15 Of The Greatest Film Composers Of All Time

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

The soundtrack to a film or TV show is a hugely important part of the storytelling of a movie. A film composer’s music can evoke emotion, tell a narrative, and create a mood on its own.

The musical score really can make or break a movie experience for viewers. The best composers are able to use their soundtrack in tandem with the images on screen to make you feel what they want you to feel.

In this post, we’ve compiled a list of 15 of the greatest film composers who have written some unforgettable scores over their lifetime. Let’s jump in.

1. John Williams

Possibly one of the most prolific film composers of all time, John Williams has written music for over a hundred films. He’s particularly known for his huge orchestral pieces, tailored perfectly to the score of a piece — he often watches the entire movie without a soundtrack to decide what to write for it.

Williams started writing music for TV shows and smaller movies, but his first big movie was Sugarland Express in 1974. He went on to write the music for the Star Wars films, Jurassic Park, E.T., Superman, Indiana Jones, Home Alone, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter, and many more.

Williams has been writing for films for over 70 years and has been nominated for 52 Oscars (only a few less than the most nominations of all time, Walt Disney) and also has 25 Grammys and numerous other awards.

2. Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer by ColliderVideo (CC BY 3.0)

Our next composer, German film composer Hans Zimmer, might not be as much of a household name as John Williams, but he is equally as prodigious in the film world. With over 150 film scores under his belt, Zimmer spent the early years of his career in England until he was hired to score Rain Man in 1988.

Since then, he has lived in the United States for over a decade where he is famous for incorporating electronic music into a more classical orchestra and uses the synthesizer in many of his scores.

Zimmer specializes in science fiction and fantasy films, having scored movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, Dune, Interstellar, Inception, and James Bond’s No Time to Die.

He has also worked extensively with animated features, scoring The Lion King in 1994. Currently, he works for Dreamworks as the head of their film music department.

3. Max Steiner

Born in Austria in 1888, Max Steiner was a child prodigy and began composing professionally by the age of 15. He was one of the earliest film composers, moving to California when talking pictures first became popular. 

He started by composing scores for the credits of movies after a successful (but short) Broadway career. However, after he composed the music for King Kong in 1933, music became a much larger part of motion pictures; Steiner himself contributed hugely to the movement that incorporated music into movies in a more significant way than ever before.

Since then, he has become famous for scoring the classic film Gone with the Wind, Steiner has a huge catalog of work and has written the scores for over 300 films, and he’s now commonly known as the father of modern film music.

4. Ennio Morricone

Most famous for his series of Spaghetti Western films in the 1970s and 1980s, Ennio Morricone was an incredibly prolific Italian composer who wrote the music for almost 500 movies during his lifetime.

Morricone worked primarily in the film industry but also for stage shows, orchestras, and radio. One of his most iconic film scores — the score to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for its influence on later scores.

After a successful career of writing for television, radio, and film, spanning many decades, Morricone retired from scoring movies. He went on a world tour, performing and conducting his most famous pieces.

Morricone died in July 2020 at the old age of 91, after a long and successful career in Hollywood, Italy, and popular culture.

5. Bernard Herrmann

Born in 1911 in New York City, Bernard Herrmann is famous for writing the music for many of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films; the two had a very successful partnership.

Herrmann started composing for radio shows when he was a young man and studied at the Juilliard School of Music. He became a huge influence on the radio music world, often promoting lesser-known composers and changing radio programming methods.

During this time, Herrmann was also beginning to compose music for films and wrote music for several of Orson Welles’ films, including The War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane.

However, his most famous soundtrack is the music for Taxi Driver, starring Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster, which was his final work. He died in December 1975, directly after scoring Taxi Driver, before the film even came out.

6. John Barry

An English composer, John Barry started composing in the late 1950s and is most famous for his long-time collaboration with the creators of the James Bond movies, for which he composed 11 scores.

Barry’s first instrument was the trumpet, and he began his music career playing jazz in big bands. You can hear his influences from this style in the brassy, jazzy music that comes through in the Bond film scores.

However, some of Barry’s later works are much more orchestral and sweeping. An example of this is the Oscar-winning score for Out of Africa.

Barry won five Oscars for his music, which shifted from larger-than-life and sensual Bond themes to romantic and melancholy music for pictures like Dances with Wolves. He passed away in January 2011, after nearly six decades of making music for motion pictures.

7. A. R. Rahman

A. R. Rahman by Farsad666  (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Up next, A. R. Rahman is one of India’s most prolific film composers having written for over 150 films. As a composer, Rahman has been one of the greatest influences on modern Indian music of all time with the majority of his work being Indian films in the Tamil language.

Born in 1967, Rahman began writing music for TV ads, documentaries, and Indian films before winning an Oscar for his work with Slumdog Millionaire in 2009.

Rahman is known for smaller orchestras with more modern instruments and subtle, ambient sounds. In addition to his film work, A. R. Rahman has scored several musicals, including Lord of the Rings: The Musical, which premiered in the West End in 2006.

8. Rachel Portman

One of the most influential female composers in the world, Rachel Portman has written music for over 200 films.

Portman was born in 1960 and began composing in her early teen years with some of her first work being for several BBC original movies, theater productions, and small radio programs. After this, she began a career in movies and TV specials.

She was the first woman to receive an Academy Award for Best Score (Emma, 1996) and often writes for women directors and filmmakers. She has also received several other nominations and awards for her compositions.

Aside from Emma, some of Portman’s other famous works include the scores for Chocolat, The Duchess, Mona Lisa Smile, and The Legend of Bagger Vance.

9. Joe Hisaishi

Joe Hisaishi by CityKane (CC BY 2.0)

Next is one of the most iconic anime film composers, the Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi. Born Mamoru Fujisawa in 1950, Hisaishi adopted his stage name to honor American music producer Quincy Jones.

