From Ennio Morricone to John Carpenter: our guide to the Best Soundtrack Composers
Two notes is all it took John Williams to make the world even more scared of sharks.
There have only ever been a few film composers who have gained mass recognition. Yet, like editors and cinematographers, they play an essential role in bringing any on-screen story to life. They may usually be one of the last pieces in the puzzle, usually working after shooting is complete to create a score that fits the visuals, but what they create can be as iconic as the film itself.
We thought it was time to celebrate some of the best composers over the course of cinema history, covering everything from the classic Golden Age right through to the present day.
When you’ve already got the score for Jaws and Star Wars under your belt you could be excused for putting your feet up for good. But then again, why would you when you can add Superman, E.T., Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan and Harry Potter to your CV? This persistent quality and quantity are why John Williams’ scores have helped to shape modern day pop culture perhaps more than any other.
His work with Steven Spielberg is the stuff of legends and it has seen him go on to collect five Oscar wins and countless nominations over the past forty plus years. His work has played an essential role in sustaining and expanding the blockbuster era beyond the 80s with cues that have set the bar for Hollywood soundtracks. Williams once said, "Writing a tune is like sculpting," and there have been few more adept at making their mark on the history of cinema.
Who would’ve thought a composer responsible for creating chirpy power themes for 80s British quiz shows would go on to influence and dominate modern film scores? Hans Zimmer has undeniably shaped the sound of blockbusters since the mid-00s. When soundtracks needed to feel even bigger to match the new on-screen worlds created by increasingly lifelike CGI, his wall-of-sound style became the perfect fit.
He found his ideal visual partner in Christopher Nolan and Inception was the point at which he really began to change the cinematic landscape. His approach has continued to flourish in films like Interstellar and the Dark Knight trilogy, while recent releases such as Blade Runner 2049 and Dunkirk demonstrate the full effect of his craft when matched with striking on-screen imagery. Zimmer’s influence is currently stronger than ever, and it looks set to remain that way for the foreseeable future.
Morricone is a trumpeter turned composer who went from nightclub jazz performer to pop music arranger before revolutionising the film score. Within only three years he had given the world A Fistful of Dollars and would go on to become synonymous with the spaghetti western thanks to his unbelievable work on For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West to name only a few.
Unbelievably, it wasn’t until 2016 that he won an Oscar for The Hateful Eight. His work in the horror genre is just as memorable, providing scores for Dario Argento’s Animal Trilogy and John Carpenter’s The Thing. The 60s was an era of big change in cinema and Morricone’s ability to use such a diverse and unorthodox selection of instrumentation saw him become one of the most distinctive composers of the 20th century. With over 400 film credits to his name, he is still as important today as he ever was.
Like many of the great composers, Danny Elfman’s career is characterised by his work with one particular director. In his case, it would be Tim Burton, who rose to prominence at the same time as Elfman. It began with Pee-Wee's Big Adventure in the mid-80s before going on to score the first two Batman films, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare before Christmas, the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake and more.
Yet, you could argue that it was the theme he provided for a beloved (well, up to around season 14) family from Springfield that remains his most widely known. His use of bells, chimes and female choir voices became one of the dominant cinematic sounds of the 90s and worked perfectly with Burton’s dark, magical and mysterious fairy-tale style. He remains one of Hollywood’s most hardworking composers, with credits on movies as diverse as the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy and the Justice League.
The strange and beguiling work of David Cronenberg requires a special composer to complement his body horror aesthetic and Howard Shore was the perfect match in many ways. Shore’s entrance into the film world began on low budget classics such as Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly and Naked Lunch, before his sound really took flight in the 90s.
Although less abrasive in style, his scores for The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en bridged the gap between horror and thriller genres. His collaborations with Cronenberg played a big part in allowing him to develop his craft, as much like the director himself, Shore had the freedom to experiment and test out new ideas.
Like every great composer, he can adapt to almost any genre as we have seen with his light-hearted scores for family films like Big and Mrs. Doubtfire, before providing cues for one of cinema’s most adored blockbuster trilogies, The Lord of the Rings. Given how much he has already done, there isn’t much left for Shore to cover, but without his work cinema would be a far less exciting place.
Film soundtracks aren’t usually renowned for racking up huge sales but James Horner’s powerhouse orchestral score for Titanic not only saw him collect two Oscars but also sell over 30m copies. Yet his legacy goes way beyond providing cues for a sinking ship. He made his name for his work on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and was also responsible for the music of Avatar, Braveheart, Apollo 13, Aliens and A Beautiful Mind. He was a renowned workaholic who somehow managed to score 13 films in 1993 alone.
Horner’s thematic and emotionally charged scores came about at a time when John Williams’ style was the eminent sound heard at the cinema. It was reminiscent of the Golden Age period of film where the music wore its heart on its sleeve and it was the perfect fit for the over-production of 90s Hollywood. It was exactly what was needed at the time and the scope of his work continues to live on long after his passing.
Pop Will Eat Itself were always an odd fit for the UK charts but they were one of a handful of bands who enabled the Midlands ‘grebo’ style to flirt with commercial success. Few people - and that probably includes Clint Mansell himself - would’ve thought that almost 30 years later he’d be picking up Grammy nominations for scores made with some of cinema’s most creative minds. It’s an arc that has seen him work with Darren Aronofsky on films such as Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler and Black Swan.
