10 of the Greatest Film Composers of all Time

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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 our top 10 list of some of the greatest film composers who have written some unforgettable scores over their lifetime. Let’s jump in.

1. John Williams (1932-)

Possibly one of the most prolific film composers of all time, John Williams has written music for over one hundred films.

He’s particularly known for his huge orchestral pieces, tailored perfectly to the score of a piece often watching the entire movie without a soundtrack to decide what to write for it. 

The American-born composer has created some of the most iconic pieces of film music in the world, including the theme to Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jaws, and even the 1984 Olympic games. 

Williams has been writing for films for over seventy 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.

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, and many more. 

Steven Spielberg and John Williams have had a running partnership since the 1970s, and have worked together on over thirty films.

2. Hans Zimmer (1957-)

Hans Zimmer by ColliderVideo (CC BY 3.0)

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 films scores under his belt, German film composer Zimmer spent the early years of his career in England until he was hired to score Rain Man in 1988. 

Since then has lived in the United States for over a decade where he’s 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 as well, scoring the Lion King in 1994, and currently, he works for Dreamworks as the head of their film music department.

3. Max Steiner (1888-1971)

Next on our list is film composer Max Steiner who composed hundreds of films throughout the early part of the twentieth century.

Born in Austria in 1888, Steiner was a child prodigy and began composing professionally by the age of fifteen.

He was one of the earliest film composers, having moved 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 and Steiner was a large part of the movement that incorporated music into movies in a more significant way than ever before. 

Since then he is most famous for scoring the classic film Gone with the Wind, Max 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 (1928-2020)

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.

Working primarily in the film industry, but also for stage shows, orchestras, and radio, one of Morricone’s 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 (1911-1975)

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

However, his most famous soundtrack is the music for Taxi Driver starring Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster which was his final work. 

Bernard Herrman 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 the radio programming methods. 

During this time, Herrman 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.

This work led to his longer collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, where he wrote the iconic soundtracks to Psycho, North by Northwest, and others.

Bernard Herrman died in December 1975, directly after scoring Taxi Driver before it even came out. 

6. John Barry (1933-2011)

John Barry was an English composer who 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 eleven scores. 

John Barry’s first instrument was the trumpet and began his music career playing jazz in big bands.

You can hear his influences from this style in his brassy, jazzy music and background in jazz comes through especially in the Bond film scores.

However, some of Barry’s later works are much more orchestral and sweeping, including his 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.

John Barry died in January of 2011, after nearly six decades of making music for motion pictures. 

7. A. R. Rahman (1967-)

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

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 films 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 (1960-)

Rachel Portman is one of the most influential female composers in the world, having 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, as well as theatre productions and small radio programs before beginning 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, and has received several other nominations and awards for her compositions. 

As well as Emma, some of her other famous works include the scores for Chocolat, the Duchess, Mona Lisa Smile, and The Legend of Bagger Vance.

As well as writing music for film and TV, Portman has also written original music and has released a few albums. 

9. Joe Hisaishi (1950-)

Joe Hisaishi by CityKane (CC BY 2.0)

Joe Hisaishi is a Japanese composer, known best for his work on Studio Ghibli films.

One of the most iconic anime film composers, Hisaishi writes light and melodic scores with a heavy emphasis on piano and strings.

Born Mamoru Fusijawa in 1950, Hisaishi adopted his stage name to honor American music producer Quincy Jones.

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

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 he is most known for. 

Joe Hisaishi is known for minimalistic piano-based melodies.

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 (1955-)

Thomas Newman by Simon Fernandez (CC BY 2.0)

Thomas Newman is one of the most influential film composers of the 21st century.

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 Thomas 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 won 15 Oscars and is still active today where he continues to work extensively with animated and live-action films.

Concluding our List of Famous Film and Movie Composers

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of film music, how different composers have shaped Hollywood and the world over time, or if you just want to brush up on your knowledge of some old favorites before going out to see a movie this weekend, then we hope that our list has been helpful.

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.

Let us know if you agree with our selections or who we should add next!

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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.