Music is an essential element of our TV shows and feature films. Everything else can be perfect, but without the right music the whole thing can fall apart.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the geeky properties we all know and love. It's thanks to the composers of these properties that we feel the pull of adventure, the sadness of a character's loss, and the danger of dastardly villains. Whether it's Star Trek or Star Wars, without the right music many iconic franchises would not be the same.
Over the years there have been numerous talented composers who have given us remarkable scores for geeky television and movies. However, even among these there are a few that stand apart from the rest as being true masters of their craft. That's why I wanted to feature the top 11 composers I believe have had a huge impact in this area and highlight one piece of music each has created that particularly stands out amid their work.
Of course, like too many other industries, this area is still unfortunately very white and very male-dominated. While I love the music these composers have created, I can only imagine the wonderful scores we've been missing due to the lack of diversity among those given the chance to completely compose those scores. I can only hope more women and people of color will be able to show off their musical talents in the field sooner rather than later!
Here's my ranking of the top geeky composers and my choices for their most notable pieces of music, counting down to the very best ...
If you're a Doctor Who fan, you know the music of Murray Gold. Gold has been the composer for the popular series ever since it returned to television in 2005. Composing for such distinguished Doctors as Christopher Eccleston to Peter Capaldi, he's created some of the best themes and music in the series' more than 50-year history. His unforgettable work includes "The Doctor’s Theme," "Doomsday," "This is Gallifrey: Our Childhood, Our Home," and "I Am the Doctor." His music has made us feel like we're on other planets, in a different time period, and traveling through time and space in the TARDIS. Gold also created the themes for the spin-offs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures.
Notable piece: "A Good Man? (Twelve's Theme)" from Doctor Who
Out of all of Gold's work, his theme for the current Doctor stands out from the rest. It’s like nothing we’ve heard before in the series and captures Capaldi's Doctor perfectly, more so I think than a theme has fit any of the previous Doctors. Listening to it, you get a sense of mystery, danger, wonder, adventure and determination. There's gravity to it as well as playfulness. Gold laces it all together into a complex, catchy piece that makes it hard not to picture everything the Doctor has been through, all he has done and all he will continue to do.
Kevin Kiner is probably best known for his work in the galaxy far, far away. He's composed music for Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, and it's been most impressive! Kiner's scores have made us feel like we're right in the thick of a battle during the time period between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, desperately resisting the Empire in a growing Rebellion right before A New Hope. He's done this not only by creating brand new works that take our breath away but also by masterfully weaving in classic pieces of music we recognize from the film scores by John Williams. He's truly a master of the Force in how he does this!
Of course, Kiner has made an impact beyond Star Wars as well. He also composed music for Land of the Lost, Star Trek: Enterprise and Stargate SG-1.
Notable piece: “It’s Over Now” from Star Wars Rebels (2016)
I came close to highlighting the music at the end of The Clone Wars finale episode "The Wrong Jedi" here, but I honestly think Kiner managed to create an even more powerful piece in the Rebels Season 2 finale "Twilight of the Apprentice" with "It's Over Now." After witnessing what happened in the episode, especially between Darth Vader and Ahsoka Tano, this music feels like such a great fit in so many ways. It ties back to that Clone Wars finale music, offering a great connection between the fated meeting we witnessed and the past the two had together. It does this while also building powerfully with new elements to really make us feel the challenges and hope that lie ahead for our heroes as they continue to stand together against Darth Vader and the Empire.
Many of you might not recognize the late Shirley Walker's name but you've probably heard her music over the years. It's unfortunate that she's not as recognized as many of her male colleagues when she's produced some equally incredible work in both film and television. She composed for TV shows like Space: Above & Beyond and The Flash series in the 1990s. She worked on Memoirs of an Invisible Man, the first three Final Destination movies and several other feature films.
However, Walker's most stunning work was in the realm of the DC Animated Universe, where her work paved the way for how the universe would feel in multiple series. She not only composed music for Batman: The Animated Series but created the theme for the show's second season. She also composed the theme for Superman: The Animated Series and worked on some episodes of the show. She also created music for The New Batman Adventures, Batman Beyond, Spawn and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
Shirley Walker has been called a pioneer by many and was a mentor to numerous composers. She died at only 61 but her legacy lives on in her music and the industry.
Notable piece: "Main Title" from Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Based on Batman: The Animated Series, this animated film featured music composed by Walker. While there’s a lot in the DC universe of hers to choose from, I think this piece really showcases her talent. There have been a lot of Batman themes but Walker developed something new and exciting for Mask of the Phantasm. She manages to make the theme quite unique, but you can still hear ties to the animated universe. The choir adds a whole new level to the music that is at once thrilling and chilling! It's a fantastic piece by Walker.
