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Top 10 Best Film Composers of All Time

by Nick Kush
best film composers

Film scores may be the biggest unsung hero in the industry. They can wash over us, dramatically alter our emotions — they can even make bad movies seem much better. There have been some pretty incredible composers over the years that have attributed to these moments, shaping how we perceive film. For every Spielberg and Hitchcock, there’s a composer whose contributions should be lauded just as much.

But before we get to the list itself, let’s take a look at some honorable mentions for the best film composers of all time:

Alexandre Desplat

Michael Giacchino

Thomas Newman

Max Steiner

John Barry

Elmer Bernstein

Jonny Greenwood

John Carpenter

Randy Newman

 

Now that we’ve covered the best of the rest, here’s a look at the best film composers ever:

#10: James Horner

Up until 2015 when he, unfortunately, passed away, James Horner had quite the career in Hollywood. Ever since his first composition back in 1978 at the age of 25, Horner has always made his touch felt on every single one of his films. While he’s probably best known for his work on the score of Titanic, Horner played a big part in many other massive films, including Aliens, Apollo 13, and Avatar, just to name a few.

Countless composers work heavily with one director. For Horner, it was James Cameron. Each man found a way to bring out the best in the other.

#9: Jerry Goldsmith

Goldsmith’s work spanned nearly five decades in Hollywood, producing some beautiful music that still works to this day. Goldsmith was undoubtedly incredibly diverse in the types of music he produced. He worked with subdued, more creepy films like Alien but could also branch off into more ornate, loud scores like Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He even did some work on Mulan.

Goldsmith was just the consummate pro, doing whatever he could to make his scores work with the material in the film.

#8: James Newton Howard

Howard has the amazing ability to evoke emotion from the tiniest little moments. One piece of his music that has always stood out to me was his work on Unbreakable. The man can give you goosebumps just from Bruce Willis getting out of a pool!

James Newton Howard has done a lot of work with M. Night Shyamalan in the past, echoing the eeriness of his film’s themes. However, Howard continues to work at the highest level, working recently on The Hunger Games franchise as well as the Fantastic Beasts franchise.

Whatever the case may be, Howard just knows when to add the right kind of musical cues to extract as much emotion as possible.

#7: Alan Silvestri

Silvestri is behind some of the most famous scores ever put to film, acting as a big player in Hollywood for quite some time. Silvestri works closely with Robert Zemeckis, which has obviously put him in prime position to work on some of the best films ever made. Around Oscar season, Silvestri is always part of the discussion.

His most recognizable work probably remains Forrest Gump, although he continues to make great memorable music such as the main theme for The Avengers. To cap it all off, he did some work on a little movie called Back to the Future.

#6: Howard Shore

If there’s one word to describe Howard Shore’s composing style it would most likely be “epic.” Shore has partnered with Peter Jackson on both The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy, and even with David Fincher on Se7en. (It may not fit the dictionary definition of “epic”, but Se7en is certainly one of the more distinctive movies of the last few decades.) Shore knows exactly when to make his scores sound grand and large, but he also excels at the quieter, more intimate moments in each of the movies he’s worked on.

#5: Danny Elfman

Elfman’s scores are always interesting. They take risks and meld together with even stranger films. He’s worked extensively with Tim Burton in the past on films such as Edward Scissorhands and Batman. His scores are always distinct and clever, but they never overpower the film as a whole. Whimsy is unquestionably an important element to his scores, allowing events to feel quirky, or even downright odd.

Elfman continues to do great work as one of the best film composers ever. He’s even in charge of handling the score for the upcoming Justice League film.

#4: Hans Zimmer

Zimmer has an ever-growing fan base that loves him without a shadow of a doubt. He works very closely with Christopher Nolan on a lot of his projects, most recently on Dunkirk. While many of his scores for Nolan films feel quite harrowing or serious, he isn’t afraid to show some whimsy like in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

For better or worse, Zimmer’s style has entirely changed the way scores sound in the aftermath of Inception. (Cue the BWOM noise.) Nolan’s style has been heavily copied in the 2010s, and much of that effect also comes from Zimmer’s work.

#3: Bernard Herrmann

Bernard Herrmann has put a stamp on film that no one will ever forget. Who could forget those screechy violins from Psycho, a tune so iconic that it has since become the most ubiquitous auditory cliché in the industry.

But his greatness doesn’t stop there. Herrmann took part in some of the best movies of all time, including Citizen Kane (which was also his first work as a composer). He even worked on a lot of Scorsese films, most notably Taxi Driver.

#2: Ennio Morricone

An iconic composer through and through, although Morricone has worked less in recent years, he has built up one of the most impressive resumes in the history of film. As a young man, he was a classmate with the famed Sergio Leone. This friendship would then turn into one of the best director/composer duos ever conceived.

