In what is sure to generate yet more controversy here at Top10Films, I’ve decided to go waaaay out on a limb and try my hand at listing the ten most iconic film score composers ever. And by “iconic” I mean somebody who has, for better or worse, made their work legendary in the world of film scores. Tunes you can hum, tunes that evoke a certain feeling and a fond memory, tunes that have lasted the test of time. Some composers have scored dozens of films, maybe more, while others only a few. Their music, though, speaks for itself, from the dulcet tunes of a romantic scene, the bombast of action, to the closing credit sweep that completes the musical journey you’ve been taken on. In every sense, the composers listed below have given us moments of musical genius, and forever cemented their position as the most memorable, iconic film composers of all.
10. Bernard Herrmann
I have the final say, or I don’t do the music. The reason for insisting on this is simply, compared to Orson Welles, a man of great musical culture, most other directors are just babes in the woods.
Don’t miss: Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest
If only on this list for one of cinema’s greatest moments of music, the “eee eee eee” bit from Psycho (1960), Bernard Herrmann’s other works include scores for Vertigo (1958), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and North By Northwest (1959), all for Alfred Hitchcock, as well as the original Cape Fear (1962) and Fahrenheit 451 (1966), with his last being the classic Scorcese film Taxi Driver, in 1976. However, it’s his enduring, legendary three note motif from Psycho that has forever etched his name into history. By far the single most iconic musical refrain written for a film, and a score that elevated the film from being merely good to stunningly great, Herrmann redefined horror and gave us one of the most referenced and parodied musical refrains in history.
9. Howard Shore
There is considerable dramatic latitude to writing film music but, in terms of pure music, of what you would write for a record or a concert hall, there’s a lot more room.
Don’t miss: Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings
While he’s included in this list for his work on Peter Jackson’s towering Lord Of The Rings trilogy (2001-2003), Shore has been in the game for years, scoring for almost all of David Cronenberg’s films, as well as music for films as eclectic as High Fidelity (2000), Se7en (1995), That Thing You Do (1996), Gangs Of New York (2002) and even, most recently, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010). Howard Shore infamously stood aside as score composer for Jackson’s remake of King Kong in 2005, paving the way for a gorgeous genre score by James Newton Howard, but it’s the Rings trilogy’s most evocative, powerful and iconic themes that prevail in this list. Anybody who has witnessed the making of these films on DVD and seen the work Shore (amongst others) put in to the creative process, cannot help but be impressed.
8. James Horner
The mood of the film dictates a certain sound in my head and that is what I try and connect with right away, way before I’m writing melodies or anything like that. I’m trying to find an orchestration for the film that says what I want to say musically.
Don’t miss: James Cameron’s Aliens – See our review here
You know you’ve made it in Hollywood when your music is used in film trailers. Horner’s most iconic work, the final battle moments of James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), has been used countless times in many trailers ever since it’s release. While he didn’t get the Oscar for his pressurised troubles on Cameron’s ball-tearing sci-fi opus, he would go on to do so with his return to the Cameron fold in Titanic (1997), where he picked up the gong for best score as well as best original song, Celine Dion’s crap-tacular “My Heart Will Go On”, one of the worlds least deserving recipients. Work on Braveheart (1994) as well as various Star Trek films, and most recently on Avatar (2009) and A Beautiful Mind (2001), have cemented his position as one of the go-to guys for quality film scores. But it’s his Titanic work that has ensured him a place on this list.
7. Maurice Jarre
In that long sequence, when Lawrence enters in the desert to rescue a lost man, Lean listened the music I wrote and wanted to extend the scene to let my work stay completely.
Don’t miss: David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia
The late French composer, reknowned for his work with director David Lean on Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), Dr Zhivago (1965) and A Passage To India (1984), was a master of adapting his style to suit the different films he composed for. Everything from the thrills of Fatal Attraction (1987), the space adventure of Enemy Mine (1985), to the romantic Ryans Daughter (1970), there wasn’t a genre he couldn’t work on. But his most enduring legacy, and the reason he’s included in this list, is his iconic theme from Lawrence Of Arabia, and his high-romance work on Dr Zhivago. Anyone who’s had the pleasure of listening to the score for Lawrence will continually be amazed at the quality and detail in that score, and it remains my favourite pre-1970 film score.
6. Danny Elfman
I think that there’s a lot more freedom in the low budget, the independent films where, unfortunately, you don’t have the money, necessarily, to get the orchestras in there to play a lot of stuff. But, you have a lot more freedom.
Don’t mss: Tim Burton’s Batman
Most people can easily spot a Beethoven, a Mozart or a Liszt piece. Likewise, a Danny Elfman score is instantly recognisable as well. The “pom pom pom” opening beats of, say, the Beetlejuice (1988) theme, mirrored somewhat throughout Elfman’s later works, are like a watermark on a film. His dazzling mastery of both creepy, weird sounds as well as the more traditional instrumentation have led to his work being closely identified with his long time director partner, Tim Burton, a man whose visual acuity is often a perfect tandem for Elfman’s scores.