He has written the music for over 100 films and several children’s shows and video games. Hisaishi’s partnership with Hayao Miyazaki has resulted in the iconic Studio Ghibli productions, for which he is most known.

He wrote the music for Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, and several other Ghibli staples.

Hisaishi is known for minimalistic piano-based melodies — writing light and melodic scores with a heavy emphasis on piano and strings. He takes from both European and Japanese classical styles to create the atmosphere of the movies he scores.

Many anime fans consider Hisaishi to be the backbone of the Ghibli films when paired with the storytelling genius of Miyazaki.

10. Thomas Newman

One of the most influential film composers of the 21st century is Thomas Newman. Born in 1955, he studied music at a very early age, coming from a Hollywood dynasty of film composers, which includes his father, siblings, and cousin Randy Newman of Toy Story fame.

Although Newman’s early career was in Broadway music, he was able to start in Hollywood because of his family connections. John Williams was an early friend and mentor, and through him, Newman began working on blockbuster films.

Fast-forward a few decades, and today, Newman is one of the most prolific members of the dynasty, having scored almost 100 movies, such as Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, Little Women, Finding Nemo, 1917, and many other classics.

As you’d expect from such a large and great body of work, Newman has been nominated for 15 Oscars yet, shockingly, has never won one. However, he is still active today, and he continues to work extensively with animated and live-action films.

11. Alan Menken

Born in 1949, Alan Irwin Menken is a celebrated American composer, pianist, and music conductor. He is best known for his scores and songs for films, particularly those he produced in collaboration with Disney.

His compositions have introduced an entire generation to the enchanting world of musicals. Some of his most recognizable works include the scores for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Pocahontas.

These contributions have not only earned him international recognition but also established him as one of the most successful songwriters of the modern musical theater era.

With eight Oscars and 11 Grammys to his name, Menken’s exceptional talent and contributions to the industry are undeniable. He continues to be a significant force in the music industry, inspiring others with his enduring melodies and iconic scores.

12. Howard Shore

A celebrated Canadian composer and conductor, Howard Shore has composed the scores for over 80 films throughout his illustrious career. He was one of the original creators of the popular sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live, serving as its music director from 1975 to 1980.

However, Shore’s most iconic work is his collaboration with director Peter Jackson on the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Filled with leitmotifs that represent various characters and cultures, it is widely regarded as one of the greatest film scores of all time and earned Shore three Academy Awards.

Shore has also worked extensively with director David Cronenberg, creating scores for films like The Fly, Dead Ringers, and Crash. His other notable works include the scores for The Silence of the Lambs and Hugo.

His amazing contributions have earned him three Oscars, three Golden Globes, and four Grammys, among many other awards. Today, he continues to inspire with his masterful compositions.

13. Michael Giacchino

Our next composer, Michael Giacchino, began his career composing scores for video games, including the Medal of Honor series, which brought his work into the spotlight. This led to opportunities in television, where he composed memorable scores for shows like Alias and Lost, the latter earning him an Emmy Award.

However, it’s in the realm of film that Giacchino has become most recognized. He has collaborated with Pixar on several occasions, composing scores for The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up, Inside Out, and Coco.

Giacchino has also worked on several blockbuster films, including Jurassic World, Star Trek, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

His work on Ratatouille and Up earned him Academy Awards. He has also received multiple Grammy Awards and a BAFTA.

14. Elmer Bernstein

Throughout a career spanning 50 years, Elmer Bernstein composed music for hundreds of film and television productions. He is perhaps best known for his work on movies like The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Escape, and Ghostbusters.

His scores are remembered for their versatility, ranging from dramatic westerns to lighthearted comedies, showcasing his ability to create the perfect musical accompaniment for any story.

In addition to films, Bernstein also composed for the theater and concert stage, demonstrating his broad range as a composer. His works have been performed by orchestras all around the world.

Over his career, Bernstein received 14 Academy Award nominations, and he won an Oscar for his score for Thoroughly Modern Millie. He also received two Golden Globes and an Emmy award, among other accolades.

Despite his passing in 2004, Elmer Bernstein’s music continues to be celebrated and enjoyed today.

15. Alexandre Desplat

Concluding our list is Alexandre Desplat, a highly respected French film composer. He has created scores for over 170 films and is known for his collaborations with renowned directors like Wes Anderson, George Clooney, and Stephen Frears.

Desplat began studying piano at age five and later learned trumpet and flute. He fell in love with the world of film scores after hearing music from movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars.

He first gained international attention for his score for The Girl with the Pearl Earring in 2003. His music was praised for its subtlety and emotional depth, setting the stage for his future success.

Since then, he’s worked on a wide range of films, including The Queen, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The King’s Speech, and The Shape of Water.

Desplat’s work has garnered him numerous accolades. He has been nominated for an Academy Award 10 times and won twice: for The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Shape of Water.

Honorary Mention

  • Nino Rota: Born on December 3, 1911, Nino Rota was an Italian composer famed for his film scores. His notable works include the scores for Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and (1963), as well as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather series, with The Godfather Part II earning him an Academy Award in 1974. Over his career, Rota composed music for over 150 films.

Summing Up Our List Of Famous Film And Movie Composers

Wrapping up, film music is really something special. We’ve looked at some top composers who’ve made a big impact on movies all over the world.

Whether you’re a big fan or just getting into it, we hope our list has helped you learn and enjoy more. With so many amazing film composers in the world, it can be hard to narrow down which ones to put on this list.

We’ll definitely come back and add some more, as we haven’t even scratched the surface of talented movie composers. And if you have any suggestions, let us know!

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of 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. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.