenix – John Williams
Our second-favourite bird in the Harry Potter films has to be the majestic, heroic phoenix, Fawkes. Fabulous Fawkes has healing tears and proves his worth in the Chamber of Secrets, when he helps Harry to recover from the basilisk’s poison. It’s another beautiful, soaring piece by maestro John Williams.
6. Professor Umbridge – Nicholas Hooper
Ah, dear Dolores, with her pastel-coloured cardis and fondness for felines. Has there ever been a character in literature who looked so cuddly, but underneath was so viciously spiky? Nicholas Hooper’s bouncy theme is introduced early in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and pops up throughout the rest of the film.
5. Buckbeak’s Flight – John Williams
You’ll hear ‘Buckbeak’s Flight’ in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, as Harry takes off across the Hogwarts lake, riding on Buckbeak the Hippogriff. This majestic track is largely powered by its stirring strings and is heard again when Harry and Hermione rescue Sirius.
4. Harry in Winter - Patrick Doyle
Taken from the fourth Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, ‘Harry in Winter’ was the full-length version of Harry’s new theme, and is heard when Harry asks Cho Chang to the Yule Ball, during the Priori Incantatem duel with Voldemort and at the death of fellow student Cedric Diggory (where it’s more reliant on the minor mode).
3. Dumbledore’s Army – Nicholas Hooper
Appearing in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, ‘Dumbledore’s Army’ is one of the more playful tracks in our list – as Movie-wave.net said, it’s ‘a really charming theme, perhaps something that might feel at home in a Jane Austen adaptation.’ It’s a totally uplifting sequence, where Harry is teaching the ‘army’ to become powerful wizards, and they’re creating Patronuses.
2. Hogwarts’ Hymn – Patrick Doyle
Patrick Doyle stayed true to predecessor John Williams’ traditional orchestration style, but made an effort to emphasise the style of British classical music. As Musicnotes.com note, this track ‘is a great example of highlighting British culture.’ Heard fully during the film’s end credits, ‘Hogwarts’ Hymn’ brings to mind Elgar – it’s both inspiring, but also has quite a sad feel and builds to a massive orchestral finish – there are definitely echoes of that English classic, ‘Jerusalem’.
1. Hedwig’s Theme – John Williams
Well, of course this had to be No. 1 in our countdown of the best Harry Potter songs – it soars, it glides, it twinkles with bells – it’s a stone-cold John Williams classic. It’s got some horns that sound a bit Star Wars-y in the middle section, but the bells and the strings give it masses of magic. Then the track really ramps up for the final section – if you don’t feel ready to do everything from leap onto a Nimbus 2000 for a championship game of Quidditch to battling to the death with He Who Must Not be Named by the end of ‘Hedwig’s Theme’, then, really, you’re doomed to your Muggle existence forever.
Best Harry Potter Soundtrack
There were eight albums compiled for the films, from 2001 to the final film in 2011, with four different composers, who gradually transitioned from the introduction to the wizarding world, full of light-hearted optimism and joy, to the emotional (and literal) battlegrounds of the final two episodes.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
The first time The Boy Who Lived made it to the big screen, producer David Heyman and director Chris Columbus knew they needed an iconic composer for the soundtrack. And they don’t come much bigger than the creator of everything from Star Wars to Spielberg’s films, the one and only John Williams.
The soundtrack was nominated for Best Original Score at the 74th Academy Awards, and introduced many character-specific themes that are used in at least one of the sequels. ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ is the most beloved of Potter fans, as it appears in all eight of the main Potter films, as well as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
The soundtrack to Harry discovering his wizarding heritage and heading to Hogwarts features tracks such as ‘Harry’s Wondrous World’, and ‘Family Portrait’ – a theme heard when Harry’s thinking of his parents, which also appears in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
John Williams returned for the second Harry Potter outing – the soundtrack was again played by the London Symphony Orchestra. The main theme is dark and mysterious, while ‘Gilderoy Lockhart’ brilliantly sums up the comedic, pompous aspects of Kenneth Brannagh’s celeb author and Defence Against the Dark Arts professor. ‘The Flying Car’, played when the Weasley’s flying car goes to Hogwarts, is busy and has a sense of urgency (it also sounds a bit like Danny Elfman’s Simpsons theme in places.)