5. Hans Zimmer
A good score should have a point of view all of its own. It should transcend all that has gone before, stand on its own two feet and still serve the movie. A great soundtrack is all about communicating with the audience, but we all try to bring something extra to the movie that is not entirely evident on screen.
Don’t miss: Ridley Scott’s Gladiator
Since his Oscar win in 2001 for Gladiator, almost every “epic” film since has tried to emulate the “yaaaahhhhh, yeeeeaaaahhhhhh” style he went with in the Ridley Scott classic. With haunting vocal performance by Lisa Gerrard, Gladiator pushed Zimmer out of scoring obscurity and into the mainstream, at least as far as the public was concerned. Reading his list of film scores, it’s a veritable cavalcade of genre and styles, although in recent times I think Zimmer has tended to lose his way with originality. While sticking with something that worked has often been a recipe for continued success, the similarity of Zimmers more recent work (ably assisted by various composer understudies like Klaus Badelt, John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams) has led to a falling away of the interesting uniqueness of his stuff. Mind you, even an average Zimmer score is still better than most, but his last truly great score was, in my humble opinion, for Sherlock Holmes (2009). Inception’s (2010) score was good too, but nowhere near his best work. Regardless, Zimmer’s long list of scores and their iconic provision for audience attachment to a particular film, cannot be questioned.
When the teachers asked me to play something, I would pretend that I was reading it and play from memory. I didn’t fool them, but I didn’t care.
Don’t miss: Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire
To date, Vangelis has scored only a small number of films, however their haunting, memorable soundtracks have ensured a place for the composer in our list today. Chariots Of Fire, the synth-heavy flick from 1981, remains the definitive “running” music ever created, and has appeared in hundreds of films and TV shows ever since to depict heroic, sweaty athleticism. Or, a parody of the same. Vangelis’ more ethereal score for Blade Runner (1982), as well as his thunderous theme from 1492: Conquest Of Paradise (1992), both for Ridley Scott, brought him even more fans. Most recently, he produced the score for Oliver Stone’s much-criticised epic Alexander (2004), a score that I feel is vastly underrated. If there’s one thing Vangelis can do well, it’s give you a score that feels epic. To my mind, his music is the very definition of it.
3. Ennio Morricone
I come from a background of experimental music which mingled real sounds together with musical sounds.
Don’t miss: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
Sergio Leone owes a debt to Morricone, and what the man achieved with music. The theme to The Good, The Bad, The Ugly (1966) alone warrants inclusion into any Top Ten list about composers. Among his other works include scores for The Thing (1982), Days Of Heaven (1978), The Untouchables (1987) and several Dario Argento thrillers. Undeniably one of the most influential composers who ever lived.
2. Jerry Goldsmith
I like the variety. But basically my choice of films is a small intimate film. Quiet film, no action, just people in relationships. That’s what I like the most.
Don’t miss: Ridley Scott’s Alien – See our review of Alien here
When you need a score perfectly suited to your film, regardless of style or tone, you call upon one man. Jerry Goldsmith. Famously noted by Henry Mancini as “scary as hell” for his ability to produce scores of incredible quality time after time, Goldsmith is perhaps best known for his work on the Star Trek franchise, although his work prior to Trek had dealt a lot with horror and/or action films. Pre Trek, Goldsmith mined genres for The Man From UNCLE (1964), Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and the original Planet of The Apes (1968), until he really hit the mainstream with his now-iconic Star Trek theme. Reading his list of film scores is simply mind boggling, as there didn’t seem to be anything he couldn’t do: thriller, action and everything in between; Goldsmith was a modern Mozart, for his ability to create consistently high standards of film score.
1. John Williams
So much of what we do is ephemeral and quickly forgotten, even by ourselves, so it’s gratifying to have something you have done linger in people’s memories.
Don’t miss: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws – See our special feature on the work of Steven Spielberg here
The undisputed master of musical scores for cinema, this man has composed more classic themes than anybody else. From his iconic Raiders March (from the Indiana Jones franchise), to ET, Star Wars, Superman, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Jaws, and Harry Potter…. the list of his achievements in film composition remain unrivalled. Of all film composers who have ever lived, or are still alive, perhaps none is more synonymous for film work than Williams. While he may have clambered to the top of the heap with his collaborations with Spielberg and George Lucas, Williams hasn’t let the ball drop in quality or perfect coupling of image-to-music. In the documentary footage on the DVD of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, George Lucas is heard saying during a production screening of the famous Pod Race to his crew, that by that stage “you’re not watching the picture but listening to the music”, and he couldn’t be more accurate. Williams’ scores are cinematic perfection. Which gives me a final question to ask the readers of this column: when Williams eventually leaves us (he’s currently 78), whom will Spielberg turn to to produce such audience-friendly, original and iconic scores?
Written and compiled by Rodney Twelftree. Rodney is a writer and filmmaker based in Australia. He runs the film production company Fernby Films with his brother Warwick. See his Top 10 Film Sequels of All Time HERE & Top 10 Steven Spielberg Films HERE