The following people are considered by Pantheon to be the top 10 most legendary American Composers of all time. This list of famous American Composers is sorted by HPI (Historical Popularity Index), a metric that aggregates information on a biography’s online popularity. Visit the rankings page to view the entire list of American Composers.
With an HPI of 72.73, George Gershwin is the most famous American Composer. His biography has been translated into 74 different languages on wikipedia.
George Gershwin (; born Jacob Gershwine; September 26, 1898 – July 11, 1937) was an American composer and pianist whose compositions spanned popular, jazz and classical genres. Among his best-known works are the orchestral compositions Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928), the songs "Swanee" (1919) and "Fascinating Rhythm" (1924), the jazz standards "Embraceable You" (1928) and "I Got Rhythm" (1930), and the opera Porgy and Bess (1935), which included the hit "Summertime". Gershwin studied piano under Charles Hambitzer and composition with Rubin Goldmark, Henry Cowell, and Joseph Brody. He began his career as a song plugger but soon started composing Broadway theater works with his brother Ira Gershwin and with Buddy DeSylva. He moved to Paris, intending to study with Nadia Boulanger, but she refused him, afraid that rigorous classical study would ruin his jazz-influenced style; Maurice Ravel voiced similar objections when Gershwin inquired about studying with him. He subsequently composed An American in Paris, returned to New York City and wrote Porgy and Bess with Ira and DuBose Heyward. Initially a commercial failure, it came to be considered one of the most important American operas of the twentieth century and an American cultural classic. Gershwin moved to Hollywood and composed numerous film scores. He died in 1937, only 38 years old, of a brain tumor.His compositions have been adapted for use in film and television, with many becoming jazz standards.
With an HPI of 72.49, John Williams is the 2nd most famous American Composer. His biography has been translated into 69 different languages.
John Towner Williams (born February 8, 1932) is an American composer, conductor, and pianist. In a career that has spanned seven decades, he has composed some of the most popular, recognizable and critically acclaimed film scores in cinema history. Williams has won 25 Grammy Awards, five Academy Awards, seven British Academy Film Awards, and four Golden Globe Awards. With 53 Academy Award nominations, he is the second most-nominated individual, after Walt Disney. His compositions are considered the epitome of film music, and he is considered among the greatest composers in the history of cinema. Williams has composed many of his film scoring works for frequent collaborators Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and other directors such as Chris Columbus, Oliver Stone, Richard Donner, Irwin Kershner, Sydney Pollack, Alfred Hitchcock, Mark Rydell, Mark Robson, Jean-Jacques Annaud, and Robert Altman. Williams has been associated with director Steven Spielberg since 1974, composing music for all but five of his feature films, and George Lucas, with whom he has worked on both of his main franchises, Star Wars and Indiana Jones. His early work as a film composer includes The Killers (1964), How to Steal a Million (1966), Valley of the Dolls (1967), and Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969). He has received five Academy Awards for Best Original Score for his work on Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982), and Schindler's List (1993). Williams has composed for many popular films including the Star Wars saga, Superman, the first two Home Alone films, the Indiana Jones films, the first two Jurassic Park films, and the first three Harry Potter films. Other memorable film scores from his collaboration with Spielberg include Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Hook (1991), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Catch Me If You Can (2002), War of the Worlds (2005), War Horse (2011), Lincoln (2012), and The Fabelmans (2022).Williams has also composed numerous classical concertos and other works for orchestral ensembles and solo instruments. He served as the Boston Pops' principal conductor from 1980 to 1993 and is its laureate conductor. Other works by Williams include theme music for the 1984 Summer Olympic Games, NBC Sunday Night Football, "The Mission" theme used by NBC News and Seven News in Australia, the television series Lost in Space and Land of the Giants, and the incidental music for the first season of Gilligan's Island. Williams announced but then rescinded his intention to retire from film score composing after the release of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny in 2023.In 2005, the American Film Institute selected Williams's score to 1977's Star Wars as the greatest film score of all time. The Library of Congress entered the Star Wars soundtrack into the National Recording Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". Williams was inducted into the Hollywood Bowl's Hall of Fame in 2000, and he received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2004. His AFI Life Achievement Award in 2016 was the first to be awarded outside of the acting and directing fields. He has composed the score for nine of the top 25 highest-grossing films at the U.S. box office (adjusted for inflation). His work has influenced other composers of film, popular, and contemporary classical music.
With an HPI of 70.07, John Cage is the 3rd most famous American Composer. His biography has been translated into 61 different languages.
