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9 Favorite Film Composers

As I approach my 50th birthday on the 19th, I’ve naturally been taking stock of my life so far and looking back at the good, bad and the ugly over my first half century. Arguably the most consistent element among the ups and downs is my love of film music. So, in a purely selfish move to celebrate my birthday month, many of this month’s blog posts will feature elements of wonderful film music memories from my first 50 years.

This month’s “9 on the 9th” is a particularly dangerous, and ultimately foolhardy, task. Picking my favorite composers feels like asking me to pick a favorite child (if I had any) or my favorite pet. And yet here I am callously—but carefully—submitting myself to my own “Sophie’s choice.”

Each and every one of these artists has something distinctive to express. Distinctive—that’s the key word. Through their melodic and harmonic choices, rhythms and orchestrations, each of these composers has a recognizable musical voice that has brought me countless hours of pleasure over the years.

There’s no such thing as “best” here, so the list is not ranked. There are many great composers missing and this list shouldn’t be carved in stone. I reserve the right to change my mind at any time. But for now, or at least at the second I hit “publish” on this post, these are nine of my favorite film composers.

Alexandre Desplat

Somewhere between the delicacy of Georges Delerue and the exoticism of Maurice Jarre lies Alexandre Desplat. With a decidedly French flair, his orchestrations have a purity and economy that always supports the drama. From the thrilling opening of BIRTH to the heartbreaking poignancy of EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, Desplat’s music never fails to move me. I’ve never been interested in seeing certain films simply because a particular composer wrote the music. Desplat is that rare exception. I still may not rush to see his latest flick, but his name in the credits excites me more than any other of the latest generation of film composers.

Jerry Goldsmith

If you’ve been reading this site for a while or know me even slightly, then you know that Goldsmith’s THE OMEN was my first soundtrack purchase and the beginning of my love for film music. So there has been a soft spot in my heart for Jerry from the beginning. I was lucky enough to discover him at arguably his artistic peak. I also happened to be just the right age (high school) in the late ’70s to fully appreciate the kinds of films he was scoring at the time. To this day, MAGIC, COMA, CAPRICORN ONE, ALIEN, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL and STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE bring back fond memories of early discoveries of film music. As my tastes developed, I began to appreciate epic classics like PATTON and PLANET OF THE APES and masterpieces like ISLANDS IN THE STREAM that I missed during my teens. With one rousing chorus of “Ave Satani,” I’m transported back to the giddy excitement of that 14-year-old nerd alone in his room with his stereo and a stack of LPs. May I never totally lose that feeling.

Bernard Herrmann

The Prince of Darkness was also the Prince of Economy. In Bernard Herrmann’s hands, “less is more” never sounded so haunting. Herrmann never wasted time on excessive instrumental or compositional techniques. Through the simplest of melodic and harmonic figures, Herrmann’s music can conjure up the horrifying slash of a knife, the terrifying sense of vertigo, or the ghostly remnants of love for the sea. What can sometimes seem monotonous on first listen offers deeper layers of orchestral color on repeated listens. Herrmann’s refusal to play the Hollywood game cost him dearly during his lifetime. But that contentious devotion to his musical vision has resulted in music that is seemingly ageless and still sounds remarkably fresh. How? To borrow a quote from SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE: “It’s a mystery.”

Maurice Jarre

Three words—LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. If Maurice Jarre was judged on that score alone (which he often is), then he would rightfully earn a spot on my list. While I’ve always loved that particular score (and film), my true appreciation for Jarre’s gifts is fairly recent. Since researching the liner notes for TAI-PAN, I’ve immersed myself in Jarre’s entire output over the last few months. I’m even watching as many of the movies as I can find, even the awful ones. (And believe me, like all composers, Jarre has scored some dogs.) As with all composers, you start to recognize common melodic and harmonic progressions and, especially with Jarre, unique instrumental combinations that are especially his. I usually don’t like to listen to one particular composer over and over, just like I don’t want to read the same author one book after another. But one advantage of semi-total immersion is a newfound appreciation for Jarre’s unique gifts. Yup, I’m a confirmed Jarre-head. Semper fi!

Alfred Newman

If Max Steiner is the Father of Film Music, then Alfred Newman has to be its patron saint. Without Newman at the helm of the 20th Century Fox Music Department, gone would have been the man who helped foster the careers of Alex North, David Raksin, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams and many others. I’ve discussed my love for Alfred Newman, especially the peerless Newman strings, which only grows stronger. Newman’s music speaks to me on a different level than any other film composer. For me, works like THE SONG OF BERNADETTE and THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK demand my attention on a deeper level. Because of Newman’s prowess on the podium, his music never sounds quite right in a rerecording. Not even the great Charles Gerhardt could do him justice, though he comes the closest. Alfred Newman was more than a composer. He was an administrator, mentor, consummate musician, and if I had to pick a single film composer, my favorite.

