Okay, okay, everyone will have their own ideas of who should be in a Top 10 of film composers – let’s face it, film music (as we know it) has been around for almost 90 years and every filmmaking country on the planet has composers. Even a Top 50 might be tricky to agree on.
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This list of top film composers, though, takes in some of the legends, trailblazers and downright popular composers who have played their part in establishing and innovating the art form, or quite simply attracted global attention to it.
10. Rachel Portman (b1960)
In 10th place we have film composer Rachel Portman. While she was by no means the first woman to compose film music, Portman did make history in 1997 when she won an Oscar for Emma (1996). Her painterly scores have graced award-winning films in all genres and she remains one of the UK’s most respected and highly sought-after film composers.
9. Maurice Jarre (1924-2009)
Maurice Jarre is ninth. The first French composer to win an Oscar (for 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia), Maurice Jarre enjoyed a high profile career in his native France, the UK and Hollywood. His keen sense of melody was matched by an experimental streak, which often saw him integrate ethnic instrumentation and electronic sounds into his music.
8. John Barry (1933-2011)
Eighth is the British film composer John Barry. Perhaps Britain’s most famous film music export, John Barry enjoyed a high profile career throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. His music, and songs, for many of the original James Bond films are probably good enough reason alone to include him in this list, though he enjoyed a rich and varied career beyond 007 and won five Oscars to boot.
7. Joe Hisaishi (b1950)
In seventh place is Joe Hisaishi. Dubbed ‘the Japanese John Williams’, Hisaishi is a household name in his home country, but also has legions of fans around the world thanks to his sweeping, characterful scores for the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. He has won eight Japanese Academy Awards.
6. AR Rahman (b1967)
Sixth is AR Rahman. The most prolific and successful film composer in Indian cinema, AR Rahman’s scores and original songs have graced countless Tamil and Hindi productions. His music for UK and US productions has only increased his fan-base – the music he wrote for Slumdog Millionaire (2008) earned him two Academy Awards, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe.
5. Ennio Morricone (1928-2020)
The first of our top five is Ennio Morricone. The name is about as iconic as the music, and the late Italian film composer will go down in history thanks to the hugely original music he created for the ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ alone. Beyond the colourful thrills of those scores, Morricone was a true music artist and one of the hardest working composers in film.
4. Bernard Herrmann (1911-75)
In fourth place is Bernard Herrmann. Less than ten years after Max Steiner wrote the film music rulebook, Bernard Herrmann tore it up. With a singular voice, the American film composer created scintillating film scores that relied less on melodic sweep and more on rhythm, tone and unusual instrumentation. His scores for Alfred Hitchcock remain some of the most striking ever written.
3. Hans Zimmer (b1957)
And now we come to our top 3 and if ever there is a single artist who dominates 21st-century film music, it is Zimmer. The German-born composer all but rules the Hollywood film music landscape thanks to his ahead-of the-curve production methods, collaborative spirit and innate sense of musical drama.
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2. John Williams (b1932)
In second place is John Williams. The film music of John Williams represents some of the most familiar ever written, having been composed for some of the most popular films of all time. The American composer reignited an interest in symphonic film music (à la Max Steiner) in the late 1970s with his score for Star Wars (1977). He has won five Oscars.
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1. Max Steiner (1888-1971)
And… drum roll please… our top film composer of all time is Max Steiner. The Vienna-born composer Max Steiner almost single-handedly created the art of film music with groundbreaking Hollywood scores in the early 1930s. His music for films like King Kong (1933) helped shape industry and audience understanding of what original music could do for a movie in terms of dramatic nuance and great musicianship.