10 Best Movie Score Composers

Movies would not be the same without them.

logo
Ultimate Guitar
10 Best Movie Score Composers
5

10. Howard Shore

This Canadian composer is the man behind the much beloved score of “Lord of the Rings”. A frequent collaborator with David Cronenberg, Shore’s various renditions have a mythical quality to them, even when working against a harsh, real backdrop.

YouTube preview picture

9. Jerry Goldsmith

When you need a score perfectly suited to your film, regardless of style or tone, you call upon one man. Jerry Goldsmith. Famously noted by Henry Mancini as “scary as hell” for his ability to produce scores of incredible quality time after time, Goldsmith is perhaps best known for his work on the Star Trek franchise, although his work prior to Trek had dealt a lot with horror and/or action films. Pre Trek, Goldsmith mined genres for The Man From UNCLE (1964), Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and the original Planet of The Apes (1968), until he really hit the mainstream with his now-iconic Star Trek theme. Reading his list of film scores is simply mind boggling, as there didn’t seem to be anything he couldn’t do: thriller, action and everything in between; Goldsmith was a modern Mozart, for his ability to create consistently high standards of film score.

YouTube preview picture

8. Elmer Bernstein

The predominant reason for Elmer Bernstein being on this list is Ghostbusters. But what I love about Bernstein’s score for the film is that it isn’t the obvious choice. Any other composer would have gone for far too blatant spooky music, but Bernstein’s largely upbeat and quirky score only hints at supernatural themes in a very subtle way. In doing this it adds to the comedy and gives the film a much more timeless quality than if a quintessential 80s composer had been used.

YouTube preview picture

7. Danny Elfman

The singer and songwriter of the band Oingo Boingo gained recognition for compositional talent after collaborating with his brother, director Richard Elfman, on the film Forbidden Zone (1980). Five years later Elfman met the young director Tim Burton and their many collaborations have been defined by Elfman’s instantly recognisable aesthetic. Burton provided the American composer with his first opportunity to compose for a big-budget film, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). Few other director-composer collaborations have been as committed as Burton’s and Elfman’s, with the composer scoring ever film Burton has directed, with the exception of one. The composer has also worked closely with a number of other directors resulting in a number of other film and televions classics, such as The Simpsons main title theme (1989), Good Will Hunting (1997), A Simple Plan (1998), Mission: Impossible (1996), Chicago (2002), and Charlotte’s Web (2006). Elfman has won 33 awards, including winning all 24 nominations at the BMI Film and Television Awards.

YouTube preview picture

6. John Barry

John Barry gained international fame in 1962 after composing the title song for the first film of the Bond franchise. The unique musical blend of jazz and pop perfectly encapsulated the 007 character and is deeply engrained in pop-culture as the theme for a secret service sleuth, synonymous with Bond’s unique brand of mystery, danger, and charisma. The English composer and conductor composed the soundtracks for 11 of the Bond films. His award successes include five Oscar Awards, Five Academy Awards, and a Golden Globe. His award-winning repertoire included the scores for such films as Midnight Cowboy (1969), Dances with Wolves (1990), and Out of Africa (1985). In 1999 Barry was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to music and in 2005 he received the BAFTA Academy Fellowship award. In the same year Barry’s score for Out of Africa was ranked no.15 on the AFI’s list of greatest film scores.

YouTube preview picture

5. Bernard Herrmann

Bernard Herrmann is synonymous with the films of the iconic director Alfred Hitchcock, composing scores for such works as; The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), and North by Northwest (1959). By far his most iconic music, one of the most recognisable music cues in the entire canon of film music, is the blood-curdling string score found during the shower murder scene in Hitchcock’s 1960’s film Psycho. Winning an Academy Award for The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Herrmann also composed extensively for other films, radio dramas (composing for Orson Welles for the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast), and television programs. He collaborated with Welles to write music for Citizen Kane (1941), which was deemed by Hollywood standards as unconventional as Welles’ storytelling.

YouTube preview picture

4. James Horner

The late James Horner who was tragically killed in a shocking plane crash last month, created some of the most well loved film scores of the modern era. Horner began his career in film scoring in the late 70’s scoring student films for the AFI. This led to Horner composing scores for a number of small-scale films. His breakthrough happened in 1982 with his first large composition project for the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The high-profile project subsequently led to a number of other film offers and opportunities. Working with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Oliver Stone, and Ron Howard, Horner firmly established himself as one of Hollywood’s most in-demand composers. Scoring over 75 projects during his sadly cut-short career, Horner composed the music for some of modern cinemas most successful films, including Titanic (1997), The Land Before Time (1988), Braveheart (1995), The Mask of Zorro (1998), Troy (2004), The Legend of Zorro (2005), and Avatar (2009).

YouTube preview picture

3. Ennio Morricone

Sergio Leone owes a debt to Morricone, and what the man achieved with music. The theme to The Good, The Bad, The Ugly (1966) alone warrants inclusion into any Top Ten list about composers. Among his other works include scores for The Thing (1982), Days Of Heaven (1978), The Untouchables (1987) and several Dario Argento thrillers. Undeniably one of the most influential composers who ever lived.

