There are many ingredients that go into a film’s recipe: actors, locations, lighting, cinematography. But one of the most crucial aspects of a film is often the most overlooked: the score. A film’s music sets the tone for the entire story. Is it tragic, epic, frightening? A great score will often tell us.
The music weaves in and out of scenes, a character that can only be heard but not seen, dictating our emotions. The music can sometimes be dominant, alerting you of its presence, establishing itself as the theme for the movie. Other times, the score is more subtle, present but not so obvious, almost like a musical narrator in the background.
Many of Hollywood’s greatest directors recognize the importance of music in film. They find the best composers for their work, whose musical style, talent, and ability compliment their stories. And many times, this partnership becomes one for life.
These directors and composers work together over and over again, their collaborations often spanning the length of their careers. In many cases, a certain director’s film and accompanying composer’s score go hand-in-hand in our minds, its notes forever embedded into the movie’s DNA. Ranked by their number of collaborations, here are 10 director-composer duos whose partnerships have made movie magic.
10 Wes Anderson and Alexandre Desplat — 6 films
Wes Anderson is a true auteur in Hollywood. His movies are known for their stylized and symmetrical looks, quirky charm, pastel colors, and ensemble casts. And also for their music, thanks to French composer Alexandre Desplat.
Desplat has had a prolific career, composing for a variety of films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Shape of Water, The King’s Speech, and both parts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But he’s perhaps best known for his frequent collaborations with Wes Anderson.
The duo first came together in 2009’s animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox. Since then, they’ve collaborated on five additional films, including Moonrise Kingdom and 2023’s Asteroid City. Desplat’s compositions brilliantly capture the whimsical and quirky atmosphere of Anderson’s films. Perhaps no score encapsulates this more than that of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which won Desplat his first Oscar.
9 Darren Aronofsky and Clint Mansell — 6 films
Unlike Wes Anderson’s quirky and colorful films, Darren Aronofsky’s movies are known for their dark tones, dramatic stories, and surreal imagery. And Clint Mansell has been the perfect composer for his movies.
Mansell started out as the lead vocalist of English rock group Pop Will Eat Itself. After the group disbanded, Mansell moved to America to pursue a musical career in Hollywood — and he succeeded. He’s since composed many films for many directors, though Aronofsky has been his most frequent, and also his best, partner.
The duo first got together for the 1998 film Pi, and have worked together on six films. Mansell’s compositions tend to combine elements of classical music with a more modern sound, capturing the dark and unsettling elements that create the perfect atmosphere for an Aronofsky movie.
A prominent example is Black Swan, where Mansell sprinkles Tchaikovsky’s iconic music throughout his score, twisting its notes into a composition of horror. His most famous work, though, is “Lux Aeterna” from Requiem for a Dream, a beautifully haunting score that plays a key role in the film’s disturbing feel.
8 Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan — 6 Films
- Release Date
- November 5, 2014
- Main Genre
Hans Zimmer is one of the greatest film composers of all time. He’s behind the iconic scores of movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, True Romance, The Lion King, and Gladiator. Zimmer’s most frequent collaborator is actually director Ron Howard with 9 movies. But the collaboration that’s produced the most famous and memorable film scores is Zimmer’s partnership with Christopher Nolan.
Zimmer’s music perfectly captures the grand and epic feel of Nolan’s movies. They first worked together on Batman Begins, and Zimmer wound up composing the music for the other two films in The Dark Knight Trilogy. His notes seem to capture Batman’s movements, swooping in and out of shadows like a phantom in the night.
Zimmer also did the score for Interstellar, whose main theme seems to traverse the starry night sky, building in both intensity and emotion, making our hearts race and break at the same time. They’ve also worked together on Dunkirk and Inception, for a total of six movies.
7 Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann — 7 Films
- Release Date
- June 22, 1960
- Anthony Perkins , Vera Miles , John Gavin , Martin Balsam , John McIntire , Simon Oakland
Bernard Herrmann kicked off his illustrious Hollywood career by composing the score for Citizen Kane, which is often regarded as the greatest movie of all time. His most famous work, though, was produced through his collaboration with legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.
Since coming together for 1955’s The Trouble with Harry, the pair has worked on seven movies together. This impressive list includes Vertigo, The Birds, and Psycho. Herrmann’s score is a major reason why Psycho is considered so terrifying.
The music’s rhythm almost seems to reflect the stabbing motion of a knife, building up the terror and violence of the scene, its shrill notes similar to a high-pitched scream. Psycho’s shower scene is one of the most iconic scenes in cinema, and that’s mainly due to Herrmann’s score.
6 James Horner and Ron Howard — 7 Films
As mentioned earlier, Ron Howard’s most frequent collaborator is Hans Zimmer, though it can be argued that Howard’s partnership with composer James Horner has produced more iconic and memorable scores for the director. The two first linked up with the 1984 film Cocoon.
