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 change the face of the art form. In the course of doing their jobs, unsuspecting influential film composers 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 a 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.
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.
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.
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.