Top 10 Film Composers

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

bernard herrmann film composer north by northwest, hitchcock, psycho,
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

howard shore, film composer, lord of the rings,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

james horner, aliens, film composer,
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 AliensSee 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

maurice jarre, film composer, lawrence of arabia,
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

danny elfman, film composer, batman, tim burton,
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

hans zimmer, film composer, gladiator, ridley scott,
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.

4. Vangelis

vangelis, film composer, film music, movie score, chariots of fire,
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

ennio morricone, film composer, good bad and ugly, leone, movie score, music, soundtrack,
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

jerry goldsmith, movie music, film composer, orchestra, ridley scott, alien,
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 AlienSee 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

john williams, jaws, spielberg, top10films, top 10 film composers, movie music, orchestra,
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 JawsSee 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

About the Author
An Aussie lad with a love of cinema, Rodney Twelftree parlayed his interest in films into a website dedicated to reviewing them. Currently Editor In Chief at, Rodney spends much of his time watching films, television, reading science fiction novels and trawling the internet for news and reviews on all things film.

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  1. Avatar
    John Hodson Reply

    Wot; no Elmer Bernstein, no Erich Wolfgang Korngold, no Max Steiner, no John Barry, no Alfred Newman, Miklós Rózsa, Franz Waxman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Dave Grusin, David Raksin?

    I suppose that’s a whole other list…

    • Avatar
      sadf Reply

      I agree. List has no credibility w/o John Barry not even making the top 10

  2. Avatar
    Simon Reply

    No James Newton-Howard??? Newton-Howard’s scores for most of Shyamalans work – ‘Unbreakable’, ‘Signs’ and ‘The Village’ and his joint-work with Hans Zimmer on ‘The Dark Knight’ is near flawless.

    I must admit, Danny Elfman does not deserve such credit – nor does James Horner. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve got the sondtracks to Edward Scissorhands, Avatar and Titanic, but with Elfman, anything outside of Scissorhands is very samey (compare the theme for ‘Planet of the Apes’, ‘Men In Black’ and ‘Spiderman’…) and with Horner, I think his music simply takes you back to ‘that’ place when you watched the film (so credit moreso for James Cameron…)- in the music there is some very similar progressions and movements in his work – especially between Avatar and Titanic. And Vangelis – Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire. Well done. Thats about it. If only a few scores are neccessary then what about Badly Drawn Boy (About A Boy) and Massive Attack (Danny the Dog/Unleashed)?

    Craig Armstrong and John Murphy deserve some credit – the fact that their music is often used in such a huge bunch of trailers says alot about their accessibility.

    ALL those 007 scores … John Barry indeed! where is he? Dimitri Tiomkin – does his music for Citizen Kane and Pre-Herrman Hitchcock movies mean nothing???

    Michael Nyman and his score for ‘The Piano’ amongst others … Michael Kamen and his scores for ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ and ‘Band of Brothers’…

    I must do my own post methinks …

  3. Avatar
    Craig Reply

    Tough to list a top 10 of all time. I think the challenge is balancing influence and success and there are a whole lot of other composers I’d put above those mentioned here in terms of both influence and long-standing (and long-lasting) success.

    Miklos Rozsa would be a good one to start with and would have to appear in my top 10. John mentions him above – I’ll quote from wikipedia (where John appears to have found the majority of his list): “Along with such composers as Bernard Herrmann, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman, Max Steiner and Franz Waxman, Rózsa is considered to be one of the “founding fathers of film music”. His music for Spellbound and Ben-Hur, as well as his work for Billy Wilder amongst others is a thing of sheer beauty. Even now his compositions are played across the world by orchestras.

    You’ve done a good job of displaying some of the current crop of Hollywood composers but I feel their success is largely down to the filmmakers than their musical talent which is limited at best for some. Plaudits for including Jarre, Herrmann, and Morricone.

  4. Avatar
    CrazyComposer Reply

    The problem with “best of”, particularly when naming things like composers, is you can never satisfy all of the people, all of the time. Case in point: if you tried to name the best Baroque composers you would, obviously, have to name Johann Sebastian Bach the #1 composer, wouldn’t you? Well, wouldn’t you? Is there ANYONE that would disagree that Bach is the greatest Baroque composer? Of course there are – some people like Vivaldi better – others like Gabrielli, still others like Pachelbel – the point is, there are so many Baroque composers to simply declare that Bach is the “Best” is hubris. In essence, the list is “your favourite 10 film composers” – not “THE 10 best film composers”.

