Maestro!: Nine Movie Composers to Know

Genevieve Valentine’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, and anthologies Federations, Teeth, and Running with the Pack. Her first novel is forthcoming from Prime. She is a columnist at Fantasy Magazine and, and writes about movies of questionable taste on her blog.

So, I am a writer and a movie nerd. These go together, largely because the sound of a keyboard in an empty room tends to freak me out. (I’ve watched too many horror movies.)

On the other hand, if I actually put on a movie, I will never get anything done (for the rest of my entire life).

Enter the movie scores!

By now, everyone who has seen Inception has seen this (and if you haven’t, for goodness’ sake don’t click!):

Spoiler-free description: it’s an example of a great composer at the top of his craft, pushing a movie moment over the edge from solid to sublime.

For those looking to boost their music libraries, I lined up nine awesome composers in no particular order. Most of them have done science fiction or fantasy movies; a few haven’t. All of them have at least one or two not-so-hot movies under their belts. (Luckily, the double-edged Sword of Credit means that while they don’t get enough praise for magnificent work, no one ever looks at Howard Shore and says, “That guy sunk The Cell.”) All of them are well worth listening to if you’re looking for a little inspiration.

Hans Zimmer
The grand master. Composer of well over 100 soundtracks, from A League of Their Own to The Thin Red Line. Gladiator (with Lisa Gerrard) pushed him to superstardom, and he’s been knocking them out of the park since. Teamed up with James Newton Howard for Batman Begins, one of the strongest film scores of the last ten years. (Composing for movies is like living in a small town, I guess.)

Must-listen: “Hunger,” Black Hawk Down, a movie in six minutes.
Runner-up: “Vide Cor Meum,” Hannibal. Co-written by Patrick Cassidy, who apparently wrote an entire opera just to give context for the one track. (You gotta love composers.)

Howard Shore

Composer of The Lord of the Rings. Also a lot of other movies that are not The Lord of the Rings, as well as The Lord of the Rings. Like a lot of composers, his material runs the gamut, but he’s a living example of a project coming to define a composer’s career, like with Howard Shore and The Lord of the Rings.

Must-listen: “eXistenZ by Antenna,” eXistenZ. The sort of creepiness the movie required, but with enough proto-LOTR sensibility that you’d recognize him at a hundred paces.
Runner-up: “The End of All Things,” The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Literally epic.

Ryuichi Sakamoto

Renaissance man Sakamoto seems like the sort of person who has to make music or the day just isn’t full. A chart-topping classical and electropop musician with a decades-long career racking up more than two dozen albums, he also won the Academy Award for scoring The Last Emperor, one of thirty-something film scores he’s written in what we can only assume were a few weekends of free time when he was just kicking around.

Must-listen: “Main Title,” Wuthering Heights
Runner-up: “Raga Naiki Kanhra / The trial,” Little Buddha

Harry Gregson-Williams

This longtime movie composer made a seamless move to videogames, where he’s done some of his best work scoring Metal Gear Solid. It probably helps his VG stuff that he seems to love action scenes like few other composers do and flavors a lot of his pieces with techno elements. (On a completely different track, he’s recently become a Disney darling, scoring the Narnia series and Prince of Persia. You keep ’em guessing!)

Must-listen: “Main Theme,” Metal Gear Solid III
Runner-up: “Training Montage,” Spy Game

Michael Nyman

This workhorse seems to prefer mainstream movies and period pieces to spec flicks (his work includes The Piano, The Libertine, and The End of the Affair.) But when he dabbles in science fiction, as he did with 1997’s Gattaca, he really makes it count.

Must-listen: “Impromptu for 12 Fingers,” Gattaca. From a piano performance by a 12-fingered artist. (“That piece can only be played with 12.”)
Runner-up: “The Morrow,” Gattaca. (Seriously, dude, do some more sci-fi stuff.)

Lisa Gerrard

Dead Can Dance vet Lisa Gerrard specializes in floaty, atmospheric layers of sound , which sound at home no matter where you use them (and make her more recognizable than some other composers on this list – you always know when it’s Lisa Gerrard). Her big break was Gladiator (alongside Hans Zimmer), but her work on The Insider was just as impressive, and she found possibly the perfect project for her signature style in 2002’s Whale Rider.

