17 of the Greatest Disney Composers You Should Know

Disney animated movies are known for their heartwarming, catchy, and memorable musical numbers. Disney has hired some of the most talented musicians of all time. 

But who are the creative geniuses behind these beautiful soundtracks that we love? Below are 17 of the greatest Disney composers from the earliest years of animation to modern-day blockbuster hits. 

1. Alan Menken (1949–)

Alan Menken knew he wanted to be a composer from the time he was a child.

Although Menken learned to play the piano at a young age, he struggled with ADHD and would “fake practice” the songs he’d learn during his lessons. Little did he know that he was learning to compose music by faking the song. 

This little boy who combated ADHD would go on to compose some of the most memorable music for Disney.

His first ever movie score was The Little Mermaid. Following this, he composed the music for Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin as well as working on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules and Tangled.

2. The Sherman Brothers (Robert and Richard)

Robert and Richard Sherman were born into music. Their father was a songwriter and encouraged them to compose music together in the early 1950s.

In just ten short years, they were creating music for both Disney feature films and the accompanying theme parks.

Although they’re responsible for creating the annoying song “It’s a small world,” they more than made up for it by composing the music for Mary Poppins, The Aristocats, and various Winnie the Pooh movies throughout the years.

3. Randy Newman (1943–)

Before he was known for the infamous song “You Got a Friend in Me,” Randy Newman (cousin of famous film composer Thomas Newman) kick-started his career at a young age as a songwriter and musician.

He released several albums in the 1960s and 70s until he began his composing career in the 1980s. 

Newman composed an array of Disney songs and film scores, including the Toy Story franchise, James and the Giant Peach and Monsters, Inc.

He also composed the music for Princess and the Frog, which got his two Oscar nominees. 

4. Oliver Wallace (1887–1963)

Born in London, Oliver Wallace moved to the U.S. in 1904. He began his music career as an organ player during the silent film era. 

In the early 1930s, he joined the Disney studio and started composing for their animated short films.

It turned into a 27-year career scoring their various feature films, including The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Cinderella, Peter Pan, and the Lady and the Tramp

5. Hans Zimmer (1957–)

Born and raised in West Germany, Hans Zimmer figured out early in his life that traditional training was not for him.

He was kicked out of several schools and decided to teach himself music. 

Incorporating electric sounds with a traditional orchestra, he developed a unique style landing him an Academy Award for Best Original Score for The Lion King in 1995.

He’s also known for his work on the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. 

6. George Bruns (1914–1983)

George Bruns attended music lessons as a child but ended up going to an agricultural college at the start of his career.

After joining the ROTC band, he decided to drop out and pursue his passion for music in L.A.

In the early 1950s, Walt Disney hired him to compose the music for Sleeping Beauty.

He worked for Disney for several years after that, where he wrote the iconic Ballad of Davy Crockett.

He’s also known for his work in Babes in Toyland, The Sword in the Stone, and Robin Hood.

7. Elton John (1947–)

Reginald Kenneth Dwight began his long-time love of playing the piano at just four years old.

Knowing he wanted to make music his career, he dropped out of high school to go after his dream and, in 1972, became Elton John.

Although he doesn’t compose film scores as a musician, he is a musical genius and wrote the songs (alongside Tim Rice) in The Lion King.

8. Phil Collins (1951–) and Mark Mancina (1957–)

Meeting during the storyboarding process of Tarzan in the 90s, Phil Collins and Mark Mancina worked together to create the memorable soundtrack to this action-packed Disney movie.

Mancina composed the score for the entire film, but Collins wrote the songs and lyrics. 

Later on, they’d work on yet another Disney movie, but this time, more collaboratively. Both musicians wrote the score for Brother Bear

9. Frank Churchill (1901–1942)

At the young age of 15, Frank Churchill was composing scores for the cinemas as a pianist. He then went to college for medical studies but left the university to follow his passion for music. 

He worked at a radio station before being hired at Disney Studios in 1930.

He composed the music for the Three Little Pigs before being hired to score the soundtrack to Disney’s very first feature-length animated film Snow White.