We all know his classic themes from The Man With No Name trilogy, but no matter the genre, Morricone has always remained totally distinctive. Everything he touches is instantly better. Just look at Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, which is mostly watchable and full of atmosphere mostly because of Morricone’s haunting score.

#1: John Williams

Was there any doubt about who was going to top the list?

John Williams remains the most iconic composer to have ever lived. He has worked on just about every Steven Spielberg film, causing him to be a part of some of the best films ever made.

His work on Jaws is so iconic that people now refuse to go in the water because of it. Almost every famous score has Williams attached to it in some capacity. He always hits the right beats in every film, making music that will last for generations.


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46 comments

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eric January 30, 2019 - 9:33 am

Exercise in ignorance – Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Miklos Rosza, George Delerue, Got Herrmann and Rota right but a mess of someone who has reference point that goes back to 1990. Do give a listen. I’ve never been impressed by Williams’ Tchaikovsky ripoff stuff.

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Simeon Moss July 7, 2020 - 11:44 am

Composers Toru Takemitsu and Fumio Hayasaka — two highly influential giants of classic Japanese cinema should be on this list, if you’re including Cinema and not just Western cinema.

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Marsha Stapleton March 30, 2018 - 9:23 am

Memorable scores not mentioned: Legends of the Fall (James Horner); Casualties of War (Ennio Morricone). These may not be “classic” fims, but the scores have lingered on in my mind!

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Urban Fishing Pole Cigars February 9, 2018 - 7:39 pm

Are we really talking about movie score or movies that have memorable scores? I look at your list and lists from other comments and I think many of the composers are just ok. We can all argue who is the best but how does the music stand without the music? Take away the film and how does the music rate?
However, I do like this discussion as the talent of many composers are barely discussed in the realm of making a movie

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Pearl February 5, 2018 - 9:57 pm

Absolutely no disagreement with your selection of John Williams as number one composer. His body of work is unparalleled. My one personal change would be to place James Horner much closer to the top of the list. My favorite work of his in not mentioned in your synopsis – “Field of Dreams”. His work with the then new director, Phil Alden Robinson, helped make that little movie into something that will likely endure for generations. “An American Tail” and “The Great Migration” are two other personal favorites of his works.

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Nick Kush February 5, 2018 - 9:58 pm

I wouldn’t fault anyone for having a variant of my list. When you get to the best of the best, it honestly comes down to personal opinion.

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shespeaksadifferentlanguage November 28, 2017 - 12:42 am

Interesting article, thankyou 🙂

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Nick Kush November 28, 2017 - 7:11 am

Glad you enjoyed it!

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lazaruslair August 22, 2017 - 1:38 pm

Yes Henry Mancini should really have been on that list, and not just for Breakfast at Tiffanys.

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Nick Kush August 22, 2017 - 1:41 pm

Another good one! I can’t fault you for it one bit. Like I’ve mentioned before, I think it comes down to which composers left a lasting, personal touch. Unfortunately, I don’t think Mancini did that as much as the other composers on the list IMO

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freyjapakarinen August 21, 2017 - 11:03 am

My favourite is Thomas Newman who did American Beauty, Erin Brockovich, Finding Nemo, A Series of Unfortunate Events, WALL·E, The Help, Saving Mr. Banks… I can always tell when it’s him and his score always makes me feel warm and good

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Nick Kush August 21, 2017 - 11:23 am

That’s another good one! I think it comes down to which composers had a personal connection with you, which is where Newman falls behind the others on the list. He’s great though!

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Erinn Childress August 15, 2017 - 4:16 pm

All of the composers you’ve listed are just incredible. I wasn’t brave enough to to a top 10 list, but I’m glad you were and that you did! I’m still making my way through MovieBabble! So far, you have a really great blog! 🙂

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Erinn Childress August 15, 2017 - 4:18 pm

*to do. Excuse the typo.

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Nick Kush August 15, 2017 - 5:06 pm

Sometimes writing an article that has some hot takes in it can do you some good! Thanks for your kind words!

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mitchteemley August 3, 2017 - 7:42 pm

Great list, although it overlooks a lot of great film composers pre-1970 (except Hermann), like Nino Rota (Romeo & Juliet, The Godfather), Max Steiner (Casablanca, Gone With the Wind), Franz Waxman (Rebecca, Sunset Boulevard), Henry Mancini (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago). Also–just a personal preference–I’d bump Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Escape) to the top ten. What would movies be without music indeed!

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Nick Kush August 3, 2017 - 9:03 pm

It’s every once in awhile when you see a cut of a movie without the score playing underneath it, it’s an entirely different film!

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Steve August 2, 2017 - 1:46 am

I don’t think I could create a list I myself would agree with every day, but today I’d move Hermann and Morricone higher on the list and drop Williams down nearer the bottom. Although Glass doesn’t “do” film music, the Qatsi trilogy featuring the music of Philip Glass is so astounding by itself to warrant mention.

