This list will introduce you to some of the most influential, most-awarded, and best film music composers in the world.
Matching music with moving images is an artform like no other. Music can elevate a film to a whole new level, adding deeper dimensions of colour and emotion.
Many films have also spawned soundtracks that we love to listen to even without the image. The best film soundtracks are generally stunning compositions in their own right. With or without film, great film compositions often stand on their own as works of art.
This article takes a look at some of the best film music composers of all time. Let’s jump in.
Perhaps the most recognisable film composer of all time, John Williams has worked on a huge array of films including Star Wars, Harry Potter, E.T, Jaws – the list goes on and on.
With a career that has lasted for over 7 decades, his scores are some of the most recognisable, and critically acclaimed compositions in film history.
Throughout his years as a composer, Williams has won 25 Grammy Awards, 5 Academy Awards (out of 52 nominations and most-nominated second only to Walt Disney himself), and 4 Golden Globe Awards.
The composer continues to lend his talents to modern projects including the recent Star Wars films and even composing the Disneyland theme song.
Hans Zimmer is one of the first names that comes to mind when you think of film music composers. The musician has scored over 150 films including The Lion King, Inception, and most recently, Dune.
For his enormous contribution to film, Zimmer has had 12 Academy Awards nominations, 2 of which he has won.
Hans Zimmer is known for his flexibility. Unlike other composers who draw their focus on one instrument, this composer can create masterpieces with a range of sounds.
His score for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, is a favourite amongst fans for its larger-than-life, transcendent quality that breaks even the toughest exteriors.
Danny Elfman is best known for his work with Tim Burton to deliver classical scores such as Edward Scissorhands, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Alice in Wonderland.
The work of Bernard Hermann can be heard throughout Elfman’s work and the composer cites him as being one of his biggest influences.
In many of Elfman’s compositions, he uses bells and chimes to add whimsical magic to his background of traditional instruments. This style complements Tim Burton’s eccentric filmmaking perfectly.
For his contribution to modern cinema, Elfman has won 24 BMI Film & Television Awards as well as 2 Emmys and 1 Grammy Award.
Fans of anime will be familiar with the work of Joe Hisaishi. His most notable composition is perhaps ‘One Summer’s Day,’ the opening theme song for one of the most popular animated films of the 21st Century, Spirited Away.
This one track alone has accumulated over 35 million streams on Spotify and throughout his career, Hisaishi has won seven Japanese Academy Awards for Best Music.
Spirited Away is not Hisaishi’s only achievement, however. The musician has composed over 100 film scores over a more than 40-decade-long career. Spirited Away director Hayao Miyazaki has worked with Hisaishi on multiple projects, having written all but one of his film scores.
James Horner is best known for his work on Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time. That’s not all, however. The composer has films such as Braveheart, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Titanic on his list of accomplishments too. His Titanic compositions has seen him win two Academy Awards.
James Horner began his career in the late 70s, getting his big break in 1982 for his score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Throughout the 1980s, he worked on many projects with directors such as Ron Howard and James Cameron. His work continued to flourish into the 90s and Horner worked right up until his untimely death in 2015.
If you’re a fan of Pixar films, there’s no doubt you would have heard a Michael Giacchino composition.
The songwriter got his start composing music for video games, most notably for Disney and DreamWorks. After finding success with pixels, Giacchino moved into television where he worked with director J. J. Abrams.
Soon he was snapped up by director Brad Bird to write the music for The Incredibles and composed one of the most recognisable Pixar theme songs.
He went on to score additional Pixar films such as Ratatouille and Up, making him one of the most successful animated film composers of all time, and the most loved.
A. R. Rahman
A. R. Rahman began his composing career writing advertising jingles and scoring for documentaries. He wrote his first film score for Roja, a romantic thriller that went on to win several awards, three of which were awarded to A. R. Rahman for his music direction.
Following the success, Rahman continued to score several songs for Tamil language films before getting his big break in Hollywood.
His most famous film score for Slumdog Millionaire won him two Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song at the 81st Academy Awards. Rahman continues to make acclaimed film scores and is consistently named an important figure within the music industry.
