What Does a Composer (Film) Do?

If a few screechy violin chords conjure images of a knife, a shower, and a murder, you've experienced the power of a soundtrack composer. Bernard Herrmann's 1960 score to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is one of the most famous in movie history and a striking example of the film composer's job: to mirror and heighten action unfolding on screen using the potent language of music. Although many film scores are orchestral works rooted in Western classical music, increasingly they are influenced by rock, jazz, folk, blues, world, and electronic music, and vary wildly depending on factors such as the time period and geographical location in which the film is set; the emotional, psychological, and cinematic mood the director wants to create; and the nuances of story and character playing out on screen.

Plan on networking like crazy and working other jobs until your ship comes in, and make a point of getting whatever experience you can: working on a student or low-budget film, for instance, or creating Youtube videos using your music over stock footage.

The composer's work typically begins after the film has finished shooting with a series of spotting sessions, when the director and composer watch a rough cut of the movie to discuss the score's tone and style, and make detailed notes about which scenes need music and where. (From time to time, a composer will be asked to write a score before the film has been shot, based on impressions from storyboards or a script, and on rare occasions a director edits a film to fit the flow of music.) Typically, once the precise timing of each music cue has been determined, the composer spends anywhere from two weeks to three months writing the score, which runs roughly half the length of a movie (i.e., an hour of music for a two-hour film). Some composers work by hand with pencil and paper, performing sections of the work-in-progress for the director on piano; others use music composition software, creating MIDI-based demos of cues for review by the filmmaker before recording the score. Upon completion, the score is orchestrated either by the composer or a professional orchestrator, and finally recorded by a performing ensemble, often with the composer conducting, in front of a large screen where the film is playing.

People in the Field

Alan Silvestri

Composer Alan Silvestri

Name:

Alan
Silvestri
Class of 
1970
Position: 
Composer

Composer (Film) at a Glance

Finding Work and Advancing

Historically, film scoring was the domain of classically trained composers, but the field has greatly expanded over the past few decades. Popular music luminaries such as Trent Reznor (The Social Network), Daft Punk (Tron: Legacy), Karen O (Where the Wild Things Are), the Dust Brothers (Fight Club), and RZA (Ghost Dog) have created memorable scores. Although there are opportunities for many kinds of composers to find work, it's a difficult career to break into. Plan on networking like crazy and working other jobs until your ship comes in, and make a point of getting whatever experience you can: working on a student or low-budget film, for instance, or creating Youtube videos using your music over stock footage.

Employers

Filmmakers, film studios, directors, and producers

Professional Skills

Composing, sight reading, music notation, theory, harmony, instruments, collaboration, conducting, orchestration, arranging

Interpersonal Skills

Filmmaking is a collaborative art. Unlike composers of standalone music, who are beholden only to their own muse, film scorers take inspiration from the creative work of writers, actors, cinematographers, and directors. The ability to engage in an exchange of ideas, and to ultimately defer to a director's vision, is essential. Film composers also need to be enthusiastic networkers to make the connections necessary to find work in this competitive field. 

Work Life

Film composers work in concentrated bursts. Following the comparatively relaxed tempo of the spotting sessions, where the film is screened and decisions are made about tone, style, and cues, the composer then works feverishly over the course of several weeks or months, depending on the production schedule, to write the score. A-list composers often have enduring relationships with a particular director and score many of his or her movies, and have jobs booked years in advance. Less-established composers can expect to devote considerable time to networking and hustling for jobs.