    Perhaps if a committee of 1,000 composers agreed (ha!) on the outcome it would be possible to say that these 10 represented THE top 10, but one person picking 10 names, even with good reason, only represents that persons opinion and, while some of the choices may be interesting – it certainly cannot represent a definitive list.

    But, in case you were wondering, Bach IS the greatest composer of the Baroque period.

  5. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    I totally agree that lists such as this one and the others on the site are based on personal preference. But that’s what makes them worthy of discussion which is why I like making them and encourage others to do so. Although a committee of composers choosing the greatest works would be starting from a position of knowledge and appreciation most others couldn’t match I do think their collective efforts could be criticised and reinterpreted more so than the opinion of one. That’s because those sorts of polls kind of dilute personal preference in favour of collective popularity (which always hinders best-of film polls so that newer movies rise above their station). At least the opinion of one is there for all to see (raw and laid bare), rather than the opinion of many whose individual pleasures and unique thoughts on the matter are lost in the crowd.

    …but thanks for dropping by CrazyComposer. Good point, well put!

    Editor, Top10Films

  6. Avatar
    rtm Reply

    Oooh, nice list, Dan. I listen to a streaming soundtrack radio frequently, I just LOVE movie music. I agree with a lot of your picks here: Williams, Vangelis, Horner, Zimmer, Moreccone, Shore… man those guys are phenomenal! I’d add James Newton Howard and Philip Glass on the list, in fact, for my fantasy movie pitch Hearts Want, I’d love to have Glass write the score for it. I like the minimalist and repetitive style of his work.

  7. Avatar
    Marc Reply

    Gotta say Dan, this takes a lot to evaluate so many influential and cross generational composers. Music make such an indelible impression in film history and is often overlooked for it’s contributions. Further stacking these heavy weights against one another makes for a tough list…of course we all know Williams take the top spot!! Major Kudos for that:)

    I don’t know much of Vangelis’ work outside the typical ones you listed so I’m not sure he’d be on my 10 or even 20. Love the inclusion of Horner, and the nod to Elfman gets my seal of approval. My top 2 would be Williams and Zimmer, followed by maybe Silvestri, Newton Howard and Thomas Newman…but compared to the legends on this list they’re still like new kids on the block

    You and I should collaborate on one of my FourScore pieces…

  8. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Marc: It’s all Rodney’s hard work. I’ve had this one on file for some time but only now found a free spot to upload it. I’m sure he’d be interested in contributing to your FourScore articles. I’ll drop him a mail with details.

    But I agree with you that it’s a challenge making any ‘all time’ list, not least when it concerns film composers. I think Rodney’s done a great job and highlighted some of the finest music writers Hollywood has ever seen. What’s even better is that it’s generating such discussion!

    I like the fact you mention Silvestri – I might have to find a spot for him on my own list, if I ever make one.

    @rtm: …you’re not the first to mention Newton Howard. I definitely liked his work on Unbreakable and I Am Legend.

    @Craig: Good points Craig but I think, although the list has many current composers, they are a talented bunch who haven’t found success simply because of the filmmakers they’ve worked with. John Williams would be an obvious – hugely talented and brilliant at what he does – would Jaws be as good without his music…not a chance. I also think Danny Elfman is better than he’s given credit for.

    @Simon: I agree with you about Newton Howard.

    @John: …nice selections, John…perhaps those guys turned up in the top 20 but we’re only counting to 10 today!

  9. Avatar
    John Hodson Reply

    To Craig; I bristle slightly at the suggestion. John found the list in John’s head; no need to go hunting around Wikipedia for such well known and lauded composers.

  10. Avatar
    JasonW Reply

    John Williams is definitely my favourite composer. I love his work and he’s done so many iconic films. Does anyone come close to that body of work in terms of quality and notoriety?

  11. Avatar
    Gustavo Reply

    Yet another comprehensive and well-thought list. My top two would be Morricone and Williams.

  12. Avatar
    Castor Reply

    Some huge, highly recognizable names there. My favorite is Hans Zimmer but really can’t argue with any of the people on the list. Great idea for a top 10!

