The 20 Best Film Composers of All Time

The job of a film composer is to enhance the emotions in a motion picture with compositions that fit the tone of the visuals. Without great music, the best films of all time wouldn’t be the same.

If great music is part of what makes you go to the movies, then you will love the 20 renowned film composers who have made it to the list. From exhilarating classic music to somber electronics, I have tried to select the best while covering as many genres as possible.

20. Jack Nitzsche

Different movies have different musical needs, and few people understood this better than the late Jack Nitzsche. After working alongside the iconic record producer Phil Spector for years, the Chicago, Illinois native decided it was time to reinvent the art of film scoring in Hollywood.

Known for his work in movies as acclaimed as “The Exorcist” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Nitzsche delivered moving, theater-ready classical pieces. However, he added a twist, a little special touch. 

During his time, he was undoubtedly one of the most avant-garde film composers in the game. Today, many years after his death, his work continues to sound surprisingly refreshing.

19. Vangelis

An Academy Award-winning film composer, the electronic whiz Vangelis is best known for creating the highly-influential soundtrack to the science-fiction classic “Blade Runner.” His 1982 OST is still listed by many as his ultimate masterpiece, and it fits the tone of Ridley Scott’s breakthrough movie to perfection.

Fueled by the success of his 1981 score for “Chariots of Fire,” Vangelis was the world’s ultimate electronic film scorer for more than two decades before starting to work on NASA’s Mars Odyssey project in 2001. Born in Greece in 1943, the king of the CS80 synthesizer passed away in 2022 at the age of 79.

18. Henry Mancini

When the late American film composer Henry Mancini started working in Hollywood, classical-music soundtracks were the norm. There was no room for the jazz and big-band music that was sweeping the nation in the 50s and 60s. Or was there?

The creator of one of the most unforgettable film songs of all time – the “Pink Panther Theme”, Mancini proved that movies could only look cooler when they sounded jazzy. While most of Mancini’s other work is less groovy than the feline “Pink Panther Theme,” there’s no doubt that he was one of the great pioneers of the big-band sound in cinema.

17. A. R. Rahman

Most Western viewers should recognize A. R. Rahman for his work in the 2008 drama “Slumdog Millionaire.” However, he spent the vast majority of his career working in Indian films. One of the most renowned film composers coming out of Kolly and Bollywood, he’s an Indian national hero with impressive musical sensibility.

Unlike most film composers, Rahman also loves to perform his pieces live, sometimes with the help of a Continuum Fingerboard. With two Academy Awards and countless Indian accolades in the bag, Rahman deserves a place on the list for being the ultimate representative of Bollywood’s music.

16. James Horner

Even though he spent most of his college days studying the works of the Austrian-Hungarian avant-garde composer György Ligeti, James Horner found his artistic voice in the much older world of Celtic music.

His timing was perfect: after all, it turned out epic classical music led by a Celtic-inspired melody was exactly what James Cameron was looking for when he started making “Titanic.”

Yes, Horner will always be remembered as one of the best of all time for his work in “Titanic.” His influence, however, is also felt through movies as beloved as “Aliens,” “Braveheart,” “The Mask of Zorro,” and “Avatar.”

15. John Barry

The James Bond film series is one of the most successful in the history of cinema, and a huge part of Agent 007’s charm comes from the music of John Barry. While the late English composer worked on other films, his name and legacy will always be tied up with great James-Bond classics such as “Dr. No” and “Goldfinger.”

Barry is also known for creating the “James Bond Theme,” which functioned as the motif for all James-Bond music to come. Barry’s creations are filled with suspenseful, tense passages, action-filled horn sections, and occasional glimpses of hopefulness.

14. Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

I know there are two names up there, but I promise I’m not cheating. The Nine Inch Nails songwriter Trent Reznor and the English record producer Atticus Ross always work together when they’re making film scores, and they’ve been among the highest-requested composers in Hollywood since they changed the game with their “The Social Network” OST.

