10 Pop Musicians Gone Composers

Music Lists

With the release of yMusic’s debut album which features compositions by St. Vincent’s Annie Clark and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden this week, we thought it would be appropriate to celebrate the spirit of sub-cultural crossover with some of the greatest pop musicians who’ve become legitimate composers. Thanks to pioneers like Alfred Newman and George Gershwin, there’s been a strong tradition in American history of symphonic crossover (and has since spread to become a worldwide phenomenon). Most of these composers never went to music school and instead got their musical chops playing rock music in clubs and tinkering around with computers. Here is our countdown for the Best 10 Pop Musicians/Songwriters that have turned to the world of composing in the past fifty years:

10. Roger Waters
Pink Floyd always had a particularly operatic or theatrical flavor to their complex arrangements and grandiose concepts. But who knew the bass-playing frontman could actually legitimately compose for an opera? After spending almost an entire decade on the piece, Ça Ira was finished in around 2002. Waters’ wife Nadine Delahaye wrote the opera’s libretto and Waters wrote all the music. While the standard neo-Romanticism wasn’t anything new, its author was surprising. And now with Rufus Wainwright and Paul McCartney writing their operas, he may just have sparked a new trend.

9. Trent Reznor
Trent Reznor may be best known as the Nine Inch Nails frontman. However, he’s recently been making a huge splash on the film-scoring scene. His unique use of electronica is refreshing in a world where many filmmakers still prefer traditional instrumentation to accompany their movies. More than anything else though, his Academy Award win for his score for The Social Network last year legitimized Reznor as a serious film-score composer. His next project is a score for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

8. Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens has always been a difficult artist to pin down. The private musicianis always on the move artistically, and his interest in classical composition wasn’t too surprising. While first experimenting with instrumental music in his electronic album Enjoy Your Rabbit, his instrumental tracks in his celebrated albums Michigan and Illinois showed all the expertise of a full-fledged composer. Going even further, his genre of “orchestral folk” was pushed to the limits with his completely orchestrated album, The BQE. While brushed off by many as a side project, The BQE was one of the most successful compositional attempts from a singer/songwriter in pop history and with rumors of his upcoming film-scoring projects, it doesn’t seem like Stevens plans on settling down any time soon.

7. Jon Brion
This shapeshifting artist has worn a variety of hats in a variety of productions ranging from co-producing Kanye West’s Late Registration to writing the score for films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I Heart Huckabees. You’ll find his name as producer and composer of countless indie albums (Fiona Apple, Elliott Smith, Spoon, Of Montreal…) and films and has indelibly linked orchestral scores with indie pop. The music for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind varies greatly in style, filtered through a quirky, indie sensibility and chopped up into clips of music that sometimes last no longer than the 30 seconds. It’s hard to know what indie films would sound like would be without this guy.

6. Koji Kondo
Many probably won’t think of “pop musician” when thinking of the Japanese composer known for writing the iconic scores to Nintendo games like the Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda series. But Kondo was never classically trained or even particularly committed to making music his career. Growing up, he was actually influenced more by progressive rock bands like Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer than any classical music, even playing keyboard in a rock and jazz cover band in his early years. Although his work now is much more devoted to managing and overseeing the sound team at Nintendo, Kondo’s work on both 8-bit and orchestral scores for games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time have had an unprecedented influence on the game industry and on pop culture in general.

5. Frank Zappa
The art-rock movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s featured rock musicians who demanded to be taken seriously, and Frank Zappa led the charge. His music was more socially complex, technically impressive, and conceptually ambitious. His first interactions with classical composition came in 1970 when he met conductor Zubin Mehta combining for one of the first performances of a concert orchestra with a rock band. However, it wouldn’t be until the 1980s and 1990s that he would become infatuated with composition and experimental music. He composed large works for the Synclavier (“Naval Aviation In Art?”) and pieces of the experimental avant-garde nature (“Civilization Phaze III), ultimately being one of four composers invited to the world-acclaimed Frankfurt Festival among 20th century establishments like Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. Not bad company.

4. Jonny Greenwood
The lead guitarist and multi-instrumentalist of Radiohead is one of the few on this list who has managed to legitimize himself with critics and fans in both the pop and the classical worlds. As a viola performance major, Greenwood’s scored the acclaimed 2007 film, There Will Be Blood. Greenwood’s impressive skill with a traditional orchestra surprised many and boosted him into mainstream prominence. Since then, Greenwood became the “composer-in-residence” with the BBC Concert Orchestra and wrote the beautiful score for the Japanese film Norwegian Film. His compositional style is dark, enigmatic, and exciting, just like the work of his legendary rock band.

3. Hans Zimmer
This may come as a surprise to some, but the film-score composer famous for Inception, The Lion King and Gladiator didn’t learn his iconic compositional style in a music conservatory. Instead, he learned to what he knew about music by writing advertising jingles and playing synthesizers for the New Wave band The Buggles. Now composing and collaborating on dozens of film scores every year, Hans Zimmer’s energetic blend of minimalist aesthetics and rhythmic electronics have become the soundtrack of action film and suspense thrillers. We still like to think of him as just that guy playing keyboards in the background of The Buggles’ Video Killed The Radio Star music video.

2. Danny Elfman
Danny Elfman’s self-taught musical style is absolutely crucial to his music. Fronting New Wave band Oingo Boingo than going to music school, Elfman has a pop-oriented sensibility that makes his style of film scoring unique and incredibly accessible. After composing the brilliant Simpsons theme song and establishing a long-running creative relationship with filmmaker Tim Burton, there was no going back for Elfman. Four Academy Award Nominations later and you’ve got one of the most iconic and stylized film scorers of all time.

1. Brian Eno
Perhaps more than anyone else, Brian Eno has been the leading figure in the pop/classical dialogue. Having worked with and promoted several significant composers like John Cage and John Adams through his record label in the ‘70s, Eno’s interest in all kinds of new music entrenched him on both sides. The keyboard player for Roxy Music went on to practically invent the genre of ambient and New Age music. Now as a producer of significant pop rock albums like U2’s The Joshua Tree and Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, Eno continues to find prominence in the pop world. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, he also regularly releases his own solo albums of artistic instrumental and electronic music including last year’s LP Small Craft On A Milk Sea.

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