Though film is primarily thought of as a medium for telling a story through acting, music plays a significant role in the way that movies affect their viewers. One gratifying music industry profession is that of a film composer - a professional responsible for captivating audiences through sound and adding a deeper element to the emotions that viewers experience as they watch a story unfold on screen.
Listed below are five modern film composers who stand out by doing exactly that.
1. John Williams
John Williams’ work as a composer has included some of the most iconic scores in the history of film. Born in New York City in 1932, Williams is a Julliard-trained jazz pianist who worked as a movie studio musician before pursuing a career as a film composer. Over the course of 50 years, he has written music for over 100 movies, with some of the most notable being Jaws, the Indiana Jones films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, Home Alone, and the Star Wars films.
He has been nominated for 50 Academy Awards, of which he won five, for the movies Fiddler on the Roof, Jaws, Star Wars, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Schindler’s List. Arguably the most famous modern American film composer today, Williams’ style is identifiable by his loyalty to full-bodied symphonic music in an age when synthesizers and electronic elements are more popular than ever.
2. Danny Elfman
A musician who never received formal musical training, Danny Elfman began his career by composing the score for his brother Richard’s film, The Forbidden Zone. Prior to embarking on his career in music composition, Elfman studied the musical styles of African countries, particularly Mali and Ghana. His exuberant melodies and quirky style caught the attention of eccentric director Tim Burton in the mid-1980s, with whom he first collaborated when he developed the score for the movie Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which starred Paul Reubens.
This led to further work writing music for all but two of Burton’s films, including Beetlejuice, Batman, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sleepy Hollow, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. His composition style is influenced by an early exposure to jazz, classical, blues, pop, and international music.
Though he’s known for his unconventionality, he also has shown himself to be adept at developing more classical scores. His more classically-influenced scores can be seen in his contributions to Academy Award-winning movies like Good Will Hunting, Silver Linings Playbook, and Milk.
3. Hans Zimmer
Like the aforementioned Danny Elfman, legendary German-born composer Hans Zimmer did not receive any early formal instruction in music. The self-taught musician was particularly drawn to the electronic synthesizer and piano as a young man. He began his career in music as keyboardist for a band named The Buggles, famously known as the group behind the first music video ever featured on MTV, “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
His first work in film was with the director Stanley Myers, with whom he founded a recording studio in London in the 1980s. After working on various critically-acclaimed movie scores, he received his first Academy Award nomination in 1988 for composing the score to Rain Man, starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman.
Since this first nomination, Zimmer has received an additional eight Academy Award nods, with one win for his work as composer of The Lion King soundtrack. He has also written the score for blockbuster films such as Interstellar, Inception, Sherlock Holmes, The Last Samurai, and Gladiator. Most experts in the industry describe his style as an innovative hybrid of musical genres, with a heavy rock and roll influence.
4. Thomas Newman
For Thomas Newman, becoming a film composer was seemingly a birthright; his father was nine-time Academy Award-winning composer Alfred Newman, the man behind the sound of iconic 20th-century films like The King and I, The Mark of Zorro, and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Thomas Newman took lessons in piano and violin as a child, and would later go on to receive his masters in music from Yale University. He earned his first major Hollywood film position supporting John Williams as he recorded the score for the Star Wars film Return of the Jedi.
After regular work as a film composer in his own right for the rest of the 1980s, Newman earned the first of 14 current Academy Award nominations for the music he wrote for The Shawshank Redemption. He has since worked as a composer on a wide range of films, including dramas like American Beauty and Road to Perdition as well as family films like Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and Saving Mr. Banks.
Additionally, he wrote the score for the Sam Mendes-helmed James Bond movie Skyfall. Newman’s compositional style is considered bold and diverse, with heavy rhythms made up of sweeping orchestral music combined with electronic elements as well as solo piano.
5. Ennio Morricone
The most prolific and experienced of all composers on this list, Italian composer Ennio Morricone is, in the opinion of film music historians, singlehandedly responsible for the invention of the musical style that characterizes classic American western films. Having worked on over 500 films in his six-decade career, Morricone is a versatile composer who has created music in nearly every genre. However, his legacy as the creator of the “spaghetti western” sound is the one that changed film history.
He studied music in Rome as a child, worked as a jazz trumpeter as a young man, and eventually teamed up with director Sergio Leone to create the scores for the Clint Eastwood films A Fistful of Dollars; The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly; and Once Upon a Time in the West. One of his most recent notable works in contemporary western film was the 2015 Quentin Tarantino movie The Hateful Eight, for which he won the first Oscar of his career.
His strength as a composer lies in his ability to combine diverse instruments and styles into a single piece, drawing from a wide range of genres, including jazz, avant-garde, Italian, rock, and electronic music.