Reznor and Ross’s characteristic sound involves a lot of electronic textures, somber melodies, and repetition. However, they’re never afraid of experimenting with new things and love to involve other high-profile musicians in their composition process.

13. Alan Menken

From the late 80s to the early 2000s, Walt Disney produced some of the most memorable animation pictures of all time. Great stories such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and “Aladdin” still inspire millions of young men and women with their timeless charm and unrepeatable innocence.

The man in charge of scoring most of Disney’s golden-period animations was none other than the American composer Alan Menken. Still active and still working in Disney productions (“Tangled” is a great recent example), Menken has perhaps inspired more children to love music than any other person in history.

12. Rachel Portman

There’s something special about the music of the English film composer Rachel Portman. She mastered the art of composing for visuals while working in British television and is now viewed as one of the most renowned and hardworking film scorers in the world.

Her style is hard to define: extremely humble, Portman has the rare quality of putting her movies first and her ego second. However, she’s at her best in period pieces, romantic movies, and classic literature adaptations. Some of her most popular movies include “The Storyteller,” “Oliver Twist,” “The Duchess,” and “Mona Lisa Smile.”

11. Howard Shore

The Canadian film composer Howard Shore only needs four words to prove to anyone he’s one of the best that’s ever lived: “Lord of the Rings.” The great musician behind the astoundingly beautiful soundtrack of one of cinema’s most iconic trilogies, Shore was somehow able to encapsulate the entire J.R.R. Tolkien universe in a couple of hours of music.

Pretty much like Frodo Baggins’s journey, the soundtrack of “Lord of the Rings” is as jolly as the Shire and as dark as the eye of Sauron at times. Apart from his unforgettable magnum opus, Shore is also known for scoring most David Cronenberg movies.

10. Jonny Greenwood

As if being the lead guitarist and keyboardist of a “little band” called Radiohead wasn’t enough, Jonny Greenwood decided to become one of this generation’s best film composers. Beloved by another contemporary genius, the director Paul Thomas Anderson, Greenwood showed all of his versatility and creativity in masterpieces such as “There Will Be Blood” and “Phantom Thread.”

True to his artistic vision, Greenwood has already created some of the riskiest, most modern, and more extreme film scores of the last two decades – and it looks like he’s just getting started! His compositions are filled with modal chords and texture-rich orchestral passages.

9. Hans Zimmer

The German film composer Hans Zimmer has single-handedly reinvented the way great film scores should sound. A big fan of minimalism (both in his arrangements and compositions), he doesn’t need too many notes or instruments to create inspiring pieces that never fail to hit the right emotions.

Surely a modern film composer, Zimmer is also known for creating most of his music using a digital audio workstation and virtual instruments such as sampler libraries. He’s as reliably good as the very best in the game, but “The Dark Knight,” “Inception,” “Interstellar,” and “The Lion King” are probably his best scores.

8. Joe Hisaishi

The Japanese film composer Joe Hisaishi never needed to see the Hollywood sign to create some of the most touching film scores ever made. Far away from the movie Mecca of Los Angeles, he still managed to land multiple awards with his beautiful compositions and touch the heart of every Western viewer who watched one of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies.

Hisaishi is as hardworking as consistently good and has made more than 100 film scores since the early 80s. His legacy, however, cannot be separated from the legacy of Studio Ghibli. Without Hisaishi’s music, masterful animations such as “Spirited Away” and “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” wouldn’t be the same.

7. Jerry Goldsmith

One of the most masterful individuals in film history, Jerry Goldsmith is one of those composers who seems to have an infinite list of tricks. Each of his compositions is class from beginning to end, and that may help to explain why so many top-tier directors have chosen to work with him.

Before passing away in 2004, Goldsmith developed what’s arguably one of the most impressive film-scoring resumés of all time. His list of works includes, among many other great titles, Polansky’s “Chinatown,” Schaffner’s “Planet of the Apes,” and Spielberg’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.”

