How Film Composers Work

the fly
Film composers provide a movie's musical accompaniment. Composer Howard Shore, left, celebrates with director David Cronenberg, right, at the director's screening of "The Fly."
© Michael Buckner/Getty Images

If a few scratchy chords conjure up the image of a shower, a knife and an unsuspecting young woman, or a bar of menacing music brings to mind a cruising underwater shark, you've responded to the work of a film composer. In movies like "Psycho" (1960) and "Jaws" (1975), the film composer has provided a musical accompaniment that blends almost unconsciously with speech and action to create a mood [source: Internet Movie Database].

But as invisible as these musical motifs seem at the time, the successful ones can linger long after the credits roll, triggering memories of bold adventure (the "Star Wars" series), ephermeral magic (the "Harry Potter" series) or impending doom and salvation ("The Lord of the Rings" trilogy). Creating the magic is all part of a day's work for film music composers like Danny Elfman, Howard Shore or John Williams.


There are plenty of tough decisions and lots of hard work behind creating an apparently seamless film score. Agreement must be reached with the movie director on the concept. Music must be written to match the tone of a specific scene of the film -- and to exactly the right length. Scores must be fleshed out, musicians hired and recordings made of their sessions. And everything must be completed on a tight deadline.

What are the responsibilities of the movie composer in all this? What is it like to actually work as a movie music composer? And how does someone become a composer? Keep reading to find out.


Responsibilities of a Film Composer

film composer
Film composers write an original music score for a movie.
© Nick Koudis/Photodisc/Getty Images

The responsibilities of a film composer vary, depending on the project -- and every film composer has a different style. Basically, a film composer scores music to accompany a film. This could be a dramatic orchestral underscore, or it could rely on some other style of songwriting and a smaller ensemble of musicians. The film music composer:

  • Meets with the director and movie producers, when the film has been shot and is being edited, to discuss music needs for the film.
  • Takes part in a spotting session, in which the film composer, director and others watch the movie and decide where each segment of music should start and stop in the film, why it's being included and how it should sound.
  • Writes the score, a compilation of all the musical sections needed for the film. The score for a feature film is usually about half the length of the film, so a composer would probably have to write about 50 minutes of music for a 100-minute movie.
  • Prepares scores for the musicians, or gives notes and a rough score to the arrangers and copyists so that they can provide a complete musicians' score

[sources: Berklee College of Music and Associated Content]­ ­­


Particularly on smaller or independent films, the movie composer may also:

  • Hire the musicians
  • Conduct the musicians
  • Help edit and mix the final score

However, some of these responsibilities may be divided up among others working on the film, such as:

The music editor, who mixes and synchronizes the music with the film soundtrack. The music editor often also oversees the scoring process.

The orchestrator, who writes the scores for the orchestra, band, chorus and solo instrumentalists or vocalists. The orchestrator may also transpose music for the group and conduct the musicians during scoring sessions.

The contractor, who hires the musicians and deals with union contract obligations through the American Federation of Musicians.

The film arranger, who uses the composer's work and instructions to create a score for the musicians, if the composer has not already done so.

The film conductor, who rehearses the musicians and conducts them during the film scoring session. He listens to input from the composer and producer during the session and has the musicians make changes.

The assistant to the composer, an entry-level position for someone who handles details for the composer so that he can focus on composing.

The sound designer, who creates synthesized music and sound effects to go with the musical score.

[source: Berklee College of Music]

Keep reading to learn what it's like to work as a film composer.


Working as a Film Composer

Film composer Danny Elfman, left, taught himself how to write music for films. He is at the premiere of "Milk" with director Gus Van Sant.
© Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In the days when the major studios ruled Hollywood, working as a film composer meant working as a studio employee. Film composers were expected to be able to work in a variety of styles and had months to complete the score for a film. In fact, the film music composer often didn't even enter the filmmaking process until an edited first cut of the film was available.

Today, most movie music composers work as independents -- and have far less time to complete a score, often two months or less to produce and record an hour of music. Digital technology and temp tracks allow filming, editing and music composition to overlap.


Technology helps on the composing side, too. Electronic systems have, for example, eliminated the need for a composer to do musical notation by hand or to copy out each instrument's part from the complete score. But, as in other industries, labor-saving technology has increased demands for speedier work turn-around.