James Newton Howard
Over the years James Newton Howard has composed music for a range of films. He worked on The Sixth Sense, King Kong, I Am Legend, The Green Hornet, Green Lantern, Unbreakable, Maleficent, all three films in The Hunger Games series, worked with Hans Zimmer on the music for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and much more. Most recently he worked on the score for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and will be working on the sequel as well. Some of these soundtracks stand out more than others, but more often than not Howard's work is not soon forgotten once you've heard it!
Notable piece: “Tina Takes Newt In/MACUSA Headquarters” from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
I have to admit to being extremely impressed with Howard's work on the Harry Potter prequel film. He's had to step in and work on a franchise that a lot of amazing composers have already contributed to, including John Williams, who set the tone of the original film series with his magical themes. On the Fantastic Beasts soundtrack, Howard offers a nod to former works like "Hedwig’s Theme" but otherwise makes it all his own. The music brings us into a familiar yet very different wizarding world and this track shows that best. The piece’s hauntingly beautiful theme is a perfect fit for inviting us into the largely unknown American wizarding community and captures that magic marvelously well. It also includes a 1920s jazz style theme, which is some of the catchiest music in the entire film.
Hans Zimmer is an extremely prolific composer, creating film music that stays stuck in your head long after hearing it. Some of Zimmer's most notable work includes Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, some of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and more. As mentioned above, he also collaborated with James Newton Howard on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. You can always tell when Zimmer's had a hand in the score for a film; while his work is not repetitive, there's something about his music that's always quite bold and emotional, which makes it immediately identifiable.
Notable piece: "Dream is Collapsing" from Inception (2010)
The soundtrack for Inception is arguably Zimmer's best work and this track captures everything that makes him such a compelling composer. "Dream is Collapsing" is fittingly evocative and forceful, bringing you right to the edge of your seat. It's a signature of Zimmer's work that you can feel his music to the very core, and this powerful piece does that in a very unique way.
We lost James Horner far too soon when he died in a plane crash in 2015. His legacy lives on through the amazing music he composed for genre films and beyond during his stellar career. Horner was the composer for The Rocketeer, Krull, The Amazing Spider-Man, Avatar, and Aliens, to name a few. He produced amazing soundtracks for the Star Trek films The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock as well as for Field of Dreams and Titanic. His work was always beautiful and captivating.
Notable piece: "Main Title" from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
To get a sense of James Horner's marvelous talent, look no further than the "Main Title" for the second Star Trek film. It reminds you of the classic Star Trek we know and love by using composer Alexander Courage's fanfare from The Original Series before transitioning to something quite inventive. Horner brilliantly creates a piece merging old with new, capturing the franchise's epic nature and promise of adventure.
Jerry Goldsmith is another legendary composer who's unfortunately no longer with us, and it's hard to discern where to even begin when highlighting his work. In his long career he created memorable music for movies like Logan’s Run, the original Planet of the Apes, Alien, The Mummy, Gremlins, Supergirl and many more. He had a lasting impact on the Star Trek franchise in both film and TV, having created the impressive theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which would be later adapted for The Next Generation TV series. He was also the composer for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Nemesis and wrote the main theme for Star Trek: Voyager. He also composed Star Trek: First Contact with his son, Joel Goldsmith.
Notable piece: "Main Title" from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Tasked with scoring the first Star Trek movie, Jerry Goldsmith wrote what would become one of the most beloved themes in the entire franchise. It's hard to listen to this piece and not become swept up in the music with its sense of adventure. It's so captivating and grand, it's become a piece identifiable as Star Trek probably even to people who aren't really fans of the franchise. The "Main Title" left such an impact that it would be used for The Next Generation (which many people probably think this music comes from originally).
Michael Giacchino has worked a lot with J.J. Abrams over the years and that partnership has resulted in a lot of the composer's finest work. However, even beyond Abrams' TV shows and films, Giacchino has made a name for himself as one of the best composers of our time. In TV he worked on shows like Lost and Fringe. His feature film work includes The Incredibles, Super 8, John Carter, Jupiter Ascending, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Jurassic World and more. He’s had the task of scoring the rebooted Star Trek film franchise starting with the first 2009 film and continuing with Star Trek Into Darkness and Star Trek Beyond. Most recently he scored Doctor Strange and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and in 2017 you'll hear his work in Spider-Man: Homecoming and War for the Planet of the Apes.
