30 Best Film Composers

As I stated in my “Brief Exposition on Movie Music”, 1939 was one of several watershed moments in film history, not only because of the sheer amount of great films that were pumped out of Hollywood that year, but also because it introduced forever the “thematic” elements of movie scores.  In particular, the Alfred Newman’s score in Wuthering Heights and Max Steiner’s work in Gone With the Wind were key players in this movement.

With reviews on Wuthering Heights, Gone With the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz forthcoming, it is only appropriate to introduce a few lists documenting the great music of movies.  This list, in particular, involves those who composers who write movie music.  Likely, you will recognize some of the names.  You may or may not recognize all.  You will see people like Aaron Copland, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovitch.  These are men not necessarily known for film scores—rather, they are known for their classical compositions—; but they were actually responsible for some of the finest movie music ever made.

With this in mind, let me point out to all the elitists out there that these men are important examples of how composers do make movie music.  It’s not the fault of the men listed below that they were born when they were born.  Beethoven, Mozart, and all the rest wrote commissioned music, including music for overtures of plays.  What is the difference between Beethoven writing for an adaptation of Coriolanus and Dmitri Shostakovitch writing for an adaptation of King Lear?  Just because more “common folk” hear one doesn’t de-legitimize it.

Alongside Shostakovitch, Prokofiev, and Copland, you will find other names, like Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Leslie Bricusse.  These are names that have been severely underrated in critical and historical circles.  Without Korngold, John Williams never would have been.  As a matter of fact, many people take real umbrage with Williams because many of his pieces find their roots in pre-existing work.  (Most notably, the Jaws theme is an obvious adaptation of the fourth movement of Dvořák’s “New World” symphony).  Korngold’s work was so influencing to Williams that a lot of his work in films like Kings Row and The Sea Hawk (he did a lot of work on Erroll Flynn movies) are reflected in pieces like the Star Wars main theme and the Superman main theme.  I am not one of those people that decry Williams, as you can see by looking ever so briefly at the top of the list.  Rather, I am one who seeks to build up rather than tear down, and Korngold is, therefore, quite high on my list.

Anyway, please enjoy.  Here is the list of the greatest film composers of all time.

  1. John Williams (Star Wars, Schindler’s List)
  2. Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Vertigo)
  3. Max Steiner (Gone With the Wind, King Kong)
  4. Ennio Morricone (Cinema Paradiso; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly)
  5. Elmer Bernstein (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Magnificent Seven)
  6. Sergei Prokofiev (Ivan the Terrible, Alexander Nevsky)
  7. Alfred Newman (How the West Was Won, Wuthering Heights)
  8. Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Kings Row)
  9. Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago)
  10. Aaron Copland (The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men)
  11. Nino Rota (The Godfather, Romeo and Juliet)
  12. Dmitri Shostakovich (King Lear, The Fall of Berlin)
  13. John Barry (The Lion in Winter, Out of Africa)
  14. Miklós Rózsa (Ben-Hur, Spellbound)
  15. Franz Waxman (Sunset Boulevard, Rebecca)
  16. Jerry Goldsmith (Chinatown, The Omen)
  17. Leonard Rosenman (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause)
  18. Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings, The Departed)
  19. Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther, Breakfast at Tiffany’s)
  20. David Raksin (Laura, The Hound of the Baskervilles)
  21. Alexander Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Painted Veil)
  22. Charlie Chaplin (Modern Times, Limelight)
  23. Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid)
  24. James Horner (Braveheart, Titanic)
  25. Danny Elfman (Batman, Edward Scissorhands)
  26. Monty Norman (Dr. No, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll)
  27. Hugo Friedhofer (The Best Years of Our Lives, Joan of Arc)
  28. Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, The Lion King)
  29. Bill Conti (The Right Stuff, Rocky)
  30. Leslie Bricusse (Scrooge, Doctor Doolittle)

10 thoughts on “30 Best Film Composers

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    • Definitely two worth mention, though I wouldn’t say they beat any on this list. I have a personal bias to Bricusse, perhaps because of his relative anonymity, and that may have been reason for my putting him on the list instead of Howard.

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