It’s time to sing the praises of the all-time great film composers…
While the most publicized awards on Oscar Night tend to go to actors, actresses, directors, and overall films, they're far from the only film-related awards that matter. One of many vitally important awards is the Academy Award for Best Original Score, which goes to one composer whose original music made a huge difference to a film and stood out among the competition.
Film scores are something that can sometimes get taken for granted, given most film music plays out in the background, and might only be front and center in a select number of scenes (unless the movie's a musical of course). But the medium of film wouldn't be as impactful or entertaining without the hard work of movie composers, which is why they're rightly recognized for their achievements come Awards season. The following composers are among the most recognized in Oscar history and are ranked below by the number of Oscar nominations received, in ascending order.
While many of Ennio Morricone'sbest scores were unfairly overlooked by the Oscars (including The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Once Upon a Time in America, and Cinema Paradiso), he nevertheless still received a solid six nominations during his lengthy career.
For a while, it looked as though he was never going to win an Oscar, and was given an Honorary Oscar – perhaps by way of apology – in 2007. But then 2015 saw him compose an original score for Quentin Tarantino (who'd always been a huge fan of Morricone), and The Hateful Eight's score ended up winning Morricone a well-deserved Oscar. He passed away five years later at the age of 91, with his Oscar-winning score making for a triumphant conclusion to his amazing career.
James Hornerwas nominated eight different times for Best Original Score at the Oscars, and received an additional two nominations for Best Original Song. His work on one of the biggest movies of all time – Titanic – was what earned him his two Oscars: one for the film's epic, bittersweet score, and the second for his work writing the film's well-known theme, "My Heart Will Go On."
Two other nominations came from collaborations with James Cameron (Aliens and Avatar), and through his other acclaimed scores, it's easy to identify the music as being distinctly his own. He sadly died in 2015 in a plane crash at the age of just 61, cutting short an impressive career while leaving behind many great scores that continue to be enjoyed to this day.
With a career that began in the 1950s and last until the early 2000s, Elmer Bernstein was one of Hollywood's most prolific composers. His Western and war film scores are particularly iconic, with his work on the John Sturges directed (and Steve McQueen starring) The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) standing out.
Of his 10 nominations, he only managed to get one win, which was for the 1967 musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. He was an influential and important film composer, and the kind who frequently seemed able to elevate a movie through his musical compositions.
Even though he only composed his first feature film score in the late 1990s, Alexandre Desplat has already racked up 11 nominations (an average of almost one every two years). Of those nominations, he's had two wins: one for 2014's The Grand Budapest Hotel, and then another for 2017's The Shape of Water.
He's a favorite composer of Wes Anderson's, having composed music for five of his films, and has also composed music for Greta Gerwig and Guillermo Del Toro on more than one occasion. His range is impressive, and with a career that's both consistent and prolific, it's easy to see why he's received so many nominations from the Academy Awards.
One of the most famous composers working in film today, Hans Zimmer has been behind too many iconic film scores to count – many of them anthemic, uplifting, and epic in sound. His career took off in the 1980s, with him scoring his first nomination for 1988's Rain Man. 1994 saw him get his first win for Best Original Score, when he rightly won for his work on The Lion King's score.
Zimmer has been a heavily in-demand composer ever since he first started to get attention, and remains prolific into the 2020s, seeing as he won his second Best Original Score Oscar for his work on Dune (2021). While he hasn't won any Oscars for his work on Christopher Nolan's movies, it should be noted how great his scores for those films have been, with Oscar nominations for Inception, Interstellar, and Dunkirk.
Due to most of his scores being well over half a century old at this point, Dimitri Tiomkin isn't quite as much of a household name compared to other prolific composers nowadays. However, his work being older doesn't make it any less great or important, and he was recognized for it by getting 14 nominations for Best Original Score from the Oscars.
He earned three wins from these 14 nominations, with perhaps his greatest work being for 1952's High Noon. It's a suspenseful and tightly-paced Western/thriller about a marshal preparing to clash with a criminal he once imprisoned who's fresh out of jail, and Tiomkin's expertly written score helps build the tension before the final showdown remarkably.
If you watch a fair few American movies from the second half of the 20th century, you'll inevitably run into a Jerry Goldsmith score surprisingly fast. Goldsmith was indeed worthy of Oscar gold, as he deservedly won for the chilling score he wrote for 1976's The Omen, though his other 16 nominations didn't lead to wins.
It's unlucky to have so many nominations and only one win to show for it, but that doesn't dampen just how impressive Goldsmith's scores are. Some of his best work includes the music written for Papillon, Chinatown, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Poltergeist – all films that benefited immensely from Goldsmith's work on them.
An individual would have to be prolific to earn more than 20 Oscar nominations, but Max Steiner was a prolific composer and then some. Between 1929 and 1965, he racked up about 240 credits, which neatly works out as one nomination for every 10 scores, on average.
Not only could he deliver scores when it came to quantity, but his music was frequently of high quality, too. Some of the most beloved and well-known films from Hollywood's Golden Age (like Casablanca, King Kong, and Gone with the Wind) had scores composed by Steiner, making him undoubtedly one of the most important film composers from the first half of the 20th century.
According to some, there are three godfathers of film music during Hollywood's Golden Age. Two were the aforementioned Dimitri Tiomkin and Max Steiner, and the third was Alfred Newman. Of the three, he easily earned the most nominations for Best Original Score, with 43 of his works getting included among the nominees for the prize during his approximately 40-year-long career.
He may not quite have the most nominations for Best Original Score, but he does have the most wins for any individual composer, with nine trophies to his name. It's easy to see why he was a pioneer in the field of composing music for film, and has two sons who have also been nominated for Oscars for their compositions (Thomas Newman and David Newman).
Standing above the competition with close to 50 nominations for Best Original Score, John Williams is undeniably a towering figure in the world of film composers. He's won five Oscars from those 47 nominations and has honestly composed too many iconic scores to count (including for franchises like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter).
He's composed the scores for most of Steven Spielberg's movies, too, with their composer/director partnership being one of the greatest in film history. Now in his 90s, it had been reported that 2023 would be the year he finally retired, yet apparently, the announcement was premature. As such, it's entirely possible that Williams could one day break 50 nominations for Best Original Score, which would naturally be unprecedented, and naturally a beyond remarkable achievement.
NEXT: The Longest Best Picture Winners of All Time, Ranked by Runtime
Jeremy is an omnivore when it comes to movies. He’ll gladly watch and write about almost anything, from old Godzilla films to gangster flicks to samurai movies to classic musicals to the French New Wave to the MCU. When he’s not writing lists for Collider, he also likes to upload film reviews to his Letterboxd profile (username: Jeremy Urquhart) and Instagram account.