I once heard a TV producer claim that, and I quote, “the composer is there to sort out scenes where the writer has fucked up”. There is an element of truth in that and for me the music in a film can really enhance the emotive experience.
As a lover of classical music anyway the compositions involved in the score can be stand alone pieces in their own right and add so much more power to what is happening on screen. Often directors tend to work with the same composer and there must be a reason for that in that the director feels that composer understands their work and can only enhance it.
I cannot emphasise enough that this is my personal top 10 and in no way a claim to be the 10 best composers in the history of cinema. As someone approaching 30 I have far less experience and knowledge of earlier cinema and if I was 30 years older then I am sure this list would be different. This is basically the 10 composers whose film scores have consistently enhanced the power of my personal experiences of films through the non diagetic music. The scores they have composed are both memorable film experiences and beautiful music that anyone who loves classical music or film music will hopefully appreciate. The scores of theirs that I recommend are not necessarily ‘their best’ but the ones that I personally regard as their most memorable.
1. Ennio Morricone
No other composer has helped to unleash the power of music in film over my experiences of watching films than Ennio Morricone. His music is so influential and timeless that films still often use his old compositions. He has composed 100s of film scores that are both diverse and the pure emotion can be understood without even seeing the film. From the distinctive twangs of his spaghetti western scores to the dramatic orchestra of the blockbuster scores, he covered everything. Scores such as Cinema Paradiso and The Mission feel incredibly personal to who is listening encapsulating so many emotions. For Once Upon a Time in the West he actually composed the music for the more emotional scenes first and then director Sergio Leone had Morricone’s music playing while the scenes were filmed, enough said really.
Standout scores: Once Upon a Time in the West, Cinema Paradiso, Once Upon a Time in America, The Mission, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, A fistful of Dynamite, The Untouchables
2. Hans Zimmer
Prolific and diverse, sometimes a composer can be there to set the emotional tone when the script and director fail miserably and Hans Zimmer has a history of that. His dramatic and epic scores for average films like Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, King Arthur, Pirates of the Caribbean 3 & 4, Pearl Harbour and Hannibal were almost wasted on those particular films and almost work better as standalone pieces of music. There is no doubting his music can be loud and over powering at times, almost dominating the film, but the powerful drums and strings of The Dark Knight Trilogy (the first two films with James Newton Howard), Man of Steel and Inception are a perfect fit for those films. Some of the darker chords in those scores truly encapsulate the spirit of those films and the character of Batman. There is far more to him than that though with the sinister choral arrangements of Hannibal, the intimate strings of The Lion King, the epic sounds of Gladiator and The Last Samurai, the quirky strings of Sherlock Holmes, the subtle but effective orchestration of Frost/Nixon or the meditational and reflective notes of The Thin Red Line. He is a truly talented composer and his soundtracks play a huge role in my music listening life.
Standout scores: Gladiator, The Thin Red Line, King Arthur, Hannibal, The Dark Knight Rises, The Lion King, The Last Samurai, Batman Begins, Angels & Demons, The Dark Knight, Frost/Nixon, The Da Vinci Code, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
3. Angelo Badelamenti
In film there are often composer/director partnerships and Badelamenti and David Lynch are a perfect example of this; their unique styles complement each other. The dark but strangely beautiful melodies in Twin Peaks, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive enhancing the rich striking atmosphere created by David Lynch. Away from Lynch films Badelamenti uniquely atmospheric sounds provide effective setting the mood for films such as The Beach (which was otherwise rubbish) and 44 Inch Chest.
Standout scores: Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, 44 Inch Chest, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, The Beach, The Straight Story, Wild at Heart, A Very Long Engagement
4. Howard Shore
The sheer beauty of his scores for Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit goes without saying as they are majestic pieces of music and one of the finest film scores ever composed. However there is far more rich diversity to Howard Shore than that. Shore has been the composer of choice for Cronenberg and Scorsese for the last twenty or so years, and has produced for their films some rich, diverse and truly memorable scores.
