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.
Composer (Concert and Stage) at a Glance
After graduating from undergraduate programs, most composers continue on into higher education, seeking master's, Ph.D., or D.M.A. degrees. Some go to Europe for mentorships with established composers. From there, composers are likely to spend their free time developing their own compositions while supporting themselves with jobs that also offer the promise of future opportunities, such as teaching composition alongside established musicians and composers, being an assistant conductor or instrumentalist with a major orchestra, or producing events or ensembles—a key way for a new composer to get work performed and to contribute to the local music community. Composers might also seek out residencies, which serve a dual purpose: getting more time and funding to create work and gaining access to the hosting ensemble or orchestra. Whichever path composers choose to take, the fact is that composition is more than a career—it is an art form, and a lifelong pursuit.
There are many opportunities for talented composers to gain notice and get their work performed. Many enter their work in national and international contests, or seek out composer-in-residence opportunities. Some also form their own ensembles or produce their own events, creating a vehicle for their compositional work. Composers also frequently utilize connections and relationships developed during education and mentorship to get their work performed with successful orchestras. All said, collaborations and connections with other musicians, composers, conductors, and event producers are the clear path to getting work performed and to developing a strong reputation.
- 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 individual 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 usually entwined. Composers often work with or alongside their peers, colleagues, and contemporaries in jobs like teaching, concert organization, event production, ensemble management or arts administration, audio engineering, arranging or orchestrating, instrumental performance, and conducting. Rather than distracting from the creative work, these jobs actually feed it, and inevitably lead to valuable collaborations and opportunities for composers. One of the benefits of being a composer is that networking best happens by going to see concerts or getting coffee with similarly oriented musicians, composers, and producers.