Derived from a Latin word meaning "one who puts together," a composer does just that, piecing together the various elements that comprise a piece of music—melodies and harmonies, rhythms and dynamics, structure and sensibility—to create an original work. Composers may have highly individual styles, methods, and goals, but all composers have one thing in common: they use music as a medium to express and evoke ideas, emotions, and sensibilities.
Some composers work by ear, but the majority have advanced training in music notation and full command of music theory and contemporary techniques, whether or not they choose to work within established frameworks. Composers may write for voices as well as for instruments, and might incorporate or rely entirely on electronic and digital music tools. A finished work could be as simple as a solo clarinet melody or as lush as a full-length symphony.
While new work may be purely a product of a composer's urge to create, most professional composers also work on commission, at the behest of a performance group, arts organization, or individual. Jacqueline Kennedy, for example, famously commissioned Leonard Bernstein to write a Mass for the opening of a performing arts center in Washington, D.C. Composers may also work within a composer-in-residence arrangement with an ensemble or other performance group, developing new work exclusively for that group to premiere.
At a Glance
Some say that concert and stage composition is more art than career; the truth is that it is both, and there is far more than a single way to approach this field. Most concert composers begin by completing an undergraduate music program, after which they might set out into the world to work professionally, seek a mentorship or residency with a prominent composer or orchestra (many of which are located in Europe), or continue into higher education to obtain a master's degree, Ph.D., or D.M.A.
Whatever path they take, almost all concert composers will eventually need a day job to pay the bills—and, one hopes, to further develop their art and career. Here, those with advanced degrees have a slight advantage, as they can find work as music professors. Others might work as music teachers or tutors, assistant conductors, orchestra members, bandleaders, freelance composers, or concert/event producers—a role which has many benefits for aspiring composers, including helping them get a foothold in the local music community and allowing them to produce their own pieces and ensembles. Finally, there are some aspiring composers who set themselves up as musical freelancers, providing arrangement, orchestration, copyist, and/or transcription services for hire.
Concert composition is a lifelong pursuit. Experienced composers at the top of their field might take on commissions for prestigious dance and opera companies, and have their pieces performed by prominent orchestras around the world. However, success takes many forms, whether that's a resident spot at the helm of a local jazz ensemble, the opportunity to teach the next generation of composers, or a long career spanning many industries, such as musical theater, film, television, or video games.
In order to gain notice and get their work performed, composers might enter their work in national and international contests, seek out composer-in-residence opportunities, become the bandleader for a new or existing ensemble, or even produce their own events. Composers also frequently utilize connections developed during their education and mentorship to get their music seen by music directors and performed by successful orchestras. All said, the path to getting work performed and developing a reputation is paved with numerous collaborations and connections with other composers, musicians, conductors, and live performance professionals.
- Music composition
- Reading and writing music
- Music theory
- Instrumental performance
- Event and ensemble production
In one sense, composing is a solitary and consuming endeavor, requiring the ability to set and stick to work hours and to remain comfortable while spending long periods of time working alone. In another sense, however, composing is a highly collaborative art that requires cooperation and communication with a diverse group of musicians, conductors, concert producers, and other composers. The best composers combine these qualities with a deep curiosity about the music around them and a powerful need to communicate something through music.
The work life of a composer can be as unpredictable as it is creatively rich and rewarding. Throughout their careers, most composers split their time between composition work and a day job—but don't make the mistake of thinking that "day job" means menial labor. Popular culture has the tendency to paint artists' day jobs as wholly opposed to creative work, when in reality, the two are often entwined. Composers can work right alongside their artistic peers in jobs like conducting, concert production, audio engineering, arranging, instrumental performance, teaching, or arts administration. Rather than distracting from a composer's challenging creative work, these jobs can lead to valuable collaborations and opportunities. Similarly, one of the benefits of being a composer is that networking often takes place in the concert hall or the coffee shop, swapping ideas with other musicians, composers, and producers.