Zimmer was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and moved to London as a teenager, where he attended Hurtwood House school. Zimmer began his career playing keyboards and synthesizers. He worked with The Buggles, a New Wave band formed in 1977 with Trevor Horn, Geoff Downes, and Bruce Woolley. Zimmer can be seen briefly in The Buggles' music video for the 1979 song "Video Killed the Radio Star". After working with The Buggles, he started to work for the Italian group Krisma, a New Wave band formed in 1976 with Maurizio Arcieri and Christina Moser. He was a featured synthesist for Krisma's third album, Cathode Mamma. He has also worked with the band Helden (with Warren Cann from Ultravox). In 1980 Zimmer co-produced a single, "The History Of The World Part 1," with, and for, UK Punk band The Damned, which was also included on their 1980 LP release, "The Black Album," and carried the description of his efforts as "Over-Produced by Hans Zimmer."
While living in London, Zimmer wrote advertising jingles for Air-Edel Associates. In the 1980s, Zimmer partnered with Stanley Myers, a prolific film composer who wrote the scores for over sixty films. Zimmer and Myers co-founded the London based Lillie Yard recording studio. Together, Myers and Zimmer worked on fusing the traditional orchestral sound with electronic instruments. Some of the films on which Zimmer and Myers worked are 'Moonlighting' (1982), 'Success is the Best Revenge' (1984), 'Insignificance' (1985), and 'My Beautiful Launderette' (1985). Zimmer's first solo score was 'Terminal Exposure' for director Nico Mastorakis in 1987, for which he also wrote the songs. Zimmer acted as score producer for the 1987 film The Last Emperor, which won the Academy Award for Best Original Score.
A turning point in Zimmer's career occurred with the 1988 film 'Rain Man'. Hollywood director Barry Levinson was looking for someone to score 'Rain Man' and his wife heard the soundtrack CD of the anti-Apartheid drama 'A World Apart', for which Zimmer had composed the music. Levinson was impressed by Zimmer's work, and hired him to score 'Rain Man'. Zimmer's score for 'Rain Man' was nominated for an Academy Award in 1989.
A year after 'Rain Man', Zimmer was asked to compose the score for Bruce Beresford's 'Driving Miss Daisy' which, like 'Rain Man', won an Academy Award for Best Picture. 'Driving Miss Daisy's' instrumentation consisted entirely of synthesizers and samplers, played by Zimmer. 1991's Thelma & Louise soundtrack by Zimmer featured the trademark slide guitar performance by Pete Haycock on the "Thunderbird" theme in the film.
Zimmer's score for Crimson Tide (1995) won a Grammy Award for the main theme, which makes heavy use of synthesizers in place of traditional orchestral instruments. For The Thin Red Line (1998), Zimmer said that the director Terrence Malick wanted the music before he started filming, so he recorded six and a half hours of music. Zimmer's next project was The Prince of Egypt (1998), which was produced by DreamWorks Animation. He introduced Ofra Haza, an Israeli Yemenite singer, to the directors, and they thought she was so beautiful that they designed one of the characters in the film to look like her.
In the 2000's, Zimmer has composed scores for Hollywood blockbuster films including 'Gladiator' (2000), 'Black Hawk Down' (2001), 'The Last Samurai' (2003), 'The Da Vinci Code' (2006) and 'The Simpsons Movie' (2007). While writing the score for 'The Last Samurai', Zimmer felt that his knowledge of Japanese music was extremely limited. He began doing extensive research, but the more he studied, the less he felt he knew. Finally, Zimmer took what he had written to Japan for feedback and was shocked when he was asked how he knew so much about Japanese music.
During the scoring of 'The Last Samurai' in spring 2003, Zimmer was approached by the producer Jerry Bruckheimer, with whom he had worked previously on 'Crimson Tide', 'The Rock' and 'Pearl Harbor'. Bruckheimer had finished shooting 'Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl', but was unhappy with the music composed for the film by Alan Silvestri and wanted a replacement score. Bruckheimer wanted Zimmer to rescore the film but due to his commitments on 'The Last Samurai', the task of composing and supervising music for 'Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl' was given to Klaus Badelt, one of Zimmer's colleagues at Media Ventures.
Zimmer is also noted for his work on the scores of Christopher Nolan's 'Batman Begins' (2005) and 'The Dark Knight' (2008), on which he collaborated with James Newton Howard. Zimmer and Howard are also composing the score for The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. The film is scheduled for release in July 2012.
In December 2010, Zimmer received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He dedicated the award to his publicist and long term friend Ronni Chasen, who was shot dead in Beverly Hills the previous month. Zimmer lives in Los Angeles with his wife Suzanne, and has four children.