Movie scores have the power to elevate the performances onscreen, enhancing the emotion of the moment, whether that be fear, sadness, or joy. Without composers, movies leave audiences with piecemeal soundtracks and background aesthetics that hinder the movie-watching experience. Powerful themes and catchy riffs allow audiences to fall in love with the music as much as the story. In the streaming age, movie lovers can enjoy their favorite feature without sitting down to watch it, instead popping in headphones and accessing the score, virtually reliving every moment of the film.
These industry titans are Oscar winners, boundary breakers, and legendary musical minds that use complex creativity to produce the sound behind cinema's best projects. Of the best composers of movie scores, these giants stand above all others.
Because the Academy Awards tend to snub horror movies in most categories, it’s no surprise that Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Michael Abels was snubbed all three times for his work on Jordan Peele’s films.
While his work on Peele’s projects is his most high-profile cinema scores, Abels created haunting, terrifying orchestra tracks aiding the horror master's skillful filmmaking to terrify viewers.
From the band Nine Inch Nails to winning Oscars, Trent Reznor is genuinely a versatile musician…and, of late, one of the best composers in the movies. His compositional work includes dramas like The Social Network and Patriot’s Day and thrillers like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl.
He’s won two of his three Oscar nominations for The Social Network and Soul—all of which he shares credit with fellow composer Atticus Ross. The pair have worked on just about every project together and are establishing themselves as a dynamic duo in the cinematic music industry.
Often the musical mind behind director Denis Villeneuve’s work, Jóhann Jóhannsson has established himself as a serious player in American movie scores. His dark orchestral themes are present in thrillers like Prisoners and horror movies like Mandy.
Jóhannsson earned his first Oscar nomination for The Theory of Everything and his second with Villeneuve’s Sicario. He created a beautiful, mesmerizing score for the sci-fi drama Arrival; however, the Academy robbed the composer of an Oscar nomination. As his career rises, movie music lovers are excited to see what’s next for Jóhannsson–one of the best composers working.
This Icelandic composer became the first woman in history to win the Oscar for Best Original Score for a dramatic score, and immediately established herself as one of the best composers working. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s work on Joker secured her win alongside the short-list of women composers who took the statue home. Much like it does with the Golden Globes, the category can be split into Dramatic Score or Comedy/Musical; however, due to a lack of submissions, the latter remains inactive.
Guðnadóttir created a haunting ambiance to the psychological origin story of the iconic character. She returned to score the upcoming sequel and lend her talents to the newest Hercule Poirot installment, A Haunting in Venice.
A young player in the game with legendary musical giants, Ludwig Göransson established himself early as a force within the industry. Pairing with director Ryan Coogler on several projects like the Creed movies and Fruitvale Station, their collaboration earned Göransson his first Oscar nomination and win for Black Panther.
Following his Oscar win, Göransson entered the ring with a Christopher Nolan feature, scoring 2020's Tenet. He returned to Nolan in 2023 for Oppenheimer. The sky is the limit for him as he continues to secure high-profile projects and solidify his place among the best composers.
While his first Oscar nomination wasn't until 2015, Carter Burwell has composed scores for recognizable titles for over 30 years. His credits include Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men. The millennial audience recognizes him as the composer who brought the beloved “Bella's Lullaby,” the fictional melody Edward Cullen wrote from page to screen in the Twilight Saga, a stunning piano rendition that fanbase continues to stream today.
Burwell holds three Oscar nominations for Carol, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and The Banshees of Inisherin. A multi-faceted composer, Burwell's scoring credits include multiple animated features and TV series.
James Newton Howard
James Newton Howard established himself as a top player in the scoring game with a decades-long career that began after he toured with Elton John. He’s composed music for blockbusters like King Kong, thrillers like The Sixth Sense, and family favorites like Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
The nine-time Oscar nominee is known for his work with franchises like Fantastic Beasts and The Hunger Games, along with sharing the composition credit with Hans Zimmer for The Dark Knight Trilogy. Newton Howard once again provided his talents to the dystopian franchise for the upcoming prequel The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.
Criminally underrated by Oscar standards, Alan Silvestri is responsible for many movie lovers' favorite themes. From Back to the Future to The Avengers and every beloved movie in between, Silvestri's efforts have only been recognized by the Oscars twice. He earned nominations for Forrest Gump and The Polar Express.