Since then, they’ve worked together on six additional films, including Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. Both films earned Howard an Academy Award nomination for best Original Score. The pair’s most famous collaboration, though, just might be the live-action adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas starring Jim Carrey. Horner co-wrote the song “Where Are You Christmas?” with Mariah Carey and Will Jennings, which has since become a holiday classic.
Horner also worked with other significant directors during his career, such as James Cameron. The pair only worked together three times, but they made it count. Horner composed the scores for two of Cameron’s most ground-breaking films, Avatar and Titanic.
The latter won the musician two Oscars: Best Original Dramatic Score and Best Original Song for Celine Dion’s iconic tune, “My Heart Will Go On.” The music was a key piece in Titanic’s monumental success. Think about it: would Titanic be as good without Horner’s romantic yet tragic melody sweeping throughout the movie?
5 Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone — 8 Films
Sergio Leone is considered to be one of the most influential directors in cinema. Interestingly, it’s an Italian filmmaker who made some of the greatest American Westerns to ever grace the silver screen, giving birth to the Spaghetti Western subgenre.
One of the things that make Leone’s westerns so iconic is the music by Italian composer Ennio Morricone. Morricone was a little-known composer when he and Leone first partnered up for 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, the first film in Leone’s Dollars trilogy. Morricone also composed the scores for the other two films, including The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
The film’s main themes, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “The Ecstasy of Gold” used unconventional sounds, like operatic vocals, whistling, and gunshots — and they somehow worked beautifully together, creating two of the most recognizable and legendary scores in cinema.
Morricone and Leone worked together on five other films, for a total of eight movies, including Once Upon a Time in the West. The main theme for this film is one of the top 5 best-selling original instrumental scores ever made. After rising to prominence with Leone, Morricone became one of the greatest and most prolific film composers ever, with more than 400 scores between cinema and television under his belt.
4 Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard — 15 films
Spike Lee is an iconic director who’s been making movies since 1986. But it wasn’t until his breakthrough movie, Do the Right Thing, that he met one of his most frequent collaborators. No, we’re not talking about Denzel Washington, though the two have worked together on a number of films. We’re talking about composer and musician Terence Blanchard.
Lee became a fan of Blanchard’s work after the musician performed on two of his movie’s soundtracks, including Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues. He asked Blanchard to start composing his films in 1991, starting with Jungle Fever, and they’ve been practically inseparable ever since.
The pair have worked together on a whopping 15 films, including Inside Man, 25th Hour, and Malcolm X. Their collaborations have earned Blanchard two Academy Award nominations for Best Original Score for BlacKkKlansman and Da 5 Bloods.
3 Tim Burton and Danny Elfman — 16 films
1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure marks composer Danny Elfman’s first score for a major film studio, and also his first collaboration with director Tim Burton. The two of them have since worked on a whopping 16 films.
And that doesn’t even include Burton-produced movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas, which has an iconic soundtrack that features ten songs written by Elfman. He even provided the singing voice of Jack Skellington.
Elfman’s music perfectly captures the dark, eerie, and whimsical nature of many of Burton’s movies. Some of their most iconic collaborations include Beetlejuice, the epic theme for 1989’s Batman, and the wistful and nostalgic music in Edward Scissorhands.
2 Robert Zemeckis and Alan Silvestri — 20 Films
Robert Zemeckis has directed 22 films during his illustrious Hollywood career. And of those 22, Alan Silvestri has composed the music for an impressive 20 of them, ever since 1984’s Romancing the Stone. And it’s not hard to see why.
Cast Away, The Polar Express, Contact, Who Framed Roger Rabbitt — these movies are all collaborations between Zemeckis and Silvestri. Forrest Gump wouldn’t be the same without that shot of a white feather floating in the breeze, while Silvestri’s piano music plays emotionally, almost sorrowfully, in the background.
And we can’t forget Back to the Future. This trilogy has one of the most iconic, recognizable scores in cinema. Watching Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) speed down the road in the Delorean, while Silvestri’s adventurous theme plays in the background, is nothing short of peak movie magic.
1 Steven Spielberg and John Williams — 28 Films
- Release Date
- June 18, 1975
If you’re a movie fan, is this even a surprise? John Williams is one of Hollywood’s greatest and most prolific composers of all time, providing some of the most iconic and recognizable scores in cinema. And many of those films come from legendary director Steven Spielberg.
Their first collaboration was 1974’s The Sugarland Express. Their second collaboration: Jaws. Because of the malfunctioning animatronic shark, Spielberg was forced to rely on Williams’ score to create the suspension and terror around the menacing predator.
The composition’s deep, heavy notes conjure the image of a large and imposing force that’s hidden in the shadows. The notes gradually speed up, building in urgency and danger, as the shark approaches its target, getting closer and closer.
Williams’ music perfectly captures the magic and grandness of many of Spielberg’s movies, such as E.T., Hook, and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, whose epic score has come to define the adventure genre. No one has created more movie magic than these two cinematic geniuses, who have created 28 iconic films and scores together.
Hearing that Jaws music in your head? Check out this video on fun facts about the iconic film: