The Best of the Greatest Cinema Composers

John Williams and Steven Spielberg working on the score for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Pure magic.

At its worst, it’s just noise in the background. At its best, it can carry a movie and trigger a violently emotional response from the audience. Film music has been a constant part of my life since my teens when I started buying CD soundtracks. One of my first was Howard Shore’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Jerry Goldsmith’s The Omen (1976) is still a frightening masterpiece; I remember listening to “Ave Satani” with some trepidation in my boyhood room.

In the past few years I’ve been creating and updating my own Spotify lists of composers. It’s been an opportunity to explore their scores and pick favorite pieces, old ones and newly discovered. In this blog entry I’ll list the composers and embed my Spotify playlists – which will continue to be updated, especially those belonging to composers who are still active. Enjoy.

David Arnold

Born in Britain in 1962. Composer of multiple James Bond scores. My favorite is Casino Royale (2006), especially his insane “Miami International” track.

John Barry

1933-2011, born in Britain. Won five Oscars for the scores of Born Free (also Best Original Song), The Lion in Winter, Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves. My favorite: His 007 scores.

Marco Beltrami

Born in the U.S. in 1966. My favorite: Scream (1996).

Elmer Bernstein

1922-2004, born in the U.S. Won Oscar for Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). My favorite: The Magnificent Seven (1960).

Terence Blanchard

Born in the U.S. in 1962. Frequent collaborator: Spike Lee. My favorite: Mo’ Better Blues (1991).

Carter Burwell

Born in the U.S. in 1954. Frequent collaborator: the Coen brothers. My favorite: True Grit (2010).

John Carpenter

Born in the U.S. in 1948. My favorite: Halloween (1978).

Bill Conti

Born in the U.S. in 1942. Won Oscar for The Right Stuff (1983). My favorite: His themes for Falcon Crest and Dynasty.

John Debney

Born in the U.S. in 1956. My favorite: The Passion of the Christ (2004).

Georges Delerue

1925-1992, born in France. Won Oscar for A Little Romance (1980). Frequent collaborator: François Truffaut. My favorite: Rich and Famous (1981).

Alexandre Desplat

Born in France in 1961. Won two Oscars for The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and The Shape of Water (2017). My favorite: The Imitation Game (2014).

Ramin Djawadi

Born in West Germany in 1974. My favorite: the varied and extensive music he has written for Game of Thrones.

Pino Donaggio

Born in Italy in 1941. Frequent collaborator: Brian De Palma. My favorite: Body Double (1984).

Patrick Doyle

Born in Britain in 1953. Frequent collaborator: Kenneth Branagh. My favorite: Sense and Sensibility (1995).

Danny Elfman

Born in the U.S. in 1953. Frequent collaborator: Tim Burton. My favorite: Batman (1989).

Michael Giacchino

Born in the U.S. in 1967. Won Oscar for Up (2009). My favorite: Ratatouille (2007).

Jerry Goldsmith

1929-2004, born in the U.S. Won Oscar for The Omen (1976), which is also my favorite.

Harry Gregson-Williams

Born in Britain in 1961. My favorite: The Martian (2015).

Bernard Herrmann

1911-1975, born in the U.S. Won Oscar for The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). Frequent collaborator: Alfred Hitchcock. My three favorites are his masterful Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho.

James Horner

1953-2015, born in the U.S. Won two Oscars for Titanic (Original Score and Song). Frequent collaborator: James Cameron. My favorites: Aliens (1986) and Apollo 13 (1995).

James Newton Howard

Born in the U.S. in 1951. Frequent collaborator: M. Night Shyamalan. My favorite: Signs (2002).

Alberto Iglesias

Born in Spain in 1955. Frequent collaborator: Pedro Almodóvar. My favorite: the theme for Broken Embraces (2009).

Maurice Jarre

1924-2009, born in France. Frequent collaborator: David Lean. Won three Oscars for Lawrence of Arabia (which is also my favorite), Doctor Zhivago and A Passage to India.

Jóhann Jóhannsson

1969-2018, born in Iceland. Frequent collaborator: Denis Villeneuve. My favorite: The Theory of Everything (2015).

Trevor Jones

Born in South Africa in 1949. My favorite: The Last of the Mohicans (1992).

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

1897-1957, born in Austria-Hungary. Won two Oscars for Anthony Adverse and The Adventures of Robin Hood (the latter is also my favorite). 

Michel Legrand

1932-2019, born in France. Frequent collaborator: Jacques Demy. Won three Oscars, two for Original Score (Summer of ’42, Yentl) and Original Song (“The Windmills of Your Mind”, which is also my favorite piece).

Henry Mancini

1924-1994, born in the U.S. Frequent collaborator: Blake Edwards. Won four Oscars, for the scores of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Victor/Victoria, and Best Original Song (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Days of Wine and Roses”). My favorite: his diverse scores for the Pink Panther movies.

Dario Marianelli

Born in Italy in 1963. Won Oscar for Atonement (2007), which is also my favorite.

Ennio Morricone

Born in Italy in 1928. Frequent collaborator: Sergio Leone. Won Oscar for The Hateful Eight (2015). My favorite: The Untouchables (1987).

Alfred Newman

1900-1970, born in the U.S. Won nine Oscars, for Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Tin Pan Alley, The Song of Bernadette, Mother Wore Tights, With a Song in My Heart, Call Me Madam, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, The King and I and Camelot. My favorite: Wuthering Heights (1939).

Thomas Newman

Born in the U.S. in 1955. Frequent collaborator: Sam Mendes. My favorite: Road to Perdition (2002).

Alex North

1910-1991, born in the U.S. My favorite: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

John Ottman

Born in the U.S. in 1964. Frequent collaborator: Bryan Singer. My favorite: his theme for Non-Stop (2014).

Basil Poledouris

1945-2006, born in the U.S. My favorites: Conan the Barbarian (1982) and the theme for The Hunt for Red October (1990).

Rachel Portman

Born in Britain in 1960. Won Oscar for Emma (1996). My favorite (everybody’s favorite): The theme for The Cider House Rules (1999).

John Powell

Born in Britain in 1963. Frequent collaborator: Paul Greengrass. My favorites: The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and How to Train Your Dragon (2010).

Nino Rota

1911-1979, born in Italy. Frequent collaborators: Federico Fellini and Francis Ford Coppola. Won Oscar for The Godfather, Part II (1974). My favorite: The Godfather (1972).

Miklós Rózsa

1907-1995, born in Austria-Hungary. Won three Oscars for Spellbound, A Double Life and Ben-Hur. My favorite: Quo Vadis (1951).

Lalo Schifrin

Born in Argentina in 1932. My favorite: Dirty Harry (1971).

Howard Shore

Born in Canada in 1946. Frequent collaborators: David Cronenberg and Peter Jackson. Won three Oscars for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (also Best Original Song). My favorite: The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

Alan Silvestri

Born in the U.S. in 1950. Frequent collaborator: Robert Zemeckis. My favorite: The Abyss (1989).

Max Steiner

1888-1971, born in Austria-Hungary. Frequent collaborators: John Ford, Michael Curtiz, William Wyler. Won three Oscars for The Informer, Now, Voyager and Since You Went Away. My favorite: Gone With the Wind (1939).

Dimitri Tiomkin

1894-1979, born in Russia. Frequent collaborator: Frank Capra. Won four Oscars, three for scoring High Noon, The High and the Mighty and The Old Man and the Sea, one for Original Song (“The Ballad of High Noon”). My favorite: The Guns of Navarone (1961).

Brian Tyler

Born in the U.S. in 1972. My favorite: Iron Man 3 (2010).


Born in Greece in 1943. Won Oscar for Chariots of Fire (1981). My favorite: Blade Runner (1982).

Franz Waxman

1906-1967, born in Germany. Won two Oscars, for Sunset Blvd. (which is also my favorite) and A Place in the Sun.

John Williams

Born in the U.S. in 1932. Frequent collaborators: Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone. Won five Oscars for the scores of Fiddler on the Roof, Jaws, Star Wars, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Schindler’s List. My favorite: I’m supposed to name just one?

Gabriel Yared

Born in Lebanon in 1949. Won Oscar for The English Patient (1996), which is also my favorite.

Hans Zimmer

Born in West Germany in 1957. Frequent collaborator: Christopher Nolan. Won Oscar for The Lion King (1994). My favorites: Gladiator (2000) and The Dark Knight (2008).

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