Alex North

I would call Alex North the “thinking man’s film composer.” Cerebral yet full of emotion, North doesn’t appeal to general film music fans for some reason. Yes, his harmonic language and his use of the orchestra is often harsh. If you’re looking for film music to vacuum by, this isn’t it. North’s music is complex but oh so rewarding. From the bluesy seediness of STREETCAR to the pomp of CLEOPATRA and the lush love theme from SPARTACUS, North’s music always provides a welcome cleansing of the palette. It’s often a challenge but oh so worth the effort.

Max Steiner

Sentimental, old fashioned, wall-to-wall, Mickey Mousing… In the hands of a master like Max Steiner, those derogatory terms (all of which have been rightly leveled at the composer at one time or another) become film music gold. Consider that the Father of Film Music and his contemporaries were making up the rules of modern film scoring as they went along and a new appreciation for what he accomplished starts to take hold. For me, Steiner’s music brings back childhood memories of watching old Bette Davis and Joan Crawford films on TV in those prehistoric days before cable, VCRs, DVD and Blu-ray players and streaming. Whether it’s the sweeping grandeur of Tara, the mute innocence of Johnny Belinda or the Moroccan-inspired drama in Casablanca, as time goes by my awe of Steiner’s gifts continues to grow. An effortless melodist and a superb dramatist, Max Steiner simply means “film music”.

Franz Waxman

Like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the music of Franz Waxman for me always brings a hint of European flair and a whiff of the old country. Whether it’s the Straussian strains of SUNSET BOULEVARD or the Cossack energy of TARAS BULBA, the Gothic sweep of REBECCA or even PEYTON PLACE’s small town America, Waxman seemed at home in any genre, in any locale. Nestled in between Bowling for Dollars and the soaps, afternoon movies introduced me to Waxman’s music even before I knew what film music was. If you’re looking for a Golden Age composer to explore, Waxman makes a great introduction to the style without all the attendant baggage that goes with that branch of the genre.

John Williams

The man who sealed the deal when it came to my love of film music. The one-two punch of STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS in 1977 still blows my mind 35 years later. John Williams is arguably the most successful film composer of all time and certainly the most consistent in terms of quality and A-list projects. That relationship with Spielberg sure hasn’t hurt any. Even when the films aren’t up to snuff, Williams’s contribution always raises their profile. Through his tenure at the Boston Pops and other outlets, Williams became an ambassador for film music around the world, a mantle that has spread far and wide with new generations of composers in this digital age. His command of composition and the orchestra is unparalleled. Williams is often held up as the standard by which all contemporary film music should be based, which isn’t fair to the legions of other composers making their mark with their own voices. But it’s difficult not to make the comparison. Williams has made some mistakes along the way. Oddly enough, even film music royalty is only human. But oh what glorious mistakes.

Who are your favorite film composers?

About Jim Lochner

Jim has been writing about film music for over a decade. He holds a Bachelor of Music from The University of Texas at Arlington and a Master of Music from The University of Texas (Austin), both in Clarinet Performance. He has written soundtrack CD liner notes for Intrada, Varèse Sarabande Records, Film Score Monthly, La-La Land Records and Disques Cinemusique. Jim has been a bimonthly guest on BBC-Kent’s Drive Home at the Movies radio program and has been interviewed by a number of online and print outlets, including The Toronto Globe and Mail and the Los Angeles Times. Jim served as the managing editor of Film Score Monthly Online (FSMOnlineMag.com) and is currently writing a book on Charlie Chaplin's film music. For more information, visit JimLochner.com.

12 comments

  1. +Dimitri Tiomkin- his sense of drama (if you love his music) made him a master of the 1950s hollywood film. It was the Russian in him.
    +Alex North-compare the beauty of the campfire scene with the maneuvering armies battle scenes that follow in Spartacus and you have the essence of North.
    +Jerry Goldsmith is like saying Lincoln is you favorite president, but he has to be on the list.
    +Bernard Herrmann- I love his music even when, as you say, there does not seem to be much there.
    +Herbert Stotehart- I had to add this over-looked sweetheart of a composer. Can you think of Wizard of Oz without his music?
    Thomas Newman- Americana at its best may be too narrow of view, but there it is.
    Korngold-so many good scores; so many bad movies.
    Maurice Jarre- I have grown to appreciate him more and more once I looked beyond Lawrence and Zhivago.
    Hans Zimmer- To my old-school surprise, I love Thin Red Line and Black Hawk Down, and am delighted by Sherlock Holmes I.
    To round out my ten: George Delarue. Never get tired of Jules et Jim.

  2. I’m going to try and leave out my favorites that you’ve already mentioned. Here goes:

    1. ELMER BERNSTEIN – The man and his music sealed my preoccupation with film scores at a very young age. The DOT LPs of THE 10 COMMANDMENTS were my prize possession when I was just a kid. One brilliant score after another followed: THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, WALK ON THE WILD SIDE, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE GREAT ESCAPE, HAWAII and on and on and on.

