5 Famous Female Film Composers

Film scores are instrumental (pun intended) to creating emotion and feeling in a movie. For example, imagine the iconic Jaws films without the famously haunting “Duh-nuh. Duh-nuh, duh-nuh,” film score riff. It simply wouldn’t be the same. 

We consider film score composition to be one of the most exciting music careers out there (read What is a Film Composer and How do I Become One to learn more about that). And while male composers such as John Williams and Hans Zimmer get plenty of media attention, String Ovation wants to focus your attention on five successful female film composers to inspire you. 

1. Anne Dudley 

Anne Dudley is a British composer who achieved star-level when she landed an Oscar for her comedic Full Monty score. In the course of her career Anne Dudley has achieved the aforementioned Oscar, a Grammy, a Brit, and an Ivor Novello. Her list of musical film and TV score achievements is impressive, including compositions for the movies Black Book (2006) and Elle (2016), and a slew of TV shows such as Poldark. 

Her success as a film score composer has also led her to serve as a music producer for the Academy Award-winning film, Les Miserables, starring Hugh Jackman. Also worth noting is that Dudley composed a concert piece for the violinist Joshua Bell entitled "The Man with the Violin" featuring narration and animation. Listen to Joshua talk more about how, “The Man with the Violin,” came into being. 

Her advice: In a 2017 interview, Dudley’s advice to young composers was, “Pursue your dream and do your own thing...Be true to yourself. If you've got the talent, ambition and drive, there really should be a place for you.” 

2. Jocelyn Pook 

The second famous female composer to make our list is Jocelyn Pook, who started her career after graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1983. Jocelyn is a string player just like you, and her instrument is the viola. 

She has won numerous awards over the years, including a Chicago Film award and a Golden Globe nomination for her work featured in the film Eyes Wide Shut. She also wrote scores for the films The Merchant of Venice (starring Al Pacino), Brick Lane, and The Gangs of New York. While best-known for her film and TV scores, Pook also loves to perform, and continues to celebrate the diversity of the human voice, touring extensively with The Jocelyn Pook Ensemble, performing repertoire from her albums and music from her film scores. 

Her Advice: In a 2015 interview, Jocelyn had a tough time giving specific advice because she said the times had changed so much from when she graduated. She advocates pursuing classes and master classes specifically dedicated to film score composition. Ultimately, however, in an interview by Plays to See International Theatre Review, she said, “...perseverance is the main thing.” 

3. Rachel Portman 

Like Anne Dudley, Rachel Portman is a UK native. She holds the official designation of being the first female composer to win an Academy Award. The Oscar was presented to Portman in 1996 for the Emma film score. She’s also written a myriad of other well-known scores, 100+ to be exact, including scores for the films, The Manchurian Candidate, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Lake House, and Chocolat. 

Rachel Portman has also garnered a Primetime Emmy Award, and a BMI Film and TV Award, and has received dozens of award nominations. 

Her Advice: Rachel is very optimistic about the future of female composers. She says that she has never felt like being a woman made it any different for her or that it held her back. However, like Jocelyn Pook, she acknowledges that it’s a highly competitive field and that perseverance is essential. She was quoted in a Classic FM interview saying, "If you know that it's what you really want to do, because it's hard to break in...stick with it and stay with it." 

If perseverance is hard for you, visit our post If You’re Not Failing, You’re Not Growing, for inspiration and help shift your perspective to become even more successful. 

4. Debbie Wiseman 

Fans of Debbie Wiseman’s work feel she is a quintessential example that female composers don’t always get their due. While she has been composing scores since the 1980s, it wasn’t until 1997 that her talent was given its well-deserved spotlight during the movie Wilde, a 1997 biography about the Irish wit, dramatist, and writer Oscar Wilde. 

With our particular fondness for string music, we’re excited about Debbie Wiseman because she recently composed a brand-new piece for the celebrated cellist, Steven Isserlis. The piece titled A Lustre to This Daywas recorded at the historic Abbey Road recording studio, and will be released this year (2021). Her album, The Mythos Suites, went instantly to the Number 1 position of the UK Classical Music Charts. 

Her Advice: Debbie Wiseman has presented many different tips for aspiring composers over the years. Five of her tips were shared by Classic FM, some of which were to compose a little something every day, never shut your heart/ears to different genres of music, and not to be afraid of rejection. To that last point Wiseman says, “Just carry on, don’t take it personally and one day you won’t be rejected, you’ll be given an opportunity and then another. It’s a case of being tenacious and knowing you mustn’t give up.” 

5. Lesley Barber 

Lesley Barber was born in Canada and is best-known for the compelling and emotional scores written for Manchester By the Sea (2016) and You Can Count on Me (2020). Some of her other film scores include Mansfield Park and Irreplaceable You. She is also responsible for the delightful scores found in the beloved, animated children’s TV show, Little Bear. Of note to string musicians is her work with Yo-Yo Ma for the film Six Gestures. 

One of the most interesting things about Lesley is that she was mostly self-taught as a child. While her nuclear and extended family loved music, and she grew up listening to ‘60s and ‘70s pop music, she didn’t start playing piano until she was in high school. That just goes to show that you are never too old to start learning an instrument or beginning a musical career. 

Her Advice: Lesley Barber emphasizes that a film score composer is a musical storyteller, supporting the actors, the script, and the stage set/location. To that end, Lesley was quoted in a Jezebel.com interview saying, “Familiarize yourself with storytelling and filmmaking...Watch as many films as you can, and see if that’s where your passion lies. In a way, we’re dramatists. [This job is about] creating an emotional connection in the right way. That’s a big part of it, and the other part is learning how to communicate your ideas. Then creating your own voice. You’re a dramatist, and that’s what makes a great filmmaker, a film composer.”

1 comment

  • Lucy John
    Lucy John
    You’re right! Without that heart-gripping background effect, Jaws won’t be the same. Now I am going to do a little experiment and watch it with and without sound. But I have to write an essay, and the deadline is tomorrow. Well, thank God that I know an essay writing service UK standard. Okay guys, I’m off to watch the Jaws series now without having any worry.

    You’re right! Without that heart-gripping background effect, Jaws won’t be the same. Now I am going to do a little experiment and watch it with and without sound. But I have to write an essay, and the deadline is tomorrow. Well, thank God that I know an essay writing service UK standard. Okay guys, I’m off to watch the Jaws series now without having any worry.

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