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 film 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 use their stylistic palette to illustrate the time period and 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.

The ability to engage in an exchange of ideas is vital for a film composer, as is the humility to ultimately defer and adapt to a director's vision.

The composer's work typically begins after the film has finished shooting with a series of spotting sessions, when the director, composer, and music editor gather to watch a rough cut of the movie, discuss the score's tone and style, and take detailed notes about which scenes need music, what kind, and how long. In rare cases, a composer will be asked to write a score before the film has been shot, and the spotting process will be performed based on impressions from storyboards or a script.

Once the precise timing, narrative content, and emotional tone 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 the 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. Most, however, use music composition software to create MIDI-based demos of cues, which are then reviewed by the filmmaker and fleshed out by orchestrators.

When it's time to record the score composers almost always attend the sessions, but aside from that, the extent of their participation depends largely on personal preference and the demands of the score. Some are highly involved in recording sessions, choosing some of the performers beforehand, providing electronic elements of the score in real time, assisting in the booth, and even conducting some cues. Others choose to step away, leaving the recording process in the capable hands of music contractors, instrumental performers, conductors, orchestrators, and recording engineers

People in the Field

At a Glance

Career Path

In the world of stand-alone composers, education is highly valued and careers start late. Not so for today's film composers, who don't necessarily need advanced degrees and often start working professionally shortly after graduating from a conservatory or college. Early in their careers, most film composers try to work on as many projects as possible, stringing together small and low-budget composing opportunities into a larger, upward-trending trajectory. It's a small group of impressively talented, unbelievably hardworking, and enormously lucky composers who manage to make the leap to regularly composing for big-budget films and studios. Film composers at the top of the field develop enduring collaborative relationships with successful directors, enjoy a privileged position within the film industry, and shape the next generation of film composers with their distinctive, iconic scores.

While working on their own film scoring projects, composers may supplement their income by working as assistants to established composers or as film industry orchestrators, recording or mixing engineers, freelance composers, video game composers, and more. Although creating the music for films can be quite different from composing for a television show—with distinct budgets, needs, obstacles, and work cycles—the career paths are deeply connected. Film composers often write for TV and vice versa, although many find that they prefer composing for one medium over the other.

Finding Work

Aspiring film composers should make a point of getting whatever experience they can: working on a student or lower-budget film, for instance, or writing their own score for an already existing film. The ultimate goal is to create a reel that demonstrates an ability to compose cues in a wide range of emotional tones and musical styles. While all work is good work for beginning film composers, they should also carefully consider how to get their name out there; often, this means composing for films that are likely to circulate at festivals. Finally, film composers should be sure to network as a matter of course. Sometimes, getting a "big break" is all about connecting with the right people at the right time.

Professional Skills
  • Compositional flexibility
  • Reading and writing music
  • Arranging and orchestration
  • Music theory
  • Instrumental performance
  • Conducting
  • Collaboration
  • Filmmaking
Interpersonal Skills

Filmmaking is a collaborative art. Unlike composers of stand-alone 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 is vital, as is the humility to ultimately defer and adapt to a director's vision. Film composers must also be enthusiastic consumers of film in order to understand the way music can play with and against the action on screen, and to stay on top of changes and trends in the industry. Finally, networking skills are a tremendous strength within this competitive field.

Work Life

Usually based out of a home studio, private studio, or office, 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 works feverishly over the course of several weeks or months to write the score. Less established composers usually spend time hustling for new composing gigs while working an additional job to generate income. A-list composers, on the other hand, often have jobs booked years in advance.