The top 8 most influential and distinctive film music composers of all time

film-composer-2I just spent time reorganising my iTunes library and in particular my soundtrack collection, which now thanks to my hacked 240gb iPod, I can carry around with me everywhere (who would have thought 160gb would be too small?)

What binds all these composers is a unique sound – each is immediately recognisable, unlike many composers of today. To be fair, many emerging composers are likely constrained by producers and directors all too in love with their temp scores, not mention being hobbled by unrealistic timescales and budgets.

Many of these successful composers have key partnerships that have lasted lifetimes – the obvious one that comes to mind is John Williams and Stephen Spielberg. But on closer inspection, many have that one long term and fruitful collaboration that defined their career.

The other thing that is evident in much of their work is the presence of a theme.

I am amazed at how many movie scores fail to leave you with a few notes rattling around your head when you leave the theatre… It doesn’t need to be Indiana Jones, but I often feel cheated that I am not humming that recurring theme for a movie I just experienced.

I wrote an extensive blog last year on the use of music in low budget films which you can read HERE.

So here they are… my (entirely personal) top 13 most influential and distinctive composers of all time.

herrmannBernard Herrmann

For me the granddaddy of movie composers and the very first whose work I noticed as a child. Synonymous with the work of Hitchcock (and for me, ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ where I first became award of film music). The two clear signatures of his music are the high pitched and searching strings (that have become synonymous with thrillers), and the horns that thunderously announce danger. Just listen to five minutes of any of his music and you will find it enormously evocative and visual.
My favourite soundtrack of his?
‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’

Listen a track from ‘Vertigo’ below…

john-barryJohn Barry

You can’t listen to John Barry without hearing James Bond. Even though he didn’t write the Bond signature tune, his music evokes Bond like no other composers, especially the early era of ‘Goldfinger’, ‘You Only Live Twice’ and ‘Thunderball’. Undoubtedly his Bond music had a HUGE impact on me as a kid, but it was his extraordinary score for Zulu that for me ranks as one of the top movie themes EVER. Just re-listening now gives me goose bumps. AWESOME!
My favourite soundtrack of his?

Listen ‘Zulu’ below…


By far the most listened to soundtrack in my collection is a bootleg / fan created edition of ‘Blade Runner’ (called the Esper Edition). More a musical and acoustic way to experience the movie than a traditional soundtrack, it really leaves you with the insight into creativity and innovation at work during this period of his career. With fewer soundtracks to his name than any composer in this list, his presence is demanded by this one score alone. Of its time for sure, but groundbreaking and breathtaking in equal measure.
My favourite soundtrack of his?
‘Blade Runner’

Listen to the entire Esper Edition of ‘Blade Runner’ below…

john-williamsJohn Williams

Where to start? ‘Jaws’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Raiders’, ‘Harry Potter’… No other composer comes close to creating so many iconic themes. The huge breadth and depth of his work in the seventies and eighties is extraordinary, and no-one, and I mean no-one, can fail recognise his most emblematic themes. And to this day, no composer quite sounds like him either – for me there were the Harry Potter films with his music, and those without – and the ones without lacked that certain John Williams magic. I can only hope that JJ Abrams locks him in for the new ‘Star Wars’ films.
My favourite soundtrack of his?
‘JFK’ (I know!)

Listen to the ‘Conspirators’ from JFK below…

morriconeEnnio Morricone

No single composer is as distinctive as Morricone, made famous from his collaboration with Sergio Leone and the Dollars Trilogy. Post modern in execution, fusing traditional orchestral instruments with classical guitar, bizarre and unexpected sounds and human voices, his work is unmistakeable and defined the spaghetti western genre music-scape.
My favourite soundtrack of his?
‘Two Mules For Sister Sarah’

Listen to the main theme below…

Hans+ZimmerHans Zimmer

For me, Hans Zimmer (at his best), creates film music this it at once both classic AND contemporary. It can feel both timeless yet fresh. His thunderous riffs and thumping drums often plagiarise his own work, but can occasionally transcend and re-invent movie music. This leaves other composers the thankless task of copying his work on demand from directors and producers in love with the work of Hans. I repeatedly hear his work being copied in other movies – this is the big giveaway that his music was used as temp score in the edit. His music for ‘Inception’, ‘Gladiator’, ‘Black Rain’, ‘Rain Man’, ‘True Romance’, the 2nd and 3rd Nolan Batman movies are all testaments to his often unrecognised originality and diversity. If I could choose one composer for my next film, Hans would be the person I would choose. Legend and lovely man too. There is also a good article on Hans and his work ethics HERE.
My favourite soundtrack of his?
Tie between ‘Black Rain’, ‘Inception’ and ‘Thin Red Line’

Listen to journey to the line from the ‘Thin Red Line’ below…

jerry goldsmithJerry Goldsmith

Arguably the most prolific composer for Hollywood movies, one could accuse Jerry Goldsmith of being the vanilla composer of his time (I have over 1,000 tracks of his on my iPod as a testament to his massive contribution to movie soundtracks!). But don’t let his decades of output fool you – he was anything but run-of-the-mill. His scores are finely tailored to do the job, to support the movie and deliver ‘the experience’ without grandstanding like perhaps John Williams can do. Listening to ‘In Like Flint’, ‘Gremlins’, ‘The Omen’, ‘Alien’, ‘The Edge’, ‘Basic Instinct’, ‘Star Trek’, ‘Planet Of The Apes’… the list of outstanding and robust scores seems endless and surprisingly diverse.
My favourite soundtrack of his?

Listen to the Outland suite below…

john carpenterJohn Carpenter

For certain his music is an acquired taste, and he is the only composer here who writes for his own movies (in a long term collaboration with Alan Howarth). Together they invented and made mainstream the ‘electronic score’ that dominated in the early eighties genre-movie world – beginning with ‘Assault On Precinct 13’, followed by ‘Halloween’ and ‘The Fog’, his eerily quantized, sythesisted and relentlessly simple music still stands up today. While producers must have thought ‘wow, a composer and a set of synths is so much cheaper than an Orchestra’, very few came close to what Carpenter and Howarth achieved with their music over and over. Extraordinary.
My favourite soundtrack of his?
‘The Fog’

Listen to ‘Reel 9’ below…

And then there are of course others whose work is also extraordinary and I would love to have included…

James Newton Howard…
For ‘The Village’

Howard Shore…
For ‘The Lord Of The Rings’

Rachel Portman…
for ‘The Cider House Rules’

Miklosz Rozsa…
for ‘Ben Hurr’

Dimitri Tiomkin…
for ‘The Thing From Another World’

Maurice Jarre…
For ‘Lawrence Of Arabia’

Elmer Bernstein…
For ‘The Magnificent Seven’

Danny Elfman…
For the early 90’s Batman movies

David Arnold…
For taking on the ‘Bond’ reinvention in the nineties

Carter Burwell…
For ‘Fargo’

Alexandre Desplat…
For ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Philip Glass…
For ‘Candyman’

James Horner…
For ‘Braveheart’

Wojciech Kilar…
For ‘Dracula’

Clint Mansell…
For ‘The Fountain’

Dario Marianelli…
For ‘V For Vendetta’

Thomas Newman…
For ‘Meet Joe Black’

Basil Poledouris…
For ‘Conan The Barbarian’

Lalo Schifrin…
For ‘Dirty Harry’

Daft Punk…
For ‘Tron Legacy’

Alan Silvestri…
for ‘Back To The Future’

Of course this list is personal and by no means definitive, but what do you think?

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones
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