6. Danny Elfman

The charismatic Danny Elfman first became known for working as the singer-songwriter of the American new wave band Oingo Boingo. Today, most people recognize him for his more than 100 film scores, which have earned him the reputation of a genius. Prone to creating memorable classical pieces with a dark atmosphere, he’s the favorite scorer of directors such as Tim Burton and Gus Van Sant.

What’s even more remarkable about Elfman is his uncanny versatility. This Los Angeles native has worked in pretty much all genres of movies, from superhero flicks such as “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” to action comedies like “Men in Black.”

5. Alfred Newman

Nominated for 45 Academy Awards, the great film composer Alfred Newman passed away in 1970 at the age of 69. That may help to explain why so many people have never heard of him. But while Newman’s work belongs to the past, his compositions were responsible for forever shaping the sound of Golden-Age Hollywood.

Long before John Williams came into the scene, it was up to Newman to come up with the genesis of the big, bad, and epic blockbuster sound. His scores for classic movies such as “How The West Was Won,” “Wuthering Heights,” or “Anastasia” feel splendid and huge even today.

4. Bernard Herrmann

Suspense: the word convinced millions of people to go to the cinema in the late 50s and early 60s, much due to the cultural impact of movies such as “Vertigo” and “Psycho.” Back when Hollywood flicks were either epic, funny, or romantic, the great Alfred Hitchcock introduced moviegoers to a brand-new sensation – the thriller.

Thrilling is the best word to describe most Hitchcock movies, but would his pictures feel half as immersive without the great scores of Bernard Herrmann? One of America’s ultimate composers, he was an expert at creating tension and release, leaving viewers at the edge of their seats. He also composed for “Citizen Kane” and “Taxi Driver.”

3. Max Steiner

Born in Austria, the late film composer Max Steiner moved from Vienna to the United States to escape the horror of World War I and ended up changing Hollywood forever. Perhaps more than any other film composer in history, Steiner was a genius at using different movements and scale changes to convey the feelings his movies so desperately needed.

When you think of the classic period of American cinema, it’s impossible not to recall great motion pictures such as “Casablanca,” “King Kong,” “Gone with the Wind,” and “The Informer.” Well, guess what? Steiner was the underappreciated composer behind all of these gems!

2. Ennio Morricone

What’s a film composer meant to do? Well, the job requires him or her to watch a scene and create a sonic atmosphere that fits it perfectly. The great inventor of the sound of the western, the late Italian genius Ennio Morricone is arguably the most visual film composer of all time.

While most film scores enhance the emotions in a movie, Morricone’s compositions feel like a movie of their own. Best known for his longtime collaboration with the Spaghetti Western king Sergio Leone, Morricone wasn’t afraid of doing whatever he needed to to get to the sound he wanted, including using innovative guitar arrangements and unusual instruments such as the Jew’s harp or the ocarina.

1. John Williams

With a whopping 52 Academy Award nominations and 25 Grammy Awards in the bag, the great John Williams is the man who comes to mind whenever someone combines the words ‘film’ and ‘composer.’ Fond of epic and memorable melodies, Williams knows how to make a blockbuster sound like a blockbuster better than any other composer.

Williams has scored so many hit movies in the past that his presence can hardly be called a coincidence. A box-office topper, he worked on classics as unforgettable as “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” and “Harry Potter.” His longtime partnership with director Steven Spielberg has got to be one of the best in the history of cinema.

Summary

From the dark minimalism of Hans Zimmer to the heartwarming melodies of John Williams, there’s plenty of good music to discover at the movie theater. When a great story is combined with a great score, you’re in for one of the most immersive aesthetic experiences available today.

Always pushing the envelope, the best film composers of all time are a huge part of what makes us go to the movies to cry, laugh, and scream at a big screen.

John Williams Featured Image (Top-Left) by: TashTish at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Hans Zimmer Featured Image (Top-Right) by: ColliderVideo, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Danny Elfman Featured Image (Bottom-Left) by: Sachyn, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Jerry Goldsmith Featured Image (Bottom-Right) by: fuxoft, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Brian Clark is a multi-instrumentalist and music producer. He is passionate about practically all areas of music and he particularly enjoys writing about the music industry.

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