The Top 10 Best Film Composers of All Time
While I work, I frequently tune into the Film Score channel on Pandora. Sure, they play way too much "Harry Potter," which I can’t stand, but it’s always a delight to hear tunes you thought you’d forgotten and let the memorable movie moments flit through your brain.
While doing that the other day, I stumbled across a cut from "The Social Network." And I thought to myself – seriously? This won Best Score? Seriously?! When I was at Harvard Law, there was a homeless man who would sit on the street plucking one note over and over and over again. Apparently, he is now ghostwriting for Trent Reznor.
Now, full disclosure: my father is a film and television scorer. I’ve played classical violin for 24 years. So I have some immersion in this area, although I’m no professional. One side note: I’ve excluded musical writers, so no Leonard Bernstein (despite his wonderful score for "On the Waterfront," he’s best known for "West Side Story" and "On the Town"). And, as always, we’re talking career performances here, so no Howard Shore for "Lord of the Rings" or Leonard Rosenman for "East of Eden." So here, without further ado, are the ten best film scorers of all time:
10. Miklos Rosza: The master of the epic theme, Rosza did the score for "Ben Hur":
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"King of Kings":
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Now, you may be noticing some stylistic similarities – and you’d be right. That’s why he’s not higher on the list.
9. Erich Korngold: Korngold has the shortest resume – but the big one is "The Adventures of Robin Hood," one of the greatest scores of all time:
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And here’s the gorgeous love theme:
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Listening to the music makes me want to fire up the DVD player right now. The scores to "The Sea Wolf," "Juarez," "Of Human Bondage," and "Kings Row" are also excellent. Korngold was also famous as a composer more generally; his violin concerto is still played regularly.
8. Dmitri Tiomkin: A Russian who wrote much of the score for the American western. He did "High Noon":
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He even did the theme to "Rawhide" (and here I can’t help but go Blues Brothers):
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But he also did the music to the magical Capra films -- "It’s a Wonderful Life":
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"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington":
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He scored several movies for Hitchcock, including "Dial M for Murder". He did the fantastic score to "The Guns of Navarone." No wonder he wrote for virtually every movie for decades.
7. Alfred Newman: Not only did Alfred create a monumental career in his own right; he headed up the famed Newman composing family: Thomas, who is similarly talented, and David, who has his moments. As for Randy, his nephew – well, let’s just leave it to Family Guy on that one:
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Try on "Wuthering Heights" and feel the gothic romance:
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What a fantastic, heartbreaking score! And that one is usually considered second to "How the West Was Won."
He also did "How Green Was My Valley," "The Robe," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and many more. He was widely considered the class of the 1930s and 1940s-era composers. He won more Academy Awards than any other composer in history.
Oh yes, and he composed this:
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6. Hugo Friedhofer: Often forgotten for no good reason at all, Friedhofer spent his career in the shadow of Korngold and Steiner. His first major film was "The Best Years of Our Lives," and it’s only one of the best scores in film history.
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Nobody does romantic themes like Friedhofer. Try "An Affair to Remember":
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Now watch the end of that movie. It’s the use of music that leaves the audience in a puddle on the floor. Masterful.
And he also did "Joan of Arc;" when asked how he was progressing on the score, he famously replied, “I’ve just started on the barbecue.”
5. Bernard Herrmann: I’ve already made myself largely hated for bashing Alfred Hitchcock, but I’m no fool – Herrmann’s fantastic. The music from "Psycho" freaked out two generations:
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And then there’s this, from "Vertigo":
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Herrmann could do the most with the fewest notes. But he wasn’t just great with Hitchcock. He did "Citizen Kane," a phenomenal score. He wrote the theme to "The Twilight Zone", too, creeping out a generation of kids.
4. Max Steiner: There has never been a writer of movie themes like Steiner (except, perhaps, Bernstein). There’s "Gone With the Wind" – listen to that theme and try not to get chills:
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There’s the score to "Casablanca," which is chock full of terrific moments, like this cue (wait for the wonderful final recapitulation of the "As Time Goes By" theme at 1:46):
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His list of composing credits includes "Jezebel," "The Informer," "King Kong," "Now," "Voyager," and dozens of other classics. It’s almost impossible to top Steiner.
3. John Williams: Williams is rightly celebrated for masterpieces like the scores to "Schindler’s List," "Jaws," and "Superman." In his later years, he’s fallen a bit into heavyhandedness with scores like "Harry Potter," "Memoirs of a Geisha," and "The Patriot." But his early work was, of course, iconic: "Indiana Jones," "ET," "Star Wars," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." The problem is that some of his most famous work is marred by its close resemblance to the pieces on which it is based. Take, for example, the Empire theme from "Star Wars":
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Now listen to Holst’s “Mars” from The Planets:
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And some of "Close Encounters" is almost a direct adaptation of Kryzsztof Penderecki.
Williams can be very derivative; he steals from the best. But he’s great at it. And when he’s at his best, few can touch him.
2. Elmer Bernstein: His scores are so iconic that it’s easy to forget how terrific they are. Try on "The Magnificent Seven" and ask yourself whether you don’t feel like taking a quick trip over to the shooting range:
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Nobody did Westerns like Bernstein. Try "True Grit" or "Big Jake" to back that up.
In "The Great Escape," if you don’t feel like jumping a fence with Steve McQueen, you’re not doing it right:
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But he’s also capable of the most lyrical tenderness. From perhaps my favorite score, "To Kill a Mockingbird":
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He can even do comedy; remember his score from "Airplane"?
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One of my personal favorites is his jazzy New York score to "The Sweet Smell of Success":
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Oh yes – and he did "The Ten Commandments," too.
1. Jerry Goldsmith: So versatile it makes your head hurt. Try comparing the score to "Patton" with the score to "Planet of the Apes":
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Or how about "Star Trek: The Motion Picture"?
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Or how about the theme to "The Waltons"?
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Or how about "Chinatown"?
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It’s sickening that one guy wrote all these scores. Check his IMDB credits. There are dozens of more classics. And unlike many of the others on this list, when you listen to his scores, you don’t think – “Hey, that’s Goldsmith!” You just think, “Hey, that’s great!” And that’s what movie scoring is supposed to be about. Never derivative, always original.