What Does a Composer (Concert and Stage) Do?

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 vast majority have advanced training in music notation and full command of music theory and harmony, whether or not they choose to work within the established frameworks. Composers may write for voices as well as 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 work frequently 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.

People in the Field

Ken Ueno

Name:

Ken
Ueno
Class of 
1994
Position: 
Composer

Composer (Concert and Stage) at a Glance

Career Path

Early in their careers, composers are almost certain to have other jobs. Much of Phillip Glass's epic opera Einstein on the Beach was written late at night after his shift as a cab driver ended, and Charles Ives famously worked as an insurance salesman throughout his career. Stories like these sound a bit romantic and dated, but one thing is still true: it takes time to build a strong reputation as a composer, and a good reputation helps justify charging more for work. And keep in mind that many composers who don't make a living on composing alone still manage to have wonderful and notable careers as composers.

Finding Work

There are many opportunities for talented composers to gain notice. Some start by forming ensembles and setting up gigs. Many enter their work in national and international contests, and seek out composer-in-residence opportunities. Collaborations and connections with other artists and performing organizations is the clear path to getting work performed and creating a reputation. Since composition doesn't pay well (at least at the start), most composers work at least one additional job in a related field, such as arranging, orchestrating, transcribing, conducting, teaching, or being a copyist. 

Professional Skills
  • Composition
  • Music history
  • Music notation
  • Music theory
  • Harmony
  • Instruments
  • Sight-reading
Interpersonal Skills

Composing is a solitary and consuming endeavor. Composers must have the ability to set and stick to their own hours and be comfortable spending long periods of time working alone. Don't underestimate the importance of organizational skills, either. Remembering which recording or score is going where can be tricky if they're strewn all over a room, and meeting deadlines reliably is vital to a composer's reputation.

Work Life

The lifestyle of a composer can be as unpredictable as it is creatively rich and rewarding. At the beginning of the career it likely requires splitting time between composition work and a "day job," and later on may require coordination with a team of assistants, or a group of collaborators. One of the benefits of setting their own schedules (when commission or competition deadlines aren't pressing) is that composers have the ability to take a night off to go see a show, or take a break to grab a coffee—whatever helps them work well and feel inspired.