The Top Ten Disney Composer and Songwriter

This article might be a little bit premature. Perhaps I should discuss some of the soundtracks first before making the list. On the other hand, though, it might be a good idea to introduce some of the most prolific Disney Composers and Songwriters before discussing their work.

You’ll notice that most of the composers I listed are from the 1990s onwards. That is not a slight to the musicians from the older movies, but a result of two factors:

1. If you don’t count the package movies and Fantasia (which I only took into account as secondary achievements for this list), there are only 20 movies made before the Disney Renaissance, as opposed to 30 to consider for the time after, due to the increased number of movie releases.

2. In a lot of the old productions it is a little bit sketchy which musician did what, and some stayed unaccredited for their work.

For this list, I only ranked musicians which worked on multiple projects for Disney – so as much as I dig Jerry’s Goldsmith’s work on Mulan, or Peggy Lee’s contribution to Lady and the Tramp, they were not considered. I also did the ranking based on the contribution for Disney specifically, with an emphasis on the animated features, and not based on their overall body of work. There are a lot of famous musicians who didn’t end up on the list at all or in a very low spot. There are even some Disney Legends which didn’t make the cut, either because they only worked on one single (alas remarkable) project, or because they, for some reason or another, didn’t work on that many animated movie projects.


 

10. Leigh Harline and Ned Washington

One certainly can’t make a list like this without mentioning the two minds responsible for When you wish upon a star, Disney semi-official anathema, which resulted their first academy award for best song. The only reason those two are not higher is because I am not sure how great their overall influence on the movies actually was. Ned Washington was a very talented lyricist, who was also responsible for the text of Baby Mine, but he rarely worked for Disney. And while Leigh Harline’s work on animated shorts, especially the Silly Symphonies, left quite a mark, he left the studios in 1941 after a row with Walt Disney, who allegedly didn’t like the music for “Pinocchio”. Considering that Harline did score a best film music nomination for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and won the award for “Pinocchio”, I guess it is no wonder that he didn’t see eye to eye with Disney on that matter.

Leigh Harline and Ned Washington were not a regular Song Writing team, as far as I know this was the only project they worked together on for Disney. But they were both named Disney legends in 2001, so I think it is fair to list them together nevertheless.


 

9. Randy Newman

Most of the work Randy Newman did was for Pixar and not for Disney. In fact, Pixar’s musical identity of the early days is pretty much defined by the Newman family from start to finish. Randy Newman (who worked on “A Bug’s Life”, “Monsters, Inc” and “Monsters University”, “Cars” and the “Toy Story” trilogy) and his cousin Thomas Newman (“Finding Nemo”, “Wall-E”), worked on more than half of Pixar movies which currently exist. Personally, though, I prefer the soundtracks by  Michael Giacchino (“The Incredibles”, “Ratatoille”, “Up” and “Cars II”) .

But I digress, this is supposed to be about Disney first and foremost, not Pixar. Otherwise Randy Newman, who was named Disney Legend in 2007, should be higher on the list. But for the animation studios, he only worked on “Princess and the Frog”, which has one of Disney’s weaker soundtracks.

I consider Randy Newman a decent musician but not a particularly good song writer, which makes him largely unsuited for the common Disney movie. He is a better fit for Pixar due to the lack of songs in their movies. Thus said, When she loved me happens to be one song of him I really, really like, mostly because it is one of the few cases in which his habit to simply describe what is right there on the screen works due to the song adding an emotional level. Usually his songs have the tendency to slow down a movie at the wrong place, but in Toy Story II the song slows down the plot at exactly the right place, giving the audience a moment to take in Jessie’s grief. I therefore consider this as his best work for Disney (even though it was technically done for Pixar).