He co-wrote the score for Dumbo with Oliver Wallace before his tragic death by suicide at age 40.

10. James Newton Howard (1951–)

Born into a musical family, James started formal piano lessons at the age of four. He did not stop his formal training until he graduated from the USC School of Music and the Music Academy of the West.

He then toured with Elton John in his younger years before becoming a composer for film.

In 2000, he started composing and writing music for Disney. He composed the score for Atlantic: the Lost Empire and wrote the music for other movies, including Maleficent and Raya and the Last Dragon.

11. Paul Smith (1906–1985) 

Born in Michigan, Paul Smith studied music after high school graduation at two different music schools. After college, he started working for Disney and remained there for most of his career. 

He worked with other Disney composers of the day, including Oliver Wallace, on Cinderella, and Frank Churchill, on Snow White.

He also scored the music for the infamous movie original Fantasia.

12. Leigh Harline (1907–1969)

Leigh Harline started his musical studies in college and joined the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to study piano and organ playing.

In The 1920s, he moved to L.A., and within ten years, he was working at Disney alongside Paul Smith and Frank Churchill on Snow White.

He won two Academy Awards for Best Original Music Score and Best Original Song “When You Wish Upon a Star” for the film Pinocchio.

In 1941 he decided to pursue his music career elsewhere and left the Disney studio.

13. Danny Elfman (1953–)

Dubbed as “Hollywood’s hottest film composer,” Danny Elfman didn’t start his music career with formal lessons or college.

In his 20s, he formed the band Oingo Boingo with his brother before he caught the eye of both Disney studios, a young fan, Tim Burton. 

Danny Elfman and Tim Burton have partnered up on several film projects throughout the following decades, including a few Disney productions.

Although he’s most famous for The Nightmare Before Christmas, he’s also scored the soundtrack for other Disney movies, including Flubber, Frankenwieenie, Alice Through the Looking Glass, and the remake of Dumbo.

14. Henry Pryce Jackman (1974–)

A child prodigy, Henry Pryce Jackman began composing music when he was just six years old.

While he was studying classical music, he was delving into the rave scene and got into electronic music as well. 

He started getting noticed for his musical style in the early 2000s and worked with Hans Zimmer scoring the music for the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Since then, he’s scored music for the Wreck-it-Ralph and Captain America franchises, among others. 

15. Buddy Baker (1918–2002)

After learning his musical craft at the Southwest Baptist College, Noman Baker, nicknamed “Buddy,” moved out to L.A. to compose for radio shows before being invited to compose for Disney by his friend, George Bruns. 

Baker composed music for the Disney show Davy Crocket and the River Pirates before beginning the music direction for Disney and becoming the Chief Composer for Disneyland.

He wrote music for various theme park rides and attractions here, including The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and The Haunted Mansion.

16. Howard Ashman (1950–1991)

Howard Ashman started his career in New York, where he wrote plays in the 70s and 80s.

After receiving attention from the hit off-broadway musical “Little Shop of Horrors,” with his friend Alan Menken, they started working in film. 

He continued to work with Menken on the Disney film The Little Mermaid and even dressed up like Ursula to show Pat Carroll how to sing the song “Poor Unfortunate Soul.”

He went on to write the songs for Beauty and the Beast but died tragically at 40 years old from AIDS. Disney dedicated the movie in his honor in the ending credits.

17. Michael Giacchino (1967–)

At the age of 10, Michael Giacchino would make stop-motion animation and put it with music, showing an interest in filmmaking. His art teacher recommended he attend the School of Visual Arts. 

Although he began his career at Disney in marketing, Giacchino decided to study music composition at Juilliard and then UCLA.

He started his composing career writing music for Disney Interactive games and then moved on to compose the soundtracks for The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and UP to name a few. 

Summing Up Our List of Greatest Disney Composers

These talented composers have helped shape the childhoods of millions by helping to make memorable movies into classics by adding the atmosphere and songs that everyone has loved throughout the years. 

Who’s your favorite Disney composer and have we missed any? Let us know and we’ll add them to our list.

Photo of author
Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.