When you think of famous film composers, how many women are in your list? Probably not many, maybe none. That’s a shame, because there are a lot of great female film composers (both past and present). In a male-dominated industry, it’s important to call out some of the women who deserve some of the spotlight.
Who knows? Maybe your favorite film was scored by a woman and you didn’t even realize it.
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I’ve compiled a list of some of the female film composers worth looking up. I’ve also linked to some of their best known work. Hopefully this list grows exponentially in the future:
Film composer Rachel Portman tops the list because she is the first female film composer to win the Oscar for Best Original Score. Unbelievably, this happened as recently as 1996! She won for the film Emma, which was a period film based on the Jane Austen novel of the same name.
She started composing when she was only fourteen, and has since scored over 100 films and television shows. That let to another milestone achievement – a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Music Composition for a Miniseries, Movie, or a Special for the HBO film Bessie.
Check out the video below for some of her incredible music:
Anne Dudley is a female film composer, but also much more. She has an impressive resume on imdb, but also an equally impressive list of pop artists she has worked with as a producer and session musician.
In the film world, she was the second (of only two, as of this writing) woman to win the Best Original Score Academy Award for her work on The Full Monty. Other notable scores include the chilling music of American History X, and producing and co-writing the music for the 2012 version of Les Miserables.
Check out some of her powerful work below:
She may not have won any Academy Awards, but Delia Derbyshire is an important female film composer. Coming to film and TV composing during the early years of electronic music, she was on the cutting edge of technology. She experimented and innovated with electronic sounds, working many into her scores successfully – so much so that music critics have called her “the unsung heroine of British electronic music.”
Her most influential contribution may be her role in co-writing, producing, and arranging the original theme for “Dr. Who”. She wasn’t credited for her work on the theme until 50 years later.
For more of her traditional film composing, listen to the eerie score for The Legend of Hell House:
Mica Levi is a relative newcomer to the world of film composing, but has already made a mark. Her background is as the creative force behind Micachu and The Shapes, an experimental pop band. When she turns her creative attention on film scores, the results are amazing.
Her second film score was the biopic Jackie, and was nominated for an Oscar before she had even turned 30. Her first film score, though, is a personal favorite of mine. Under the Skin is an unnerving tale of alien seduction, told in a uniquely twisted way – and the film’s music is hauntingly perfect.
Wendy Carlos is a legend among film composers, period. The fact that she is not a household name is criminal. Her notable filmography contains collaborations with one of the greatest film directors of all time, Stanley Kubrick. When you watch A Clockwork Orange or The Shining, you’re hearing Wendy Carlos’s film music.
This would be enough to solidify her place in film history, but she was also responsible for breakthroughs in electronic music. Like Delia Derbyshire, she was on the bleeding edge of technology. In fact, she was helping shape the landscape by helping co-develop the Moog synthesizer.
Much of her work was in fact taking synthesizers into the classical realm. She released a series of “switched-on” albums, usually showcasing the music of J.S. Bach.
For a taste of Wendy’s electronic film scores, look no further than the classic Tron:
For a bit of nostaliga (if you grew up in the late eighties or early nineties), listen to the scores written by Shirley Walker. After arranging and conducting the film score for Batman under Danny Elfman, she was picked to helm the music for Batman: The Animated Series. For her work here, she won a Daytime Emmy Award.
Her career spanned three decades, and was the second woman to be credited as the sole composer on a film (for John Carpenter’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man). Later in her career, she scored the first three Final Destination films, among many others. She frequently collaborated with other composers, including Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, and John Carpenter.
Here’s some of my favorite Batman music, courtesy of Shirley Walker:
Okay, so this one is cheating a bit. Clara Schumann did not score films, but is an incredibly important female composer. In her lifetime she was often overshadowed by her husband Robert Schumann, but her gorgeous compositions have gained popularity over time.
She once said, “A woman must not desire to compose – not one has been able to do it, and why should I expect to?” This was probably a line told to her by many of the male composers of her time. Possibly, even, her husband. When looking at the film industry today, you have to wonder if much has changed.
I think any of the female composers in this list would disagree with Clara Schumann’s statement, and their work bears out the truth. Indeed, Clara’s own compositions are shining examples of Romantic music, and should stand as an inspiration to any aspiring female composer.