Notable piece: "Jynn Erso & Hope Suite" from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
If I wasn't currently constantly listening to the Rogue One soundtrack, I would have struggled about whether to highlight one of Michael Giacchino's Lost pieces or the main theme from 2009’s Star Trek here. As it is, having listened to the new Star Wars score so much lately I instantly thought of this piece when trying to decide on what I think is Giacchino's best work. Rogue One was the first Star Wars film not scored by John Williams, and while his powerful music in the last seven movies is a hard act to follow, Giacchino succeeds in making the music of this first stand-alone film a success. It includes nods to Williams' work but is also different than what we've heard before ... and yet clearly pure Star Wars.
"Jynn Erso & Hope Suite" is the best example of this. It's one of a few compositions in the score, including the “Guardians of the Whills Suite,” that I think stand out, even from a lot of what Williams produced for The Force Awakens. Like Rogue One, it’s beautiful enough to move you to tears. Yet even with the sadness you feel here, there's just enough hope in the notes to make it an equally optimistic piece of music as well.
While Howard Shore has scored a number of films, he earns such a high spot on this particular list for his masterful work on two particular movie trilogies: The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. These six films, especially the three Lord of the Rings movies, were amazing live-action adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's work and part of their success was the music Shore created for Middle-earth. Whether it was "Concerning Hobbits" transporting us to the Shire or "The Leave Taking" making us feel like we are there with Arwen and the Elves, the journey would not have felt the same without the emotion and influence of Shore’'s work. He continued this tradition with The Hobbit films, which were not quite as groundbreaking perhaps as the first trilogy but nonetheless gave us some more amazing music.
Notable piece: "The Riders of Rohan" from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
If there's one piece of music that Howard Shore composed that fits best with the epic and beautiful scale of Tolkien's trilogy, I have to say it's this one. Shore's talent is on full display in these few minutes. The piece fits perfectly with the people and culture we are introduced to in Rohan and at the same time fits into the larger sense of Middle-earth by capturing a sense of adventure and wonder that our characters find as they continue on their quests. It's a stirring piece that makes you feel more in a short amount of time than many other pieces composed for fantasy films.
Where to begin with Danny Elfman? His work has left quite a mark on the industry over the years. He’s composed scores for multiple films in the Men in Black, Spider-Man and Batman franchises. He also worked on Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Mars Attacks!, Planet of the Apes and many more. Elfman's strength is in how he'ssuch a versatile composer, delivering an iconic score every time. In reviewing his work it's hard to find any pieces that sound like copies of each other -- each is unique and fitting for the particular film, and always memorable.
Notable piece: “Main Theme” from Batman (1989)
Danny Elfman's truly grand Batman theme fits the superhero perhaps more than any theme before or since and would influence the Caped Crusader and his music for years to come. This is Elfman at his very best. In this rousing piece you not only feel like you're traveling through the gothic Gotham City but also like you’re alongside the Dark Knight as he traverses the shadows and battles villains. It's a masterpiece of superhero themes and does a perfect job of capturing the essence of the character.
It's probably no surprise that John Williams tops my list. As talented as the rest of these composers are, none of them can beat Williams. His work will go down as the most iconic pieces of music ever made for the industry. He's composed for science fiction and fantasy and everything in-between, and he's still going strong in his mid-eighties!
His work in television includes creating themes for series like The Time Tunnel, Amazing Stories, Land of the Giants and Lost in Space.
As for films, there's almost too many to choose from to try to highlight here. Williams has given us incredible themes and music for such classics as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, E.T., Hook, Jurassic Park, the Indiana Jones franchise, the Harry Potter movies and, of course, the Star Wars series. I think there’s little doubt that Williams will go down in history as the most innovative composer of our time.
Notable piece: "Main Title" from Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)
Choosing one notable piece for John Williams felt like an impossible task. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized it had to be Star Wars. So much of Williams' music has made an impact, but it's the theme that starts each Star Wars saga film that I think will go down as his all-time best work. As soon as the first notes start to play, it’s instantly recognizable to most people. Williams made Star Wars feel like a true space opera and it all starts with this opening. You can't listen to this and not feel like you're about to be swept into an adventure in a galaxy far, far away. 'Epic' hardly describes what this feels like; it's heroic, classic and absolutely breathtaking. It's perhaps the best movie theme ever created.
Who’s your favorite composer? Which pieces of music from these talented composers do you think is their best? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!