15 women film composers at the top of the industry, and their greatest soundtracks so far
7 August 2023, 11:04
From Portman to Franco, these are fifteen of the best women composers writing for the silver screen.
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In 2022, more than nine out of 10 of the top 250 Hollywood films released that year had scores written by men. Of the composers working on these blockbuster hits, eight percent were women – up substantially from just two percent, in 2013.
Over the last few years there has been a steady increase of female composers in show business, from Germaine Franco and her music for Disney hit Encanto, to Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score for the remake of Jane Austen’s Emma.
And so, with more and more brilliant women’s music being heard on the silver screen, we shine a light on some of the greatest female composers from cinema, past and present…
Hildur Guðnadóttir (b.1982) is a multi-award winning Icelandic composer who has broken records as a woman in her field. She is a two-time Grammy Award winner, two-time Golden Globe winner, Primetime Emmy winner and Academy Award winner.
Guðnadóttir won her Oscar for the psychological drama Joker, for which she also won a BAFTA and Golden Globe for Best Score. She was the first solo woman composer to win all three of these major awards.
Most recently, Guðnadóttir wrote the eerie score for the critically acclaimed film Tár, starring Cate Blanchett.
Joker Official Soundtrack | Call Me Joker - Hildur Guðnadóttir | WaterTower
Germaine Franco (b. 1962) is one of Hollywood’s few full-time female composers though she is also a percussionist, conductor, songwriter, arranger, and record producer.
In 2021 she became the first woman to ever score a Disney animated film, writing the multi-award-winning score to Encanto. Her music for the film became a worldwide hit, leading to nominations for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Original Score. Franco is of Mexican American descent and was the first Latina to be nominated for the Oscar.
Germaine Franco - Antonio's Voice (From "Encanto"/Score/Audio Only)
Rachel Portman (b. 1960) began writing music at the tender age of just 14, and to date has scored over 100 soundtracks for film, television and theatre.
In 1997, Portman broke ground as the first female composer to win an Academy Award, for the romantic film adaption of Jane Austen’s Emma. She was again nominated for two more Oscars for her work on the 1999 film The Cider House Rules and 2000 film starring Jonny Depp, Chocolat.
In the 2010 New Year Honours, Portman was awarded an OBE for her contributions to music.
Turkish-American composer Pinar Toprak (b. 1980) made history in 2019 as the first woman ever to score a major superhero movie. As the composer for Captain Marvel, Toprak also subsequently became the first woman to score a movie with a box office of more than $1 billion.
Toprak used her own personal funds to pay a 70-piece orchestra to play her suggested theme, which she sent off to the studios. Luckily the risk paid off and catapulted her to become one of the only female film composers working on major blockbusters.
Outside of film, Toprak also scored the game Fortnite, making her again the first woman composer to score a video game that made over a $1 billion; in the case of Fortnite, this was $5 billion.
Pinar Toprak - Captain Marvel (From "Captain Marvel"/Official Audio)
Laura Karpman (b. 1959) is both a five-time Emmy and GRAMMY-winning composer, and a fierce champion for inclusion in Hollywood. She co-founded the Alliance for Women Film Composers and in 2014 became the first woman governor in the music branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences.
Her notable work includes Netflix romantic comedy Set It Up, as well as Paris Can Wait, The Cotton Club Encore and Step and Black Nativity. More recently, Karpman has been hired by Marvel Studios and scored the Disney + series, What If?, Ms Marvel, and is writing the soundtrack for the highly anticipated blockbuster film The Marvels.
Laura Karpman - Ms. Marvel Suite (From "Ms. Marvel"/Audio Only)
American film composer Shirley Walker (1946-2006) was one of the few film composers active at the time. Walker won two Emmys during her career and impressively, wrote most of her scores by hand, as well as orchestrating and conducting the music herself.
As well as working closely with a number of notable composers such as Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer, Walker was a notable composer in her own right. She wrote the music for the first three instalments of the Final Destination series, and worked closely with DC Comics as the composer for Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, The New Batman Adventures and Batman Beyond, which led to her being asked to score the animated feature, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
As one of the first women to receive sole composing credit on a Hollywood studio picture, Walker’s impact on carving out a place for women composers in cinema cannot be diminished. In 2014, The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers created the Shirley Walker Award for “those whose achievements have contributed to the diversity of film and television music”.
