10 Great Film Scores By Female Composers

Wonderful music that proves film music shouldn’t just be a man’s domain.
B Nef
By  · Published on February 23rd, 2018

Wonderful music that proves film music shouldn’t just be a man’s domain.

If there’s one element of filmmaking that is still seen as a sum-total male-dominated world it’s film scoring. There are certainly many female composers working, but when you look at the high-profile assignments flying around it’s a literal musical sausage factory. But we all know women can write just as good as men, so here for your perusal are ten fantastic scores composed by women.

Elle (Anne Dudley)

Director Paul Verhoeven has struck up several successful partnerships with composers in the past, from Rogier van Otterloo (Turkish Delight, Soldier of Orange) to Basil Poledouris (RoboCop, Starship Troopers) to Jerry Goldsmith (Basic Instinct, Total Recall), and from there a lot of powerful and masculine scores. But his most recent collaboration has been with English composer Anne Dudley for scores for Black Book (2006) and Elle (2016), the latter gaining the standard Verhoeven controversy. However, Dudley — most famous in the composing world for her Oscar-winning score to British comedy The Full Monty — created a score that terrifies as much as it pleases. Dudley’s use of complementing high and low strings to create a definite threatening mood is commendable and as uncomfortable to listen to as it needs to be. Beautiful to be sure, but absolutely haunting.

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Belle (Rachel Portman)

Another English composer with an Academy Award — for Emma in 1996 — Rachel Portman is perhaps the biggest name when it comes to contemporary female composers, with pictures such as Chocolat and Never Let Me Go to her name. But perhaps her greatest score is for the mesmerizing 2013 period drama Belle, about the relationship between an apprentice lawyer and the illegitimate mixed-race of a naval officer. Portman’s music is an absolute treat, full of evocative color and emotional undercurrents but not afraid to unfurl the orchestra’s power when required. It’s a moody score at times, reflecting the uncertainty of the title character’s future with a beautiful short melody acting as the narrative throughline for the score to spring from, but no less than masterful.

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Wilde (Debbie Wiseman)

An example of the talent in the female field that is ignored in favor of inferior composers, Debbie Wiseman has been writing for film and television since the mid-80’s but has never really been given the opportunities deserved. However, her clear aptitude for film composing is obvious within the opening minute of her score for Wilde, the 1997 biography of playwright Oscar Wilde. Wiseman’s score is appropriately stormy and overwrought, with a huge sense of melodrama and also turmoil, mirroring the sheer emotional see-saw of Wilde’s life as portrayed. Dominated by a strong central theme, there’s also a heavy sense of lyricism embedded in the score, understandably so given Wilde’s profession, but it doesn’t undercut the sheer emotion contained within.

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Manchester By The Sea (Lesley Barber)

Canadian composer Lesley Barber has been writing film music since 1995 but has only recently begun to receive mainstream plaudits with the acclaimed drama Manchester By The Sea in 2016. Her second collaboration with director Kenneth Lonergan after 2000’s You Can Count On Me, Barber has also scored films such as Mansfield Park (1999) and Death In Love (2009), but her music for Lonergan’s tragedy is an outstanding study of loss and emotional reconciliation. Interestingly, amongst strings and piano Barber also uses a female chorus, giving a surreal tone to the score but appropriate considering the film’s themes. The string work is impeccable and tonally there’s a real tangible sense of trying to hold on to something without it being overbearing.

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Never Take Sweets From A Stranger (Elisabeth Lutyens)

Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-1983) is a fascinating case, a talented composer who was very independent and eager to experiment in the avant-garde and who found herself paying the bills by scoring features for the British “houses of horror” Hammer Film Productions and Amicus Productions. She scored many genre pictures including 1965’s The Skull and 1967’s Theatre of Death, but perhaps her standout score was the 1960 Hammer production Never Take Sweets From A Stranger (localized in the US as Never Take Candy From A Stranger). Lutyens’ evocative score has a classic British sound with her personal touch, somewhat sweeping but refusing to fit into a completely pleasing melody. The foreboding of the opening ties into the harrowing dissonance encountered later in the picture along with the general tone, and it’s a challenging experience, illustrating the willingness of Lutyens not to be pigeonholed.

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The Legend of Hell House (Delia Derbyshire)

The tale of Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001) is a sad one to be sure. After moving around in several jobs while falling prey to sexism, she joined the BBC and was eventually assigned to the Radiophonic Workshop to work on sound effects for TV and radio. From there she would experiment with electronic music and helped create a piece of music infinitely important to the BBC and genre music: the Doctor Who theme. Taken from a base theme by Ron Grainer, Derbyshire arranged the theme with electronics and splicing to her co-worker’s astonishment, sadly she would not actually be publicly credited for her work until fifty years after its creation. She would work on some short films and documentaries, but also scored John Hough‘s 1973 horror The Legend of Hell House, with Workshop colleague Brian Hodgson. The result was a fascinating electronic score that went against the standard orchestral scoring that usually came with these pictures — their effort was weird, to say the least, but it was also incredibly unsettling, which for a horror film means half the battle is won already. Unappreciated until the end of her career, Derbyshire sadly sank into alcoholism and tragically passed away in 2001.