  13. Avatar
    David Lloyd-Smart Reply

    I think james horner also did casper the ghost now theres a score

  14. Avatar
    Mobo Reply

    Hello!?!??!?! John Barry. He’s only won 5 Oscars!!!! Hans Zimmer is one of the reasons film scoring is in such a slump these days. What a load of garbage.

  15. Avatar
    Mobo Reply

    BTW I’ve heard from some orchestrators that Danny Elfman hums into a tape recorder and then hands it to his staff, James Horner just recycles his own scores and rips off others. GARBAGE I say!!!!

  16. Avatar
    sundryandco Reply

    Very nice list! John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman are definitely three of the most widely recognised film composers around. In my own little list, in terms of well-known composers, I’d probably include Philip Glass, Carter Burwell, Michael Andrews and possibly Andre Previn. I’d give a footnote to Dustin O’ Halloran and Warren Ellis!

  17. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    To those above who’ve suggested John Barry be included in this list: you are correct. John Barry IS equally worthy of being included on this list, as are many of the names touted by commenters here. It seems I wasn’t thinking of Bond when I wrote this column.

    Mind you, as Dan mentioned above, there’s only room for ten!

    @ CrazyComposer – I agree. Bach IS the best Baroque composer, and I’d go to war to stop people from saying that Berlioz isn’t the best composer from the Romantic period. I’d also have to say that a site like this, listing the ten best of anything, is always going to be about personal preference. Just look at the different selections between Dan and myself regarding our choices for the ten best Spielberg films, as an example. The same topic, just different opinions. And isn’t that what blogging is all about: opinions?

    @ RTM – I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree with Mr Glass, my friend. Aside from his work on The Truman Show (which, incidentally, is one of my favourite scores of all time)I don’t think his material can claim to be in the same league as some of the others on the list.

    @ Simon – I agree about Craig Armstrong, I nearly included him on this list for his work on Moulin Rouge & Plunkett and Macleane alone, two films I have a lot of time for. A great pick and worthy participant in the top ten. Same goes for James Newton-Howard, but like I said, there’s only room for ten. If I was doing a top 20 list, he’d be a shoe-in!

    Thanks to all for your comments, it’s great to get so much feedback on such a broad-spectrum topic!

    As I mentioned in the preamble, I’ve tried to choose composers who have, for want of a better set of criteria, given us scores and themes that have become iconic, almost more memorable than the films they’ve been in.

  18. Avatar
    James Blake Ewing Reply

    Yes, you nailed the top 3, although I’d put Ennio Morricone over John Williams even though it was Williams who got me into movie music.

    I think Elfman and Horner are overrated. If you’re going for iconic, I could see that as they have an indelible mark on their music, but I don’t think their music is great.

  19. Avatar
    SAGAR- INDIA Reply

    I think James Horner is the most touching and feeling full composer of all time…If some people do not agree with this they must listen to the score for the movie Braveheart…It’s soundtracks like The Secret Wedding, Princess Pleads For Walles, Freedom The Execution, For The Love Of princess, are evergreen and feeling full of all time (I think so). His variation of flute is awesome… It feels like something is missing from our hands his music brings us to some different world…

  20. Avatar
    Real Music Reply

    no offense but this list is horrible. i agree with John Hodson. Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Miklos Rozsa, no Franz Waxman, no Erich Wolfgang Korngold. and all the other people he said. i think John Williams scores have no emotional depth. the only film scorer around today that makes really quality, dignified music is Michael Giacchino, and hes not on here either. but two big ones that really shock me are Alfred Newman and Max Steiner. Newman has more nominations and almost twice the winnings of academy awards than John Williams, and Max Steiner was on everything and wrote Gone with the Wind and King Kong and the Astaire Rogers musicals and EVERYTHING. he did so much and he was such a great composers. sorry but this list has no validity without those two on them.

  21. Avatar
    ssaimen19 Reply

    too bad that you forgot John Powell and Rolfe Kent!!!

  22. Avatar
    Benjamin Reply

    I agree,
    I think Michael Giacchino is the best living film composer.

  23. Avatar
    Parker Reply

    I’m not here to dispute anything at all. I have to say I listen to Pandora and the names on his top 10 list show up and I do a Station of “John Williams(Composer) who is MY all time favorite. He was the reason I liked music I saw Star Wars when I was a kid and nothing beat that, it set the mood and vision of the movie for me. I never realized it till later but every movie on my favorite list has John Williams as a composer there are a few that don’t like unbreakable but still he is about 95% on my favorite list for favorite films.