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Steve August 2, 2017 - 1:42 am

Also, not sure how you can mention Horner without mentioning Braveheart 😉

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Steve August 2, 2017 - 1:40 am

We can bicker about the order, but your list is for the most part solid in its inclusions. I must add though that if you study music, you will find John Williams is not the greatest composer ever, but rather the greatest hack and plagarist ever. Hans Zimmer steals a lot, but he does original things with what he steals, whereas John Williams is counting on his audiences to not be familiar with the original works from which he steals.

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Nick Kush August 2, 2017 - 4:53 am

I was not aware of that sentiment! Maybe I should read up on it more, I’m just too busy humming “Raiders of the Lost Ark” lol

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Steve August 3, 2017 - 1:22 pm

Yeah, I like his stolen tunes too 😉

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Nick Kush August 3, 2017 - 1:23 pm

lol

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EclecticMusicLover July 28, 2017 - 1:56 pm

All great composers on your list, but there’s one glaring omission: Maurice Jarre, composer of the epic soundtracks for the equally epic films “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago.”

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Nick Kush July 28, 2017 - 11:57 pm

I’m a fan, but unfortunately I just don’t gravitate towards him like you do. I wish I did!

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Robin Write July 28, 2017 - 1:34 pm

As a fan of film scores like The Horse Whisperer, The Shawshank Redemption, Road to Perdition, WALL-E, Meet Joe Black, American Beauty, The Green Mile, Revolutionary Road, Finding Nemo, He Named Me Malala, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Cinderella Man, Little Children, Little Women, In the Bedroom, Oscar and Lucinda – I am shocked that Thomas Newman is not mentioned here.

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Nick Kush July 28, 2017 - 11:59 pm

I thought about it, but the only score I could remember the theme to was Shawshank. Maybe I just needed something more original, who knows

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thefunnyoneblog July 28, 2017 - 4:33 am

What a nice topic! John Williams is my favorite, but I’ll add also Alexandre Desplat, Nicholas Hooper and Hugo Montenegro.

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Nick Kush July 28, 2017 - 8:35 am

Desplat was a tough one to leave off, I think I just have more of an affinity for the others!

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MoJo July 27, 2017 - 9:41 pm

This is an epic list. I was wondering if any of Kubrick’s composers would make the MB cut. I need to see who did his stuff. Love me some Kubrick and the music and sound editing was some of the best.

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Nick Kush July 27, 2017 - 9:56 pm

Hmm guess not. I can’t think of who did his music off the top of my head so I guess it didn’t resonate very well with me!

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MoJo July 27, 2017 - 11:03 pm

What!?!? I am biased. I love that movie and have always been wow’ed by Kubrick even when I didn’t like the story. I actually looked into after I read your comment to see if maybe some of these composers were involved in his films. It looks like he used music from all over the place, so perhaps he did. Great post though. 🙂

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Nick Kush July 27, 2017 - 11:05 pm

Thanks for the info! I’m glad you enjoyed it!

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Steve August 2, 2017 - 1:38 am

Yeah, Kubrick used a lot of non-original classical and post classical works – mostly dead guys.

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MoJo August 2, 2017 - 1:41 am

I am a fan of dead guys. I find their works to be particularly haunting… (Lol!)

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Steve August 3, 2017 - 1:21 pm

Me too 🙂

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Liz Gauffreau July 27, 2017 - 7:04 pm

Film composer must be one of the most enjoyable jobs ever! I’m envious just reading about it.

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Nick Kush July 27, 2017 - 9:57 pm

I know right? How cool would be to accent all these great films! Plus, you’d get to see the film early lol

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raistlin0903 July 27, 2017 - 2:03 pm

Great post, and pretty much all of the ones listed are on my own list as well. Most notably Hans Zimmer and John Williams. There is one I would add to this one, and it’s one I even did a post for this week : and that is Kenji Kawai. He is my alltime favorite composer,and absolutely amazing. ?

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Nick Kush July 27, 2017 - 2:05 pm

I’m not very familiar, I’ll have to check out some of her work!

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raistlin0903 July 27, 2017 - 2:08 pm

Well, if you are interested, here is a link to my post: it contains 5 of his best songs (yep, it’s a he lol ?) https://raistlin0903.wordpress.com/2017/07/24/special-features-presents-kenji-kawai-the-god-of-anime-and-asian-cinema-soundtracks/

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Nick Kush July 27, 2017 - 2:09 pm

I’ll check it out!

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Anonymous July 27, 2017 - 1:40 pm

Randy Edelman is one of my favourites, he done the music for Dragonheart

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Nick Kush July 27, 2017 - 1:42 pm

I would’ve picked him but he also did the chipmunks music…

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