The Greatest Living Film Composers

Recently I couldn’t decide if I wanted to write a scathing critique focusing on the banality of the painfully quirky (500) Days of Summer or pen a love letter to The “feel good” Final Destination where we gleefully watched ridiculously good-looking and stupid young people die in unfathomably moronic and elaborate stunt-deaths — in 3D no less! — but neither film really warrants such efforts or talk.  In times like these when searching for things worthy of writing about, my thoughts turn to my blog’s old stand-by and most popular feature:  The Greatest “Blank of All Time” Lists.

I’ve toyed for quite some time with doing a list of film’s greatest cinematographers — which, by the way would look something like this:  Conrad L. Hall, Freddie Francis, Roger Deakins, Sven Nykvist, Caleb Deschanel (Zooey/Summer Finn’s accomplished father), Robert Elswit, Emmanuel Lubezki…but I digress —

— and then the random train of thought that surfing blogs engenders led me to a post on Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover over at Wonders in the Dark which in turn led me to google that film’s composer, Michael Nyman, which in turn led to the discovery of this:

This was taken from a website celebrating a 2007 art exhibition featuring the works of Arianne Douws and Ellen Vandepitte at a museum in the Sint-Amandsberg section of Ghent, Belgium.  Nyman’s aptly named “Book Depository” piece from his score for The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is used to great effect over the slide show.  Be sure to watch the whole thing — and get a load of those killer staircases and long Kubrickian hallways!  This perfectly illustrates why Nyman is possibly the greatest living film composer.  His music doesn’t need the context of film to hold meaning.  It can exist outside of the world of film on its own or be used to compliment or enhance any number of other mediums and art forms.

This, of course, brings us to my list of…

The Greatest Living Film Composers:

1.  Michael Nyman

  • Best Known For:  Coining the term “minimalism” in music and his theme to Jane Campion’s The Piano, which is world famous to people who haven’t even seen the film.
  • Essential Works:  The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; The Piano; Gattaca; Ravenous; The End of the Affair; Man on Wire (which sampled much of his past work done for Peter Greenaway)
  • Also be sure to check out his fascinating personal website, where more than just music in on display.

2.  Alexandre Desplat

  • Best Known For:  His score for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and his ability to churn out beautiful music even when he’s just doing it for the obvious paycheck–see Hostage.  Like Nyman, his music can be enjoyed completely free of film context as stand-alone modern classical music.
  • Essential Works:  Girl with a Pearl Earring, Birth, The Painted Veil, Lust Caution

3.  Carter Burwell

  • Best Known For:  His frequent collaborations with the Coen Brothers.
  • Essential Works:  Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, In Bruges

4.  Philip Glass

  • Best Known For:  His neurotic, repetitive, transcendent minimalist technique which has resulted in a style that is instantly recognizable and loved as much as it is loathed.
  • Essential Works:  Candyman, Kundun, The Hours, The Illusionist, Notes on a Scandal

5.  Angelo Badalementi

  • Best Know For:  Being the Bernard Hermann to David Lynch’s Hitchcock,
  • Essential Works:  Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, The Straight Story, A Very Long Engagement

6.  Wojciech Kilar

  • Best Known For:  His brooding, pulsing, frightfully undead score to Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is another one of those works of music you know even if you don’t realize you know it because it has been sampled so many times in movie trailers, film and TV.
  • Essential Works:  Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Portrait of a Lady, The Ninth Gate, We Own the Night

7.  Ennio Morricone

  • Best Known For:  His prolific longevity and all those classic scores for Sergio Leone.
  • Essential Works:  Undoubtedly too long to list, though some of his unsung scores include The Untouchables and The Weather Man.  Those uninitiated might find his sampled works used recently in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds a good place to start.

8.  John Williams

  • Best Known For:  His endless hit parade of instantly recognizable themes to blockbuster films from the 1970’s to today.  Unlike Michael Nyman or some of the others mentioned here, his scores are most potent and quite possibly inseparable from the context of the films for which they were composed.
  • Essential Works:  Jaws, the entire Star Wars film canon, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan,  the Harry Potter series

9.  James Horner

  • Best Known For:  The score to a little film called Titanic.  His music is often dismissed as melodramatic, derivative and too self-referential, but I think much of his work is as memorable as the best of John Williams.
  • Essential Works:  Willow, Glory, Field of Dreams, Braveheart, Titanic, The House of Sand and Fog, The New World, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

10.  Howard Shore

  • Best Known For:  His signature score to The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
  • Essential Works:  The Silence of the Lambs, Gangs of New York, Panic Room, Eastern Promises, Doubt

To the Dearly Departed:

  • Max Steiner, you set the template for what film scores could and should be and no one will ever forget the work you did on Gone With the Wind.
  • Bernard Hermann, for all those Hitchcock classics and from Welles’ Citizen Kane to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, whenever the words “psycho” or “thriller” are mentioned, your music floods our memories and sends our hearts racing.
  • Elmer Bernstein, your laundry list of classic themes are too numerous to list, but for my money, your theme for To Kill a Mockingbird might be the greatest film score of all time.

