James Horner composed the film scores of our dreams

James Horner may have been the most important film composer not named John Williams to work in the movie industry. He scored music for more than 100 movies, won two Academy Awards, and through his music, provided the emotional context for some of the most beloved films of our time.

It’s rare that movie viewers even notice the music that plays under the scenes that they’re watching (Williams’ duuuh-dum! that accompanies the shark in Jaws might be one of the best examples of a film score stepping to the forefront). Horner, however, was a master of striking just the right note in the emotional accompaniment to the action on screen. “You have to make an audience connect to [the film] on a human level,” he said in one of his last interviews with the website HeyUGuys.com. “You still have to touch people’s hearts.”

One of my favorite film scores has always been that of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, an early Horner work. The seafaring sound he brought to the score lends a nautical feeling that enhances the entire film, an adventure of starships sailing through space and vengeance reminiscent of Moby Dick. This piece of music (which still gives me goosebumps some 33 years after the film’s release) is used for the scene in which the U.S.S. Enterprise—beheld in all of its massive glory on the big screen—clears its space dock:



As Horner’s career evolved, he scored dozens of films across numerous genres, including 48 Hrs., Something Wicked This Way Comes, Gorky Park, Cocoon, Commando, Aliens, An American Tail, Glory, Patriot Games, and The Pelican Brief. In 1989 he composed the score for Field of Dreams, despite not knowing a thing about baseball (“I think I may have lied to get the movie,” he admitted in a later interview). In the score, Horner perfectly captured the magic of a cornfield where ballplayers mystically appeared, along with the exuberance of climbing into a Volkswagen microbus and driving across the country on a seemingly senseless adventure:



In the 1990s, he explored his love of Celtic music—a style he would return to throughout his career—in his memorable score for Braveheart. He also reunited with director Ron Howard to score Apollo 13, a movie that required music evoking not just drama, but heroism:



In 1997, Horner created what might be his most memorable score. The film was James Cameron’s Titanic, and he won two Oscars for his work: one for Best Original Dramatic Score and one for Best Original Song, the ubiquitous “My Heart Will Go On,” which he co-wrote with lyricist Will Jennings. The song became a mega-hit for Celene Dion:



Horner’s later work would include Cameron’s Avatar, for which he composed music evocative of an alien culture (the score included a chorus sung in the alien language of the Na’vi):



At the time of his death, Horner was planning to work on sequels to Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time. (The second highest grossing movie is Titanic, thanks in no small part to Horner’s score.)

One of the great things about movies is their endurance—the best films live forever, viewing after viewing. The same can be said about the music that accompanies motion pictures—their music resonates with the emotions that carry those magnificent stories. James Horner was more than just a master musician—he was a musical storyteller, playing our heartstrings the way a virtuoso manipulates a violin. His tragic death is a loss for lovers of both movies and music, but his formidable body of work will continue to move audiences for as long as film endures.

Recommended reading:

The Encyclopedia of Film Composers by Thomas S. Hischak (Roman and Littlefield, 2015)

coverFrom the days of silent films to today’s blockbusters, music has been used to accompany and enhance the motion picture viewing experience. In this book, Hischak, a noted author and teacher of the performing arts, presents biographical material and career accomplishments of more than 250 composers who have scored films. Covering composers from Max Steiner to Henry Mancini to Randy Newman to John Williams, the book is a rich resource of movie music history.


A History of Film Music by Mervyn Cooke (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Film MusicIn a book that examines trends in film scoring from the silent era to today, author Cooke focuses not only on Hollywood, but on international films as well, including movies from the U.K., France, Italy, India, Japan and the early Soviet Union. A comprehensive history of film music, the book also details documentary and animated movie scores.