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:
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.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on the best film composers of all time? Comment down below!
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