The One Hit Wonders:

  • Anton Karas for his zither-crazed score to The Third Man
  • Ry Cooder for his haunting chords in Paris, Texas
  • Jonny Greenwood for his conjuring of psychotic strings for There Will Be Blood

Written by David H. Schleicher


What’s your favorite film score or who is your favorite film composer?  Speak your mind in the comment form and let the discussions begin.


  1. Oh I could go on and on and on with this post, it is in fact dearer to my heart than anything else! I must leave the house to head into Manhattan but I will return to it. Nonetheless I will say some things now! Ha!
    Bernard Herrmann is the greatest film composer of all-time, with Steiner pushing close at #2. Miklos Rocza, Erich Korngold, Alfred Newman, Elmer Bernstein, Nono Rota, Franz Waxman, all close…..and many more…..My favorite Herrmann score against all odds is for ON DANGEROUS GROUND, a somber film noir. The score contains some of the most ravishingly beautiful music ever written for any medium. I tear up whenever I listen to it. David, you know your stuff, and this is a post for the ages in more ways than one! I really salute you for putting Nyman at #1, in fact I’m tempted to do likewise, though like you I revere Desplat, Morricone, Glass, Burwell, Horner, Killar. You have left few out. Only a few major omissions, and you’ll see that on my list of living composers:

    1 Morricone
    2 Nyman (1 and 2 are just about equal)
    3. Z. Preisner (Veronique, Red, Blue, White)
    4 Clint Mansell (The Fountain, Requiem For A Dream)
    5 Desplat
    6 Williams
    7 Glass
    8 Vig Mihaly (for Tarr–Werckmeister Harmonies, etc)
    9 Thomas Newman (Field of dreams, Fried Green Tomatoes)
    10 Patrick Doyle (Henry V, Hamlet, Sense and Sensibility)
    11 Rachel Portman (Emma, Cider House Rules)
    12 John Barry (Walkabout, Goldfinger, Dances With Wolves)
    13 Hans Zimmer (LOTR Trilogy)
    14 Horner
    15 Kilar

    Sam, ah! How could I totally forget John Barry? I thought about putting Clint Mansell on there…and it was a toss up between Hans Zimmer and Howard Shore — though I think it was Shore and not Zimmer who did LOTR — though I had thought Shore had done The Dark Knight but instead it was Zimmer! Stylistically I think the two might be interchangeable! –DHS

    • John Barry also composed the music for “Somewhere in Time” – hauntingly beautiful, and one of my favorites!

      Barry also did all those fantastic Bond themes! –DHS

  2. As always happens with such listing…a few people/things slipped my mind. Sorry, John Barry, you most certainly deserve to be in the top ten!

    And here are a few additions to The One Hit Wonders:

    Burkhard von Dallwitz for “The Truman Show”
    Nick Cave and Warren Ellis* for “The Proposition”

    *Cave and Ellis show much promise as they did a similar score later for “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” — so the term “one hit wonders” really doesn’t apply to them, but they haven’t done enough work yet to qualify for the big list.

    Also…for my list of cinematographers…Benoit Delhomme certainly would be a contender amongst the others listed. –DHS

  3. Alas, I’m not big on film composers. I mean, I can name you Morricone, Badalamenti, and Williams, but outside of that, I really couldn’t say much on the subject. I will say, though, that the only film score that I ever bought on CD was the one for Steve Soderbergh’s remake/reworking of “SOLARIS.” I like the movie, flawed though it is (and knowing that 99% of the filmgoing population hate it), but to me, the best part was the incredibly haunting score. To me, it was one of the most perfect marriages of music and film. I still hear the “SOLARIS” score popping up in trailers and commercials now and again.

    A score that my wife listens to a lot is James Newton Howard’s work for Shyamalan’s “THE VILLAGE.”

    Chris, I don’t recall the music in Solaris, but I will say that I am one of the few who found the film, at the very least, interesting. James Newton Howard is pretty good, and he also apparently did work on The Dark Knight, which just confuses the heck out of me. Will the real Dark Knight composer please stand up? –DHS

  4. To your Dearly Departed Film Composers I would add the French Film Composer Georges Delerue who frequently composed for Film Director Francois Truffaut. Delerue won the Academy Award in 1979 for “A Little Romance” and was nominated 4 more times for “Anne of the Thousand Days”, “The Day of the Dolphin” (my personal favorite), “Julia”, and “Agnes of God”.

