Composers for screen use music to enhance the mood and emotion for a range of visual mediums including television, film, video games, advertising and apps. They utilise their compositional experience alongside their recording and production expertise to produce music that not only edifies what is happening on screen, but also adds a new layer to the experience.
Anyone working as a composer for screen can expect to work fairly regular hours, particularly if they are working in-house as part of a team. Working 9am - 5pm, five days a week is fairly common, though if you’re working remotely, you will have to be disciplined with yourself to set and adhere to your working schedule.
How you spend your time will vary based on where you are with a project. For example, a feature film will work in stages, starting with the creation of sonic templates, followed by developing character themes and then scoring individual scenes that mesh the first two stages together.
This process is much the same for video games, however as it is a non-linear format you won’t have a set timeline to work to, and instead will need to identify every event the player will encounter. A truly get game score is one that perfectly reflects what’s happening on screen and easily weaves in and out of different states, e.g. exploration into combat.
As a composer you will typically find yourself working with a director or creative lead, whose creative vision you’re trying to bring to life. You may also work closely with the music editor who will oversee the compiling, editing, and syncing of music in the project. For video games, you will also be working alongside the programmers and implementers who will be ensuring that your music works seamlessly within the game.
“It’s always important to leave time at the end. After every scene you have to get it signed off by the director, and it doesn’t always work out which means you have to go back and fix it. So being time-considerate and ensuring you have enough time to make any corrections is really important.”
- Adam Taylor (Composer for visual media)
“As a music lover and a film lover, I think it collides two worlds very nicely. Looking at a scene and adding a piece of your own music and watching the emotional direction change is very rewarding.” Adam Taylor (Composer for visual media)
“Being able to make things entirely of your own doing from scratch, and that to go into a final product that real people are out there playing, and watching, and enjoying, and listening to and saying ‘that sounds great,’ is the coolest thing for sure. Because then you get validation that the stuff that you’re thinking about yourself is really good and people want to listen to it as well.” Jeremy Howard (Audio & Music Designer at Ground Shatter and dBs alumnus)
A composer for screen can find themselves entering into a host of different roles within the industry. The most commonly sought after positions will be in film, television, and video games, but the skills needed for these mediums can also translate into other careers such as providing music for advertising and apps.
In terms of career stability, this role will vary from freelance to permanent contracts based on the area you’re working in. For example, by its very nature, composing for film will typically be on a freelance basis as the production has a set development cycle. It’s common for directors to work with the same composer on subsequent projects though, both on small and large scale projects, so if you do a great job the first time round, it could prove to be a regular and lucrative partnership or at least see you referred to other creators.
The same can be true for television and video games, however as these productions can involve additional series’ or new games from the same studio, there are more opportunities to become part of the in-house audio team and even the head of that team.
Composers who work for a production house/studio will be salaried and able to enjoy perks such as paid holiday, pension and sometimes health insurance. Your salary is dependent on the success of the studio, so if you’re joining an indie game studio that’s just starting up for example, you won’t enjoy the same perks as a more established company, at least not at the very start.
Alternatively, for composers that work on a freelance basis, the lack of a fixed salary or benefits such as paid time-off is a bit of a caveat, but one that some people are happy to live with for the extra control over their professional lives.
It’s worth mentioning that a lot of people interested in pursuing a career in composing for screen are intimidated by the notion that they need to possess a strong understanding of music theory to succeed in this role, however this isn’t as big a factor as many believe.
Of course, a knowledge of music theory will equip you with certain skills that will benefit the way you work, especially if you’re tasked with emulating a certain style of score that is more dynamic and complex. It will also give you the freedom to choose whether a project or scene requires it, but a lot of the time it’s more important to understand the desires of the director and communicate that in the music you compose.
“I don’t think it’s essential to know the ins and outs of music theory, especially when you’re talking to the director. You’re never talking on a music theory or complicated basis, you’re talking in terms of emotion, how the scene feels and the atmosphere, so it’s not an essential.”
- Adam Taylor (Composer for visual media and tutor at dBs Bristol)
Composers for screen tend to have distinct personalities, interests and skill sets. You may be cut out for this role if…
Organised – It’s rare for a composer to not be juggling multiple projects, and when you’re trying to rework music that’s been sent back by a director, whilst developing another piece for a different project, being able to prioritise and organise your tasks is essential.
Analytical – Understanding the inner workings of media and music, and how the two work with one another is paramount to creating effective and memorable scores.
Adventurous - The best composers are those that go the extra mile by taking risks and creating something completely new to set themselves apart. While there’s value in being able to emulate certain styles, the composers that are remembered the most are those that try something different.
Empathetic - As the composer, you are responsible for enhancing the emotions on-screen, so you need to be able to understand and reflect those feelings through your music.
Making music – This sounds obvious, but making sure that you have fun while you make music is invaluable for any budding composers as you’ll be doing it for hours every day.
Creating without boundaries – One of the most frequently cited perks of composing for screen is the freedom to do whatever you want, so a love for experimenting and employing unconventional techniques is very important.
