Music in the background of a movie is often crucial to how we experience the film. In some cases, it can become as memorable as the movie itself. Think of the screaming violins in "Psycho" or the haunting tuba in "Jaws" — the latter written by John Williams — who for more than a generation was Hollywood's leading composer.
But over the years as directors and studios began to look for edgier scores, they have increasingly turned to a German-born composer named Hans Zimmer. If you've been to the movies in the past 40 years, you've heard a Hans Zimmer score.
Action, drama, comedy, romance, blockbusters – he's done them all.
Including the 1994 film, "The Lion King," for which he won an Oscar. With its opening Zulu chant, sung by Lebo M., a South African musician who was working at a car wash in Los Angeles when Hans enlisted him.
Hans Zimmer: That's how that opening song came about, literally. Microphone in the room, not in a booth or anything like this.
Hans told the executives at Disney that he wanted to say right off the bat this is not a typical Disney movie; it's a father-son story that takes place in Africa.
Hans Zimmer: And they said, "Exactly. That's good. Do-- do what-- do what you do."
He showed us what he does at his studio in Los Angeles, where he composes his scores on this keyboard and computer. For example, the music for the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie.
Hans Zimmer: So, if you have "Pirates," which is basically this sort of a thing, there's a jauntiness, right--
Lesley Stahl: Yeah.
Hans Zimmer: And it's-- The music is really big. And he's in a little rowboat with a little sail, and you hear this huge orchestra. Because that's the music he hears in the-- in his head, because he's the greatest pirate that has ever lived in his imagination. So when you listen to the Joker [from "The Dark Knight"], he's quite the opposite. It's like, you know, a bow on a bow and arrow. And you stretch it.
Lesley Stahl: Ooh. Oh my god.
Hans Zimmer: And it's– it's not pretty.
Lesley Stahl: It's very emotional inducing. I can't even express why. I wouldn't know– be able to put words to it. But—
Hans Zimmer: That's the idea. At my best, words will fail you because I'm using my own language.
Since the 1980s, Hans Zimmer's language in his scores, like last year's biggest hit, "Top Gun: Maverick," has defined not just the characters but has helped tell the stories of chest-thumping action films and sci-fi epics. Like "Dune," which he won an Oscar for in 2022, in which he used juddering drums and electronic synthesizers.
Lesley Stahl: So you've been called a maverick. You've been called a visionary. How would you describe yourself?
Hans Zimmer: I would describe myself as somebody who's deeply in love with music, and deeply in love with movies, and playful. I love to play, like, as any musician does, as in any language. It says, you know, you play music.
His choices have been unpredictable. For every "Man of Steel," there's a "Kung Fu Panda" and a "Sherlock Holmes," in which he used a broken piano and banjos for the 19th-century detective turned quirky action hero.
Lesley Stahl: How important is the instrument to getting what you want?
Hans Zimmer: Vastly important. I mean, because instruments come with baggage. You know, for instance, the definition of a gentleman is somebody who knows how to play the banjo but refrains from doing so.
Lesley Stahl: Whoa. (LAUGH)
Hans Zimmer: Why that banjo worked, right? Because it was funny.
He has used banjos, bagpipes, buzzing electronics. And this, a good old-fashioned orchestra.
Think about the composer of "The Dark Knight" writing something this delicate.
Hans Zimmer: Really good. Can we just have one more to, you know, protect the innocent?
He invited us to watch him record the score of a new movie in a London studio last summer. It's about a young girl coming of age based on a Judy Blume book, "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret," that will be released in theaters this spring.
Hans Zimmer: Like the sound?
Jim Brooks: Mmm-hmm.
Academy Award-winning director Jim Brooks is a producer of this movie. This is the eighth film they've worked on together.
What's unique about Hans, says Brooks and other directors, is how deeply involved he gets in more than just writing the music. His process typically begins with a conversation with the director long before a single frame of the movie is shot.
Jim Brooks: You talk about what the movie's about. The story of it. What the scene's about. You don't turn to a composer for that.
Lesley Stahl: So he becomes almost a partner in the--
Jim Brooks: Absolutely--
Lesley Stahl: --writing and the directing--
Jim Brooks: Yeah, yeah, yeah--
Lesley Stahl: --every phase?
Jim Brooks: Yeah, yeah.
On "Gladiator," he partnered with director Ridley Scott. He says he told him that he thought this movie should be about more than just a man in a skirt going into battle.
Hans Zimmer: And I felt right at the beginning we needed to set up the possibility that in this movie we could have poetry.
Lesley Stahl: Can we listen just to a bit--
Hans Zimmer: I mean--
Lesley Stahl: --of the music that you wrote for the--
Hans Zimmer: It starts off just with this note.
Lesley Stahl: And you see the hand.
Hans Zimmer: And you see the hand. And you're already in a different world.
Lesley Stahl: And there's— no one is talking–
Hans Zimmer: You left the 20th century. You don't expect the tenderness.
Lesley Stahl: I mean, you are setting a mood.
Hans Zimmer: It's a cry. It's a cry.
His love of music, his obsession, grew out of his childhood in West Germany. While other kids liked to play games, he liked to play the piano.
Lesley Stahl: So did you take piano lessons?
Hans Zimmer: Absolutely. It was two weeks of absolute torture.
Lesley Stahl: Two weeks?
