Music is an essential element in modern filmmaking—and in many ways, what you hear is more important than what you see.
Don't believe me? Take any scene, change its music, and see how drastically different it feels. The soundtrack can turn horror into parody, comedy into thriller. Music makes all the difference.
Over the past few decades, countless composers and musicians have stepped up to the challenge and scored all kinds of brilliant movie soundtracks—but how many of them do you know by name?
Sadly, even the greatest film composers don't get the recognition they deserve. As the limelight shines on film directors, actors, and even writers to an extent, film composers are often forgotten.
That's why we're going to shine our own light on the greatest film composers of our time and highlight the amazing scores and soundtracks they've created for movies.
10. Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock is most known for his work as a jazz musician. He's played piano and keys alongside Miles Davis, Chick Corea, and Joni Mitchell—but he's also a legend of his own renown.
But most people don't known that Herbie Hancock has scored over 10 films in his career, including the gritty 1974 classic Death Wish and the 1989 crime comedy Harlem Nights starring Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, proving his skills as a film composer.
9. Ennio Morricone
While most of the film composers on this list have a few major mainstream films that you've likely seen, Ennio Morricone may only be on your radar if you're a fan of older classic films—or if you've seen most of Quentin Tarantino's work.
Ennio Morricone scored many 1960s-era Western films, but his most recognizable works include the film scores for Roland Joffé's The Mission, Brian De Palma's The Untouchables, and Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight.
8. Danny Elfman
Danny Elfman got his start playing in the new wave band Oingo Boingo, but that's not why you're familiar with his work. His trademark sound has been used in nearly every Tim Burton movie ever made, plus many films by horror icon and Spider-Man director Sam Raimi.
Danny Elfman's most popular film scores include The Nightmare Before Christmas, Men in Black, Edward Scissorhands, Wanted, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Not to mention his most iconic work: the theme song for The Simpsons!
7. Quincy Jones
With a career that spans over 70 years in the entertainment industry, Quincy Jones has so many highlights that it's hard to pick which ones to mention. Not only has he produced greats like Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson, but he's also composed for films and TV shows.
His most notable movie soundtracks include 1969's The Italian Job, 1972's The Getaway, 1977's Roots, and 1985's The Color Purple. While he hasn't scored any films since the 1980s, his lasting impact on movie composers is still felt to this day.
6. Henry Mancini
Are you familiar with the Pink Panther theme song? You'd probably recognize it as soon as you hear its first four notes—that's how iconic it is. And even though Henry Mancini composed it in the 1960s, it still lives on as his most popular composition to date.
But don't let the relatively simple Pink Panther theme paint an underdeveloped picture of Henry Mancini the composer. He's crafted dozens of other excellent film scores, including 1962's Experiment in Terror, 1967's Wait Until Dark, 1985's Santa Claus: The Movie, 1986's A Fine Mess, and 1987's The Glass Menagerie.
5. Harry Gregson-Williams
Harry Gregson-Williams is the genius behind dozens of movie soundtracks, with notable recognition for 2001's Spy Game, 2002's Phone Booth, 2010's Unstoppable, 2015's The Martian, the main Shrek series, and The Chronicles of Narnia.
In addition to movies, Harry Gregson-Williams has scored video games (most notably the Metal Gear Solid games and the main themes for Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare) and TV series like Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams.
4. Ramin Djawadi
Ramin Djawadi is most famous for his incredible scores for several TV series, including Game of Thrones, Westworld, Person of Interest, and Prison Break. He's also scored video games, like Medal of Honor and Gears of War 4. But he's also done soundtracks for movies!
Ramin Djawadi's most recognized movie soundtracks include the MCU's Iron Man, David S. Goyer's The Unborn, Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim, and Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time.
3. Terence Blanchard
Terence Blanchard got his start playing jazz as a member of the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, then later The Jazz Messengers. He's still a jazz musician to this day, with his latest release as recent as 2018.
But Terence Blanchard has scored dozens of films starting in 1991 with Jungle Fever all the way up to 2020 with One Night in Miami.
He's frequently collaborated with Spike Lee, notably on 2006's Inside Man and 2018's BlacKkKlansman. Other notable movie soundtracks of his include 2001's Original Sin and 2016's The Comedian.
2. Hans Zimmer
Next to John Williams—we'll get to him in a bit—Hans Zimmer is easily the most well-known film composer of the modern age. You've probably already looked him up on YouTube before, but he's scored dozens of award-winning movies that you may not even be aware of.
Hans Zimmer's most popular movie soundtracks include the ethereal Interstellar, the trendsetting Inception, the original animated The Lion King, plus several others including Gladiator, Dunkirk, and Blade Runner 2049.
And for a bit of fun trivia: you may already know that Hans Zimmer is a frequent collaborator of Christopher Nolan (and one of the reasons why Nolan's movies are so emotionally resonant), but did you know Hans Zimmer recruited Ramin Djawadi to Hollywood?!
1. John Williams
Does John Williams need any introduction? Even those who've never looked into movie soundtracks and film scores have heard of him, and may even know which iconic movies he's composed for.
His most popular composition would have to be "The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme)" from the Star Wars saga, which is instantly recognizable from its first three notes.
His signature use of large orchestras lends familiarity to the other movies he's scored and their main theme songs, including Jaws (recognizable in two notes), Harry Potter (recognizable in four notes), Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Home Alone, and many more.
More Movie Soundtracks to Enjoy
As you go through all the best movie soundtracks by these amazing film composers, you'll find plenty of songs to add to your playlists suitable to all kinds of moods and activities.
That said, even though these are our favorite film composers, there are many other film composers who've crafted excellent music worth listening to. Why stop here? We've only scratched the surface of the world of movie soundtracks and film scores!