Movie composers rarely receive the praise that they deserve –but think about it, what’s a film without a great soundtrack? So, we think it’s about time to celebrate the best movie composers in the world.
From Danny Elfman to Ennio Morricone, we’ll shine a light on the greatest film composers ever with examples of their brilliant work – we know, we’re too kind.
We’ll also call attention to some of the amazing composers you can find in our catalogue.
Movie Soundtrack Composers
1. Rachel Portman OBE
English composer Rachel Portman started composing at a young age and began writing music for the likes of BBC and Jim Henson soon after finishing college. She hit a major high in the 1990s when she was hired to soundtrack Jane Austen’s Emma (1996), starring actress-of-the-moment, Gwyneth Paltrow.
Portman’s Oscar-winning soundtrack for the film is every bit as whimsical and fanciful as its eponymous character, full of musical nuances which beautifully reflect the early 19th-century setting of the period.
Take a moment to listen to the music in this clip:
2. Maurice Jarre
French composer Maurice Jarre was such an industry icon he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The three-time Academy Award winner is famed for composing all the scores to David Lean’s classic films – including Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) – as well as cult classics Fatal Attraction (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989) and Ghost (1990).
To us, Ghost is the pinnacle of Jarre’s career, with his momentous soundtrack perfectly mirroring the narrative. One of the best examples is ‘Molly’, which plays when the protagonist (Demi Moore) finally believes her deceased boyfriend, Sam, is communicating with her from the spirit world.
Remind yourself of this iconic scene with the video below; if you enjoy the music, be sure to check out our Love playlist.
3. Alan Silvestri
Alan Silvestri may not be a household name, but you’re almost certain to have watched at least one of the films he’s composed for. The American composer and conductor soundtracked his first film at 21 – a low-budget action movie titled The Doberman Gang (1972) – and he’s been making a name for himself ever since.
At 71, he can reflect on a successful career that’s seen him create music for cinematic belters such as Forrest Gump (1994), the Back to the Future trilogy and four MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) films – including Avengers: Endgame (2019).
Let’s take a moment to appreciate Silvestri’s input in the most epic Marvel moment ever in the video below. If this isn’t all you need to convince you he’s one of the greatest film composers ever, we’re not sure what is.
4. John Barry OBE
John Barry Prendergast OBE, aka John Barry, is the British composer best known for his work on the James Bond films. He arranged the emblematic James Bond Theme and composed the score for eleven Bond films from the 60s to the 80s.
Born in York, Barry began his musical journey when he took up the trumpet during National Service with the British Army in Cyprus. On his return in 1957 he set up the John Barry Seven – a rock ’n’roll band that was active for eight years. By the early 1960s, he was being hired to compose music for a range of different projects.
Hear an example of his work below from Diamonds Are Forever (1971).
5. John Williams
The legendary New York-born musician can bring any story to life with soundtracks that immerse the viewer in the world of the silver screen. Deservingly, Williams has won 25 Grammy Awards, 7 BAFTAs, 5 Academy Awards and 4 Golden Globe Awards – making him the second most-nominated individual ever. Who’s the first? Walt Disney, obviously.
John Williams is a one-man soundtrack industry, responsible for most of your favourite movie theme songs, including the entire Star Wars saga, the first three Harry Potter films, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982), Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Jaws, and the entire Indiana Jones franchise. As you might have guessed, he’s quite pally with director Steven Spielberg.
Relive your youth with the most iconic scene from Jurassic Park below.
6. Joe Hisaishi
Japanese film composer Mamoru Fujisawa – better known as Joe Hisaishi – has worked on a multitude of film scores, including all but one of Hayao Miyazaki’s anime films. Who? The co-founder of Studio Ghibli, of course.
Hisashi and Miyazaki became great friends in the early 80s when the composer was recommended to work on the animator’s second film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984).
What’s the best soundtrack Joe Hisaishi has created? In our opinion, it’s Spirited Away (2001). And the most memorable song has got to be ‘One Summer’s Day’: a magical piano-led track that transports the listener straight to the heart of Miyazaki’s offbeat world.
Listen to discover why Joe Hisashi is one of the greatest film composers below, before exploring our Emotive Piano playlist.
7. AR Rahman
Allahrakha Rahman – known as AR Rahman – is an Indian film composer best known for his work on Tamil and Hindi films. He is the winner of two Academy Awards, two Grammys, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and more.
Born in Madras, Rahman started by composing soundtracks for Indian television channels and ad jingles. In 1992, director Mani Ratnam approached him about composing the score for his new film, Roja. From here, he worked his way up.
In the West, Rahman is best known for composing the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack. He famously sketched the score in two months and created it in 20 days.
Watch one of the most emotional scenes of the film, set to AR Rahman’s music, below:
8. Ennio Morricone
Italian composer Ennio Morricone composed an almighty total of over 400 scores for film and television productions during his 91 years, including the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015), Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988) and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964).
Displaying a Mozartian level of precociousness, the Italian musician wrote his first piece when he was just six. By 1954, he was ghostwriting for some of the most prestigious composers of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Watch this clip of Clint Eastwood as Man with No Name in Spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars and listen closely to Morricone’s atmospheric music.