Standout scores: The Lord of The Rings, The Hobbit, Se7en, Crash, The Aviator, Spider, Gangs of New York
5. John Williams
The composer for pretty much every Spielberg film, Williams (maybe partly down to being from an older generation) has a much more traditionally classical approach to his film scores, and has composed some of the most memorable riffs of all time. Even if you are not a huge film fan you will be familiar with the themes from Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, Superman and Jaws to name a few. Not only are they scores that manage to perfectly capture a diverse variation of emotions, they are technically astounding stand alone music compositions.
Standout scores: Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, Munich, The Star Wars Saga, The Indiana Jones films, War Horse, The Towering Inferno, Lincoln, Minority Report
6. Clint Mansell
Though perhaps not as much of a household name compared to Morricone, Zimmer or Williams; Clint Mansell has composed a diverse range of scores to some of my favourite ever films. A regular composer to Darren Aronofsky; Mansell’s score to Requiem for a Dream (my favourite film of all time) is simply breathtaking and very much a character of its own within the narrative. His score for Aronofsky’s The Fountain is beautifully intimate and at times suitably epic in feel. For Black Swan Mansell perfectly incorporated Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet into a melodically dramatic but also subtly sinister score. His suitably atmospheric score to Duncan Jones’ Moon is a thing of incredible beauty adding to so much emotional and atmospheric involvement to the film.
Standout scores: Requiem for a Dream, Pi, Moon, The Fountain, Stoker, Black Swan, Sahara, Murder by Numbers
7. Danny Elfman
Many directors collaborate with the same composers for their films and Elfman often composes for Tim Burton and their unique styles complement each other. Elfman is a composer who can create distinctively sinister and yet strikingly beautiful fairytale-like scores such as Edward Scissorhands or Alice in Wonderland, but also epic and dramatic scores for Hollywood blockbusters such as Batman and Spider-Man.
Standout scores: Edward Scissorhands, Batman, Alice in Wonderland, Spider-Man, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas
Though not as prolific as some other film composers, for me Vangelis has composed some of the most memorable and uniquely distinctive film scores of all time. It would be impossible to imagine Blade Runner without his atmospheric synthesised score, and of course we all know Chariots of Fire. His subtle score to Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon is as suitably atmospheric as his score to Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise is epic. His score to Oliver Stone’s critically slated Alexander is also a beautiful and melodic score with so much emotional depth. As one of my favourite composers, I own many of Vangelis’ artist albums and many of these compositions would be perfectly suited to being film scores, but when he does have a go at a film score the results are often memorable.
Standout scores: Blade Runner, Bitter Moon, Chariots of Fire, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Alexander
9. James Horner
His Oscar winning score for Titanic is one of the most well known of all time, and in my view the best thing about the film. His music to Avatar is perfectly fitting to the visual beauty of that film, while with Braveheart and Troy he composed epic and rousing music perfectly. The director’s cut of Troy in particular shows off his fantastic score. As a regular composer to Ron Howard, his scores for A Beautiful Mind, The Missing and Apollo 13 were fantastically and appropriately orchestrated. My personal favourite of Horner’s is The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, a beautiful score with subtle and gentle melodies combined with sinister darker chords when fitting with the tragic developments of the film’s narrative.
Standout scores: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Troy, Avatar, The Amazing Spider-Man, Braveheart, A Beautiful Mind, Titanic, The Missing, Apollo 13, Aliens, Titanic, Enemy at the Gates
10. Bernard Herrmann
A composer that could have surely composed further great scores had he not died at only 64, Hermann composed some unforgettable and distinctive music for some all time classic films. His technically magnificent and revolutionary score for Vertigo complements the vision of his regular collaborator Alfred Hitchcock and captures the psychological torment experienced by James Stewart’s Scottie. In his other unique and unforgettable scores the low key saxophone encapsulating perfectly the alienation and inner turmoil of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and in Psycho he composed perhaps the most famous pieces of film music of all time.
Standout scores: Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver, North by Northwest, Psycho, Cape Fear