John Milton Cage Jr. (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) was an American composer and music theorist. A pioneer of indeterminacy in music, electroacoustic music, and non-standard use of musical instruments, Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde. Critics have lauded him as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. He was also instrumental in the development of modern dance, mostly through his association with choreographer Merce Cunningham, who was also Cage's romantic partner for most of their lives.Cage's teachers included Henry Cowell (1933) and Arnold Schoenberg (1933–35), both known for their radical innovations in music, but Cage's major influences lay in various East and South Asian cultures. Through his studies of Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s, Cage came to the idea of aleatoric or chance-controlled music, which he started composing in 1951. The I Ching, an ancient Chinese classic text and decision-making tool, became Cage's standard composition tool for the rest of his life. In a 1957 lecture, Experimental Music, he described music as "a purposeless play" which is "an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we're living".Cage's best known work is the 1952 composition 4′33″, a piece performed in the absence of deliberate sound; musicians who present the work do nothing but be present for the duration specified by the title. The content of the composition is intended to be the sounds of the environment heard by the audience during performance. The work's challenge to assumed definitions about musicianship and musical experience made it a popular and controversial topic both in musicology and the broader aesthetics of art and performance. Cage was also a pioneer of the prepared piano (a piano with its sound altered by objects placed between or on its strings or hammers), for which he wrote numerous dance-related works and a few concert pieces. These include Sonatas and Interludes (1946–48).
With an HPI of 69.93, Leonard Bernstein is the 4th most famous American Composer. His biography has been translated into 63 different languages.
Leonard Bernstein ( BURN-styne; August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990) was an American conductor, composer, pianist, music educator, author, and humanitarian. Considered to be one of the most important conductors of his time, he was the first American conductor to receive international acclaim. Bernstein was "one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history" according to music critic Donal Henahan. Bernstein received numerous honors and accolades including seven Emmy Awards, two Tony Awards, and 16 Grammy Awards (including the Lifetime Achievement Award) as well as an Academy Award nomination. He received the Kennedy Center Honor in 1981.As a composer, Bernstein wrote in many genres, including symphonic and orchestral music, ballet, film and theatre music, choral works, opera, chamber music, and pieces for the piano. His best-known work is the Broadway musical West Side Story, which continues to be regularly performed worldwide, and has been adapted into two (1961 and 2021) feature films. Bernstein's works include three symphonies, Serenade after Plato's "Symposium" (1954), and Chichester Psalms (1965), the original score for the Elia Kazan drama film On the Waterfront (1954), and theater works including On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), Candide (1956), and his Mass (1971). Bernstein was the first American-born conductor to lead a major American symphony orchestra. He was music director of the New York Philharmonic and conducted the world's major orchestras, generating a significant legacy of audio and video recordings. Bernstein was also a critical figure in the modern revival of the music of Gustav Mahler, in whose music he was most passionately interested. A skilled pianist, Bernstein often conducted piano concertos from the keyboard. He was the first conductor to share and explore classical music on television with a mass audience through dozens of national and international broadcasts, including Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic.A lifelong humanitarian, Bernstein worked in support of civil rights, protested against the Vietnam War, advocated nuclear disarmament, raised money for HIV/AIDS research and awareness, and engaged in multiple international initiatives for human rights and world peace. He conducted Mahler's Resurrection Symphony to mark the death of president John F. Kennedy, and in Israel at a world famous concert, Hatikvah on Mt. Scopus, after the 1967 war. The sequence of events was preserved for posterity in a documentary entitled Journey to Jerusalem. At the end of his life, Bernstein conducted a historic performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall.
With an HPI of 65.69, Henry Mancini is the 5th most famous American Composer. His biography has been translated into 53 different languages.
Henry Mancini ( man-SEE-nee; born Enrico Nicola Mancini, Italian: [enˈriːko niˈkɔːla manˈtʃiːni]; April 16, 1924 – June 14, 1994) was an American composer, conductor, arranger, pianist and flautist. Often cited as one of the greatest composers in the history of film, he won four Academy Awards, a Golden Globe, and twenty Grammy Awards, plus a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. His works include the theme and soundtrack for the Peter Gunn television series as well as the music for The Pink Panther film series ("The Pink Panther Theme") and "Moon River" from Breakfast at Tiffany's. The Music from Peter Gunn won the inaugural Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Mancini enjoyed a long collaboration in composing film scores for the film director Blake Edwards. Mancini also scored a No. 1 hit single during the rock era on the Hot 100: his arrangement and recording of the "Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet" spent two weeks at the top, starting with the week ending June 28, 1969.
