A couple months ago, I wrote a post for the Collective analyzing and comparing all the composers who have written the scores for Marvel Studios movies. This time, I decided to do something a bit bigger and analyze and compare the top five film score composers: John Williams, Hans Zimmer, James Horner, Thomas Newman, and Danny Elfman.
As to how I got that list? Well, first of all, I am no expert on film scores and their composers. I did not come up with the list above of the composers in that order; I found the list here on IMDB. But I agree with the list because of my experience in listening and comparing film score composers for six years and counting. I solemnly swear I am up to no good that I believe John Williams is, first and foremost, the best film score composer of all time, and many experts and other film score composers know and acknowledge this as fact. Down the list, I feel that Zimmer is second best, though his style is different from Williams’s, and so on and so on.
This will be so much fun. In fact, I can’t wait to get star-
- John Williams
John Williams’s style is very different and old-school from contemporary composers. In more recent movies, you may recall hearing music that had more of a techno beat, some electronic components to get the right feel for suspense and action. John Williams is very unique in that he is still composing today and yet his style remains traditional: hardly any electronic elements and use of a full symphony orchestra, fun yet dramatic. In fact, he has relied heavily on influence from classical composers such as Tchaikovsky, Holst, and Chopin. Most of his scores feature memorable melodies, fanfares, and fun marches. His most popular scores are, of course, from movies none of you would recognize: Star Wars, Jaws, Jurassic Park, and the list goes on. Steven Spielberg has directed very few movies without Williams’s epic contributions; the two have been working together for forty years, compiling their skills to make movies such as all four Indiana Jones films, E.T., Jaws, Jurassic Park, Home Alone, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, etc, with their most recent collaboration being The BFG, which, in fact, was just released today.
- Hans Zimmer
Zimmer is nearly as famous as John Williams. Nearly. He is, I believe, the most prominent contemporary composer with his soundtracks including Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator, the Batman Trilogy, Interstellar, Inception, Crimson Tide, Kung Fu Panda, etc. Hans Zimmer is actually, in my mind, the opposite of John Williams. His style is dominantly orchestral, yet bombarded with electronic style and beat throughout. Zimmer is innovative and tries to compose something new each movie he does, yet his style can always be heard in all his scores and can be easy to pick out. A definite, default style can be heard in each of his scores, composed of mainly simple chords (take Inception and Interstellar, for example) while his scores for Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator, and Batman Begins tend towards more thematic, dramatic melodies.
- James Horner
Horner has composed for more than 100 films, and is known for integrating choral and electronic elements in his soundtracks. He also has composed central themes with Celtic roots, which ranks him high in my list of favorite composers and has won many awards. I believe his three most well known films are Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, Titanic, and Avatar. His syle is more traditional and he fits in between John Williams and Hans Zimmer on the scale of full use orchestration and heavy electric components. His score themes tend to have a more fun and family-friendly vibrance and tend to be epic through a powerfully, sweeping orchestration, rather than memorable marches or heavy action thrillers with many electronics. One of my favorite scores by James Horner is “The Launch” from Apollo 13 and “Becoming One of the People/Becoming One with Neytiri” from Avatar.
- Thomas Newman
Nominated for twelve, Academy awards and winner of one Grammy, Thomas Newman comes from a very musical family. His father, Alfred Newman, for example, composed for All About Eve and The Battle of Midway, while his brother, David Newman, composed for films including Ice Age and even Galaxy Quest. Once you’re familiar with Newman’s style, it’s very easy to recognize his music even when you’ve never heard it before. Though his style has a wide range, he mostly uses orchestra and synthesizers, and blends in elements of jazz, and classical and popular music. His more somber scores are piano dominant. Some examples of his work are compositions from WALL-E, Saving Mr. Banks, and, my two favorites, Finding Nemo and Shawshank Redemption. An example of a more action-based film score comes from Skyfall, taking the James Bond theme and modernizing it, Newman style.
- Danny Elfman
Danny Elfman is definitely one of my top composers, simply for his strange, funny, and quirky style. If you’re a fan of the Weirdo Trio’s films (collaborations of Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, and Danny Elfman), you may remember the soundtrack for these was slightly peculiar, eccentric, and unlike modern film score composers styles. Many of Elfman’s scores are dark and suspenseful, and yet just listening to them, you can tell he has a great sense of humor in his fun, lighthearted themes. My favorites of Elfman’s include scores from Age of Ultron, Epic, Beetlejuice, and, on a more wonderful and sweeping note, Alice in Wonderland, specifically the track “Alice’s Theme,” which (FUN FACT!) never actually plays in the movie itself. This fact just goes to show that life is very strange and hard to understand.
I’m going to be honest here and say that though I agree with this list, I do not necessarily enjoy listening to Thomas Newman and James Horner. Though they may have more skill than the composers I would replace them with, I personally don’t enjoy their style of film score as much as John Williams, Hans Zimmer, John Powell, Patrick Doyle, and Danny Elfman. The reason I enjoy John Powell more than Newman or Horner is solely for his soundtrack for How to Train Your Dragon (the first, not the second). Listen to that album and you will see what I mean.
So there you have it. The top 5 film score composers, analyzed and compared. Have any agreements or disagreements with the list? Who are your top 5 composers? Let us know in the comments below.