Film composers have to be creative and practical artists, solid musicians who also are adept with music and audio mixing technology. Film composer Cody Westheimer has a studio in a Los Angeles guesthouse. Here's the set-up he works with:

  • Digital Performer running on a Macintosh G5
  • Three PCs running Gigastudio
  • Several other synthesizers
  • Millenia preamps
  • Audio Technica microphones
  • A Panasonic digital mixer

[source: Hitsquad Musician Network]  

The number of film composers far outnumbers the number of film scoring jobs. So out on their own, movie music composers also have to be masters of other skills, such as business and marketing. For indie composer Robert Toteras, that means spending only 50 percent of his time on music ­­and the rest on hustling up work. The most important things in his business, he says, are the Internet and lists of new and old clients [source:].

Moving up through the film industry takes time and contacts and flexibility. Along the way, that may mean pursuing jobs other than feature films. Westheimer, for example, has scored video games, university educational programs, commercials, short films, film trailers and documentaries. He started with student films at the University of Southern California.

Does film composing sound like a career you'd like to pursue? Keep reading to find out how to get started.


Becoming a Film Composer

john williams
John Williams was responsible for many memorable scores including the original "Star Wars" trilogy and "Jaws." He performed at the "Movies Rock" celebration.
© Kevin Winter/Getty Images

If you're thinking of becoming a film composer, you probably love movies and are a talented musician who enjoys composing. And based on responses of 12 film composers to a Variety magazine question, you've probably felt that way for a long time. Most film music composers describe themselves as writing music and being inspired by a movie before they reached high school [source: Variety].

But, as you may suspect, there's no specific way to become a movie composer. Well-known, award-winning movie music composers have taken different paths in building their careers. For example:


  • John Williams is a five-time Oscar winner for best original score and composer for more than 100 movies, including the "Star Wars," "Indiana Jones" and "Harry Potter"­ series. He studied piano at Juillard and then played in New York clubs as a jazz pianist. He started in films by working with Bernard Herrmann and other film composers.­
  • Howard Shore has won Oscars for the original scores of two "Lord of the Rings" movies. He graduated from Berklee College of Music, played in the jazz group Lighthouse and then became musical director for "Saturday Night Live." His work in film began with a collaboration with director David Cronenburg that has continued through 12 films.
  • Danny Elfman is a self-taught musician who led the rock group Oingo Boingo. He has scored most of director Tim Burton's movies and many others, including "Batman Returns" (1992) and the "Spider-Man" and "Men in Black" series.

If you plan to follow their examples, here are a few tips that may help you with a career as a film composer:

Get a degree in music or a related entertainment field. Going to a school with a film program, like University of Southern California or New York University, or a music school that offers a film scoring major, like Berklee, can help you learn about the film industry and the technical aspects of composing -- and help you connect with student directors for immediate film projects and future contacts.

Work on different types of films. The rare film composer starts on feature films. You'll probably start with commercials, student films, trailers and other smaller projects. Varied types of films and varied musical styles make for a broader portfolio to appeal to directors and producers.

Make connections with directors and others in the film industry who may be able to offer you work or know someone who can. Building relationships with directors is particularly important because they often will collaborate with a single composer for many of their films.

Build a strong portfolio that demonstrates what you can do. Directors and producers are unlikely to listen to more than 20 minutes of sample work, so you may want to create themed demo CDs of your work. You'll be able to send different ones, depending on the type of music that is wanted. But remember that directors and producers are more likely to be interested in your film credits than your music.

Go where the jobs are. Although the Internet makes long-distance work relationships possible, most film composers need to be in the same location as the directors and editors they work with. Most of the jobs are in southern California or New York.

Finally, be persistent if this is the career you want. With talent, education, contacts and some luck, you could wind up composing one of those movie themes that lingers long after the closing credits fade.

For lots more information about film composers and related topics, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information - Film Composers

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links

  • "Advice for Aspiring Composers. Wendler, Edwin. (
  • "Careers in Film Scoring." Berklee College of Music.
  • Danny Elfman bio. BMI. (  
  • "Frequently Asked Questions." Film Score Monthly. Kendall, Lukas. Jan. 25, 2001.
  • Howard Shore Official Site. (
  • "Interview with a Film Composer: James Guymon." Laurie, Wes. Associated Content. Sept. 27, 2007.
  • "Interview with film composer Cody Westheimer." Meloni, Michael. Hitsquad Musician Network.
  • Jerry Goldsmith. Internet Movie Database.
  • John Williams Official Site. ( 
  • "On the Track." Karlin, Fred and Wright, Rayburn. Routledge, 2004, p. 27-28.,M1
  • "Robert Toteras Reveals the Glamorous Life of an Independent Film Composer." Oct. 9, 2008.
  • "What Made You Want to Be a Composer?" Steward, D.R. Variety magazine. July 21, 2008.