  24. Avatar
    Micho Reply

    it is totally foolish not to include John Barry…

    John Williams #1?! John Barry puts Williams in his pocket

  25. Avatar
    Derek Markus Reply

    Randy Edelman? Anyone? He only made three of the best film scores of all-time: Last of the Mohicans, Gettysburg, and Dragonheart.

  26. Avatar
    Jack Reply

    I like Roberto Ignis. Very good young composer.

    • Avatar
      Julia Reply

      Wow, I didn’t hear about him never before until now. I listened to his music on his website. Amazing and impressive !!!!

  27. Avatar
    ben Reply

    I really like this list as it had been thought about. You are not going to please everyone because people are stupid and don’t realize that this list, as in all lists of “Top 10 Best lists”, is just the opinion of the author. So with that in mind to all aspiring composers if you think you can be one of the next “Top 10 Best Composers” submit your work to the guerilla-filmmaker Gold Medal 2012 awards and get the recognition you deserve! Submissions are now open to all composers follow this link for more details…

  28. Avatar
    betafett Reply

    No Basil Poledouris??

  29. Avatar
    Marquis D. Canaday Reply

    Lists tell all. I see no Max Steiner, no Alfred Newman, no Elmer Bernstein, no Basil Pouledouris, no Dimitri Tiomkin, no Miklós Rózsa or even Frank Waxman. See, this is what happens when you ask children who do not know anything about music composition who the best film composers are.

    I am glad, however, to see John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith on the list. These two deserve it.

  30. Avatar
    HJAnder Reply

    Frankly, I am suprised that Alan Silvestri, James Newton Howard and Harry Gregson-Williams are not on this list,as their music continues to impress people. All the old farts like Bernard Hermann, Maurice Jarre, Ennio Morrocone and Vangelis have only ever scored dated boring music, and are taking up the places of those who truly deserve to be in the top ten, with creative versatile soundtracks.

  31. Avatar
    leah Reply

    You have all thought too much about the list, every composer is great!

  32. Avatar
    reece Reply

    wwwwwwwoooooooooowwwwwwwwww you really need to stop commenting on a composer list its not serious for god SAKE

  33. Avatar
    leibet farnshaw Reply

    Top ten lists are difficult: ten is such a small number in which to encapsulate the best film composers.

    It seems that our rater concentrates on, or maybe simply knows best, only recent film composition.

    I am no expert, but after listening to the scores for WALK ON THE WILD SIDE (what an opening sequence!!!), TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (Come On, people!!!), HUD, THE BLUES BROTHERS, THE BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, THE GRIFTERS, SLAP SHOT,THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC THEME…
    shouldn’t, I ask of you, shouldn’t Mr. Elmer Bernstien be included on your list?

  34. Avatar
    DPMcK Reply

    John Barry !!! – No discussion, no debate – quite simply the most beautiful music ever committed to celluloid.

    5 Academy awards
    2 BAFTA’s

  35. Avatar
    Conner Reply

    John Williams

    5 Academy Awards
    21 Grammys
    7 BATFA’s

  36. Avatar
    Mike Reply

    You forgot to credit Herrmann for Citizen Kane,
    Vertigo, and about 8 other great scores. I would have Herrmann at #2.

    Check out Horner’s 1983 Krull score & Poledouris’s Conan the Barbarian 1981 score. They are both exceptional.

  37. Avatar
    mark Reply

    The big, big omission from this list (aside from some of the above-mentioned older Hollywood guys, I guess) was the late Jack Nitzsche. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest; Cutter’s Way; Starman (the theme to which is also played on the trailers of other films); some of the incidental stuff in 9.5 Weeks; The Hot Rock – all great.

    Then there’s Performance – the man even managed to outdo the Rolling Stones by using Ry Cooder instead of Keith Richards for Jagger’s Memo for Turner (arguably the first true rock “video” clip).

    He won an oscar for co-writing the song for An Officer and A Gentleman (which I don’t really like), so he was no lightweight.

    As for John Williams, I reckon his best work is in Spielberg’s AI … when Jude Law and Joel reach Manhatten, he well and truly switches across from the usually-exploited neoclassicism of Stravinsky and Copland to the minimalism of Steve Reich. A truly American composer …..