Arachnophobes look away now – Williams’ ‘The Spiders’ showcases a clever descending string motif comprised of eight-note phrases (spiders = eight legs, geddit?) It’s also got some quite Psycho-esque stabbing strings for an added horror element.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
John Williams’ third outing for a Harry Potter soundtrack saw him composing fewer themes, and more stand-alone pieces, such as ‘Secrets of the Castle’, ‘The Werewolf Scene’ and ‘Saving Buckbeak’. Fun fact: ‘Double Trouble’ is a choral piece which was inspired by the three witches scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
Oscar-nominated Scottish composer Patrick Doyle (Gosford Park, Nanny McPhee, Thor) had to build on the foundations laid by John Williams, but take the music into murkier emotional waters, as the Potter story becomes a lot darker with this instalment – his opener, the menacing ‘The Story Continues’, sets out his stall.
Plus, there are plenty of new characters to introduce – including the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students. Not to mention the gang are dabbling in a bit of YA romance – with the first hints of this in the beautiful ‘Harry in Winter’.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
Director David Yates chose to work with composer Nicholas Hooper for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Hooper spans everything from the sprightly ‘Professor Umbridge’ to the darkly gothic ‘Dementors in the Underpass’, interspersed with ‘The Ministry of Magic’, with touches of Broadway, and finishing up with ‘Loved Ones and Leaving’, which is full of bittersweet emotion.
This soundtrack differed from previous Potter outings in Hooper’s use of a lot of empty space, although some reviewers found it a bit underpowered.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
Nicholas Hooper’s second Harry Potter soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy award for Best Score Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture. His compositions moved further away from John Williams’ sound, as youthful optimism gives way to Harry and his friends’ attempts to overcome the odds and literally battle for the fate of the world.
The action music – such as ‘In the Rushes’ – is dark and brooding, with plenty of percussion; there are eerie whispers in ‘The Drink of Despair’ and introspective piano on ‘Malfoy’s Mission’. However, it’s not all doom and gloom – there’s also lightness, provided by the Weasley twins’ ‘Wizard Wheezes’ and ‘The Weasley Stomp’ and romantic elements (‘Ginny’, ‘Harry and Hermione’ and ‘When Ginny Kissed Harry’), featuring oboes, harp and acoustic guitars.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)
Oscar-winning French composer Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Shape of Water) was tasked with creating the soundtrack as Harry, Ron and Hermione take to the road, chased by Voldemort’s dark forces. Desplat used themes connected to their situations or locations (such as the Ministry of Magic, the Burrows, or the Sky Battle), and characters, such as Dobby, Dumbledore and Voldemort.
As well as using plenty of orchestral textures, Desplat also includes unusual instruments, such as the Japanese shakuhachi flute, and a mandolin for Dobby. The darker tone of the story means that there are also detuned violins, ominous clarinet accents and portentous strings in tracks such as ‘The Exodus’, ‘Godric’s Hollow Graveyard’ and ‘Bathilda Bagshot’.
Movie Music UK loved the soundtrack’s ‘unashamed, heart-on-sleeve emotion, which embraces the darkness of the story and runs with it, thrilling the listener with powerful action and forcing the listener to feel Harry’s pain with equal skill.’
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
Alexandre Desplat returned to score the final film and created a soundtrack that was nominated for a Grammy award, among others, and won the San Diego Film Critics Society Award for Best Score.
In the film, several tracks from previous Harry Potter films return, including a variant of ‘Hedwig’s Theme’, and ‘Dumbledore’s Farewell’ from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – plus, of course, John Williams’ ‘Leaving Hogwarts’ in the final scene – and a suite of ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ for the end credits.
Movie Music UK gave the soundtrack a five out of five, and praised, ‘Desplat’s decision to build his score around a musical motif representing those departed souls’ as ‘a perfect one’ and hailed it as ‘one of the scores of the year’. Evening Hour highlighted the composer’s ability for ‘seamlessly blending emotional nuance with action-packed grandeur.’ It was a huge challenge to soundtrack such an emotional, action-packed film, tying up a decade’s worth of story for the fandom, which Desplat more than rose to.
So, there you have it – all our favourite Harry Potter songs, and their soundtracks! If you’re looking for emotional, action-packed or heroic music for a project, then we have all the tracks you need – plus fantastic trailer music, perfect for creating big screen anticipation.
During the 80s movie concepts, budgets and production sets became bigger and more ambitious than ever, and film soundtracks were amped up to the next level. We explore the best 80s soundtracks – from John Williams’s score for The Empire Strikes Back to Danny Elfman’s soundtrack to Tim Burton’s Batman
What are the challenges of incorporating Japanese instruments with western orchestration? We caught up with composer Jérôme Leroy to find out.