 

8. Phil Collins and Marc Mancina

Phil Collins style of music is not everyone’s cup of tea, but he did work on two movie for Disney, “Tarzan” and “Brother Bear”, both times with Marc Mancina. There is not question which one is the better soundtrack. While I don’t think that the songs and score of “Brother Bear” are bad by any means – Look through my eyes and No Way Out were both turned into singles, and Welcome would later be used in the parks for “Walt Disney’s Parade of Dreams” – the music is not as well utilized as it should be. “Tarzan” on the other hand resulted in a well deserved academy award for You’ll be in my heart.

There are  three aspects which make the soundtrack stand out. One is the use of some very obscure instruments from Mancina’s personal collection. The second is the fact that this it is one of the few Disney movies in which the songs are sung from the off and not by the characters. And the third is the bilingual bonus: Phil Collins decided to personally sing the Italian, German, Spanish, and French versions, too, as a thank you to his fans.

Phil Collins was named Disney Legend in 2002. Marc Mancina is connected to the upcoming Disney Movie Moana.


 

7. Henry Pryce Jackman

It is a little bit difficult to truly judge the musician’s currently working for Disney. But it would also be wrong not to acknowledge them, especially considering the recent successes. It is hard, though, to properly rank those musicians. None of them left their mark on that many movies (yet).  Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have worked on two movies, “Winnie the Pooh” and “Frozen”. Henry Pryce Jackman worked on “Winnie the Pooh”, “Wreck-it Ralph” and “Big Hero 6”. And I guess the first reaction of most people would be to say that the Lopezes are more deserving for recognition, because they penned Let it go.  But that is only one song, and neither soundtrack they did so far really convinced me. They have written some good songs (and yes, they won an academy award, but there are other academy award winners which I didn’t even mention because they simply didn’t work that long or that successful for Disney), but in terms how the music is utilized in the movies they worked on, there are some serious flaws which make me hesitate to give them more than a nod. Which I have now done.

Jackman is a name I have noticed for some time. Unlike the majority of people, I have the habit of always staying to the very end of the movie. And that includes the end credits. Now it would be a lie to claim that I read all of them, but there are some categories I do tend to pay attention to. Who was responsible for animation, who for the special effects, and, especially when it sounds like a composer I might know, who did the music. Jackman was an understudy of Hans Zimmer, who has a very distinctive style. Now, Hans Zimmer didn’t make the list because he is more a DreamWorks than a Disney musician, despite his involvement in project like “Lion King”, “Pirates of the Caribbean”  and “Muppets Treasure Island”. He did some really great work for the studio, but he didn’t shape the style of movies they way other people on this list did.

Jackson on the other hand pretty much set the tone for Disney’s more action oriented animated movies. He is apparently one of the guys Disney’s like to go to for a good score. So no, Suger Rush is not by him, nor is any of the other Songs in “Wreck-it Ralph”.  But the rest of the soundtrack is just as good if not better. I especially love the Wreck-it Ralph Theme which is played in the game central station scene. It sounds busy, somewhat computer-like, but also cheerful. It’s a perfect fit, and one of my favourite Disney scores.

This in mind, I listened to the soundtrack of “Big Hero 6” (which was kind of an unusual experience, I normally don’t do that before watching the movie in question). And while I can’t judge how well it fits the movie (which I can’t watch yet because Disney got the brilliant idea to delay the release in Germany until the end of January…thanks a bunch, Disney, for ruining my yearly Disney Christmas or New Year watch), it sounds amazing. Reboot immediately put a smile on my face. If Jackman were a song writer, I think he would have already gotten way more recognition for his work, and I hope he will get it one day…after even more amazing soundtracks.


 

6. James Newton Howard

Talk about a truly underappreciated musician – at least in terms of his work for Disney. James Newton Howard is nowadays widely recognized, but his contribution to Disney tends to get overlooked. He provided a number of really remarkable soundtracks, but none of them were attached to a truly successful movie. Just look at the list: “Dinosaur”, “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” and “Treasure Planet”, as well as the Disney produced movies “Gnomeo and Juliet” and “Maleficent”. His soundtrack is, Imho, the only good thing about “Maleficent” and perhaps part of the reason why so many people give the movie a pass. A good soundtrack paired with striking visuals can elevate a movie considerable (“Pocahontas” and “Hunchback of Notre-Dame” are other examples for the phenomenon), even if the actual plot is very weak. Especially the haunting version of Once upon a dream is very memorable.

