9 Most Influential Film Composers

Every film composer brings his or her talent to a project. They carve out a career path for themselves in which they (hopefully) can make a living through the art and craft of creating music.

But some film composers change the face of the art form. In the course of doing their jobs, they leave a lasting impression on the industry that reaches far beyond a fan’s favorite score or film.

The list below contains an alphabetized list of what I consider to be the most influential film composers. These are not necessarily my favorite composers, though I don’t think you can quibble about the high level of quality in their music. Instead, these are the composers whose work has altered the film music landscape.

 

Bernard Herrmann

Outside of his work with Hitchcock, Benny’s temper arguably may have kept him from getting some of the more high-profile assignments over the years. But when he arrived in Hollywood in 1941 with CITIZEN KANE, his short rhythmic and melodic cells and odd instrumental combinations were the antithesis of the long-lined, string-focused lushness of most film scores of the period. Sure, Herrmann could employ the traditional techniques as well as any other Golden Age composer. Just listen to THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, for example. But even when bowing to period conventions, Herrmann’s distinctive voice still shines through. A major influence on numerous later film composers, every horror score owes a debt to not only PSYCHO, but Herrmann’s unique, dark vision.

Alan Menken

The Disney “sound” was set in stone decades before Menken changed the face of animated film scoring with THE LITTLE MERMAID in 1989. Such early Disney pioneers as Leigh Harline, Paul J. Smith, Oliver Wallace, Edward Plumb and Frank Churchill, carved out a unique style of scoring animation that built on fellow contemporaries like Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley, yet sounded distinctly their own. Along with the genius of lyricist Howard Ashman, Menken took a dying genre—the animated film—and added some Broadway razzamatazz. Utilizing Ashman’s clever wordplay and Menken’s seemingly effortless gift of melody, animated films incorporated production numbers worthy of the Great White Way. Fledgling animation arms of other major studios tried to copy the Menken formula, usually with lesser results. The later global successes of Disney Theatrical’s live stage productions are a direct result of Menken’s influence.

Ennio Morricone

Arguably the most prolific film composer still working today, Morricone’s influence on international cinema continues to this day. His unique sound for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns have been copied, homaged and parodied for nearly 50 years. While his effect on American film music has been minimal, outside of the homage/parody route, Morricone has done more for Italian film and the rise of international film music than probably any other composer. Without Morricone’s unique sound, I don’t know what Quentin Tarrantino would do.

Alfred Newman

Alfred Newman may not be as easily hummable as Max Steiner or have a style as readily identifiable as Bernard Herrmann, but Newman’s influence goes far beyond his prodigious compositional gifts. The winner of nine Academy Awards, more than any other musician, Newman was certainly appreciated and honored for his musicianship during his lifetime. On the podium, Newman had no equal and the sound of the 20th Century Fox orchestra is as distinctive as that of MGM, Warner Bros. or any of the other major studios. But Newman’s greatest influence came as the head of the Music Department of Fox.  Newman nurtured, mentored and molded the careers of young composers like Alex North, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. While Newman’s film scores are prime examples of Golden Age film music, especially in his distinctive string sound, it is his effect on later generations of film composers that is still felt today.

Alex North

With A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Alex North incorporated jazz into a dramatic film score for the first time. But more importantly, he brought a fresh American contemporary sound to film music that was a 180-degree turn from the Romantic, mittel European sounds of the first two decades of film music. North’s biting harmonies and often unique instrumentations paved the way for contemporaries like Leonard Rosenman and André Previn, and opened the door for more experimental harmonic and orchestrations for later generations of American composers.

David Raksin and Elmer Bernstein

Okay, so I cheated a bit on this one by including two composers. Raksin’s theme from LAURA is deservedly a standard but his studies with Arnold Schoenberg gave his music an modern twist and thorny harmonic language that often couldn’t be easily pegged into the Hollywood sound. In addition, his political troubles in the 1950s with HUAC branded him an outsider and he rarely got the A-list opportunities he so richly deserved. Bernstein, on the other hand, was the ultimate film music chameleon, comfortable in any genre—Western, jazz, epic, comedy, drama. Raksin and Bernstein are listed here more for their long-lasting effects as educators rather than composers. Through their decades at USC, Raksin and Bernstein taught generations of composer the art and craft of film scoring technique, and film music history is far richer for it.