Superman: The Animated Series (Main Title)
Isobel Waller-Bridge (b. 1984), is a rising star film composer, and long-time collaborator with her actress sister, Phoebe. The duo collaborated on Phoebe’s breakout show, Fleabag, with Isobel writing the music for the acclaimed comedy-drama.
Following the success of Fleabag, Isobel wrote the score for the 2020 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, and was later hired by Netflix to score Munich: The Edge of War, a period spy film.
You Dream (ft. Tara Nome Doyle) | Munich - The Edge of War (Soundtrack from the Netflix...
Anne Dudley (b. 1956) is a critically acclaimed film composer who in 1998, just one year after Portman’s historic win, took home the Academy Award for Best Original Score for The Full Monty.
Dudley’s notable credits include scoring films such as American History X, Tristan & Isolde, and in 2012 she served as an arranger and the music producer for the blockbuster musical Les Misérables.
The Full Monty - Anne Dudley
Doreen Carwithen (1922-2003) was a groundbreaking composer who wrote scores for over 30 films during her career. Also known as Mary Alwyn following her marriage to William Alwyn, she was the world’s first full-time female film composer who paved the way for the other brilliant women on this list.
On the 100th anniversary of her birth in 2022, Mark Chivers, the artistic director of the Carwithen festival, said in a video promo for the event, “She was a female composer working in a man’s world.” Despite this, she had great success, with two of her most notable scores being for the films Mantrap and Boys in Brown.
Doreen Carwithen: music from "The Men of Sherwood Forest" (1954)
English composer Jocelyn Pook (b. 1960) rose to fame after scoring Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 mystery film, Eyes Wide Shut. Her unsettling, dreamlike score received a Golden Globe nomination.
In 2004, Pook scored a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino. Her soundtrack, which featured the countertenor Andreas Scholl was later nominated for a classical Brit award. As well as a Brit and Golden Globe nomination, Pook has won a BAFTA, an Olivier, and a British Composer Award.
Andreas Scholl -"How sweet the moonlight"
Classic FM’s Composer in Residence, Debbie Wiseman (b. 1963), has written over 200 soundtracks across film and television.
Her 1997 soundtrack to the film Wilde was nominated for Best Original Film Score at that year’s Ivor Novello Awards.
In the 2004 New Year Honours, she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to the film industry, before being promoted to OBE for her services to music in the 2018 Birthday Honours.
Angela Morley (1924-2009) was the first openly transgender woman to be nominated for an Oscar. She was nominated for Best Original Score twice, once in 1974 for The Little Prince and secondly in 1976 for The Slipper and the Rose.
Morley, who was a transgender woman, was also a three-time Emmy Award-winning musical director, and was nominated six times for outstanding music composition.
Angela Morley - Introduction And Waltz (From The Slipper And The Rose)
Wendy Carlos (b.1939) is a trailblazing composer who became the first trans person to win a Grammy in 1970. Carlos, who is a transgender woman, was a pioneer of the Moog synthesiser, popularising its role in music.
Alongside her work in electronic music, Carlos has scored multiple notable films including Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. She also scored the 1982 Walt Disney Productions science-fiction film, Tron.
Theme from Tron (From "TRON"/Score)
Lesley Barber (b. 1962) is a Canadian film composer and member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Class of 2016. Her notable films include the critically acclaimed drama, Manchester by the Sea starring Casey Affleck, and 2019’s comedy-drama Late Night starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Karling.
Barber has also worked with internationally renowned cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, composing for his television show Yo-Yo Ma: Inspired by Bach.
Lesley Barber - "Manchester Minimalist Piano and String" (Manchester By The Sea OST)
Agnes Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-1983) was the first female British composer to score a feature film. The film, released in 1948, was called Penny and the Pownall Case, and its plot follows a model who helps a Scotland Yard detective hunt down a gang of criminals who are smuggling Nazi criminals out of Europe.
The majority of her other notable films were in the horror genre, which led to her being known as the ‘Horror Queen’. Titles included, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The Earth Dies Screaming, The Psychopath, Theatre of Death and The Terrornauts.
Elisabeth Lutyens: music from "The Earth Dies Screaming" (1965)