His ability to seamlessly blend together both dramatic and atmospheric styles has also paired him with Duncan Jones for his sci-fi explorations in Moon and Mute. There’s a uniqueness to Mansell’s soundtracks that has encouraged others to broaden their horizons and implement more experimental ideas to their scores. It is often felt that he deserves more mainstream recognition and acknowledgement than he receives, however, he feels more at home in the shadows forging new sounds that others can’t fail to notice.
There were four minutes of beautiful silent cinema at the beginning of Pixar’s Up that reduced almost everyone to a gibbering wreck. Michael Giacchino was the composer responsible for providing the soundtrack to Carl and Ellie’s lives and added his magic touch to other Pixar classics such as The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Inside Out and Coco.
He began his professional life working on video games and TV shows before adding cinema to his growing portfolio. This has seen him develop a long-term working relationship with J.J. Abrams which came to fruition with the TV series Lost and has continued across movies like Super 8 and the new Star Trek films.
He also replaced Alexandre Desplat for the standalone Star Wars film, Rogue One, while also scoring two Mission Impossible films, Dawn of… and The War for the Planet of the Apes, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man Homecoming and both Jurassic World releases. Giacchino has racked up quite an amazing list of compositions over the past 20 years and his work on so many important franchises will likely shape the sound of cinema for quite some time.
Back in the 80s, Alan Silvestri was defining millions of childhoods with his beautifully rendered scores and his powers show no signs of waning decades later. His work on the Back to the Future trilogy remains one of his most iconic and more recently he helped to spellbind another generation with his music for Avengers: Infinity War. It was his score for Arnie’s Predator that set the tone for the countless action films he would compose for throughout his career. What followed was a stream of classics such as Flight of the Navigator and The Abyss, while also overseeing the evolution of the Avengers franchise up to the present day.
Scoring films like Forest Gump, Castaway, Father of the Bride and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Silvestri made it clear he wasn’t a one-trick pony. He has a unique ability to paint the themes of his films in bold, bright colours, creating larger than life scores that cement his place in the pantheon of great Hollywood composers.
If there was one composer that stood out from the crowd during the studio age of Hollywood it is Bernard Herrmann. Many people will know him for the stunning simplicity of his famous two-note Psycho cue, but his genius extends way beyond his work with Alfred Hitchcock. Scoring films like Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Wrong Man and The Birds might’ve been enough to alter the sound of cinema, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that his entry point into soundtracks began with Orson Welles’ legendary Citizen Kane.
Herrmann was also responsible for the first Twilight Zone theme and heavy brass tones of the original Cape Fear. Taxi Driver was the film that announced the arrival of Martin Scorsese, yet it was Herrmann’s sultry sax that created its sleazy New York atmosphere. His work also changed how film music was perceived by academics and scholars. Herrmann’s approach challenged traditional Hollywood compositions and, in the process, changed the course of film music forever.
Providing the scores for eleven James Bond films might be the headline but it far from covers a truly iconic career. John Barry began life as a trumpet player in the army, before finding fame with The John Barry Seven in the late-50s. He helped build Adam Faith’s pop star profile at EMI before perfecting the ‘Bond Sound’ with a mixture of lush brass and jazz melodies. His re-working of the famous Bond theme on Dr. No remains one of the most recognisable cues in the history of cinema.
Over the years he picked up five Oscar wins for films like Out of Africa, Born Free and Dances with Wolves. Midnight Cowboy was one of the first movies to rely heavily on pop music in the soundtrack with Barry composing the score and supervising the music used. In many ways he became as famous as the films he composed for and created a body of work that others can’t fail to look up to.
Jerry Goldsmith’s contribution to cinema throughout the 20th century is beyond the reach of most composers, stretching across over a staggering 200 films. His most iconic work includes 1968’s Planet of the Apes which was packed with experimental ideas and the terrifying Omen soundtrack which netted him an Oscar. Although this would be his only win, in total he was nominated for 17 Academy Awards across the course of his career.
Other works include the score for Chinatown which was written in only ten days, his leap into the sci-fi genre with a luminous score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and, of course, Ridley Scott’s Alien. When you add in films like Patton, Gremlins, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, three Rambo films and L.A. Confidential, you can see why Goldsmith is now seen as one of the most accomplished composers to ever work in cinema.
There aren’t many composers who have a specially created adjective to describe their style but when a score is described as ‘Carpenteresque’ you know exactly what it means. Carpenter was the master at creating minimal and imposing music that clearly illustrated the themes of the films he was directing. Although he remained rooted in the realm of horror, sci-fi and fantasy, there was never a feeling he needed to extend his scope to demonstrate his prowess.
Masterworks such as Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13 were intrinsically intertwined with the raw, b-movie aesthetics of the films to powerful effect. Big Trouble in Little China was a little out of the norm for Carpenter but his trademark synths were still in attendance. Films like The Fog and Escape from New York are further examples of Carpenter’s craft and his futuristic soundscapes have gone on to influence a new generation of filmmakers, composers and musicians alike.