    Delerue is a great pick as well. –DHS

  5. It has to be John Barry for me, and yes this is largely for his 60s work, Bond in particular. The images of the era that he conjures for me- cold wars, sharp suits, martinis, sportscars on the French Riviera- define the era much more so than the rock’n’roll of the period. Morricone’s 2 ‘Mondo Morricone’ CDs from the mid-90s, covering his obscure stuff for Italian trash cinema are also fantastic in a similar way.

    Brian Eno’s ‘Appollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks’ for the documentary ‘For All Mankind’ is one that I can’t live without, and I’m not sure why he hasn’t done more scoring.

    Remains to be seen whether he’ll be more than a one hitter, but Vincent Gallo’s score for Buffalo 66 is hugely atmospheric, and appropriately fragile.

    I’m also guessing that it won’t be long before Stars of The Lid start to make a mark as film scorers. Their hugely melodic piano-based driftscapes could and should be underpinning any number of movies.

    Andrew, thanks for stopping by. You make some compelling suggestions. It is interesting when rock/pop musicians turn towards film and start doing scores — Jonny Greenwood, of course, comes to mind. Also Nick Cave…even Danny Elfman. I think Muse’s “sound” is also tailor made for film. –DHS

  6. Inevitably, it was only after I posted that I remembered who also should have been included.

    Very surprised that John Carpenter hasn’t been mentioned. His chilling Halloween score is one I always skip when it’s just me, my ipod, and a lonely walk home at night. His work on The Fog and Escape From New York are also wonderfully sparse and haunting.

    Roy Budd is another that had some fantastic moments. I guess his Get Carter soundtrack is the one that stands out, but for me his melodramatic orchestral funk on 1982’s Who Dares Wins (aka The Final Option, I think) is the one- never fails to get the adrenalin pumping.

    And I like Yann Tiersen’s soundtracks too, especially the piano-based parts of Amelie and Goodbye Lenin.

    Andrew, hmmmm…interesting you bring up Carpenter. The Halloween score certainly is iconic. This in turn leads to Clint Eastwood, another director who scores his own films quite effectively. Yann Tiersen is a very good one to mention and perhaps include in an expanded list. —DHS

  7. I’d completely forgotten about Clint’s music. I suppose it’s entirely possible that he’s such a huge presence in other areas of his films that it’s easy to overlook the fact that he’s put together some wonderful scores.

    This also reminds me- Lalo Schifrin is worth a mention, if for nothing else Dirty Harry. Must say that I find him rather inconsistent overall. As an all-out excitement generator his 70s work is fantastic, but beyond that there’s not much to go back to him for.

    Yup, Clint is quite the multi-talented guy — a kind of cowboy-renaissance man. –DHS

  8. I’m surprised there’s no mention of Jon Brion and his fantastic scores in Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love. There’s also John Murphy and John Powell, the latter whom I especially admire for his much-better-than-the-movie score for Paycheck.

    Erik, Magnolia I remember more for the Aimee Mann songs…but, yes, I do recall a certain frantic energy in the score during some key scenes that was very effective. And the Punch-Drunk Love “prelude” with all those accompanying shifting colors and images from PT Anderson…also very memorable. Nice pick with Brion! I have to say I am not familiar with Murphy or Powell. –DHS

  9. Great list! I would also add Joe Hisaishi, who has done amazing work for the films of Miyazaki and Kitano, as well as many more. Also, I would add A.R. Rahman- if not just for his huge popularity and prolificness.

    Dan, Rahman won the Oscar last year for Slumdog Millionaire, didn’t he? –DHS

  10. One composer that wasn’t mentioned on the list or on anybody’s comments was the great Jerry Goldsmith.

    Kal, good catch. –DHS

  11. thank you for the nice comment on the slideshow i made o an expo i had with a good friend o mine
    again, thanks a bunch and greetz from belgium

    I am honored that you visited my blog and commented! I would’ve loved to have seen your exhibition in person. That slideshow is amazing. I could watch it over and over and never tire of it. Great job! –DHS

  12. great list but i think you missed some of my all time favourite tracks like”what must be done”by”nick cave “and”warren ellis”,jon brion’s tracks for”eternal sunshine of the spotless mind”,”death is the road to awakening”by”clint mansell”,”summer 78″and “first rendez vous”by “yann tiersen”(also the whole tracks of yann tiersen for”amelie”).there are so many others i’m going to mention some more if you liked these.

    Eve – those are all great tracks! Thanks for adding them. –DHS

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