Must-listen: “Empty Water,” Whale Rider
Runner-up: “Sacrifice,” The Insider

A. R. Rahman

He creeped across the American radar with “Chaiyya Chaiyya” in American Gangster, and became a household name with” Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire. (Um, thank you, Pussycat Dolls?) But Rahman is the undisputed king of Bollywood music, and for good reason: the dude rocks. He handles everything from energetic dance numbers to pining instrumentals, sometimes within minutes of each other. (Another Hall of Famer with more than 100 composing credits; I’m willing to bet all of them sound pretty great.)

Must-listen: “Chaiyya Chaiyya,” Dil Se. It’s so awesome that they’ve used it for about eight things already. It’s awesome every time.
Runner -up: “Dacoit Duel,” Water

James Newton Howard

The “Hey, it’s that guy!” of composers, James Newton Howard’s music tends to serve the movie rather than stand out – except for when it’s so good you can’t help but remember it. (Hum three bars from The Fugitive!) He recently got to the artistic big leagues with his work on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight; if everyone can forgive him for scoring The Last Airbender, he should continue to have a long and stealth-awesome career.

Must-listen: “The Vote,” The Village
Runner-up: “Eptesicus,” Batman Begins (with Hans Zimmer)

Graeme Revell

You know that friend of yours who is a total genius with so much talent it just makes you sick, and had one or two successes, but who is always dating people who petition them for signatures in the subway, and taking part-time jobs as the hot dog standing outside Gray’s Papaya, and you just want to shake them and scream that they deserve better than the choices they make? Anyway, Graeme Revell is a composer for The Crow, Strange Days, a bunch of independent projects, and…uh, Bride of Chucky, Aeon Flux, and the Eleventh Hour TV series.

Must-listen & Runner-up: “Alone,” from the Red Planet soundtrack, which is a complete crib of “Fall in the Light,” from his work with Lori Carson on the Strange Days soundtrack, but the piece is so great you understand why he used it twice.

There are enough great composers for a hundred more lists; are there any movie scores that are old standbys? Any new ones that have captured your heart? Any you’re ashamed to admit you own?

Confession: I will always love Brian Tyler’s soundtrack for Children of Dune, but mentioning that to someone usually involves explaining how many times I’ve watched Children of Dune, which gets awkward. (I have seen it mumblemumble times. I’m not proud.)


  1. says

    Tyler Bates’ soundtrack for 300 is epic, and well worth listening too. Also, while it’s not classical, the Dust Brother’s Fight Club has a way of worming its way into your subconscious and never leaving – but in a good way.

  2. says

    Brian Tyler’s Children of Dune is so good that it’s been trailer fodder since the day it debuted. Plus, it’s just a damn good listen. But I also run hot and cold on Hans Zimmer, so what do I know?

    I own lots of scores that I’ve bought to play while playing games, for mood, and which aren’t otherwise proud purchases. I won’t list them all here. :)

    I sort of wish I’d written this (great!) post, as I’m something of a film-score fan, too, especially when I’m writing. I’d recommend you check out some of what Bear McCreary has been doing with television (Battlestar Galactica, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) and games (Dark Void), and of course I think it’s an oversight that you left off Michael Giacchino, who transitioned from games (the Medal of Honor series) to television (Alias, Lost) to movies (Star Trek, Up).

    Good stuff.

  3. says

    Tyler Bates shamelessly ripped Eliot Goldenthal’s them from Julie Taymor’s Titus for 300. Not cool.

    Most of these nine choices I quite like myself. Though I think the opposite on Graeme Revell to you, Genevieve. He did well off The Crow, and there’s moments on Chronicles of Riddick where he’s strong, but I think he’s generally a weaker composer.

    Agree with JNH – definitely a composer without an ego, whose high quality work speaks for itself. I quite like his score for The Emperor’s Club – a nice restrained work with a strong theme.

    Nyman is a genius. I’m a huge fan of all his stuff, not just his film work, but Gattaca is a definite highlight from him. I’d love to see Andrew Niccol bring him on board for his upcoming SF flick, maybe some more magic to be had there?