Hans Zimmer: Well, yeah, because he then went to my mother and said, "It's either him or me." And, luckily, my mother made the right choice. She kept me, you know? (LAUGHTER) No, no--
Lesley Stahl: No, no. Tell me about piano lessons--
Hans Zimmer: I drove-- I drove him crazy. You know, I'm six years old. So my idea was a piano teacher is somebody who teaches you how to-- the stuff that's going on in your head, how to get that into your fingers. That's not what they do. They make you do scales. They make you play other people's music. And I didn't wanna do other people's music.
Lesley Stahl: Right from the beginning.
Hans Zimmer: Right from the beginning. But I promise you, I know my Beethoven and my Brahms inside out.
He learned about them from his mother, a classically-trained pianist.
Hans Zimmer: And there is the other side, which was my dad who was an extraordinarily appalling jazz clarinetist, but with great enthusiasm. In the middle of his work day, he'd get out the clarinet. I'd be banging around on-- and-- and we'd be jamming, you know? So that's where I got the joy.
Instead of college, he became a rock-n-roller, performing with the Buggles.
He was the young guy in the black jacket on the synthesizer. They made pop history in 1981 with the first music video to air on MTV, "Video Killed the Radio Star."
He began composing scores for low-budget films. One of which in 1988 caught the attention of the Hollywood director Barry Levinson, who showed up one night out of the blue at what was then Hans' London studio.
Hans Zimmer: And so he said, "Would I mind coming to Los Angeles and maybe doing his movie?" So, off I went to Los Angeles. And I got nominated for an Oscar.
Lesley Stahl: First movie, really.
Hans Zimmer: First movie. I didn't win, but it didn't matter because everybody wanted to meet me.
That film was no less than "Rain Man," which led to "Driving Miss Daisy," "Thelma & Louise," "Black Rain," and more than 140 other films that began to push the sound of movie music into a new direction.
Hans Zimmer: I love the idea that electronics let you shape sounds in a way that go beyond the way an orchestra can.
He became a pioneer in fusing electronics with orchestral music, using his secret weapon: a digital library that he built himself, with original computer code. He painstakingly recorded each instrument in a real orchestra, note by note, using world-class musicians and the finest instruments, and loading it all into his computer.
Lesley Stahl: Take a violin. And you have the violin play middle C. And then you have that instrument play middle C loud, soft, and all different--
Hans Zimmer: Oh, yeah. Look, look. It can play pizzicato. It can play short, you know.
Lesley Stahl: So, you're not making it piccato. They played it that way.
Hans Zimmer: They played it that way.
Lesley Stahl: And you're bringing that up? Whoa. That must've taken months. Years?
Hans Zimmer: No, it's actually taken years.
And millions of dollars. He doesn't write out his compositions on paper, his computer does it for him, and it helps create the "unconventional sounds" you find in his scores.
Lesley Stahl: Scraping metal.
Hans Zimmer: Yeah.
Lesley Stahl: And electronic thuds. Music?
Hans Zimmer: It can be. Everything can be made to be a musical instrument in one way or the other.
He often collaborates with Pedro Eustache, a world-class flautist, who has built contraptions that produce unusual sounds that Hans thinks up for his movies.
Pedro Eustache: This is an ostrich egg, okay?
Lesley Stahl: That's an ostrich egg! You put the holes in.
Pedro Eustache: Yeah, and I put all that there. And, it's a musical instrument.
Lesley Stahl: So you made--
Pedro Eustache: Yeah.
Lesley Stahl: --an ocarina out of an ostrich—
Hans Zimmer: Lemme explain.
Lesley Stahl: Yes, please.
Hans Zimmer: When he's not stealing eggs at the zoo, (LAUGH) he is a very good customer of Home Depot. And-- (LAUGH) and-- (CLAPPING) and so many of his instruments made out of PVC piping.
Pedro actually used PVC piping to come up with the 21-foot-long horn that Hans wanted for "Dune."
He's currently working on "Dune: Part Two."
And now he goes on tour with a 38-piece orchestra and band to perform his movie scores.
Lesley Stahl: How have you changed? You've been working at this for 40 years.
Hans Zimmer: I tell you what. So, when you start out, you have all that stuff that you've never done before. Every movie had every idea, every device, every chord change, every-- whatever in it. Now, I think it's more of figuring it out what to do new. But it becomes harder and harder, because I've used up so much ammunition in the past.
He told us that after more than 150 films, he lives in constant fear of the day his phone will stop ringing.
Lesley Stahl: Even after 150? Do you think you're motivated by that fear--
Hans Zimmer: But it's only 150, do you know what I mean? (LAUGH) It's like, what if 151 is a complete disaster? (LAUGH)
Lesley Stahl: Oh, wow--
Hans Zimmer: You know, I'm still alive. You know, I'm 65 years old now and people are going, "Are you gonna retire? You gonna go and put your feet up?" And I'm going, "No, I'm full of ideas. I'm just getting started."
Lesley Stahl: Do you really think that?
Hans Zimmer: I really think that.
Editor's Note: Due to a labeling error by the media company that provided us with the photograph, 60 Minutes regrets that the image of film director Barry Levinson used in last week's report, "A Hans Zimmer Score," was, in fact, not a photograph of Mr. Levinson. The story has been updated to correct the error.
Produced by Richard Bonin. Associate producer, Mirella Brussani. Broadcast associate, Wren Woodson. Edited by Richard Buddenhagen.
for more features.