But the quality or the level of success of those movie doesn’t diminish his contributions in the slightest, at least not for me. Hopefully he will be attached to other more successful Disney Projects in the future. Until then I declare “Treasure Planet” as his best work so far (even though my beloved I’m still here was not written by him but by John Rzeznik). Especially Silver Leaves is an equally thoughtful and uplifting piece.


 

5. Paul Joseph Smith and Frank Churchill

Of all the musicians which worked for Disney in the early days, those are the names which stand out the most. Both of them worked on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (together with Leigh Harline and Larry Morey) and created some of the most memorable Disney songs and scores of the 1930s and 1940s.

Paul Joseph Smith worked for nearly his whole career for Disney, but “Cinderella” was the last movie project he did for the animation studios. After that he mainly worked on life-action movies and especially documentaries. His idea to combine wildlife scenes with classical music in a somewhat comical fashion has been criticised, but more often copied. Though my favourite work by him is with no question the soundtrack for “20,000 Leagues under the Sea”. Considering his body of work, it is no wonder that he was named Disney Legend in 1994, earlier than most of the other musicians on this list.

Frank Churchill’s live story is equally successful and tragic. In his way too short time with the Disney studios, he was one of the pillars of the musical division. Joining the studio in 1930, he worked on many of the shorts and penned Who is afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, which was a huge commercial success. After “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, he became supervisor of music at Disney. But he also fought with depression which only worsened by heavy drinking in reaction to the death of two of his friends and fellow orchestra members within a month of each other. In 1942, Frank Churchill committed suicide. Supposedly he died at his piano from a self-inflected gunshot wound. During his time with Disney, he received three academy award nominations – two of the posthumously for his work on Bambi  – and one win in the category “Scoring of a Musical Picture” for Dumbo. One of the last projects he was working on was “Peter Pan” for which he got partial song credit. And while I think that “Bambi” is his best work due to the onomatopoeia he integrated into the music, Never smile like a crocodile will always be my favourite song he co-created. He was named Disney Legend in 2001.


4. Oliver Wallace

Characteristic  for the 1950s was that Disney didn’t use one or two musicians for a movie, but a number of composers – a fact which greatly contributed to the lack of presence of them on this list. Because of this practice, there weren’t really any true stars. But there was still someone needed who ensured that the different songs would fit together for the movie, and this person was Oliver Wallace. He managed this, by integrating leitmotiv-like elements into the score (I already commented once on the role of A Dream is a Wish your Heart makes in the score when I discussed the “I want”-song).

But at this point, he was already one of the Disney veterans. Joining the studio in 1936, he had already won an academy award (together with Frank Churchill, and like him he was named Disney legend in 2001) for “Dumbo”. In addition, he was one of the oldest members of the studio age-wise. Born in 1887, he was 14 years older than Walt Disney himself – one can certainly not accuse Disney of ageism, considering that he hired a 49 year old guy, and not because he was a known expert in his field, but because he brought a unique collection of skill sets to the table which he acquired during his unusual career and unsteady life. After all, animation was a new art form back then. There was no formal education.

I had a hard time to decide if I should place him on rank four or five. I eventually gave him the edge over Smith and Churchill because while his work is slightly less prolific, his impact might be stronger because he was way longer active for the studio.  Until his death in 1963 he contributed to nearly 150 Disney productions, and shaped the package movie era as well as the 1950s with his approach. Due to the collaborative nature of those productions, it is a little bit hard to pick the stand-out soundtrack. “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” is one of the few projects on which he worked practically alone, and it certainly gave him the opportunity to shine with his uplifting music. But if I were pressed to name his best work, I would say “Alice in Wonderland”, even though the soundtrack overall is not really one of my favourites. It is nevertheless quite a remarkable feat.