Working independently and as part of a team – Composers will often find themselves working alone in the early creation stages, but they will always be reporting to a wider team. Having the capacity to switch effortlessly between the two working styles will play a huge part in how you progress.
Mixing and production - An excellently arranged piece of music won’t have the same impact if it’s not produced to a high standard and more importantly, won’t be accepted by a client, so possessing a strong knowledge of your chosen DAW and producing within it is vital.
Communicating – Your job is to understand the creative vision on any given project and enhance and edify that musically, so being able to communicate your ideas and speak with the rest of your team in a way that they understand will ensure a project runs smoothly.
Working to a brief – All composers are working to a brief, so being able to understand the needs of the client and delivering a product to a high standard that meets those needs will make or break your chances of succeeding in this role.
While it’s true that there’s no official pathway into the world of composing for screen, there are certainly ways that you can maximise your chances of establishing yourself in the role. Possessing a strong musical foundation on an instrument, preferably piano, as well as expertise using a digital audio workstation (DAW) to produce music is imperative.
“I think it’s really important for people wanting to get into this line of work to educate yourself on a variety of different topics, whether that be joining up to a music school, a college or a university or just watching videos online. Pick a DAW, practice in that particular DAW. If it’s got video capability that’s always preferable for this line of work. Learn the ins and outs, it’ll all be very helpful later.” Adam Taylor (Composer for visual media)
Though all of the above can be attained without formal education, it can’t be overstated how much education can fast-track your progression into this industry. Studying a relevant course at degree level will not only teach you all the fundamentals of composing for screen, but also introduce you to the people you want to work with and help forge those early connections to build upon.
“From my personal experience when I started going down this particular path, I used to set myself small challenges composing in lots of different styles for lots of different scenes. There’s so many movie clips on YouTube, so just gaining access to different scenes and writing music in a variety of styles is going to give you that array of styles to work with.”
- Adam Taylor (Composer for visual media)
“One of the hardest obstacles I found when I was starting was the fact that I didn’t have money, therefore I couldn’t afford the equipment. At the beginning I was using a 33-key keyboard, a laptop and headphones so having that technical limitation was a challenge. However, upon looking back I think that was a blessing in disguise because it taught me how to utilise very limited equipment from a very early stage of my career.”
- Tess Tyler (Composer for film, TV and video games)
“Work brings in more work. People want to hire folks who are making things, not those who say they could. And I don’t mean paid work, I mean things you make and share with the world.”
- Drew Morgan (Composer, arranger and producer and dBs guest lecturer)
The first steps any budding composer should take is creating music for existing visuals. The internet is a vast resource and one that has a long list of scenes from film, television and video games that you can re-score. This is an excellent way to start stretching yourself creatively and finding your voice as a composer.
Once you feel confident in your skills you can start connecting with local filmmakers and visual artists and put what you have learned into practice on real-world projects.
“If you’re a student, most universities have people who are studying or interested in other areas of media. If you have a department that has film students, contact them on social media and say ‘I’m a composer, here’s my portfolio, I’m happy to work on your project’, and that just gets you talking to directors and gets the ball rolling.”
- Adam Taylor (Composer for visual media)
Throughout your growth as a composer it’s crucial to remember the importance of your showreel, as this will be your primary way of demonstrating what you can bring to a project. This should be regularly updated with your most recent work, but it’s important not to overdo it. A deluge of styles and overly-long pieces of music is not going to work, as anyone viewing it will have at most three minutes to look over your work.
And finally, it’s something we’ve touched upon already, but do not underestimate the importance of understanding some of the skills outside of composition. It’s almost guaranteed that those first jobs and even some when you’re more established will see you not only composing, but mixing and mastering your tracks as well.
“Having a deeper understanding of the integration between the music and the picture is a huge benefit. If you are starting out just dabble in the foundations of these things, whether it’s production skill, or mixing; or if you’re going into video games perhaps look at your middleware softwares to deepen that knowledge. It makes the employer, and the director and producer just feel a lot more at ease.”
- Tess Tyler (Composer for film, TV and video games)
At undergraduate level, our BA (Hons) Music and Sound for Film & TV is by far the most relevant degree for you to consider, however our FdA Sound & Music Technology will also teach you both the fundamentals of recording, mixing and composition, and features a module on scoring for film in the second year.
At postgraduate level, our MA Music Production & Sound Engineering degree is a great way to continue the advancement of your skills, while also giving you the creative freedom to focus on developing work that relates to your chosen career path.
Not at the stage for university level education? At Level 3, your best pathway is the one-year Access to HE: Music Production diploma, provided by our educational partner Access Creative College. Here you’ll develop your skills in music production and composition, with a module dedicated to scoring for Film & TV.
Complete Guide to Film Scoring: The Art and Business of Writing Music for Movies and TV by Richard Davis
The Study of Orchestration by Samuel Adler
A Composer’s Guide to Game Music by Winnifred Phillips
Music for New Media: Composing for Video Games, Websites, Presentations and Other Interactive Media by Paul Hoffert.
Composing Music: A New Approach by William Russo, Jeffrey Ainis and David Stevenson