Obsession is a good beginning. Composers must be infatuated with every note: the pitch, the subtle undulations, the magnificent crescendos. These artists do not write songs, they craft aural experiences that persuade emotion. When combined with images on the screen, the composer’s efforts trigger audience responses of fear, sorrow, elation, and pride.
Composing is a solitary pursuit; the vast majority of the artist’s work is performed alone in a home studio, at the piano or computer screen. The process is part passionate experimentation and part frustrating torture, as these individuals are responsible not only to their muse but to the whims of the film’s director and/or producer. Like writers, composers labor over single stanzas through dozens of iterations until the notation on the page reflects the symphony in their head. When this person is commissioned, he or she may be given some basis of inspiration to draw from ahead of time—a script, film or video footage, or storyboards—but often the composer is the last on board and works to a finished, edited film. From this material and collaboration with the director and producer, the composer cultivates a sense of time, place, action, and emotion, which must be reflected and translated through the score. The time allotted to write the score, which may include dozens of individual pieces of music called cues, varies by project and genre. Budget constraints will determine whether the score is purely synthesized or played by an 80-piece orchestra.
When the master themes are complete, the composer enlists the assistance of an orchestrator to transpose individual instrumental parts for performance. Once music is ready to be recorded, the composer works with the music contractor to hire the appropriate musicians, then leads the orchestra in several takes of the performance on a scoring stage. Edited scenes of the film or video are displayed on a large screen for playback and the music is timed to the images. Composers are aided by a click track and must pay attention to time code documentation to ensure that the violins are hitting the high note and timpani resonates in perfect step with the climax on screen.
Skills & Education
Composers usually have an extensive education in music theory, composition, and performance; a bachelor’s degree is valuable, but an MFA is better. It is expected that these artists are proficient in playing at least one instrument, usually piano. Most degree programs designed for future composers will have components relating to orchestral conducting, writing for voice, tonal harmony, scoring, and a thorough study of music history. Also helpful are courses that focus on recording, composition software, and music business. It is highly recommended that you become familiar with the laws concerning copyright, licensing, and the role of music publishers. Above all, a composer has an inherent talent, distinct creative voice, and well-tuned ear for melody.
What to Expect
The standard path toward becoming a full-fledged composer was to apprentice under a professional to learn the trade techniques; trainee compose cues for their mentor-employer (usually for television shows) which are credited to the more established composer. However, the Society of Composers and Lyricists has instituted an alternative apprentice program to grow the talents and experience of associate members. Video games are a new source of career opportunities for composers; as games become more cinematic and elaborate, some developers have begun hiring composers to create original accompaniment to the game. Many composers have evolved into the role through work as a copyist, arranger, or orchestrator. To properly manage your career and ensure that your rights as an artist are protected, composers are advised to secure agency representation. Membership with a performing rights organization like BMI is a must in order to receive performance royalties when the show or movie appears on television. Most, if not all, film scores are written as work for hire—the composer receives a one-time fee for the work but does not own the publishing rights, which go to the studio. Maintain a friendly relationship with a relations exec at your performing rights organization, and you’ll have a valuable resource for thorny questions of ownership. Business aside, don’t neglect your creativity nurture it with travel and curiosity for all forms of music.
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