Music composers are responsible for creating original musical works for various purposes e.g., Film & TV, Video Games, or Advertising.
The role of a music composer is to create original musical works. They work for various business sectors - e.g., film, games, and marketing. They are responsible for coming up with ideas and executing them. Nowadays, many composers work from home studios using Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) and music notation programs. Music composers usually work on commission which can make their job rather inconsistent. Some smaller music composers will also have a different job on the side.
Film & TV
Film & TV composers’ jobs usually start after the movie is finished. They have spotting sessions with the director and/or the crew to discuss the score, to make sure it fits the theme, mood, and specific scenes. Their involvement depends on the job, budgets, genres, and deadlines.
When writing for video games, a composer creates cues that fit the gameplay seamlessly to add to the experience of the player. Video game composers’ role will depend on the nature of the game – some might require more work than others. Composers need an adequate understanding of the gaming industry, technology, and foley (see glossary) to advance in video game composing.
Composing music for advertisements usually involves dealing with corporate customers. Oftentimes the sound used in commercials/advertising is library music (see glossary). To excel in this field the composer needs to have a solid knowledge of the product and brand and be able to match the mood of the music to appeal to the general audience and ultimately help to sell the product.
Composers writing for orchestras/operas/choirs create musical compositions designed to be performed on stage. That can involve composing for musical instruments as well as vocals. Depending on whether they have been commissioned to compose a specific piece or are creating for themselves, their workflow and tasks will vary. Oftentimes this form of composing is a way for a composer to express themselves and be creative.
Those composers who create compositions for musical theatre are generally responsible for the show’s music. Their involvement depends on the specifics of the project – sometimes composers will have more creative control. Musical theatre composers collaborate with the show’s writers and others involved in the creative process to establish what musical works are required.
This will vary widely depending on the nature of each project. Composers often begin their work by drawing inspiration from a specific theme, idea, scene, or emotion. From there, they experiment with different ideas, seeing what does and does not work.
“In general, I like having a research and development phase, in which I can get to learn the topic of my work more in-depth, whether that is the topic of an exhibition, the subject of a film, or the theme I have selected for a concert piece. I usually get most of my best ideas from anything that isn’t music-related, such as other artworks or science articles.
I then proceed to write sketches, short musical ideas that can be anything from melodies, rhythms, chord progressions, textures, etc. Sometimes I do that at the piano, sometimes directly in my DAW or notation software. Most of these ideas tend to come when I’m not at my desk or instrument, so I usually record them on my phone and transcribe them later.
After that, I weave those ideas together, filling in the gaps, until I have the whole piece structured, and then I proceed to shape it, arranging each section and working on the tiniest details.
If the piece needs to be performed or recorded, I will focus on the score preparation, then work on the mix with the sound engineer.
In the middle of all that, there will be workshops with the performers to try out a few ideas, see if they are playable and if they sound like what I imagined, and, most importantly, get suggestions from them on how to improve the piece.
And there will be meetings with whomever commissioned the piece, to get feedback, discuss any changes, etc. How many rewrites I might be asked to do will be something that is negotiated in my contract at the start of the project – something very important to include!” Nina Danon, Music Composer
“The days have passed when it was just pen and paper. Everything is technology now – you should know the music, but know technology too cause you need to have both.”
Stuart Michael Thomas, Music Composer
The simplest way to get better at music composing is to continuously practice the craft – that includes composing itself, as well as musical instruments and other associated skills. If you are writing a lot, it is easier to come up with new ideas. No ideas are precious, it is important to remember that the compositions do not have to be perfect, and sometimes you will need to start from scratch. In the beginning stages of a composer’s career, it is worth working on as many projects as possible (e.g., student films) to gain the necessary experience. Actively listening, analyzing, and getting inspired by the work of others is another very important part of advancing in music composition. Music composers need to continuously learn new skills (technology skills are a must) and be aware of all the changes in the field to successfully advance in their careers.
DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation):
Music Notation Programs:
Networking, referrals, composer agencies, auditions, forums, organizations, job websites, mentorships, assistant jobs. It’s important to have a portfolio and an online presence (website). It is worth starting with student and low-budget projects or contests. There's a lot of work available, and if composers are good at what they do, they will get recommended.
The payment usually depends on the nature of the job and can vary. Some of the ways are: commission – usually fixed amounts, most often with half of the fee paid upfront and half upon delivery (concert music/commercial music), – royalties, advances, and synchronization. Other options include work for hire (fee), package deals (one lump sum you deliver the final score), pay per week. Unless it’s a special deal (uncommon) you rarely get a percentage.
Yes. Since the composers write the music, they own the right to that musical composition. If they record the musical work themselves, they will also own the sound recording. Don’t sign away your royalties! You get writer’s royalties, sometimes you get to keep the publisher’s share, and copyright is assigned to the company when you get hired to do the music.
If a music composer is present during the recording session or not, depends on the specific project where some might be involved in the recording process while others are not. A lot of composers will work remotely, as almost everyone has their own studios, and does not really interact with many industry professionals.
Arranging and orchestrating
Good knowledge of music theory, musical styles, and instruments
Reading and writing music
Organizational skills – time management, strategic thinking, attention to detail, prioritizing, self-motivation
Networking skills - interpersonal skills, communication, collaboration
The time a music composer must dedicate to a project vastly depends on its nature. Smaller projects (e.g. advertising jobs) will require less of the composer’s time. The time spent on one job is also dependent on the deadline – when working on a short deadline a composer might be required to complete a lot of the workload in one sitting and work on it full time (sometimes 10-12 hours in a day) until it’s completed. When the deadline is not as pressing, they can organize their schedule to fit into their other commitments and daily life.
The schedules and the hours can be brutal, occasionally a composer will have to be ready to give something else up to excel. It is very important for composers to focus on mental health/well-being and not get caught up in the pressure to work 24/7.
The most common way to get started in music composing is attending a university/college - most music colleges/conservatories do offer degrees that focus on music composition in some way. There are also a lot of other opportunities for people looking to get into the industry – various programs, online/in-person courses, and tutorials. Another great way to get more experience is through mentorship programs and assistant jobs – it is extremely worthwhile to learn from already established composers. Most importantly it is vital to use all the opportunities out there!
“Don’t wait for opportunities to come to you – make up your own! Find out what you are really passionate about, what your core values are, and be creative with that. For example, if you are a big fan of a particular comic book, why not write an album inspired by its universe? If you are passionate about advocating for a marginalized group, why not partner with a community group or a charity to create a live event?” - Nina Danon, Music Composer
A unique sound effect technique that involves creating and “performing” everyday sounds for movies and television shows.
A visual form of a musical work. It gives the performer the necessary instructions on how to perform a composition.
Meetings between a composer and film director. During those sessions, they will watch the movie together and decide on where to add music, as well as determine all the details.
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
An integrated computer-based recording system that commonly offers a number of production features such as advanced multitrack recording, editing and mixdown capabilities, MIDI sequencing, edit and score capabilities, and integration with hardware devices such as controllers, MIDI, and audio interface devices.
Written by Kate
Designed by Lou
Published May 9th 2022
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