The music used for a film can make or break it at the box office. It sets the tone of a scene, colors actors’ performances, and makes dialogues shine. To that end, popular music has contributed much.
But no musical artists have done as much to enhance the film-going experience as film composers. Here, we pay tribute to the finest film composers of all time. We owe much to these great artists for their contributions to our culture and to the films we all know and love.
1. Bernard Herrmann
Bernard Herrmann started composing at age 13 and may be one of the most influential film composers of all time. He has composed scores for a handful of the most iconic, beloved, and highly-acclaimed films ever produced. These include the low woodwind sounds in the opening of Citizen Kane in 1941 as well as what might be the most imitated musical stinger of all time—the sound that was heard during the shower scene of Psycho.
After the work he produced for Psycho, he also composed a saxophone number for the film Taxi Driver, a plaintive melody that is imitated almost as frequently as the Psycho shocker-violin.
Next: Our list of the best composers of all time
2. John Williams
John Williams could easily be on the top of any list of film composers for his prolific catalog of work and the sheer fame of the Star Wars movies. Certainly, he is the wealthiest and most successful film composer not only in monetary terms but in terms of fame as well. He is often referred to as America’s Composer, due to his extraordinary fame. He has been nominated for 52 Oscars for his work, making him easily more lauded than any other living composer.
Next: Greatest movie/film songs of all time
3. Ennio Morricone
The composer of what is certainly the most recognizable cinema score of all time, Ennio Morricone created many musical works for films in the Spaghetti Western genre in the 60s and 70s. His compositions are known for their forlorn yet engaging and even festive central European and South American flare, making them as popular off the screen as they are on it. His most famous track can be recognized by almost anyone in just two notes, and it remains a laudable musical accomplishment.
Next: Greatest movie soundtracks of all time (our list)
4. John Barry
The John Dunbar Theme, John Barry’s most well-known work and the title theme of Dances With Wolves, is nearly as sweeping and iconic as the airiest Ennio Morricone composition. Barry was clearly inspired by the way Morricone captured the austere optimism of the western frontier in his work, as evidenced by the emotive tones. Interestingly, much of this was accomplished using bagpipes, an instrument that is singularly absent from Morricone’s work.
5. Elmer Bernstein
Elmer Bernstein composed the title theme for the motion picture, Far From Heaven, which is arguably one of the most haunting and uplifting compositions in any mainstream film of the 2000s. He received his education at the Walden School and New York University and served in the Army Air Corps in WWII. He is the composer of multiple compositions for the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band and is at once one of the least well-known and most praised composers of his generation.
6. Maurice Jarre
Maurice got a later start learning music than the vast majority of his contemporaries, beginning practice and study in his late teens. He enrolled in the Conservatoire De Paris, against his father’s will, where he obtained percussion and built the foundations of his art. The composition for which he is best known is an iconic piece of music, as iconic as the film itself.
7. Max Steiner
Stark, sweeping, romantic, and intensely American, the Gone With The Wind Theme is as outstanding in the world of modern big band composition as the film is in that of cinema. Max Steiner became a legend in his own time by composing hundreds of film scores that are now considered standards in their respective genres. He grew up among writers and directors in theater circles and would have appeared to have been all but destined for greatness at an early age.
8. Jerry Goldsmith
Jerry Goldsmith’s career began as a clerk for the music department at CBS, but he had studied piano and composition with respected teachers and other would-be greats as a young man. His most famous work is the theme of Star Trek: First Contact. This composition is famous for its intro, which is very much similar to the original Star Trek Theme, but it quickly breaks away from its inspiration to follow an epic arc that fits well into the spirit of the franchise while remaining both ennobling and original.
9. Hans Zimmer
One of the most recognizable names on our list, Hans Zimmer has a reputation for being one of the most innovative film composers Hollywood has to offer. He even had a hand in the 80s hit single Video Killed The Radio Star, an interesting feat. But his most celebrated work is the theme for Gladiator. It is a composition that matches both the grandeur and the tragedy of that movie wonderfully.
10. Erich Wolfgang Korngold
A prodigal talent as a youth, Erich Wolfgang Korngold accompanied his father’s band playing complex piano arrangements at the tender age of five. By age 11, he thrilled Viennese audiences and Emperor Franz Josef with his unique skills as a pianist. As an adult, he composed the theme to The Adventures Of Robin Hood, a composition that respects the mythic quality of Robin Hood as well as its essential spirit of fun and adventure.
Next: Ultimate list of the greatest pianists of all time
11. James Horner
Yet another child prodigy, James Horner began studying piano at the tender age of five. He went on to study classical composition at the Royal College Of Music in London, England. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Southern California where he continued his education and soon began composing scores for major Hollywood films.
12. Alfred Newman
Both a composer and an actor, Alfred Newman wrote celebrated scores for the landmark comedy Airport, the award-winning film All About Eve, and many other noteworthy films such as The King And I. Born in March of 1900, he has had an enormous influence on modern cinema scoring for a man of his generation.
13. Danny Elfman
Danny Elfman’s climb up the ladder of musical success began when he became part of the 80s new wave rock band Oingo Boingo. His success in turning out hits offers no clear or direct line to his great success in film score composition. Nevertheless, he has made quite a name for himself as a composer with modern scores on many recent, popular, and acclaimed films.
14. Miklós Rózsa
Continuing our theme of child prodigies, Miklós Rózsa learned to play the violin at age five and learned to read musical notation before he learned to read text. He studied at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1926 where he earned his doctorate in music. His composition for the film Ben-Hur set the tone for epic films of the time, inspiring a generation of composers to follow in his musical footsteps.
15. Henry Mancini
Taking cues from Latin jazz, a genre that was quite popular at the time Breakfast At Tiffany’s was released, Henry Mancini had a large hand in the popular success of that film. He struck the right tone at the right time in a way that was both classy and had broad appeal. His ability to help build a brand for Hollywood film projects that sold tickets paved the way for a career that would carry him well into the early 2020s.
Unlike the bands behind the pop tracks in major Hollywood blockbusters, most of the time, the work of these composers goes unnoticed by audiences. So next time you feel moved to tears or become turgid with excitement at a critical point in a film, take a moment to consider, not just the soundtrack but also the musical score. Chances are high that one of these artists was behind it.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.