His knack for creating driving, exciting scores continues, even after 50 years, to provide audiences with masterful musical moments. Silvestri remains a best composer, whether scoring action, comedy, family, or educational projects.
Snubbed from the Oscars his 2022 The Batman score, Michael Giacchino can compose more than just dark superhero, action, and franchise themes. Giacchino is best known for his work with Disney and Pixar with The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Zootopia.
His most famous composition comes from the beloved classic Up—a score for which he earned his first Oscar. The beautiful nostalgia created from the lives of Carl and Ellie still resonates with audiences today, the themes remixed and used all over social media consistently.
When audiences think of iconic scores, Titanic is always near the top of the list. James Horner would earn two Oscars for Best Original Dramatic Score and Best Original Song for the music behind the three-hour epic.
The 10-time Oscar nominee worked with director James Cameron again on the music for the Avatar films, earning a nomination for the first installment. Horner is also the musical mind behind dramatic favorites like Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and Braveheart and childhood favorites like The Land Before Time. When he died in a plane accident, the movies lost one of the best composers in the medium too soon.
He's Wes Anderson's go-to for the fantastical sound to match the director's stylistic productions. Alexandre Desplat is a cinematic composing legend, creating the sounds behind productions helmed by prolific filmmakers like Ang Lee, Kathryn Bigelow, Guillermo del Toro, Stephen Frears, and many more.
The French composer is an 11-time Oscar nominee and has secured two wins for The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Shape of Water. He excels in period dramas, earning acclaim for The Queen, The King’s Speech, and The Imitation Game, to name a few. He is working on the score for the upcoming Frankenstein film by del Toro.
Classic Disney’s go-to composer, Alan Menken is behind some of the most memorable Disney songs and scores of all-time. With over 15 Oscar nominations for Best Songs and Best Original Scores, he earned his golden statuettes for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and The Beast, Aladdin, and Pocahontas.
With the resurgence of remakes for the new generation of Disney viewers, Menken returned to live-action productions to continue elevating the music from the original animated movies. He continues to partner with Disney, including for the upcoming remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Not only is he the other half of cinema’s most dynamic duos with Tim Burton, but Danny Elfman is also the composer of the iconic main title of The Simpsons. His work became the soundtrack for the Halloween season with The Nightmare Before Christmas and Beetlejuice. Elfman is also responsible for the scores of superhero movies like Spider-Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Hulk.
Despite his lengthy filmography, Elman only has four Oscar nominations and has yet to win—Good Will Hunting, Men in Black, Big Fish, and Milk. His diverse work demonstrates his mastery of creating cinematic sound, making Elfman one of the best in the business.
What movie hasn’t Hans Zimmer scored? A titan of the industry, Zimmer is responsible for scores behind blockbusters like The Dark Knight Trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3, and Top Gun: Maverick. He’s dabbled in every genre and even stepped in mid-franchise installment to continue compositional work created by other composers.
The German composer has 12 Oscar nominations for features like Rain Man, The Prince of Egypt, Gladiator, and Interstellar. His two wins come from 1994’s The Lion King (he did return to score the live-action version) and the 2021 remake for Dune.
The magnificent maestro, John Williams is in a league all his own. With over 50 Oscar nominations, Williams is cinema's most honored composer. He's responsible for the most famous music themes in movie history: Jaws, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and many more.
Williams is considered the greatest of all time—shockingly, he only won an Oscar five times throughout his highly decorated career. In addition to the Oscar acclaim, he's earned 25 Grammy Wins. At age 91, Williams plans to continue composing for another decade. He might be the best composer of film scores alive.
Ali is a Milwaukee-based writer and editor with a focus on entertainment topics like movies and television for Wealth of Geeks. While movies were always a part of her life, Ali found a way to blend her passion for writing and cinema while studying at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. There, she studied the dynamics of literature and film, earning a Bachelor's in English and a minor in creative writing. As an entertainment geek, Ali believes movies are best seen in theaters and TV shows are more impactful with weekly episode releases, but she'll never turn down a good movie marathon or binge-watch of the most recent Mike Flanagan series. With over five years of publishing experience, her career includes serving as an editor for Oshkosh Scholar and previously reporting construction and legal news for The Daily Reporter and Wisconsin Law Journal. Additionally, Ali is also an infotainment contributing writer for Collider.