    Zimmer – I’ve been the biggest fanboy of his since forever, but lately I haven’t been impressed. His Batman stuff has been great – some of the best action music of the last decade – but I think his last truly great score was The Last Samurai – an exercise is restraint and pacing while maintaining an epic scope. To be honest, I wasn’t all that impressed with his score for Inception. Oh, slowing down ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’ and re-scoring it like that is clever, but it doesn’t add anything to the film for me, and in fact strikes me more as Zimmer just being Zimmer. Black Hawk Down, Crimson Tide, The Power of One – all fantastic scores among many from him though.

    HGW – I’m surprised you pick those cues, Genevieve. I’m a HGW fan too, so I would definitely picked something from Kingdom of Heaven, which is something of a masterpiece, I think. Picking something from his Tony Scott films is difficult though, since they’re so eclectic, but I really like the guitar theme from Man on Fire (‘Taxi’, for eg). However, the single best cue he’s written has to be ‘The Battle’ from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It may be a Disney film, but that’s some powerful writing there, and much better than many similar films get.

    Lisa Gerrard I also really love, and I think her move into film scoring is fantastic and gives a focus to hang her style on.

    Will – have to agree on Bear McCreary’s Battlestar work. Never heard anything like it on TV before. And it never gets dull across four seasons.

    Some faves of mine:

    Basil Poledouris – he turned out many great, muscular scores for the likes of Conan the Barbarian, Flesh + Blood, Robocop and The Hunt for Red October. Did a lot of forgettable stuff too, but these are classics.

    Clint Mansell – moved into scoring from Pop Will Itself, and I think has done some incredible stuff that puts a lot of the classically trained composers to shame. There’s Requiem for a Dream, which is another that’s constantly used as trailer fodder, Sahara was a great adventure film through back, but The Fountain is one of my all-time favourite scores, and highly recommended. If ever a score perfectly matched its film, this would be it.

    Jeff and Mychael Danna – whether working together or individually, the brothers Danna always come up with great music. Not a bad release from these guys. Well, apart from that Resident Evil II score…

    Klaus Badelt – I loved this guy up until around 2006, when he suddenly turned crap. He came out of Zimmer’s camp with The Time Machine, which was a great score for a lacklustre movie. Then went on to do great work on Invincible, K-19, and The Promise. His best score was for Ned Kelly though, which I highly recommend.

    I could list dozens of other scores I’d rate, but this is already too long. Great post, Genevieve – right up my alley!

  4. Nathan says

    Seth, you should check out Badelt again: he did have a patch of crap, but now he’s mostly moved out of Hollywood and is doing smaller, more intimate and more personable scores mostly for French films. Check out, for instance, Le petit Nicolas. He’s also been commissioned by the Chinese Government to write an opera about Emperor Qin!

  5. Justin says

    Tyler Bates soundtrack to “300” was a huge plagerism fest that ripped off scores from “Titus” (Go,denthal — including an entire cue), Zimmer, Yared (his rejected score to “Troy”), and others.
    The studio and him got sued and settled. They even posted on their site back then about it and apologized.

    Tyler Bates has never done anything to make any POSITIVE list.

  6. Mike says

    No Jerry Goldsmith…John Williams, Horner? Bernstein? No Rozsa? I have to say…some of the comments, especially on James Newton Howard seem…well…uninformed? Not to be rude, but, there are some real head spinners there…

  7. says

    Also no Ennio Morricone or Bernard Herrmann… The latter did a number of great sf & fantasy scores including the original versions of The Day the Earth Stood Still (with theremin!) and Journey to the Centre of the Earth whose score is better in many ways than the film.

    Some soundtracks I have a particular fixation upon would include Edward Artemyev’s music for Andrei Tarkovsky (including Solaris and Stalker), Cliff Martinez’s score for Soderbergh’s Kafka and the music for Perfume which is credited to Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek & Reinhold Heil. Zbigniew Preisner is fantastic as well, and also rather unique in that he and director Krzysztof KieÅ›lowski invented an imaginary composer, Van Den Bundenmeyer, whose music provides themes for The Double Life of Véronique and Three Colours: Blue.

  8. Mike says

    I’d call Zimmer prolific, but not a Grand Master, although he has written some damn fine scores.

    If you’re talking about Howard Shore, you MUST talk about Looking For Richard or Silence Of The Lambs.

    James Newton Howard hit the “artistic big leagues” WAY before working with Zimmer on a Batman score. He’s done some fabulous work – Atlantis, I Am Legend ( yes the movie sucked by the score is lovely) , The Prince Of Tides among others. Try the “turning the tides’ track from Charlie Wilson’s War. Also the scores from The Sixth Sense, Signs, etc…on and on.