With an HPI of 65.48, Philip Glass is the 6th most famous American Composer. His biography has been translated into 53 different languages.
Philip Glass (born January 31, 1937) is an American composer and pianist. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential composers of the late 20th century. Glass's work has been associated with minimalism, being built up from repetitive phrases and shifting layers. Glass describes himself as a composer of "music with repetitive structures", which he has helped to evolve stylistically.Glass founded the Philip Glass Ensemble, which is still in existence, but Glass no longer performs with the ensemble. He has written fifteen operas, numerous chamber operas and musical theatre works, fourteen symphonies, twelve concertos, nine string quartets and various other chamber music, and many film scores. Three of his film scores have been nominated for Academy Awards.
With an HPI of 64.34, Scott Joplin is the 7th most famous American Composer. His biography has been translated into 54 different languages.
Scott Joplin (November 24, 1868 – April 1, 1917) was an African-American composer and pianist. Dubbed the "King of Ragtime", he composed more than 40 ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas. One of his first and most popular pieces, the "Maple Leaf Rag", became the genre's first and most influential hit, later being recognized as the quintessential rag. Joplin considered ragtime to be a form of classical music meant to be played in concert halls and largely disdained the performance of ragtime as honky tonk music most common in saloons. Joplin grew up in a musical family of railway laborers in Texarkana, Arkansas, developing his own musical knowledge with the help of local teachers. While in Texarkana, he formed a vocal quartet and taught mandolin and guitar. During the late 1880s, he left his job as a railroad laborer and traveled the American South as an itinerant musician. He went to Chicago for the World's Fair of 1893, which helped make ragtime a national craze by 1897. Joplin moved to Sedalia, Missouri, in 1894 and earned a living as a piano teacher. There he taught future ragtime composers Arthur Marshall, Scott Hayden, and Brun Campbell. He began publishing music in 1895, and publication of his "Maple Leaf Rag" in 1899 brought him fame. This piece had a profound influence on writers of ragtime. It also brought Joplin a steady income for life. In 1901, Joplin moved to St. Louis, where he continued to compose and publish and regularly performed in the community. In 1903, the score to his first opera, A Guest of Honor, was confiscated—along with his belongings—for non-payment of bills (likely as a result of being robbed). It is now considered lost.In 1907, Joplin moved to New York City to find a producer for a new opera. He attempted to go beyond the limitations of the musical form that had made him famous but without much monetary success. His second opera, Treemonisha, was never fully staged during his life. In 1916, Joplin descended into dementia as a result of neurosyphilis. In mid-January 1917, he was admitted to a mental asylum and died there less than three months later at the age of 48. Joplin's death is widely considered to mark the end of ragtime as a mainstream music format; over the next several years, it evolved with other styles into stride, jazz, and, eventually, swing. Joplin's music was rediscovered and returned to popularity in the early 1970s with the release of a million-selling album recorded by Joshua Rifkin. This was followed by the Academy Award–winning 1973 film The Sting, which featured several of Joplin's compositions, most notably "The Entertainer", a piece performed by pianist Marvin Hamlisch that received wide airplay. Treemonisha was finally produced in full, to wide acclaim, in 1972. In 1976, Joplin was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
With an HPI of 63.98, Steve Reich is the 8th most famous American Composer. His biography has been translated into 41 different languages.
Stephen Michael Reich ( RYSHE; born October 3, 1936) is an American composer known for his contribution to the development of minimal music in the mid to late 1960s. Reich's work is marked by its use of repetitive figures, slow harmonic rhythm, and canons. Reich describes this concept in his essay, "Music as a Gradual Process", by stating, "I am interested in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music." To do so, his music employs the technique of phase shifting, in which a phrase is slightly altered over time, in a flow that is clearly perceptible to the listener.His innovations include using tape loops to create phasing patterns, as on the early compositions It's Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966), and the use of simple, audible processes, as on Pendulum Music (1968) and Four Organs (1970). The 1978 recording Music for 18 Musicians would help entrench minimalism as a movement. Reich's work took on a darker character in the 1980s with the introduction of historical themes as well as themes from his Jewish heritage, notably Different Trains (1988). Reich's style of composition has influenced many contemporary composers and groups, especially in the United States. Writing in The Guardian, music critic Andrew Clements suggested that Reich is one of "a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history".
With an HPI of 63.28, Samuel Barber is the 9th most famous American Composer. His biography has been translated into 47 different languages.