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Jackie (Mica Levi)

In 2014 English composer Mica Levi exploded onto the film scoring world with her incredible music for Jonathan Glazer‘s sci-fi horror picture Under The Skin. Previously known in the pop world with her band as Micachu and the Shapes, Levi’s film debut was markedly assured and wildly different from anything else around. Following that was her score for Pablo Larrain‘s Jackie Onassis biopic Jackie (2016), a perhaps more conventional work but no less impressive. Taking a classical approach, Levi used a chamber orchestra to create an intimate atmosphere for the times following the death of JFK; with layered violins and cello creating a series of sighs separated from a more optimistic melody, with the score trying to reconcile the two. When that reconciliation happens it’s startling, and the score literally transforms into something beautiful and hopeful, but still melancholic. A stunning achievement.

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Tron (Wendy Carlos)

Wendy Carlos is a composer that really needs no introduction. From her work with Stanley Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980) to her previous success with 1968’s Switched-On Bach, an album of music by Johann Sebastian Bach performed on the Moog synthesiser (which she helped develop) and even an adaptation of Prokovief’s Peter and the Wolf with “Weird Al” Yankovic, Carlos’ work is iconic to say the least. But perhaps her most interesting is her score to the 1982 Disney epic Tron, where she had the chance to experiment with the blending of electronic music and an orchestra, perfect for a film where a person goes from the real world to the inside of a computer. Carlos even wrote several new computer programs to help her cope with the demands of the score, especially as the resulting music from the short orchestra recording sessions was of a lesser quality than what she required. Nevertheless, her score for Tron is a wonderful synthesis of both elements with a curiously noble and gentle theme in the middle of it all, together with that famous opening “ba-ba-BA!” vocal motif. It’s no coincidence that the best-remembered parts of both Tron pictures are the soundtracks, but while Daft Punk carried it on, Wendy Carlos started it all.

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Watership Down (Angela Morley)

Angela Morley (1924-2009) rubbed noses with some famous figures in her career, from songstresses Shirley Bassey and Dusty Springfield to Scott Walker and Leopold Stokowski, as well as providing orchestrations for John Williams. Her film scoring career saw her become the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Oscar with 1974’s The Little Prince, where she worked with the legendary Sherman Brothers (Richard and Robert) but her greatest achievement was a score for an animated film that now resides in The Criterion Collection. Morley wasn’t the original choice for the 1978 adaptation of Richard Adams’ rabbit drama Watership Down but after Malcolm Williamson fell ill after writing two sketches, Morley took over and composed a fantastically bucolic and surprisingly brutal score at times, a tribute to the English countryside and the developers who would threaten it. A powerfully driving but whimsical theme acts as the engine for the rabbits’ quest, with motifs spinning off dealing with both death and the afterlife, resulting in a stirring and spirited score for both human and rabbit.

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Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (Shirley Walker)

The much-missed Shirley Walker (1945-2006) was best known in film scoring for holding her own amongst the boys, and indeed often directing them. An accomplished composer and musician who worked with John Carpenter, Hans Zimmer, and others arranging, conducting, and sometimes co-writing, Walker also had a number of genre assignments including the first three Final Destination pictures but her biggest impact came with the Caped Crusader. In 1989 she conducted and arranged Danny Elfman‘s Batman, with the success of that leading to her overseeing the scoring of Batman: The Animated Series, still recognized as the most consistently successful portrayal of the character. In 1993 Warners decided to put the show on the big screen with Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and kept faith with Walker to score; leading with her own material and theme from The Animated Series, Walker engineered a dramatic noir soundscape punctuated with the crazy elements of the Joker as well as a new theme, a lovely melody acting as a love theme for Bruce Wayne’s one true love. The score has a Bat-trunk full of highlights, from the mysterious Phantasm theme realized through a theremin to the early days of the dark knight’s crusade, culminating in the moment where Bruce puts on the cape and cowl, his transformation complete and Walker’s chorus screaming in contradictory triumph and sorrow. Chilling.

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Charlie Brigden is the author of many fine soundtrack liner notes and Blu-ray booklet essays and some call him a film music expert. He also recorded a commentary for Howard the Duck. You can find him on Twitter here: @brigdenwriter. (He/Him)