How Film Composers Work

By: Diane Dannenfeldt

Responsibilities of a Film Composer

Film composers write an original music score for a movie.
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.