For one because of the sheer number of musicians working on this movie. Not counting Wallace himself, there are no less than six song writers credited for the movie, which is even for this era an unbelievable number. Honestly, was there any musician in the Disney studios not involved in this project? Granted, the list for “Peter Pan” isn’t exactly short either, but that’s mainly because “Peter Pan” was a project which was interrupted by the war and some of the work already done in the 1940s was used ten years later for the final movie. Plans for “Alice in Wonderland” had been around even longer, since Disney was kind of obsessed with the book, but the actually production process didn’t start until after the war. It is honestly somewhat surprising that Wallace managed to create something which does sound homogeneous with so many people involved. I guess having so many songs to pick from might have helped, but he nevertheless deserves a lot of credit for balancing it out.

And two, what I consider the most memorable piece of music in this movie is not derivate of a song.  March of the Cards is certainly a stand-out score, created for a stand-out scene.


 

3. George Bruns

When I looked into George Bruns body of work, I was kind of surprised that his name is more known. After all, he was hired by Disney in 1953 as musical arranger, eventually became musical director and held the position until his retirement (during which he continued to participate in Disney projects) in 1976..

He is the writer of The Ballad of Davy Crockett, a song which was cobbled together under time pressure in order to meet the running time of 60 minutes for the episode in question. In fact, producer Billy Walsh later remarked:

“I thought it was pretty awful, but we didn’t have time for anything else.”

But this song became a big hit, and was largely responsible for the founding of the Label “Disneyland Records”. Bruns was also responsible for Yo ho (A Pirates Life for me), which he wrote together with Xavier Atencio.

I think, his work often gets overlooked because he was mainly a composer and only wrote one other (Oscar nominated) song, Love from Robin Hood, in cooperation with Floyd Huddleston. He was often overshadowed by the actual song writers of the different movies, especially a certain pair of brothers. He also didn’t really have a distinctive style. Bruns worth for Disney studios lay in his ability to immerse himself in the style of the other musicians he was working with to a degree that it is impossible to tell where their work ends and his work starts.

His Magnus Opus is definitely Sleeping Beauty, on which he worked with Tom Adair. A lot of people tend to dismiss his contributions on the grounds of the movie using Tchaikovsky’s music. But this might have been one of the most difficult tasks a musician from Disney ever got. He not only had to rearrange the music in a way which fit the movie, repurposing some pieces in the process – most famously, the puss-in-boots segment became Malificent’s Evil Spell,  and a very short segment from the introduction of the fairies was turned into Once upon a Dream – he also wrote new pieces in Tchaikovsky’s style which fit into the soundtrack so seamless that I didn’t notice it for years despite knowing the ballet very, very well. He also matched the music so well that just by hearing it, I know exactly what is happening in the movie at this point. When I hear Battle with the Forces of Evil, I know at which point Phillip uses his sword and when the yaw of the dragon snaps.

George Bruns was named Disney Legend in 2001, and I think there are few which deserve the honour as much as he did.


 

2. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman

I can’t emphasis enough how hard is was to decide between the top two spots. And who knows, if Howard Ashman hadn’t died way too early, this team might have taken the top spot by a storm. But I can only judge by what was, and not by what could have been, and I guess in the end, the team which got the number one spot contributed to way more projects than even Alan Menken did to this day.

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman deserve a lot of credit for shaping the Disney Renaissance. Their concept of an animated Broadway musical was what made this particular era so successful. Already providing an outstanding sound track for “The Little Mermaid”, they outdid themselves with their work on “Beauty and the Beast”. I personally consider it the best soundtrack of all Animated movies. Not only is the score fantastic (especially West Wing and Transformation), not only is there not one bad song, but each song serves a purpose in the story to a degree that the movie would make no sense if you remove one of them. I already raved about how perfectly utilized Belle is in an earlier article, but the other songs are no less thought-out. It was Ashman’s philosophy that a song should always contribute to the plot, and his last soundtrack truly turned out to be his best – even though he might have preferred it to be a different one.  Before getting yanked of the project because he was needed for “Beauty and the Beast”, he did work on “Aladdin”, but his song, Proud of your boy, was sadly cut when the story was changed. The movie was emptier for it, though it was added again for the Stage musical.

