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How different would a movie be if we only listened to it?

An experiment I’ve never tried, because I’d fall asleep, is to “watch” with my eyes closed. My guess is it would be a fantastic way to understand the art of movie scores (not the songs in movies, but the “background” music).

I own dozens of movie soundtracks and I listen often, both to recall movies I love and simply to appreciate the music. The latter is especially true of Philip Glass, whose beauties such as “String Quartet No. 3” from “Mishima” don’t always connect to specific images.

The Glass piece fits my favorite kind of movie music, which I understood only after I read an interview with composer Alexandre Desplat, whose work includes “The Shape of Water” and “Argo.” He said he tries to convey what is going on inside the heads of the characters rather than emphasizing the action of a scene or telling us what to think about it. In fact, Desplat’s music often runs counter to the action.

That’s a modern approach and I like it. More traditional scores like Maurice Jarre’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and John Barry’s “Out of Africa” are lovely (and in my collection). And who doesn’t love a jazzy scene-setter like Elmer Bernstein’s “The Sweet Smell of Success”? But my favorites dig into the psychology of the characters. Because music hits subliminally, before we can think about what it’s doing, composers like Desplat are as important as a screenwriter or director in conveying meaning. Think about the opening of “Fargo,” when Carter Burwell’s epic music is our first clue that the Joel and Ethan Coen movie is more than the dopey kidnapping comedy it appears to be.

There are so many astonishing scores that compiling a list of the best is tough. How to leave off Hans Zimmer, whose “Man of Steel” all but kicks a listener in the teeth? Or Bernard Herrmann, whose “Psycho” and “North by Northwest” are early experiments in atonal unease? Patrick Doyle’s stirring “Henry V?” Miles Davis’ jazzy, jittery “Elevator to the Gallows?” Or Rachel Portman, whose “Never Let Me Go” is even more powerful than the “Emma” score for which she became the first woman to win a composing Oscar?

All could be on this list, but it’s even harder to pick favorite scores than movies, since they’re so tied to the films where they originated and often live beyond them. Since everyone knows what music they like, we’re all experts on film scores (including movie executives who frequently fire big-name composers after they complete their work). So think of this list as a conversation starter.

Wonderland (1999)

At the end of a call with a customer-service rep, she said the CD I was listening to was the most beautiful music she’d ever heard; it was “The Snowy Death” from Michael Nyman’s score for Michael Winterbottom’s “The Claim.” I think Nyman’s work for Winterbottom’s “Wonderland” is even better because it’s so crucial. For a drama about a splintered family whose stories all seem separate until the end, Nyman gave each character distinct themes that unite in the electrifying finale. (Also check out his “The End of the Affair” and “The Piano.”)

Rocky (1976)

Yes, the main theme, “Gonna Fly Now,” is so achingly familiar that it became a cliché. But it’s still a powerhouse and it’s not even the best composition in the movie. I’d put the propulsive “Going the Distance” first, followed by the woke-up-disco-dancing “Reflections” and the piano solo “Philadelphia Morning.” Bill Conti’s Oscar-winning score for “The Right Stuff” is fine, but c’mon, he really earned it for “Rocky.”

The Conversation (1974)

It’s probably not a score you’d put on in the background just for pleasure, but David Shire’s tense music for this thriller gets in your head and stays there. The movie has an observational quality, appropriate for a drama about a guy who spies on people and is himself being spied on. But the score allies us with that guy, the circular quality of the main piano theme becoming so insidious that it feels like we’re being surveilled, too.

Jurassic Park (1993)

John Williams has to be on this list, right? “Schindler’s List” is lyrical and “Star Wars” is iconic, but I veer toward the martial solemnity of his “JFK” theme and the majesty of this adventure. I love how the main theme starts with what could almost be a kid plinking out the melody on a toy piano and builds to a soaring crescendo that sounds like dreams coming true. Williams does great work in the frightening scenes but the thing that sticks, even as the foolish humans depart an island overrun by dinosaurs, is that the world is a place of wonder.

The Mission (1986)

No film composer is as prolific or varied as Ennio Morricone, whose “The Mission” music has reappeared in dozens of trailers. The drama’s anthemic “On Earth as It Is in Heaven” and “Gabriel’s Oboe” joined a long list of Morricone classics that include scores for “The Untouchables” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” If you want to get your Morricone money’s worth, the way to go is “A Fistful of Film Music,” which has two discs of his best, as well as bonkers tracks like “Ad Ogni Costo,” all devoted to making whatever’s going on in a movie a lot more extra.

Cat People (1982)

I grew up when Giorgio Moroder-produced Donna Summer was all over the radio, so I’d probably be a sucker for his chilly electronic music even if it didn’t work so well during his brief sojourn in film, including “American Gigolo” and the Oscar-winning “Midnight Express.” I think he’s one of the best of the pop-musicians-turned-movie-composers (along with Trent Reznor, Mark Knopfler and Randy Newman), and this is his finest work, even beyond the fiery David Bowie title song. The kinky film is about a sexy leopardwoman, and Moroder’s pervy score would be ideal dinner music for cannibals snorting coke off their stomachs before consuming each other.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

When I recently re-watched this sweet drama, I noticed Thomas Newman composed two scores for it. One’s the midcentury jazz you hear bits of in the trailer, but a more melancholy score accompanies scenes set 50 years earlier, when “Mary Poppins” writer P.L. Travers was growing up. Ultimately Newman blends the two to suggest how the film’s Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and Travers (Emma Thompson) achieve an uneasy truce.

Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367