Samuel Osmond Barber II (March 9, 1910 – January 23, 1981) was an American composer, pianist, conductor, baritone, and music educator, and one of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century. The music critic Donal Henahan said, "Probably no other American composer has ever enjoyed such early, such persistent and such long-lasting acclaim." Principally influenced by nine years' composition studies with Rosario Scalero at the Curtis Institute and more than 25 years' study with his uncle, the composer Sidney Homer, Barber's music usually eschewed the experimental trends of musical modernism in favor of traditional 19th-century harmonic language and formal structure embracing lyricism and emotional expression. However, he adopted elements of modernism after 1940 in some of his compositions, such as an increased use of dissonance and chromaticism in the Cello Concerto (1945) and Medea's Dance of Vengeance (1955); and the use of tonal ambiguity and a narrow use of serialism in his Piano Sonata (1949), Prayers of Kierkegaard (1954), and Nocturne (1959). Barber was adept at both instrumental and vocal music. His works became successful on the international stage and many of his compositions enjoyed rapid adoption into the classical performance canon. In particular, his Adagio for Strings (1936) has earned a permanent place in the orchestral concert repertory, as has that work's adaptation for chorus, Agnus Dei (1967). He received the Pulitzer Prize for Music twice: for his opera Vanessa (1956–57), and for the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1962). Also widely performed is his Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947), a setting for soprano and orchestra of a prose text by James Agee. At the time of Barber's death, nearly all of his compositions had been recorded. Many of his compositions were commissioned or first performed by such noted groups and artists as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, Vladimir Horowitz, Eleanor Steber, Raya Garbousova, John Browning, Leontyne Price, Pierre Bernac, Francis Poulenc, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.While Barber composed a significant body of purely instrumental music, two-thirds of his compositional output was art songs for voice and piano, choral music, and songs for voice and orchestra. Some of his most frequently performed songs include both the solo voice and choral versions of Sure on this shining night (solo version from 1938 and choral version from 1961) with text by Agee; and the song cycle Hermit Songs (1953), with anonymous texts by Irish monks from the eighth through thirteenth centuries. This emphasis on sung material was rooted in his own brief career as a professional baritone in his 20s which inspired a lifelong love of vocal music. In 1935, Barber recorded his own setting of Arnold's "Dover Beach" for NBC, accompanying his own singing voice, and was also featured weekly on NBC Radio in 1935–1936 performing of German lieder and art songs. He also occasionally conducted performances and recordings of his works with symphony orchestras during the 1950s, and taught composition at the Curtis Institute from 1939–1942. Barber was in a relationship with the composer Gian Carlo Menotti for more than 40 years. They lived at Capricorn, a house just north of New York City, where they frequently hosted parties with academic and music luminaries. Menotti was Barber's librettist for two of his three operas. When the relationship ended in 1970, they remained close friends until Barber's death from cancer in 1981.
With an HPI of 62.64, Jerry Goldsmith is the 10th most famous American Composer. His biography has been translated into 49 different languages.
Jerrald King Goldsmith (February 10, 1929 – July 21, 2004) was an American composer and conductor known for his work in film and television scoring. He composed scores for five films in the Star Trek franchise and three in the Rambo franchise, as well as for Logan's Run, Planet of the Apes, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Patton, Papillon, Chinatown, Alien, Poltergeist, Medicine Man, Gremlins, Hoosiers, Total Recall, Air Force One, L.A. Confidential, Mulan, and The Mummy. He also composed the fanfares accompanying the production logos used by multiple major film studios, and music for the Disney attraction Soarin'. He collaborated with directors including Robert Wise, Howard Hawks, Otto Preminger, Joe Dante, Richard Donner, Richard Fleischer, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Michael Crichton, Roman Polanski, Gordon Douglas, Fred Schepisi, Paul Verhoeven, and Franklin J. Schaffner. His work for Donner and Scott also involved a rejected score for Timeline and a controversially edited score for Alien, where music by Howard Hanson replaced Goldsmith's end titles and Goldsmith's own work on Freud: The Secret Passion was used without his approval in several scenes. Goldsmith was nominated for six Grammy Awards, five Primetime Emmy Awards, nine Golden Globe Awards, four British Academy Film Awards, and eighteen Academy Awards (winning in 1976 for The Omen).
Pantheon has 139 people classified as composers born between 2 and 1985. Of these 139, 49 (35.25%) of them are still alive today. The most famous living composers include John Williams, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich. The most famous deceased composers include George Gershwin, John Cage, and Leonard Bernstein. As of April 2022, 11 new composers have been added to Pantheon including Frederic Rzewski, Leigh Harline, and James Scott.
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Which Composers were alive at the same time? This visualization shows the lifespans of the 25 most globally memorable Composers since 1700.