Alan Menken continued to work for Disney on “Aladdin”, “Pocahontas”, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, “Hercules”, “Home on the Range”, “Enchanted” and “Tangled”, as well as the non-animated movie musical “Newsies”.  He won two academy awards for Best Original Song and Best Original Score for “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Aladdin” and “Pocahontas”, which made him the most prolific Oscar winner in the music category after Alfred Newman (who won the award nine times). There is no living person who got the award as often as he did (The person which won most academy awards overall is Walt Disney himself).

Personally I think he never reached the highs he did with Ashman. While his scores are still outstanding, I think a lot of the songs just lack the wit Ashman provided – Thus said, I think the work he did with Grenn Slater on “Tangled” was promising, and I hope that they will work together on more projects in the future.

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were both named Disney Legends in 2001. Together they shaped one of the most successful period in Disney’s history, and their influence is lingering up to this day. Their work will never be forgotten.

 


 

1. The Sherman Brothers

The list of songs which the Sherman Brothers created for Disney seems to be endless. For ten years they worked on more or less every project, starting “The Sword in the Stone” and ending with “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” (The one notable exception is “Robin Hood”), including the two live-action with animation movies “Mary Poppins” and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”. They also wrote the music for most of the theme park rides which were created during this time. That’s right, you can blame them for It’s a small World, the song which might be the single most performed and most translated piece of music on Earth (and according to some people the most annoying one). All in all, it is no wonder that they were the first musicians who were named Disney Legends, a honour they received in 1990.

Sadly, the two were also a very volatile pair. Word is that they worked well together under Disney, but when he died, something was missing. They would never reached the highs they did back in those years they worked for him. Their Magnus Opus is definitely Mary Poppins. One outstanding song after another, and while everyone certainly has their favourite, Feed the Bird is somewhat special. Robert Sherman recalled later:

“We seized on one incident, in Chapter 7 of ‘Mary Poppins Comes Back’, the second book — the bird woman. And we realized that was the metaphor for why Mary came, to teach the children — and Mr. Banks — the value of charity. So we wrote the song and took it up to Walt’s office and played it and sang it for him. He leaned back in his chair, looking out the window, and he said: ‘That’s it, isn’t it? That’s what this is all about. This is the metaphor for the whole film.’ And that was the turning point in our lives.”

Feed the Birds is deceptively simple, and yet heart-warming, with all the uplifting power and spirituality of a hymn. I admit though that I like the instrumental version of it even more.  During the scene in which Mr. Banks goes to the bank, knowing that he is about to get fired, it adds so much gravity that the music seems press down on the scenery. Word is that this song was Walt Disney’s favourite.

“We were full-time staff, so we had an office at the studio, and every so often Walt would call us up to his office on a Friday afternoon. We knew what he wanted. When we got there, he would say, ‘I just wanted to know what you boys were up to these days.’ Then he would turn around in his chair and stare out the window, like the first time we played it for him, and he would say, ‘Play it.’ And we would … And you could just see Walt thinking, ‘That’s what it’s all about, everything we do at Disney.'”

When you wish upon a heart might be the heart of Disney. But Feed the Birds contains its soul. A soul that even a large cooperate construct can’t totally crush. In the end, Disney movies will always be remembered for the work of their artists, for stunning animation and unforgettable music. Even if Walt Disney is no longer around, the legacy of him and his artists prevails.


 

 

 

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12 responses to “The Top Ten Disney Composer and Songwriter

  • The Animation Commendation

    Yeah, those top 2 choices are a hard choice.

    I was surprised when I found out that Henry Mancini did the music for ‘The Great Mouse Detective’.

