10 greatest film composers of all time

20 January 2024, 18:13 | Updated: 22 January 2024, 10:24

John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Rachel Portman – innovating the film score
John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Rachel Portman – innovating the film score. Picture: Getty / Alamy

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Who are the most prolific movie composers of all time? We explore cinema’s greatest musical voices from the last century.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

Star Wars creator George Lucas famously said, “Sound is 50 percent of the movie-going experience.”

So many of the great films of the last century would be incomplete without their iconic music. Could you imagine seeing that first dinosaur emerge in Jurassic Park, without John Williams’ rich, swelling orchestration? Or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly without the backdrop of Morricone’s signature spaghetti western sound?

Film composers are seeing their work reach increasingly beyond the silver screen and into concert halls, their music played amongst works from the traditionally classical world.

And it’s not hard to see why… let’s explore the very best of cinema’s musical voices.

Read more: The 50 best film scores of all time

  1. Joe Hisaishi

    Japan’s answer to John Williams, Joe Hisaishi is his home nation’s most celebrated film composer, whose long-running collaboration with Studio Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki has often drawn comparisons to the American film composer, and his partnership with Steven Spielberg.

    As the undisputed greatest musical storyteller in the anime genre, he has an increasingly vast body of work, from Spirited Away to My Neighbour Totoro.

    Read more: 10 greatest pieces of music by Joe Hisaishi, ranked

    Joe Hisaishi - Merry-Go-Round of Life (from “Howl’s Moving Castle”)

  2. Rachel Portman

    In 1997, Portman became the first female composer to win an Oscar in the Best Score category, for her soundtrack to the adaption of Jane Austen’s Emma. Known for her sweeping, pastoral scores, she is much in demand in Hollywood for her unique ability to capture the emotional heart of a film’s narrative.

    Read more: 15 best women film composers and their soundtracks

    End Titles

  3. Thomas Newman

    Thomas Newman, whose father is the great Oscar-decorated composer Alfred Newman, started composing for synthesisers, before beginning to incorporate electronic and orchestral instruments.

    In a career spanning four decades, Newman has written the music for some of cinema’s most knockout hits, including The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile where his music reflects the heart-wrenching, emotional intensity of the narrative, and American Beauty, where he uses a range of percussion to create a complex, rhymthic soundworld like no other.

    Catch up with Classic FM at the Movies with Jonathan Ross on Global Player >

    American Beauty Soundtrack (American Beauty)

  4. Maurice Jarre

    A giant of 20th-century film music, French movie maestro Maurice Jarre penned the much-loved scores for Lawrence of Arabia, Ghost and Doctor Zhivago. An innovator of his time, he drew attention and acclaim for his mix of orchestral, electronic and ethnic sounds. He was hired for Lawrence of Arabia after classical stalwarts William Walton and Malcolm Arnold were too busy for the job. Jarre won his first Oscar for the music and the rest, as they say, is history.

    Lawrence of Arabia • Overture • Maurice Jarre

  5. Max Steiner

    Austrian composer Max Steiner was one of the founders of film music, writing the rulebook for composers today with his sweeping 1930s Hollywood scores from Casablanca to Gone with the Wind, which was ranked by the American Film Institute as the second greatest film score of all time. There would be no movie soundtracks as we know them today, without Max Steiner...

    Gone With the Wind (From "Gone with the Wind")

  6. John Barry

    John Barry composed the music for 11 Bond movies, perfecting the ‘Bond sound’ of brass, jazz and lush melodies – now one of cinema’s most iconic soundworlds. In a career spanning some 50 years, the film music master created beautiful, haunting themes for Dances with Wolves and Out of Africa, which are consistently voted to the top of movie and classical music charts today.

    Read more: Which film scores have won best soundtrack at the Oscars?

    The James Bond Theme (From "Dr. No")

  7. Howard Shore

    Howard Shore’s stunning orchestral evocations of Tolkien’s Middle Earth have shot him into the ranks of all-time great film composers. His score for The Lord of the Rings, voted the nation’s favourite in our Classic FM Movie Music Hall of Fame poll last year, is an epic set of 80 themes, ranging from the chilling and ethereal to the delightfully whimsical. He went on to score The Hobbit trilogy, once again bringing Tolkien’s literary fantasy to life with evocative and expressive music, that has already endured long past the release of the films.

    Epic ‘Lord of the Rings’! Orchestra turns Royal Albert Hall into Middle Earth | Classic FM Live

  8. Ennio Morricone

    Italian cinematic giant Ennio Morricone began in the Spaghetti Westerns genre, blending symphonic instruments with new sounds, from bells and harmonicas to the Jew’s harp, to revolutionise the sound of Westerns. He went on to have his biggest success with The Mission and the glorious ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’, now a modern processional favourite at weddings.

    It’s hard to be believe this movie music master only received his first Academy Award aged 90 (for The Hateful Eight).

    Read more: Which film composers have won the most Academy Awards?

    Classic FM Live: Cellist HAUSER plays Gabriel's Oboe – The Mission

  9. Hans Zimmer

    German composer Hans Zimmer has gained rockstar status with his arena shows, where he packs the stage with a live orchestra, band, and striking soloists. His film scores, ranging from the family-friendly to the futuristic, are anchored in that signature Zimmer blend of the orchestral and electronic.

    From Batman to Interstellar, Zimmer is a composer of incredibly beautiful sound – he has a remarkable ability to capture the emotional depth and drama of a movie with thick textures of ostinato strings, sweeping brass lines and relentless, synthesised percussion. He has innovated film score composition and, in many ways, has defined this generation of cinematic music.

    Hans Zimmer on The Lion King score: ‘The death of a father needs a serious requiem’

  10. John Williams

    Regarded as one of the most talented composers of any age, John Williams has set the standard for film music, creating deeper connections between audiences and the cinematic narrative with his sweeping scores and bold, iconic melodies. He writes for heroes and baddies better than anyone, create the most iconic villain theme of them all in Jaws, with just two notes – an ominous, repeating ostinato.

    Inspired by the Romantics, Holst, Wagner and Strauss, the American maestro’s love of the orchestra runs deep in his scores. His compositions have transcended the movie theatre and are now heard in concert halls worldwide as symphonic scores in their own right. Williams was recently revealed to be the most performed living composer of 2023, and there is no more worthy recipient of the title of No.1 film composer, than this giant of cinema, and of classical music.

    Read more: 10 of John Williams’ all-time greatest film themes, ranked

    Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra perform epic 'Jurassic Park' at Classic FM Live

    WATCH: John Williams at 90 | A Classic FM Exclusive

Vote for your favourite film composer’s music in the Classic FM Hall of Fame 2024! By voting, you could win one of 10 Amazon Echo Dots.