What Does a Composer (Television) Do?

Like their counterparts in film, television composers use the language of music to help tell stories. Whether it's a drama, comedy, sci-fi, thriller, children's cartoon, documentary, sporting event, or reality show, the composer's job is to write music that heightens the action playing out on screen and enhances the emotional experience for the viewer. It begins, literally and figuratively, with a theme—a memorable song or instrumental passage that evokes the show's mood and beckons viewers in; think the creepy synth-and-whistle theme from The X-Files, or "I'll Be There for You" from Friends. Outside of a show's theme, the score is made up of a collection of short, discrete pieces, called cues, that are used at specific times in order to highlight particular moments—a car chase, for instance, or a sex scene.

Composing for television means being turned on and tuned in to the world of stories and characters, and sensitive enough to translate emotional and psychological nuances into effective musical soundtracks.

Television shows with hefty production budgets hire composers to write custom scores for each episode, and the pace of the work is intense: for half-hour shows, a composer delivers 10–20 minutes of music, and hourlong shows require 20–40 minutes of music—week in and week out, if the show is a series. Many television productions, however, license themes and cues from production music libraries, which are stocked with songs and cues in every style and genre that are written on a freelance basis by composers and then licensed to television and other media companies. Although some library music is recorded in a professional studio with live musicians, most of it is recorded and mixed by the composer in a high-quality home studio using music software, and then submitted to music libraries for consideration. If accepted, the library typically will ask the composer to create numerous versions in varying lengths to offer for placement. Some composers create large catalogues of library music with numerous high-profile placements.

Composer (Television) at a Glance

Finding Work and Advancing

The rise of streaming and the explosion of cable and niche networks have created the need for more and more television music. That said, it's a very competitive field to break into. Above all, aspiring television composers will need to be effective self-marketers. A clear path to success for television composers includes creating a website with archives of their music; making audio and video demo reels to send to prospective clients or music supervisors; and networking vigorously. Some work without pay on a student film or similar project to build their portfolios. Until they become sought after, aspiring television composers should plan to find other sources of income.

Employers

Television producers, show runners, and music libraries such as Killer Tracks, APM, Omnimusic, and De Wolfe

 

Professional Skills

Composing, harmony, theory, orchestration, arranging, home studio, instruments, MIDI

Interpersonal Skills

Composing for television means being turned on and tuned in to the world of stories and characters, and sensitive enough to translate emotional and psychological nuances into effective musical soundtracks. Composers who create custom scores for television shows must be cool-headed and productive under grueling deadlines, and even-tempered when dealing with the sometimes oversized personalities in the television world. Those who write on a freelance basis for music libraries will need to be self-starters, the kind of disciplined and tenacious composers who can create a lot of music on spec without any guarantee of compensation. 

Work Life

Composers for television series spend the season, which typically runs a minimum of 22 episodes, working very hard under tight, demanding deadlines, churning out a new score every week. Those who contribute to music libraries make their own schedules and work at their own pace, but almost certainly will need to flesh out their income with other revenue.