YouTube preview picture

2. Hans Zimmer

Since his Oscar win in 2001 for Gladiator, almost every “epic” film since has tried to emulate the “yaaaahhhhh, yeeeeaaaahhhhhh” style he went with in the Ridley Scott classic. With haunting vocal performance by Lisa Gerrard, Gladiator pushed Zimmer out of scoring obscurity and into the mainstream, at least as far as the public was concerned. Reading his list of film scores, it’s a veritable cavalcade of genre and styles, although in recent times I think Zimmer has tended to lose his way with originality. While sticking with something that worked has often been a recipe for continued success, the similarity of Zimmers more recent work (ably assisted by various composer understudies like Klaus Badelt, John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams) has led to a falling away of the interesting uniqueness of his stuff. Mind you, even an average Zimmer score is still better than most, but his last truly great score was, in my humble opinion, for Sherlock Holmes (2009). Inception’s (2010) score was good too, but nowhere near his best work. Regardless, Zimmer’s long list of scores and their iconic provision for audience attachment to a particular film, cannot be questioned

YouTube preview picture

1. John Williams

The undisputed master of musical scores for cinema, this man has composed more classic themes than anybody else. You all hummed some of his tunes once in a while. From Star Wars and Harry Potter movies to The Twilight Zone, John Williams really is the embodiment of a great composer.

YouTube preview picture

40 comments sorted by best / new / date

    GR84
    Definitely a nice list! There are some composers i clearly need to learn more about after seeing the films they were involved in.  I think when it comes to film score composers John Williams is just .... well... there is no comparison for sheer impact, memorability, and overall connection to films that are from most of our childhoods - therefor there is a emotional element to it all that cannot be topped.  Hans Zimmer on the other hand is in my opinion the father of modern (circa 2000 and after) film scores, it seems his style is what has been picked up by many, many others, most films (action and epic) seem to utilize this Zimmer style, in my opinion the Nolan movies is where he shines best!
    DemonRiffs90
    Indeed. When someone thinks he nailed the Zimmer music Formular, he comes up with something different and utilises the instruments no one expected. He deserves to be on this list, just as all the others.
    Thrice Capades
    Trent Reznor and Clint Mansell deserve honorable mentions.
    jimmyslashpage
    I spin The Social Network score at least monthly. Hand Covers Bruise. The rework of In the Hall of the Mountain King. There are some brilliant moments. 
    soberdosis
    Interstellar is Hans Zimmer's masterpiece. You might not agree but to not even mention Interstellar is absurd imho. "No Time for Caution" itself is better than most OSTs out there.
    paulstfu
    Indeed. That soundtrack made Interstellar even more epic than it is. Also, "The prince of Egypt" is one of his best works, that soundtrack made me cry several times.
    PRSguitars87
    People were crying in the movie theater during the "docking" scene. His music made it such an epic scene
    DemonRiffs90
    Idk why the theme of the docking scene in Interstellar shouldn't be mentioned. If you can make an epic score with a big church organ, for a space movie, where things like the explosion are soundless (based on how it would be) and it all just hangs on the score alone to build up tension, drama, action and epicness and the importance of success within just one song and fucking nail that in a way and use of instruments, no one else would have came up with, then yeah, then this is unique and genius. Seriously, this man has done much more. For the rest of the article: great choice of composers indeed. Really like it.
    sean_getchapu
    Doesn't mention 'Alien' score for Goldsmith GTFO. Personally speaking Zimmer is far too high on here, but the number one you could see a mile coming. Not the biggest fan of Williams scores as a whole but his themes are like a Hall of Fame on their own. Guy did Jaws, Close Encounters, Star Wars, ET, Indiana Jones, AND Superman all in what, half a decade? Legend status forever.
    Jenrac
    Surprised not to see Michael Kamen but everybody on here is great.
    LittleMartin549
    Great list of composers! Still think that Howard Shore should be closer to number 1 (or number 1) but I am a die-hard Middle Earth fan.
    hoonin_hooligan
    Happy to see Williams and Zimmer so highly ranked - would have though Howard Shore would be higher. Saw a couple name on here that I hadn't heard of and will go check out. Great list!
    DemonRiffs90
    Probably the ones responsible for the classics. Theire score has less of the "boom" of today, but these are still great scores and if someone likes them or not - they opened the doors for the modern film score composers and they are responsible for how the modern composers are doing theire work today. Seriously, they are all great and Ennio was one of my longtime favourite.
    howyjr
    l would add Basil Poledouris to this list. For Conan alone, he deserves a nod. Williams has become a bit samey for my tastes.
    BigHeadClan
    Not a bad list at all, the imperial march was actually my best friends theme for the best-men to walk out. lol
    ledzep426
    Give it another decade or so and Jonny Greenwood and Trent Reznor will also be on this list. But John Williams is undenyably the all time greatest. 
    DrCOOL
    Solid list and my favorites are there. 1 and 2 are spot on especially. Only thing is I think Danny Elfman should be a few spaces hire. I love James Horner, but I'd argue Elfman should be in his spot.  Also, honorable mention to Bill Conti. Rocky anybody?
    gregdann1481
     Great list! Although I think Danny Elfman should be ranked a little higher. His theme for Tim Burton's Batman movies was incredible.  
    Zero_Sound
    In due time, Greenwood and Reznor will be added once they get a couple more projects in the bag.
    krut917
    Good list, would have been awesome to see some love for Thomas Newman. He's pretty underrated. I love his ethereal piano stuff. 
    SilentPutridity
    Good to see props for James Horner.  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was outstanding, and his other scores mentioned are notable, but c'mon... we can't forget about Krull.