    • swanpride

      I hope this article meet your expectations (It’s really a while that I worked that long on one).
      There were a couple names which surprised me, too. And some things which I did know on a surface level, but never really sunk in.
      I didn’t know either, “The Great Mouse Detective” has a really outstanding score, so it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.

  • BTW07

    Awesome list! I agree how Alan Menken didn’t reach the same highs as he did with Howard Ashman. The two were phenomenal working together. I really love your #1 choice too.

    • swanpride

      Yeah, Ashman had this sense for the right placement of a song, and was really, really good with words. Menken alone is still good (you can’t really argue with eight academy awards overall), but it doesn’t look like he truly found a lyricist which could even remotely replace Ashman.

  • Silverrose

    Wonderful article. I have to admit that I hadn’t heard about a couple of names in this list. I thought Ahsman & Menken would get the top spot, but when you mentioned the Sherman brothers, I realized they would be first. I’m quite glad to see George Bruns in the list. His work in Sleeping Beauty is amazing, but sadly overlooked because it isn’t completely original.

    I haven’t seen Big Hero 6 yet either, because it only comes out on Christmas Day where I live. It seems like Disney delayed the release date in most country. Maybe it’s because a new type of movie (at least in a surface level) for them, when it comes to the official canon? Btw, what do you think of the additional songs written by Alan Menken and Tim Rice for the stage musical adaptation of Beauty and the Beast?

    • swanpride

      I have to admit, before I did my research, some of them eluded me too. Howard for example, simply because I don’t really like most of the movies he worked on. Or Wallace – I admit without the list of the Disney Legends, I would have most likely overlooked him, but when I checked the lists from the 1950s, his name was the one which turned up again and again.

      I am pretty sure that if Ashman had lived, he and Menken would have dominated the musical world for ages to come, and they would have made the top spot. But the Sherman brothers simply worked on way more projects (I admit, I didn’t even know how many…like that they did so many of the theme park songs).

      Bruns was amazing. It is really too bad that he was overshadowed so much by the Sherman brothers.

    • swanpride

      Totally forgot to answer your question…I think the additional songs are a perfect fit! They are a little bit more “obvious” than Ashman’s work, but since they are written for a musical, which has less visual options than a movie, they are allowed to be. I adore “If I can’t love her”

      • Silverrose

        Ah, I’m glad you replied it! My personal favorites are “No Matter What” and “Home”, but I quite like “If I Can’t Love Her” as well.

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  • VieraDear

    “But there was still someone needed who ensured that the different songs would fit together for the movie, and this person was Oliver Wallace.” I may be bias here… But I feel as though the most recently released Disney movies that have musical numbers just don’t have a Wallace anymore. I feel like every song doesn’t have that one theme or feeling or atmosphere contained in the movie to tie them all together. It really depresses me, and it’s the biggest reason why I cannot stand Frozen or Tangled.

    On a more positive note, The Battle With the Forces of Evil also tricked me! After watching Sleeping Beauty one evening, I was trying to find that particular piece in Tchaikovsky’s original ballet. I was really upset that I couldn’t find it, but decided to consult the score of the movie instead. I was seriously impressed to learn that a Disney composer matched Tchaikovsky’s style so perfectly. It’s one reason why Sleeping Beauty will always be my favorite Disney movie.

    • swanpride

      Tangled does a good job Imho (the first song doesn’t quite hit the right note, but the others do, and I adore the healing incarnation and especially the score). Frozen is for me, along with Princess and the Frog, an example of how to NOT do a soundtrack for a movie. The soundtrack of frozen is especially bad because it sounds like it comes from three different movies.
      I think The Battle with the Forces of Evil is either based on the part when Sleeping Beauty is cursed or on the one when she pricks her finger….the score which is used when she pricks her finder in the movie is, like I mentioned the “puss in boots” sequence.
      And yes, Sleeping Beauty is my favourite Disney movie, too, as much as it is possible to pick one favourite…it is the one in which there is a perfect balance between top-notch animation, soundtrack and memorable characters. The climax might be the best they ever created (the one of Robin Hood comes close, though).

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