  38. Avatar
    sfmusic Reply

    What about Thomas Newman? I agree with most of the top five. Goldsmith maybe should be the top spot though. But your sleeping on Thomas Newman…especially if you have Elfman on there. Of the last 20 yrs, Newman needs to be recognized. Just take a look at his film resume. Just from his phrasing I can pick out a movie he did without knowing beforehand.

  39. Avatar
    Cristi Reply

    Vladimir Cosma, the big omission from this list….

  40. Avatar
    Hoagy Stardust Reply

    My Top 40 Film Composers, with some representative films:

    1. Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane; The Magnificent Ambersons; Jane Eyre; The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; On Dangerous Ground; Vertigo; North by Northwest; Psycho; Marnie; Fahrenheit 451; Cape Fear; Taxi Driver)

    2. Toru Takemitsu (Woman in the Dunes; Dodes’kaden; Ran; Black Rain)

    3. William Walton (The First of the Few; Henry V; Hamlet; Richard III)

    4. Sergei Prokofiev (Lt. Kije; Alexander Nevsky; Ivan the Terrible)

    5. Aaron Copland (Of Mice and Men; Our Town; The Red Pony; The Heiress)

    6. Dmitri Shostakovich (The Maxim Trilogy; The Gadfly; Hamlet; King Lear)

    7. Fumio Hayasaka (Rashomon; Ikiru; Ugetsu; Sansho the Bailiff; Seven Samurai)

    8. Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Captain Blood; The Prince and the Pauper; The Adventures of Robin Hood; The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex; The Sea Hawk)

    9. Virgil Thomson (The Plow That Broke the Plains; The River; Louisiana Story)

    10. Nino Rota (La Strada; Nights of Cabiria; The Leopard; The Godfather)

    11. Ennio Morricone (The Battle of Algiers; Days of Heaven; The Mission; Cinema Paradiso)

    12. Joseph Kosma (Grand Illusion; The Rules of the Game; Children of Paradise; Port of Shadows)

    13. Michel Legrand (Cleo from 5 to 7; The Thomas Crowne Affair; Summer of ’42; F for Fake; Yentl)

    14. David Raksin (Laura; Force of Evil; The Bad and the Beautiful)

    15. Miklos Rosza (Double Indemnity; Spellbound; The Lost Weekend; Julius Caesar)

    16. Max Steiner (King Kong; The Informer; Gone with the Wind; Casablanca; The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; The Searchers)

    17. Elmer Bernstein (The Man with the Golden Arm; The Magnificent Seven; To Kill a Mockingbird; The Great Escape)

    18. John Barry (James Bond movies; The Lion in Winter; The Cotton Club; Out of Africa)

    19. Brian Easdale (Black Narcissus; The Red Shoes)

    20. Georges Auric (Beauty and the Beast; Roman Holiday; The Wages of Fear; Lola Montes; Rififi)

    21. Franz Waxman (Rebecca; Sunset Boulevard; Rear Window)

    22. Leonard Bernstein (On the Waterfront)

    23. Arthur Bliss (Things to Come; Caesar and Cleopatra)

    24. Alex North (A Streetcar Named Desire; Spartacus)

    25. Dmitri Tiomkin (Shadow of a Doubt; Strangers on a Train; High Noon; Dial M for Murder; Rio Bravo)

    26. Alfred Newman (Wuthering Heights; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; All About Eve)

    27. Henry Mancini (Touch of Evil; Breakfast at Tiffany’s; The Pink Panther)

    28. Duke Ellington (Anatomy of a Murder; Paris Blues)

    29. John Lewis (No Sun in Venice; Odds Against Tomorrow)

    30. Giovanni Fusco (Hiroshima mon amour; L’Avventura)

    31. Gabriel Yared (The English Patient; The Lives of Others)

    32. Victor Young (The Quiet Man; Shane)

    33. Bronislau Kaper (The Stranger; Green Dolphin Street; Lord Jim)

    34. Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia; Doctor Zhivago; Passage to India)

    35. Malcolm Arnold (Bridge on the River Kwai)

    36. Leonard Rosenman (East of Eden; Barry Lyndon; The Lord of the Rings)

    37. Andre Previn (Bad Day at Black Rock; Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse)

    38. Constant Lambert (Anna Karenina)

    39. Philip Glass (Koyaansqatsi; Kundun; The Fog of War)

    40. Alexandre Desplat (The Queen; The Ghost Writer)

    • Avatar
      nick winters Reply

      Smoking list. Especially the first two.