9. James Horner
The great American composer James Horner worked with lots of different directors throughout his life; but he’ll be forever remembered for his work on James Cameron’s Aliens, (1986) Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009).
The two met while working on Murakami’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980); 17 years later they both won an Oscar for Titanic. 12 years after this, the two were being celebrated for their work on the highest-grossing film of all time, Avatar.
Transport yourself to the extraterrestrial world of Pandora with the clip below, and be sure to pay attention to Horner’s supreme soundtrack.
10. Bernard Herrmann
American composer Bernard Herrmann worked closely with cinematic deity Alfred Hitchcock.
Born to middle-class, Jewish-Russian parents in New York City, Herrmann attended school in The Bronx. He studied music at New York University and The Juilliard School, forming the New Chamber Orchestra of New York at the latter. He then wrote the score for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941).
During the 1950s, he was recruited by Hitchcock to produce the soundtrack for The Trouble with Harry; this led to them collaborating on six other films – one of these being Psycho (1960).
We couldn’t find any excuse not to watch that scene from the 1960 psychological horror-thriller. Inspired? Take a moment to explore our Thriller playlist.
11. Danny Elfman
American composer Danny Elfman is the man behind the most extraordinary soundtracks in film and has worked on most of Tim Burton’s films.
Elfman was a singer in new-wave band Oingo Boingo during the 1980s. After Tim Burton and Paul Reubens watched him perform live, they asked him to create the score for Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). This led to a full-time career in the film industry (he even provided the singing voice for Jake Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).
We love the soundtrack to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010); the musical intensity of Elfman’s violent strings as Helena Bonham Carter’s Queen of Hearts interrogates her frog footmen are one of his finest moments…
12. Ludwig Göransson
If there’s one film composer who should be on your radar right now, it’s Ludwig Göransson. The Swede has produced some of the most noteworthy soundtracks of the past few years, picking up a slew of awards along the way, including an Oscar for Best Original Score.
He loved music from childhood and studied film and TV composition in Los Angeles, where he befriended director Ryan Coogler, who hired him in 2013 to soundtrack his first feature, Fruitvale Station (2013). From here, Göransson became the industry’s new music It-guy and was hired for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020), Jon Favreau’s The Mandalorian (2019 –) and, of course, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018), for which he won his Oscar. Coincidentally (or perhaps not?), he was named after Ludwig van Beethoven…
Check out a clip of Black Panther below and listen out for Göransson’s soundtrack, inspired by traditional music from South and West Africa (and you might also enjoy our African playlist).
13. Max Steiner
As one of the first film composers in Hollywood, Max Steiner set the guidelines which film composers follow to this day.
Born in Austria in 1888, Steiner was a precarious child who conducted his first operetta at the age of 12. After moving to England to conduct theatre productions, he moved to New York City to work on Broadway and then to Hollywood to work in film. His first score was for the Western Cimarron (1931).
He went on to compose over 300 film scores, many of which are still celebrated today. He also won a fistful of awards, including the very first Golden Globe for Best Original Score. But our favourite Steiner moment has got to be the ‘Here’s Looking at You, Kid’ scene from Casablanca (1942).
14. Michael Giacchino
American composer Michael Giacchino has had a seriously impressive career so far, but the best may be yet to come: he just keeps getting better and better.
Born in New Jersey, Giacchino graduated from the School of Visual Arts in NYC, took music classes at Julliard School and UCLA and completed a six-month Universal Pictures internship before he was hired by Universal. Shortly after, he was nabbed by Disney.
Giacchino has created soundtracks for seven Disney Pixar films, including Ratatouille (2007), The Incredibles (2004) and Coco (2017). But the standout soundtrack has got to be his score for 2009’s Up – one of our favourite soundtracks ever.
15. Hans Zimmer
Multi-award winning German composer Hans Zimmer is a modern-day legend. He’s created music for a roll-call of contemporary classics including The Lion King (1994), The Dark Knight (2008), Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). He was named one of the Top 100 Living Geniuses by The Daily Telegraph back in 2007.
The Frankfurt-born talent has always been passionate about music – he started to play piano at a young age and pursued a career as a film composer after being inspired by the work of Ennio Morricone in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
Remind yourself of Hans Zimmer’s work for Christopher Nolan’s gritty superhero flick The Dark Knight below, and be make sure to check out our Superheroes playlist.
Audio Network Composers
Our online music catalogue contains over 175,000 high-quality music tracks ready to be licenced and used in any production – whether it’s a film, TV show or something completely different.
Audio Network collaborates with some of the most talented composers in the world to secure the best production music. Head over to our Artists and Composers page where you can explore the work of our talents, including Mark Petrie, whose singular knack for a great hook has seen him compose for film trailers such as Guardians of the Galaxy, or double Grammy-award winner, percussionist extraordinaire Dame Evelyn Glennie.
Emmy-nominated Sunna Wehrmeijer’s film credits include Maleficent and Prometheus, while top session guitarist Adam Drake also composes for film. Debbie Wiseman has over 200 film and TV credits to her name and been nominated for a Grammy and two Ivor Novello awards, while Joji Hirota’s mastery of percussion and traditional Japanese music are the trademarks of his catalogue. Film and TV composer Noah Sorota has worked with Hans Zimmer and Steven Spielberg – and was also a featured violinist on Game of Thrones!
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