    Basil Poledouris, Brian Tyler, John Powell – Miklos Rozsa, Franz Waxman. Jerry Goldsmith Jerry Goldsmith Jerry Goldsmith. Listing Lisa Gerrard but none of the above…well…sheesh.

  9. says

    I liked this article, and I certainly didn’t get the impression that list was meant to be exhaustive. And yes, different people will select different favorites.

  10. Steve Roby says

    Howard Shore’s Crash is one of my favorite albums of all time, not just one of my favourite film scores. I wish the live performance I saw had been recorded.

  11. says

    Good list. I’d add Clint Mansell for his minimalist compositions, and Philip Glass for same. And I’ve always had a soft spot for Simon Boswell (Hardware, Lord of Illusions).

  12. Ronald Z says

    Are Ecstatic Days limited to a 25-year period, Ms. Valentine?
    Upon reviewing Valentine’s not-so-vast span of cinema, one can notice the absence of anything made before the ’80s…
    …is it likely that Valentine was a child of the ’80s, and is predispositioned not to consider any film or music created before she was born?
    I love “The Village” score by James Newton Howard, but most of my favorite scores (and films) hail from the 1960s. We should, in all fairness to the legacy of film scoring, acknowledge the 1930s to the present even if a(ny) writer’s personal slant will focus on particular compositional styles (like electronic scores) or contemporary movies. Apparently cinema according to Valentine begins with 1987’s “The Last Emperor”. Shall Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Before The Revolution” (1964), “Last Tango In Paris” (1972), and “1900” (1976) fall off the Valentine map due to middle-age?
    While Hans Zimmer looms big on a lot of movie buffs’ favorites lists, should Zimmer’s shadow forever obscure Zimmer’s mentor Stanley Myers, a man who wrote (much better than Zimmer) film scores from 1966 through 1993? Please explore Myers’ work on the likes of “No Way To Treat A Lady” (1968), “The Night Of The Following Day” (1969), “Tam Lin” (1970), “Sitting Target” (1972), “The House Of Mortal Sin” (1975), “Absolution” (1978), “The Watcher In The Woods” (1980), “Incubus” (1981), plus all of Myers’ scores for the films directed by Nicolas Roeg, before relegating Stanley Myers to the antique shop in light of Zimmer’s current-day successes.
    Michael Nyman is not to be considered completely mainstream when one considers his collaboration with director Peter Greenaway (a collaboration, by the way, which is mysteriously absent from so-called movie nerd Valentine’s canvas).
    While I appreciate her mentioning Bollywood and “Slumdog Millionaire”, will the art films of world-class director Satyajit Ray’s oeuvre ever be mentioned? Especially Ray’s “Jalsaghar” (1958) – “The Music Room” – wherein a last-in-the-line descendent from royalty spends his family’s remaining assets on a concert of classical Indian music.
    I realize it is difficult for many denizens of the 21st century to ‘get into’ the ‘old-fashioned’ Romantic Hollywood studio orchestra sound (the “Golden Age”) heard in the scores of Alfred Newman or Dimitri Tiomkin or dozens of others from that era, but shouldn’t we acknowledge that they existed instead of remaining silent about them? A writer, as Valentine claims she is, should acknowledge the rich past of her subject – not just the recent hot items in her field of interest.

  13. Drax says

    Hey, chill out, Ronald Z., Valentine listed nine composers she enjoys. She thought she’d share them! She wasn’t submitting her credentials as a music critic, writer, or even a fully formed human ‘denizen’ of the 21st century. Jesus.

  14. says

    Seconding John Coulthart, here, for Bernard Hermann or Ennio Morricone. I selectively collect soundtracks, and these two are amongst my mainstays. And Klaus Badelt. An-nnnnd Carl Stalling.

  15. PhilRM says

    Thirding John Coulhart for Bernard Herrmann. He received critical raves (and deservedly so) for his “mainstream” film scores (like “Vertigo”) but his SF and fantasy scores are some of his finest work. All his Harryhausen scores are outstanding; “The Mysterious Island” is probably my favorite soundtrack of all time.

  16. says

    +1 for Clint Mansell and James Horner.