Max Steiner

No list of influential peeps would be complete without “The Father of Film Music.” If you subscribe to the theory that KING KONG is the first modern film score in the sound era, then Max’s techniques are the rather large footprint that his contemporaries and future generations have had to follow and build from. His prodigious melodic gifts and his (sometimes over-)reliance on recognizable tunes allowed audiences in the new sound era to connect quickly with character, emotion and locale. From the use of click track to his pioneering use of underscoring, there is no overstating Steiner’s legacy.

John Williams

From JAWS to STAR WARS, Indiana Jones to SUPERMAN, no living film composer is more recognizable to the general public. His music has become part of pop culture, almost to the point of over-saturation. But perhaps Williams’s most lasting effect on film music, at least to the masses, comes from his place on the podium as the principal conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra. When Williams took over for the beloved Arthur Fiedler in 1980, he already had three Oscars under his belt. In Pops concerts, he continued Fiedler’s legacy while incorporating more and more film music into the programs (much to the derision of many critics who thought the focus was too squarely on Williams’s own output). Audiences in person and on television were now exposed to more film music than ever before. Williams laid the groundwork for more orchestras across the globe to program and devote entire concerts to film music. Out of that springs live-to-picture performances and other concerts we fans now often take for granted. Yes, Williams’s music will live on long after most of us reading this post are gone. But bringing film music to the huddled and classical masses, that is arguably his most important contribution to the field of film music.

Hans Zimmer

No film composer has had a greater impact on 21st century film music than Hans Zimmer. Through his Remote Control company, Zimmer trains a legion of up and coming composers the art and craft of film music. For all the valid points against the system, the fact that such a company even exists should be applauded. Yes, Zimmer & Co. seem to score a large part of the major releases each year. And, yes, many of the “clones” have earned that derisive moniker. But Zimmer has captured a style that appeals to today’s filmmakers, a style that will continue into the foreseeable future until something else comes along to take its place. For now—for better or worse, depending on who you ask—Zimmer is here to stay. And no matter how much you may love or hate the clones, nobody sounds quite like Zimmer. Close, but never the cigar.

 

Who do you think are the most influential film composers?

18 comments

  1. I LOVE that you included Hans Zimmer and Remote Control on this list! I think we’re starting to hear individual voices coming out of that studio these days (Henry Jackman, for example) as opposed to the legion of clone scores we were getting in the oughts. Hans has truly carved his own niche in the industry, and it could be argued that he is among the best when it comes to “screen sense” as he calls it. Great article Jim!

  2. Interesting list, but no love for John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith or James Horner?

  3. An excellent list. I do NOT know if the following composers are influential or not, but I would add Alexander Desplat, Howard Shore, Danny Elfman and James Horner. They each have a distictive voice and I believe have had an influence on film music.

  4. There’s plenty of love on my end for Barry, Goldsmith, Desplat, Elfman, Shore and others. All of them have rich, distinctive voices. Probably a case could be made for each of them on this list. But I would argue that none of them, not even Goldsmith, have had the influence on film music in general like the guys above. Feel free to prove me wrong. :)

  5. I would say that Barry did have an influence on a certain sound. He is still channeled by other composers, he reinvented action music with his James Bond scores earlier in the age.

    Great post. And you are quite right in your assessments.

  6. Tiomkin for integration of songs into scores? Not just the fact that in High Noon and Gunfight at the OK Corral the song tell a story, but the use of songs to enhance the mood beyond the main titles. In other films his songs were not quite so integral, but still often effective. Even when used in the titles, like Friendly Persuasion.

    Of course, the influence was not always to the good. For me the difference of good and bad use of songs is the appallingly bad song for Separate Tables, ruining a David Raksin score.