80s cult classic Back to the Future was composed by Alan Silvestri. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, Silvestri has composed music for all of his feature films including Forrest Gump, Cast Away, and The Polar Express.
He has also been involved in creating the Marvel cinematic universe by scoring multiple films within the franchise.
Silvestri got his start by reading a how-to-compose book that he bought while struggling to make ends meet after his move to Los Angeles.
He began writing music for the television series CHiPs, of which he composed 95 of 139 episodes. Soon, he met Robert Zemeckis who kickstarted his career in film music composition.
Have you seen any of the Toy Story films (and yes, that includes the fourth one)? Then you’ve heard some of Randy Newman’s work.
Newman is best known for his contribution to the Toy Story franchise, most notable for ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me,’ but also worked on other Disney-Pixar productions such as Monsters Inc, Cars, and The Princess and the Frog.
Throughout his extensive career, Randy Newman has been nominated for an impressive 22 Academy Awards, winning twice for Best Original Song in both 2002 and 2011. The composer has also won three Emmys and seven Grammy Awards.
Child prodigy Max Steiner, often referred to as “the father of film music,” became one of the first composers to write music scores for film in 1929.
Steiner’s body of work includes the iconic King Kong, Gone With the Wind, and Casablanca, all of which are critically acclaimed films that have gone down in cinematic history.
The composer initially added music in film where there would have otherwise been silence to ease the audience into the idea of musical accompaniment. Over time, he added more and soon, musical backdrops were commonplace.
With 300 film scores and 3 Academy Awards (24 nominations) under his belt, Max Steiner set the standard for scores and has guided following composers. The original film music composer, and truly one of the greats.
Considered one of the most prolific and greatest film composers of all time, Ennio Morricone has more than 400 scores to his name. His breakthrough score for A Fistful of Dollars shot him into stardom and he never slowed down.
What makes Morricone’s work so fascinating was his ability to create thousands of hours’ worth of music with each composition sounding unique and complementing the intended mood of each piece of media.
His compositions have left such a mark on society, many contemporary artists cite him as an influence. Alex Turner, Muse and The Prodigy are just a few successful musicians who have noted Morricone’s impact within their own work.
Ever heard of a little film called Citizen Kane? Or Taxi Driver? Or Psycho? If you answered “yes of course” to any of those questions, you will have heard scores produced by Bernard Herrmann.
Hermann is best known for his work with critically acclaimed director Alfred Hitchcock as well as for championing lesser-known composers. His work on the Hitchcock film Vertigo is considered a masterpiece by many and is, at certain points, the highlight of the film.
Integrity and creative dictation were essential to Bernard Herrmann’s process and refused projects that required him to alter his compositions. This unwavering belief in his work made him a favourite amongst film enthusiasts.
Throughout his career, Alfred Newman composed scores for over 200 films including Wuthering Heights and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He became one of the first composers to score film in the golden age of Hollywood and he, along with Max Steiner and Dimitri Tiomkin, were considered the “three godfathers of film music.”
Alfred Newman won 9 Academy Awards and was nominated for 45. Of those nominations, 43 were for Best Original Score making him the second most nominated in that category.
Thanks to his unheard-of bounty of nominations, Alfred Newman was considered the most important and influential film composer of his time.
Howard Shore is the ultimate fantasy film composer, scoring both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit franchises. For his work on The Lord of the Rings, Shore won three Academy Awards as well as unrelenting praise from both critics and film enthusiasts.
Before his career-defining success with the fantasy series, Howard Shore, except for a few, composed films with much darker themes.
He worked closely with directors David Cronenberg and David Fincher, both of whom produced psychological thrillers accompanied by Shore’s scores. You will hear his compositions in such films as The Silence of the Lambs, Seven, and The Departed.
James Bond is one of the most iconic British franchises of all time. The theme song has expanded through generations of fans, many of whom weren’t even around during its conceptions.
John Barry is the man responsible for this legacy, arranging and performing the James Bond theme for the first film as well as scoring 11 more films in the franchise.
John Barry loved rich string sounds paired with brass instruments and became one of the first film composers to incorporate synthesisers into his scores. For his contribution to British music, Barry received an OBE as well as winning 5 Academy Awards, 3 of which were for Best Original Score.
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