    And whoever wrote the soundtrack for the film Alphaville should be mentioned to!

  17. Hue says

    Zimmer ‘grand master’? HARDLY!

    The ‘grande maestro’ (as Quincy Jones dubbed him) is of course ENNIO MORRICONE ~ he has written more film scores than all these combined!

    Oddly enough, one of Morricone’s biggest fans is Hans Zimmer.

    On the latter’s ‘Gladiator’ CD there are SIX credited orchestrators ~ all helping to make Zimmer appear much more capable than he really is.

    Look at the credits: whenever “orchestrations” are by someone other than the composer, then mark that “composer” down. Real composers, true composers, great composers finish their own music.


  18. says

    @ Hue

    Hmmm, I wouln’t call a composer a grand master based on how many films he scored, that seems a bit silly to me… and besides from a musical point of view I think he is far from being a grand master, so that goes to show how relative and subjective all this list-making is.

  19. Gemma Files says

    I think “Chaiyya Chaiyya” was actually used in Inside Man, not American Gangster. Otherwise, cool ass picks!

  20. Hue says

    To David Portughels:

    The Italian “grande maestro” translates as ‘Great Master’, NOT ‘grand master’ (although Morricone is a big chess fan) and the overwhelming likelihood is that QUINCY JONES knows better than you or me who might be appropriately dubbed so. No?

    It is not just the sheer number of film scores (plus the more than 100 concert pieces), it it their incredible range ~ from soft-porn to social-awareness documentary: no other ‘film composer’ can touch him.

    A vast range of instrumentation… an entire score consisting of children’s voices {Chi L’Ha Vista Morire}… another being improvised and recorded on to the soundtrack with a group of avant-garde musicians {Un Tranquillo Posto in Campagna} ~ that would be unimaginable in Hollywood! Are you aware that Directors such as Sergio Leone and Giuseppe Tornatore actually SHOOT their movies to PRE-WRITTEN and RECORDED Morricone music?!

    It was not ‘silly’ to mention how many films (that was just one criterion) ~ however it might have been silly to omit to mention that Ennio Morricone started composing at the age of 6; that he first entered the Conservatory to study at the age of 9; that he studied there for many, many years; that he completed one four-year course in SIX MONTHS (he would say that he already ‘knew’ what the teachers were telling him).

    Given that an American psychic once claimed that Henry Mancini had been Giuseppe Verdi in a previous life… and looking at the track listing for ‘The Legend of 1900’ ~ is director Tornatore trying to tell us all something?

    “Ennio Morricone” (as he is called in our time) doesn’t tinker at a piano; he doesn’t need computers to do much of it for him ~ he certainly doesn’t need orchestrators! THE Maestro writes every note himself, out of his head and heart, directly onto a full score sheet. His output includes a vast songbook (more that Barry, Goldsmith, Williams, Zimmer et al combined)… and in several languages.

    Look at the artists, from many areas of music (from heavy metal to opera) who contribute to the tribute album, ‘We All Love Ennio Morricone’ ~ no one is gonna see, any time soon, a ‘We All Love John Williams’ or a ‘We All Love Jerry Goldsmith’ tribute album!

    Morricone has his own tribute bands. His music is performed at weddings, used at funerals… performed by myriad YouTubers in bedrooms all across the world; played by trios and quartets in churches; danced to by gold-medal-winning ice skaters ~ it has gone way, way outside of the confines of the dark cinema to enrich the world and ennoble humankind.

    David! If you read this, how much of Ennio’s music do you actually know? Maybe I can recommend some soundtracks (for as likely obscure movies) to help you to better appreciate (as Hans Zimmer and endless numbers of singers, songwriters, musicians and composers definitely do) the musical phenomenon that is ENNIO MORRICONE.

    Subjectivity is a given: may whatever you invite into your ears enrich and ennoble You! (I imagine it does)

  21. Hue says


    Sorry for mis-spelling poster Davis Portugheis’ name… and the movie with the improvised score is actually ‘Un Tranquillo Posto Di Campagna’


  1. […] pm von deadra Yes. It is that time again. I’ve made a list. An awesome, awesome list. Because Genevieve Valentine did a post entitled „Nine Movie Composers To Know“, and my first thought was „Nine?!? What do you mean, only nine?!?“, and then I read the […]