  7. Actually, I agree with the list as presented.
    Would perhaps have added Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose work inspired Williams no doubt, which I believe he himself has acknowledged, but otherwise, I have no problem, no problem at all. Am a native Texan, by the way, big film buff AND film music buff as well. Could add a footnote or two to that, but may email you at a later date. Like your site very much.

  8. Korngold is the only one I would really argue for his inclusion to this list.

    Desplat is good, but no where near as influential as the other guys. Howard Shore is fantastic, but he has carved a niche as the guy who does something different with practically every job. He’s the Daniel Day-Lewis of composers. He’s not setting any trends or standards. Danny Elfman… meh.

    John Barry and Goldsmith are contemporaries and of a similar mold as Williams, but not nearly as influential across the spectrum of the genre.

    James Horner? Really? REALLY?

    As for Zimmer I would argue he’s way more creative than Horner, though again, we’re talking about a guy who likes certain motifs and sticks with them. But if you’re talking influence, holy crap yes. He’s changed the face of film scoring since Gladiator. When you want bombast, dude’s your man.

  9. great article!
    my favorite film composers are —
    Hauschka
    Ryuichi Sakamoto
    Mihaly Vig
    Kenji Kawai

  10. Besides the great music for ” The Big Country” Jerome Moross’ other scores are incredible, The Cardninal, The Jayhawkers, Close Up,The Valley of Gwanji , The War Lord, The Mountain Road

  11. I agree with Michael Levine about adding THOMAS NEWMAN (Alfred Newman’s son) to your list. He may not have won an Academy Award yet, but “10” of his films have been nominated for best original music score since 1995, and that year he had “two” films nominated. If anyone has influenced film music of the 20th and 21st centuries, it is Thomas Newman — even more so than Hans Zimmer. He brought a completely new style of music to film that others have tried (often unsuccessfully) to emulate — Road to Perdition, Meet Joe Black, Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Skyfall, The Good German, Unstrung Heroes, American Beauty, Little Women, How to Make An American Quilt, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and Lemony Snicket … to name a few. His body of work speaks for itself.

    1. Thomas Newman is a great composer and one of my favorites certainly. But as for influential, I don’t know about that. He’s got a couple of distinctive styles, which certainly sets him way above the run of the mill film composers today, but I don’t see where those styles have influenced others or certain genres.

  12. “The most influential” is a rather vague notion to me. In this kind of forum I practically never meet the name of Michel Legrand. That’s normal, being French he’s probably not well known in the States, but he won 3 Academy Awards and many people surely know “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Summer of ’42”. He makes part of my personal 3 favorite film composers, alongside Henry Mancini and Lalo Schifrin (I couldn’t choose the right order). Inventive as hell, rich, subtle and much more complex than it could seem, Legrand is a giant. Another great one is Quincy Jones, in spite of few music scores: “In Cold Blood” is a jewel, such as “In the Heat of the Night” and the splendid “Love Theme” from “The Getaway”. I also particularly love Ennio Morricone (maybe my 4th man), Elmer Bernstein, Bernard Herrmann, Burt Bacharach (whose music always gives me joy, like Neal Hefti’s) and many others, Hefti included. Here, Bacharach could be considered an “influential” composer, depending on the meaning of the word. Everybody all over the world knows “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” as well as Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme” or “Peter Gunn”, Morricone’s “Man with a Harmonica” or “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, Bernstein’s “The Magnificent Seven” and many more. All those songs are as much popular as “Yesterday” or “Michelle”; in such an optic their authors could be regarded as “influential” composers.
    Once again, all that is subjective, just my point of view. Nice topic.
    Friendly greetings from Switzerland.

    1. Greetings from NYC, Didier. Count me among the Legrand admirers. In fact, I’ve written liner notes for a couple of recent releases of his on Intrada (The Other Side of Midnight and Summer of ’42/The Picasso Summer). And you’re right, “influential” is a relative term and everybody has different views on it anyway. Thanks for sharing yours.

      1. Hi Jim, many thanks for your kind reply.
        Very best wishes to you and a special thought to New York City, my fetish city since always.

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