  41. Avatar
    Hoagy Stardust Reply

    I knew I’d forget someone, and I did:

    Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, a prolific Italian film composer who wrote particularly notable scores for Orson Welles’ Othello and Chimes at Midnight. I’d place him at #20 and move everyone else down. Sorry Alexandre Desplat — but you have a long career ahead of you.

    A lot of other contemporary composers (w/o naming names, but it includes some big ones ;-)) I find bland and synthetic. Better to have composed a few brilliant, artistic scores that hold up well, even apart from the original context, than a whole bunch of derivative commercial product.

  42. Avatar
    Paul McIntosh Reply

    Give me Ennio Morricone, Luis Bacalov, Yann Tiersen and Vangelis any day of the week.

  43. Avatar
    Frank Reply

    Where is JNH?
    I think the reason that makes it absolutely necessary for him to be in this list is his ingenious style of orchestration.
    I also loved John Williams’ quote.

  44. Avatar
    Michael Lawrence Reply

    what, no alex north? hello? “under the volcano??” ANYONE??!

  45. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    @ Hoagy: You are simply a troll if you honestly don’t think Williams even belongs on your list. A pure joke. Do you write for Comedy Central?

  46. Avatar
    Mark Reply

    While I would have John Williams on my top 40 list, Hoagy doesn’t strike me as a troll – his list is way too informed for that. Loved the fact Takimitsu got a mention, despite the fact Ran kinda died in the arse by its end ….

  47. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Being informed doesn’t give you a free pass for being silly. John Williams body of work is second to none. His films have all been better because of his scores and he is perhaps the most sought after composer in the history of Hollywood. Not having him at number one is fine, we all have different opinions, but to name 40 composers better than him? Sorry, that’s a troll.

  48. Avatar
    Mark Reply


    My slant on the best music in 2012 cinema … Steve Reich’s The Desert Music being deployed when all the kiddies are running for their weapoms, and the weakest are being slaughtered, in The Hunger Games.

  49. Avatar
    Leks Reply

    It is obvious that this list is highly subjective. I wonder how is it possible that Elfman, Zimmer and Jarre are on this list when Miklós Rózsa is not.

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    Tony Reply

    The list is good but I was stunned to not find Mancini, not only one of the all-time greatest film composers but.the creator of the Pink Panther theme, highly regarded as one of the most memorable themes in film history.

  51. Avatar
    ian Reply

    For Hermann, his greatest is ‘Vertigo’a truly haunting masterpiece

  52. Avatar
    ERM Reply

    @Hoagy Stardust.

    Beautiful nick that shows sensibility for the music (Stardust, by Hoagy Charmichel, is one of the greatest songs of the XX century) It’s a pleasure to find someone who doesn’t think that the history of the film music began thirty years ago. Great list. A list to learn from… if you really love film music.

    Personally, I would have included John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Arthur Honegger, Valeri Artemyev and, maybe, Carl Stalling & Walt Disney for their historical role…

  53. Avatar
    ERM Reply

    And Eleni Karaindrou… I love the music from this woman (and there are very few women in film music)

  54. Avatar
    nick winters Reply

    That’s a pretty wacky list. There is no Elfman–who does nothing for me- without Herrmann. Elfman’s best score is a blatant rip of Fahrenheit 451. And it’s nearly all English-speaking composers. Live a little. Branch out of Hollywood. Some very over-rated people on there who keep churning out the same turgid stuff again and again.
    A great composer respects the listener and doesn’t mechanically push the audience’s buttons (hello Hans Z).

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    Mat Reply

    Hans Zimmer can’t be fifth ? He should be second !

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    Richard Reply

    I would have to find space for Lalo Schifrin ( Bullitt, Dirty Harry ) Henry Mancini, John Barry and Gabriel Yared ( Betty Blue, The English Patient ). Honourable mention to Roy Budd for Get Carter….

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    M.Severson Reply

    I agree that most of the these composers are the best, and deserve being placed in the top 10…however, leaving off John Barry was a serious mistake. There are few soundtracks that are more beautiful than Somewhere in Time, Out of Africa and Born Free.

  58. Avatar
    Jim Athanas Reply

    Herrmann should be in the top 2

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