Mass Choir together with orchestra on a huge stage © Studi43

The Top 5 Choral Pieces in Film

A fine selection of choral pieces written specifically for a film score


Ever since audiences began watching films in theaters, they’ve been listening to music at the same time. Even in the silent era, musicians could make a living playing the piano along with the action on screen.

Music, especially choral pieces in film has come a long way since then. Now, intricate scores by some of the world’s best composers are played by prestigious choirs and philharmonics, with the music interwoven into the editing to create compelling cinematic moments.

For lovers of choral music, this had been a source of great joy. The collaboration between composers and filmmakers has led to the creation of some of the most beloved pieces from the last century.

To celebrate this connection between choral music and film, we thought we’d put together a list of the top five pieces written for the screen. While many works have been used effectively in film (like Carl Off’s “Carmina Burana” or Mykola Leontovych’s “Carol of the Bells”), the following list are pieces written specifically for a film score.

“Vessels” by Philip Glass | Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi is hard to describe. It is a cult classic documentary, audio-visual tour de force, and philosophical meditation. Such a tremendous movie needed a score that could match the powerful vision. And so, Reggio turned to minimalist master Philip Glass, who rose to the challenge.

The Philip Glass Ensemble along with The Western Wind vocal sextet performed the legendary film score and helped push the music of movies forward into new territory. The end result is some of the most haunting choral music ever presented to audiences. From the famous repetition of the title to this composition, the music creates the sublime feeling of awe and dread that makes the film so beloved.

“Ave Satani” by Jerry Goldsmith | The Omen (1976)

Choral music, perhaps more than any other, gives us a sense of the sacred. There is a deep connection in cultures around the world between holiness and choirs singing. And when that powerful feature is used to present music for horror, the results are terrifying on a deep level.

Legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith gave us an unforgettable piece of choral music for Richard Donner’s 70s horror classic The Omen. This song — which owes a lot to Carl Off’s “Carmina Burana” — gives us a glimpse into the dark origins of the character Damien, as well as the ultimate stakes in the conflict at the center of the film. Good versus evil. God versus the Devil. It’s all here in this gothic choral music.

“Hymn to the Fallen” by John Williams | Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was an enormous moment in cinema. It brought war films into a new era, depicting the brutal reality of WWII while also presenting the dignity and heroism of the soldiers. It never falls into easy sentimentality, instead preferring to show ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances.

Part of this effect is achieved by leaving the vast majority of the film unscored. But the title sequence needed something that could live up to the challenge. Long time Spielberg collaborator John Williams was brought on to write music that could deliver gravitas, and the composer really shines in this piece.

“Conquest of Paradise” by Vangelis | 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)

1492: Conquest of Paradise is not the most famous Ridley Scott film. But while it never really found footing with critics or audiences, the score certainly did. It has gone on to become a renowned work, yet another beloved score by the great Vangelis.

Ten years before this film, Scott and Vangelis worked together on Blade Runner — yet another tremendous use of music in film. But while that science fiction film noir needed a synth heavy soundscape, 1942… gave Vangelis a chance to explore a few more traditional elements. He still managed to sneak in synths, but this choir-heavy piece shows his strength writing for the human voice.

“Concerto in E Minor” by Zbigniew Preisner | The Double Life of Véronique (1991)

Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski and composer Zbigniew Preisner brought audiences one of the true masterpieces of music ever composed for the screen with this concerto. The work is breathtaking, with an absolutely acrobatic solo that soars above the stirring orchestra.

It’s a piece that gives us everything we love about Preisner’s compositions. It is both modern and timeless, deeply moving and spiritually overwhelming. But what’s even more astounding is how well it matches the emotional moment of the story, giving us a deeper understanding of the characters. Combined with the visionary force of Kieślowski’s filmmaking, it’s cinema at its finest.

Are there any other choral pieces used in movies that you love? Make a comment on our Social Media channels and let us know - we will be happy to read whatever you have in mind! 

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