If you live in North America and watch movies, the odds are overwhelming that you’ve heard the music of the composers on this list — whether you were aware of it or not.
Through high profile movies in recent years, the crucial role of music has gradually become more and more recognized. Our list is by no means exhaustive, but gives credit to some of the composers whose work has permeated modern culture through film.
Portman became the first woman composer to win an Academy Award in the category of Best Musical or Comedy Score for the movie Emma (1996). She went on to be nominated twice more for The Cider House Rules (1999) and Chocolat (2000). Portman once again made history in 2015 when she became the first woman composer to win a Primetime Emmy Award for her work on the film Bessie. She has written commissioned works, including an opera for Houston Grand Opera, a choral symphony for the BBC Proms, and most recently, one of the pieces on Joyce Di Donato’s Eden release. Her works are noted for a preference for strings and wind instrumentation, with a lyrical, and often playful approach.
Danny Elfman’s orchestral movie and TV scores have become part of pop culture history. As composer for the majority of Tim Burton’s movies, his music became part of their iconic appeal, including the well-known themes for Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989) — for which he won a Grammy — and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), along with Men in Black (1997) and many others. Elfman began his career as a performing musician and quit high school to (literally) join his brother in a travelling circus — Le Grand Magic Circus — and tour the African continent. He first rose to fame as a member of the group Oingo Boingo in the 1970s and 80s.
British composer John Barry was most famous for his work during the 1960s through the 1980s, particularly on the James Bond series of movies. He penned 11 of the Bond scores in the early years of the franchise — jazzy music that often featured brass (his first instrument was the trumpet). He was also capable of sweeping orchestral music, such as the score for Out of Africa that won his an Oscar. Barry won a total of five Academy Awards over the years, including the music for Dances With Wolves. After 2001, and his score for the movie Enigma, he turned back to live performance.
A.R. Rahman is arguably the most successful movie composer in India, with work that extends beyond Tamil and Hindi productions to Hollywood. His score for Slumdog Millionaire garnered a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and two Oscars in 2009. He’s written the music for more than 150 films, along with TV and other media. In contrast with many Indian movie composers, he typically employs a smaller ensemble for his works, with modern instrumentation and a range of moods, often using ambient sounds. His music blends Carnatic, Hindustani and Western classical music idioms, as well as both traditional and electronic elements. He has also written the score for several musicals, including Lord of the Rings: the Musical, which premiered in London in 2006.
Joe Hisaishi is beloved by anime fans as the go-to composer for his partnership with Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, with a string of iconic productions. His work is often minimalist in nature, with a preference for keyboard and string based work that blends European and Japanese musical idioms. Hisaishi’s credits include Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, and many other Ghibli films. Born in Japan in 1950 as Mamoru Fusijawa, he took the name Joe Hisaishi in honour of American producer Quincy Jones.
Italian composer Ennio Morricone has scored more than 500 movies dating back to the 1960s. He was closely associated with Sergio Leone and his spaghetti Westerns, including The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. His work on the latter is considered by many to mark a significant moment in the history of film scores, opening up the possibilities and dimensions that music could add to movies. In 2016, after a long career, he finally won an Oscar for his work on Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. His last years were spent on a world tour conducting and performing his most famous compositions. Morricone was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for his wide influence on those who came after him. He passed away in 2020 at the age of 91.
When it comes to modern-day fandom, the name of Howard Shore will always be inextricably linked to his Academy Award-winning music from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. His music helped build the franchise’s enormous and enduring appeal, and continues to be showcased in the ever-growing movie with live orchestra circuit. Shore’s ability to create works that can express the emotional heart of the story while following complex narratives, as in the LoTR franchise, have made him a sought after composer in Hollywood. His other credits include Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and The Departed, and The Fly for David Cronenberg, among over 80 other credits.
Peering into the history of movies, there are few composers more influential than Herrmann. He played piano at a professional level, as well as writing music for some of the most famous films of his day. His list of credits includes work includes Citizen Kane (1941), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), Fahrenheit 451 (1966), and Taxi Driver (1976). He also wrote a great deal for radio and TV shows, including Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. Contemporary composers like Danny Elfman and Alexandre Desplat name him as an inspiration. He is especially noted for his work on Hitchcock films, where his moody and atmospheric music bolstered the narrative.
Hans Zimmer began his musical career as playing keyboards in pop bands, most notably with the Buggles, where he appears in the video for their hit Video Killed the Radio Star. Director Barry Levinson’s wife heard an early soundtrack of Zimmer’s, and Levinson was inspired to ask him to score Rain Man. It was just the star of a steady rise to the top of the current crop of movie composers. His catalogue includes Ridley Scott hits like Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, along with Sherlock Holmes, and three films in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. He’s perhaps best known for his co-composition credits on Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and most recently, Wonder Woman 1984 and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. His music is orchestral in nature, and often takes inspiration from Western classical music, along with other global sources, adding electronic music to the mix. He’s won two Academy Awards for his work.
Although purists sometimes still decline to view his work as serious, American composer John Williams’ work has undoubtedly been heard (and hummed) by hundreds of millions — if not billions — of people worldwide. The Juilliard-trained composer is responsible for the iconic scores to the Star Wars series from its inception in 1977 until 2019, along with Spielberg hits like Jaws and ET: The Extraterrestrial, or Richard Donners classic Superman (1978). His bent for stirring and anthemic themes is ideally suited for Hollywood blockbusters full of heroics and family-friendly adventure, and has made him arguably the world’s most beloved movie composer.
Hildur Guðnadóttir is a trailblazer from any angle. Her work on films like Sicario: Day of the Soldado and the HBO miniseries Chernobyl helped to gain her reputation as a unique composer and sound designer for film. She won a Primetime Emmy, BAFTA and Grammy Award for Chernobyl, and an Academy Award for Best Original Score for the soundtrack to Joker. Joker also garnered her a Golden Globe and BAFTA Award, making her the first woman to receive both for the same movie. She represents a newer generation of film composers, one whose work defies easy categorization. The Icelandic composer is also a trained cellist who has performed and recorded with several ensembles.
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