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Top 10 Best Film Composers of All-Time

Music in film might be the biggest unsung hero in the industry.  It has the ability to wash over us and alter our emotions in dramatic fashions.  There have been some pretty incredible composers over the years that have attributed to these moments, shaping how we perceive film.  But before we get to the list, let’s take a look at some honorable mentions for the best film composers of all-time:

Alexandre Desplat

Michael Giacchino

John Barry

Elmer Bernstein

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, Avatar, and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock just to name a few.

There are countless composers who 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 comsumate 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 was his work on Unbreakable.  The man has the ability to 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, the man just knows when to add the right kind of musical cues to extract as much emotion as possible.

#7: Alan Silvestri

The man behind some of the most famous scores ever put to film, Silvestri has been 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 best work 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 which are both dazzling in their charm as they match the epic landscapes of the films.  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 very interesting.  They takes 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.  Danny Elfman adds a certain delightful whimsy to his scores, allowing events to feel quirky or even downright odd.

The man 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: Bernard Herrmann

Although many younger readers haven’t heard his name before, Bernard Herrmann has put a stamp on film that no one will ever forget.  Herrmann is the man behind those screechy violins from Psycho, a tune so iconic that it has since become a cliche 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.

#3: 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 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.

Zimmer always has a perfect understand of tone and feel of the film.  He perfectly accents the action onscreen.  Sometimes, his scores even sound like sound effects.  However, they always know when to get your heart racing.

#2: Ennio Morricone

Another one of those classical composers, 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 what really sets him apart is his ability to capture the feel of a film.  He mirrors the locations and atmosphere of each film perfectly.  His scores are always elegent and incredibly easy to listen to over and over again, making him an obvious choice for one of the best film composers.

#1: John Williams

Was there any doubt with who was going to top the list of the best film composers of all-time?

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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Thanks for reading!  Who do you think are the best film composers of all-time?  Comment down below!

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Nick Kush

A current young professional, Nick founded MovieBabble in October of 2016 in order to provide insightful film analysis that is meant to educate and entertain. Nick is also a member of the Internet Film Critics Society. You can follow Nick at the official MovieBabble Twitter account @MovieBabble_

44 Responses

  1. Marsha Stapleton says:

    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!

  2. 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

  3. Pearl says:

    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.

    • Nick Kush says:

      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.

  4. Interesting article, thankyou 🙂

  5. lazaruslair says:

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

    • Nick Kush says:

      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

  6. 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

    • Nick Kush says:

      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!

  7. 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! 🙂

  8. mitchteemley says:

    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!

    • Nick Kush says:

      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!

  9. Steve says:

    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.

  10. Steve says:

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

  11. Steve says:

    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.

  12. 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.”

    • Nick Kush says:

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

  13. Robin Write says:

    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.

    • Nick Kush says:

      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

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

    • Nick Kush says:

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

  15. MoJo says:

    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.

    • Nick Kush says:

      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!

      • MoJo says:

        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. 🙂

      • Nick Kush says:

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

    • Steve says:

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

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

    • Nick Kush says:

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

  17. raistlin0903 says:

    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. ?

  18. Anonymous says:

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

  19. Nick Kush says:

    Thanks so much!

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