    2. MIKLOS ROZSA – King of the spectacles: BEN-HUR, EL CID, QUO VADIS, KING OF KINGS. I was, and still am, completely blown away by all his work!

    3. JEROME MOROSS – THE BIG COUNTRY is the definitive American movie score, a personal anthem for me – add to that the wonderful TV theme for WAGON TRAIN!

    4. NINO ROTA – Heavenly movie music: LA STRADA, LA DOLCE VITA, FELLINI CASANOVA, THE LEOPARD, ROMEO AND JULIET, THE GODFATHER – to hear them is to love them.

    5. HENRY MANCINI – A pop icon for the movies, but an extraordinary film composer for so many other reasons: BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, HATARI!, THE MOLLY MAGUIRES, LIFEFORCE, VICTOR VICTORIA.

    6 MICHEL LEGRAND – A man with masterpieces: THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG and THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT; a genius of melody.

    7. JOHN BARRY – Born to make movie music – and with dynamic versatility: JAMES BOND, THE LION IN WINTER and BORN FREE are only the tip of the iceberg.

    8. ENNIO MORRICONE – a prolific force of nature when it comes to making movie music: THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY and METTI UNA SERA A CENA to ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and THE MISSION, his talent seems endless.

    9. LALO SCHIFRIN – A total talent whose scores include some real gems: COOL HAND LUKE, BULLITT and THE CINCINATI KID.

    Honorable mentions go to:
    GEORGE DUNING – The musical hero of Columbia, famous for PICNIC, but one of screen music’s great talents,
    and
    ANDRE PREVIN – Jazzman and classicist – one of the coolest film composers ever!

  3. In order of the numer of albums of their work that I own and the first album I bought (as far as I can recall):

    1. Jerry Goldsmith (First Contact)
    2. John Williams (Star Wars)
    3. Bernard Herrmann (Vertigo)
    4. Howard Shore (Fellowship fo the Ring)
    5. Danny Elfman (Beetlejuice)
    6. Elmer Bernstein (Age of Innocence)
    7. Alan Silvestri (Mouse Hunt)
    8. Michael Giacchino (Ratatouille)
    9. Max Steiner (King Kong)

  4. -Bear McCreary
    -Bernard Herrmann
    -Danny Elfman
    -Ennio Morricone (for me, it all started with Once Upon a Time in the West)
    -Howard Shore
    -James Newton Howard
    -Jerry Goldsmith
    -John Powell
    -John Williams (my favorite, by far)
    -Michael Giacchino

    • Oops, it seems I can’t count and included 10!
      Here is my updated list:
      -Bear McCreary
      -Bernard Herrmann
      -Danny Elfman
      -Ennio Morricone (for me, it all started with Once Upon a Time in the West)
      -Howard Shore
      -Jerry Goldsmith
      -John Powell
      -John Williams (my favorite, by far)
      -Michael Giacchino

  5. This is a GREAT list, but too short. IT is NOT possible to limit the list to just nine. To this list, I would add Tiomkin, Horner, Shore, Elfman, Giacchino and Newton Howard. The original list of nine plus these six means that there are at least 15 favorites…oh well, my math is not good. :)

  6. Nice list, and I have to say I love all those composers. Here are a couple who would definitely have been on my list:

    Danny Elfman–it’s obvious that I would list that, as he’s probably one of the most well-known, but when you take a step back and look at what beautiful work he’s done on film (Edward Scissorhands, Batman, Nightmare Before Christmas) as well as television (The Simpsons, Desperate Housewives), he’s really an astonishingly accomplished man.

    Joe Hisaishi–this man might have even taken the top spot for me. Rethink scores of animation with anime masterpieces like Ponyo, Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and so many others. This man, along with Elfman’s Nightmare Before Christmas, essentially introduced me to film music with his score of Howl’s Moving Castle. I was as enraptured with the music as I was the film!

    I enjoyed your insights as always.

  7. How could you forget Michael Giacchino? I mean, Danny Elfman (fav: Big Fish) and Don Davis (fav: The Matrix), I think I’ll probably always consider Giacchino tops for one reason and one reason alone: almost 90 hours of film music on LOST.

    Seriously, TV is an unappreciated medium.

    Also, Murray Gold: a breath of life in the revived Doctor Who.

  8. Favorite motion picture composers (couldn’t narrow it to less than 15!) in no particular order:
    Alex North
    Bernard Herrmann
    Hugo Friedhofer
    Miklos Rozsa
    Franz Waxman
    Dimitri Tiomkin
    Max Steiner
    Alfred Newman
    Jerry Goldsmith
    Elmer Bernstein
    Roy Webb
    Leigh Harline
    Leith Stevens
    Bronislau Kaper
    Erich Wolfgang Korngold

    (and all have left the building…)

  9. Nice list!

    Here’s my current top 9:
    1. James Horner
    2. Jerry Goldsmith
    3. John Williams
    4. Hans Zimmer
    5. Miklos Rozsa
    6. James Newton Howard
    7. Danny Elfman
    8. Christopher Young
    9. Don Davis

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