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Music to My Ears: Top Film Composers in the Biz

Written by Katie Marzullo. Published: January 13 2012
Music is essential to movies. Many will argue with me on this point, claiming music is “manipulative”, dictating to us how to feel about a given moment in a movie. To that, I respond: DUH!
That’s what movies are supposed to do! A perfectly framed close-up, a well-timed cut, all of these are methods for evoking moods and feelings from the audience by way of the medium of film. Music is just another tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal. And might I remind you naysayers, when movies were first invented, music was the only thing you were even aloud to hear before someone invented the “talkie”! So there.
In the ensuing years, film scores have continued to evolve and remain a crucial piece of the moviemaking puzzle. Some films are memorable because of their music – can you picture Darth Vader without hearing John Williams’s “Imperial March” in your head? Or see Harrison Ford jump on a horse (an any movie) and immediately swing into the Indiana Jones theme? Yeah, I didn’t think so!
But even more than that, a film’s score can so beautifully enhance a moment in a film that it strikes a chord within your very soul. And the mark of a truly gifted composer is to not only be able to appeal to a movie’s emotional sensibilities but to go so across any and all genres.
Here are 5 composers who are the best in the biz at this (plus another 3 very honorable mentions):
1. John Williams
Well, this is a no-brainer. Without exception, Williams has created some of the most memorable film themes in history. Star Wars, Jaws, Indiana Jones, Superman, E.T., Jurassic Park, even Harry Potter are all indelibly linked with the music that Williams created to compliment them on-screen. Some might claim that Spielberg’s films wouldn’t be half as effective without Williams adding his all-important touch to them. Five Oscars don’t lie. Hell, Williams even composed a freaking Christmas standard. How many of you thought that “Somewhere In My Memory” from Home Alone was an already-established holiday hymn? Nope. Pure Williams. If you need someone to ramp up the epic factor for your big budget blockbuster, Williams is your man every time.
2. Howard Shore
Shore is sort of John Williams Lite – Just as effective at creating grand scores for sweeping multi-gazillion dollar features, but on a much more subtle level. For as big as the Lord of the Rings trilogy was, Shore was careful not to let his music stand out from the film but instead compliment it. Music and Story blended together seamlessly, and Shore has quietly continued to augment already smashing films to even greater heights with scores for The Aviator, Ed Wood, and mostly recently, Hugo. It will be interesting to see if his score of The Hobbit will be similar to the Lord of the Rings flicks or if he will come up with something completely different (and, of course, memorable). If John Williams is unavailable, give Shore a call.
3. James Newton Howard
One of my personal faves. JNH (as I like to call him) is a fantastic composer but for a very specific reason – he is able to create moments. His scores are very eclectic, in that they don’t rely on one specific tone or sound or melody that he continually plays with and tweaks. Oh, to be sure, his overall themes are outstanding, but what really makes him effective is his ability to pinpoint the mood of a given moment and completely ramp it up, making it utterly unique and singular. Because, isn’t that how real life is? Every moment is distinct in its own way, so why would you repeat an old theme for it? Films that best exhibit this ability of JNH’s, in my opinion, include Signs, Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and Peter Pan (2003 live-action version... if you haven’t seen it, Netflix it immediately!). I’m really anxious to see what JNH does for The Hunger Games and Snow White and the Huntsman! If you’re interested in details and individual moments, get James Newton Howard on the horn.
4. Hans Zimmer
Howard’s antithesis is Hans Zimmer, but not in a bad way! Whereas Howard is great at specific moments, Zimmer is exemplary at creating an all-encompassing musical verisimilitude. If you have a film that takes place in a certain time period and a certain geographical location – say, Ancient Rome – Zimmer has the uncanny ability of putting you in that very time and place with his scores. When Ridley Scott’s camera pans over the Colosseum at the end of Gladiator, looking over Rome as Zimmer’s “Now We Are Free” theme swells, tell me you don’t feel like you’re actually there. Gets me every time. Likewise with his score for Sherlock Holmes – the quirky theme puts your right there in Holmes’s eccentric Victorian-era world. And who can forget Zimmer’s uber-surrealInception theme? Nobody, because every suspense film that’s been released since has totally copied it. So, if you want your audience to feel completely enmeshed in the world of the story, Zimmer will put them there.
5. Thomas Newman
Newman is a little more under the radar, but he has put music to some of the most fantastic films of the last twenty years and his impact is significant. This is the guy who came up with that wonderful catchy yet understated score for American Beauty, which is still being mimicked in everything from other movies, TV shows, and even commercials. In the same vein, he is also the man behind the surreal music for last year’s The Adjustment Bureau and will be taking on composing duties for the next Bond flick, Skyfall. Newman is the man you turn to when you want to create an ultra-atmospheric ambience for your unconventional, outside-the-box film.
Tim Burton’s go-to guy has been creating musical whimsy for almost 30 years now. His breakout was 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and his signature cartoonish sound is probably the most instantly recognizable out of anyone on this list. “The Simpsons”, Scrooged, Beetlejuice, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory all boast that special Elfman touch. If you’ve got a fanciful, unconventional movie that needs they extra little tongue-in-cheek twist, Elfman’s got your back.
James Horner
Titanic put Horner on the map. We’ve all heard the story about how James Cameron absolutely did not want a cheesy theme song to go with his cheesy disaster epic, but Horner went ahead and recorded a demo with Celine Dion anyway. Cameron did an immediate 180, and the rest is movie music history. “My Heart Will Go On” spent about 296 weeks at #1 and was played at least that many times a day on any given radio station when Titanic was released in 1997. Nowadays, you really can’t think of one without thinking of the other. In fact, many Titanic exhibitions have that song and/or the score from the movie playing as ambient music. For that alone, Horner makes this list. However, this guy has a rather impressive resume spanning all the way back to the ‘70s and includes Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Aliens, Braveheart, the amazing Apollo 13, and Avatar. Like Hans Zimmer, Horner is a master of transporting you to a time and place by way of music. For longevity and consistency, Horner gets a gold star.
Tyler Bates
His name is not as well-known as the others, but that’s bound to change soon. This is Zach Snyder’s #1 guy, and if you’ve seen 300, Watchmen, or Sucker Punch, you’ve heard Bates’s raw, rock-inspired music. Bates is definitely part of the “new school” of film composers who employs more mainstream influences into his compositions in lieu of the traditional grandeur we typically hear in films, which suits Snyder’s comic book-influenced style just fine. Additionally, Bates is known for employing and grooming other emerging talent and artists, like up-and-coming Welsh singer-songwriter Joanne Higginbottom, to help bring his scores to life. You’re more likely to hear Bates’s music at The Roxy than at the Hollywood Bowl, and that’s how he (and we) like it!
Who’s YOUR favorite film composer?
(Photo via Chris Burke/WENN)
- Katie Marzullo, YH Staff Editor