The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been awarding Oscars for music since the early 1930s, when synchronised music first became a mainstay in films. Of course, musicals were very popular and originally composed dramatic music was very much in its infancy; as such, the first few years of awards were given for ‘Best Scoring’. This catch-all prize was given to music departments, and their heads of music, as opposed to an individual composer. Prizes were also given for ‘Best Original Song’ from this time.
It wasn’t until the end of the decade that the Academy added an award for original scores, recognising the talents behind what was a burgeoning artform. The ‘scoring’ awards would go through a number of iterations over the decades that followed, with Oscars being awarded for musical adaptations and song scores right into the 1970s – before the decline of the musical genre in Hollywood film.
Since then, bar a short period in the 1990s, music Oscars have been given for Original Song and Original Score.
With all this in mind, composers have had various opportunities over the years to win Oscars for their music, whether it be scoring, arranging or songwriting (and in some cases a mixture of things).
So which composer has won the most music Oscars?
Oscars won… nine
Top of the most music Oscars list is composer Alfred Newman with nine Oscars. Newman is one of the fathers of film music as we know it. He was the music director at Twentieth Century Fox for a long time and won his first Oscar in 1938 (for Alexander’s Ragtime Band); he won his last in 1967 (for Camelot). The majority of his wins, including those two, were for ‘Best Scoring’, which meant he oversaw the film’s music, arranging existing song material, adapting items and creating dramatic underscore where required. Only two of his nine Oscars were for his original music alone: The Song of Bernadette (in 1943) and Love is a Many Splendored Thing (in 1953).
Oscars won… eight
Not far behind, and still very much alive, Menken is best known for his songs and scores for Walt Disney animated features like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. It is that legendary work which has brought him so many Oscar statues, in fact he won the award for ‘Best Original Score’ three times in such quick succession (1989, 1991 and 1992) that the Academy made a change to the categories. It added a prize for ‘Best Original Musical or Comedy Score’, which of course Menken won right off the bat in 1996 (for Pocahontas). Taking home statues for the songs in those same four years doubled his haul.
John Barry, John Green and John Williams
Oscars won… five
Tied in third place are three Johns. Barry and Williams each won four Oscars for their original scores and a fifth Oscar apiece for something a little different. Barry had a double first win in 1966 for Born Free, taking home an Original Song award on top of the scoring prize. Williams’s own first win, at the 1972 ceremony, was for his adaptation work on the musical Fiddler on the Roof. John Green, aka Johnny Green, was one of Hollywood’s great composers, arrangers and conductors and his wins are all for his work on musicals – including An American in Paris, West Side Story and Oliver!
Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer, André Previn, Dimitri Tiomkin and Jimmy Van Heusen
Oscars won… four
Here are some legendary names. Song Oscars make up many of these wins, particularly those for Jimmy Van Heusen – for some truly memorable songs like ‘High Hopes’ and ‘Swinging on a Star’ – and Johnny Mercer, who shared two of his wins with Henry Mancini. Mancini and Mercer wrote ‘The Days of Wine and Roses’ and ‘Moon River’, the latter for Breakfast at Tiffany’s which Mancini scored and won a second Oscar for that year. Dimitri Tiomkin is known more for his dramatic scores and three of his four wins are for those, while he took home a statue for his song ‘Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling’ from High Noon, one of the first hit original film songs. Like John Green, André Previn won all of his Oscars for his work on musicals; he won for some big hits, too, including My Fair Lady and Gigi.
And those with three music Oscars?
Winning three music Oscars is a bit more common it seems, with the likes of Max Steiner, Miklos Rózsa, Maurice Jarre, Howard Shore, Michel Legrand, Marvin Hamlisch, Burt Bacharach, Giorgio Moroder and Stephen Schwartz all taking a trio of statue
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About Michael Beek
Michael Beek is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He joined the team in May 2018, following ten years as a freelance film music journalist and fifteen years at St George’s Bristol – where he was everything from Box Office Supervisor to the venue’s Content & Engagement Manager.
Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of Music from the Movies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records. Also a presenter, Michael has hosted concerts and live events for Bristol Film Festival and St George’s Bristol, plus Debbie Wiseman’s ‘Music and Words from Wolf Hall’ at venues across the UK.