Become a TV/Film Composer

How do You Actually get Work as Composer?

I wish I could answer this question, or at least get paid every time someone asks it. Initially I was interested in composing music for TV commercials. After a long time taking my demos around to advertising agencies and being told The music on your showreel is great, but you haven’t composed for any real commercials yet so we can’t give you a job. I realised I was trapped in a vicious circle: you need to have worked in order to get work. Finally I got a chance, I was playing in an R & B band in a pub and someone in the audience who liked my playing introduced herself as the marketing manager of a multinational corporation and asked her ad agency to try me out. They weren’t very happy at first (being advised by their client about who to hire to compose music), but I was asked to do a demo which they liked and recommended me for other commercials.

These days it can actually be easier in some respects, though harder in others. Easier to prove you can compose to picture as it’s now possible to present demos not just as audio tapes but as a professional sounding and looking video showreel thanks to relatively affordable music and video production software. Although not ideal, you can make up a video reel by dubbing your music onto clips of existing commercials and films, even with just the free Apple Mac software, Garageband and iMovie, some very good results can be obtained. This leads on to why it can also be harder to get the work: thousands of others like you are out there creating great sounding and looking showreels at home.

So how to I get my foot in the door?

In order to have an advantage over all those others, you need to adopt a marketing strategy. However good you are, the world doesn’t realise that it owes you a living. This requires three things: a good product, good advertising, and happy customers

In this part we’ll look at the first aspect:

The Product – Your Showreel

The first question I’m always asked is “What standard of production does my showreel need to be?” It must be as well produced as possible. Gone are the days when directors and producers had any imagination and you could walk into the office, play your theme on the piano and expect them to realise how good the final score would sound. If you intend to be a professional composer you need to invest in the best possible composing tools, these days that usually means a computer, recording software and software sound library. To see what I recommend just visit my studio page to see what I use.

Do I need to go to college to be a film composer?

It’s entirely possible to learn the composing skills yourself, especially more pop oriented music which often works better without the constraints of a formal music training. However in order to get the best chance of getting work, a degree of versatility is a good idea and as long as you never let the formal academic side of composing get in the way of your creative flow, then a college or university course in composition, arranging and music technology is extremely valuable. BUT remember this:

The qualification won’t get you the work – only your abilty to write good music and your ability to sell it will get you work.

The Ins & Outs of Composing to Picture

TelevisionThese notes can be applied to most types of composing for film and television from 30 second commercial to a complete soundtrack for a drama feature. There are no hard and fast rules as to the answers, but the composer will stand a better chance of creating an appropriate score if he/she spends time thinking about the questions. Sometimes the answers are obvious; sometimes they only come through a process of trial and error, even for the most experienced composers. Very often the issues are subjective, one of the composer’s chief skills is the ability to understand the brief and almost get inside the mind of the director.

Producers and directors may think otherwise, but in reality there is very little difference between composing for film and television, the real differences are between the various genres, for example animations often require lots of very tightly synchronised musical cues, almost as if they are sound effects. Using this kind of technique for drama or documentary is usually very annoying. Even composing for television commercials can use all the elements of composing for the bigger picture, they just have to fit into a shorter and often more disciplined framework

Music is sometimes considered by the director from the outset, but is often added right at the end after the final edit. It has an enormous bearing on the apparent pace of a film. It can make fast editing seem slower and slow editing fast.

There are different approaches for different film genres, e.g. it is common for musical accents and strong beats to coincide with action in traditional animation, where it can almost act as a sound effect track, but this approach with modern drama will often appear to be very corny.

  • What is the overall emotional value (fear, love, hate, liberation, ecstasy etc)
  • What (emotions) can music add that is not already present in the film?
  • Is it actually necessary to add anything?
  • Are there places where pauses or silence would be more telling?
  • Is it necessary to tell a story or just convey a mood?
  • Is there a climax or turning point?
  • Are there secondary peak moments?
  • Should the music follow or contrast with the visual rhythm?
  • Should music cues synchronise exactly with action, or come earlier or later?
  • How does the music affect the rhythm of the film (eg the pace of the editing).
  • Whose point of view needs to predominate?
  • How does the music interact with dialogue, voice over, sound effects? Does it clash or complement?
  • How does the genre of the music relate to the characters or the audience?

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