There are many skills required to be a media composer, from hard skills like actually composing to soft skills like networking. This list will help you know where to focus your efforts!
I’ve been interviewing some seriously awesome people in the music/media industry for my podcast recently. There are some themes that come up time and time again, so here’s a summary of the 10 skills you need to be a media composer.
This one is pretty obvious, but you actually need to know how to compose. That said, it can sometimes be hard to know what to compose, or how to motivate yourself to complete compositions.
A great way to learn how to compose is to find good reasons to compose. If you’re happy to just sit and write music all day you’ll definitely improve. But you’ll improve a lot faster and with a lot more ingenuity if you can find things that push you out of your comfort zone a little.
Keep an eye out for competitions, whether they’re specifically for film music or for general composition. Many competitions give you certain instrumentation, or specific themes, which are a great way for you to learn how to work within those constraints. Just be wary of ones that you have to pay to enter, or ones that demand you to hand over all rights to your music – I’d advise against the majority of those unless you know for sure they’re very reputable, and you have a good chance of winning!
Alternatively, a good study book like Alan Belkin’s is another great way to give improve quickly. You’ll have specific exercises and constraints that help to push you creatively, and help you to understand what you’re actually doing when you compose.
Mike Verta has some awesome courses online that focus on film music composition. A big part of his teaching is learning how to “hold the listener’s hand.” Basically, before you can take the listener to places they haven’t been before, you need to prepare them and get them on your side. So don’t focus on originality if that is going to alienate your listener. Particularly at the start of your music. Get them on your side, give them something to latch on to and then take them somewhere new and exciting.
That said, almost everyone I’ve spoken to has mentioned some kind of obsession with sound. Your sounds should be as original as you can. Think of the palette you are creating for your score. An instrument recorded in a unique and interesting way vs a sample of the instrument playing the same passage will sound remarkably different. Be obsessed with sound.
Music theory will help you. Now, I’m not saying that before you start composing you should go and learn everything there is to know about music theory. No. But, you should be focused on learning theory as you’re going. Work out what is happening in the music you are listening to and creating – it’s the fastest way that you’ll improve. Theory is the grammar and vocabulary of music. You can’t expect to master a language without knowing lots of vocabulary, and a decent amount of grammar, so don’t expect to master music without it.
Also, don’t wait for inspiration. Compose every day, preferably at the same time, and inspiration will start becoming part of that routine. Or, as Tchaikovsky put it:
“I sit down to the piano regularly at nine-o’clock in the morning and Mesdames Les Muses have learned to be on time for that rendezvous.”–Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Arranging and orchestration are two vital skills, and have a lot of crossover depending on who you ask. The traditional definition is that “arranging” is the rearranging of existing material into a new idea, and “orchestration” is basically putting a composition onto orchestral instruments.
However, in more modern musical vocabulary, the word “arranging” is often used to mean the arranging of music onto instruments (as in “big band arranging”) and the definition of “orchestration” has become so blurred with the development of sample libraries and hybrid orchestral scores. Is it still “orchestration” if it’s on synths?
The reason you need to understand this is that you need to know what might be asked of you. If you’re asked to work as an “orchestrator” for someone, do you actually know what is being asked of you?
Of course, in today’s composing world arranging and orchestration both expand into MIDI orchestration. That means that you need to know how to orchestrate for sample libraries, and make them sound amazing (more of that later…).
Also, I’ll reiterate an earlier point here: you need to know music theory. Let me pitch a hypothetical situation to you: somehow, a famous composer happens to stumble across your work and likes it. They’d like to work with you and they have some room on their team for an orchestrator. Can you do it? Not if you can’t read music. Not if you don’t understand instruments and their ranges. You just lost the gig.
Learn your fundamentals: arranging, orchestration, and notation.
A great way to kill multiple birds with one stone (sorry PETA) is to purchase (or borrow from a library) some scores and do some mockups! If you can get film music scores, great. If not, classic orchestral scores will do. Program all of the information into you DAW, get a good recording of the piece, and see how close you can get the two to sound.
It’ll take a lot of work to get your samples sounding good, but you’ll learn so much about the instruments you’re working with, and about orchestration in the process. You’ll see and hear where instruments are doubled, who has the melody, harmony, and bass, and in the process you’ll get faster and faster at reading notation.
“Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.”–Johannes Brahms
3. Technical Things
It’s a hard fact that composers nowadays simply cannot get away with handing the director some sheet music, have it performed, recorded, mixed, and mastered by someone else. Composers have to do the majority of those things themselves – particularly on independent projects.
You need to work on your production skills. Specifically:
- MIDI Programming
- Sound design and synthesis (that “sound obsession” thing we talked about)
- Mastering (although there’s a big question mark over this one…)
Once again, practice makes “better” (no such thing as “perfect” I’m afraid!) – so do your absolute utmost to find ways to practice these skills. Join forums, watch tutorials (but be picky as to the ones you watch), ask questions, and get feedback. Not just “hey I made this track what do you think” haphazardly thrown into a Facebook group (because, let’s be honest, very rarely does anyone posting those types of links actually want feedback. They’re promoting themselves. To other composers. It’s hilarious). Ask for specific advice on areas that you think you need help with. Bass not loud enough? Ask how to improve it. Instruments sounding awful? ASK!
If you can make friends with composers, why not ask them if you can have the stems of one of their compositions and have a go at mixing it? That can be interesting, as you’ll have a “blank canvas” to mix, and a fresh perspective as it’s not your own music.
All of this comes with a warning though: don’t get carried away. There’s a big trend at the moment of these absolutely monumental mixes with hundreds (literally) of tracks, layers, doublings, etc.. That’s great for a certain sound, but don’t feel that you have to do that – it doesn’t work for everything. Very often less is more.
The other trend at the moment is that of buying gear. Everyone seems to think that buying a new sample library or plugin is going to instantly improve their compositions. It won’t. Practicing composing will improve your compositions. Buying sample libraries/plugins will only improve your production.
In fact, to stop me from bankrupting myself I created a little flowchart to help me decide if I actually need to buy stuff. I often spot a piece of gear and think “wow, I need that!” – research it for hours, and then finally think about how it would fit into my workflow and realise that it won’t. I’d barely ever use it. Think carefully before parting with your hard earned cash.
Here’s the chart:
“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”-Frederic Chopin
4. Media Theory
Surprise! You actually have to be interested in films/TV/games in order to write music for them. WHO KNEW?!
Jokes aside, it’s amazing how many composers aren’t actually interested in the media they’re writing, focusing only on the music. It’s point that director Chris Presswell brought up in the podcast. It’s important to remember that media music is a “complimentary art form” (as he put it). I don’t mean to detract from the incredible pieces of art that media composers are creating, but great music that works entirely on its own doesn’t always have a place in media music.
You need to understand how to create drama. Where should the climax of a scene be? Music can tell the audience that. How should the audience feel at this point? Again, music has the answer.
Hans Zimmer talks about the “story” that we’re telling with music, and you really have to understand that before working on a project. What is the music bringing to the table? What are you adding?
When it boils down to it, writing good media music is all about knowing how to create a certain emotion with music and which emotion you should be making people feel.
“Music, I feel, must be emotional first and intellectual second.”-Maurice Ravel
Okay, now we’re moving into more of the “soft skills.” As a media composer you need to know a few things about yourself:
- Your strengths
- Your weaknesses
- Your health
Knowing your strengths is great, it helps you to know what kinds of projects you could be working, how to “sell” yourself to a director/client, and gives you the confidence to put yourself forward. Understanding your weaknesses, though, is perhaps more important. If you can highlight all the skills covered in this article and work out exactly what you need to work on, you’ll be one step closer to your goal – providing you work on them.
Knowing your weaknesses isn’t an excuse to say “no, I don’t do that” – like “well, I’m a composer so I don’t waste my time tweaking samples” – it’s a reason to start practicing!
Now, health is a huge issue, and not something I could cover within this article. But you need to know what makes you healthy – and it’s different for different people. Some people can healthily stay up all night working, others are healthier when they’re in bed by 10pm and awake at the crack of dawn.
You need to figure out what makes you healthy and do it. Sometimes composing can mean isolation. Being fit, healthy, and happy will help pull you through any dark or down days.
But I know it’s sometimes much easier said than done.
“Composing music is hard work.”–John Williams
Marketing is an interesting concept for composers. I’ve studied quite a lot of marketing principles in my quest to help as many people enter this industry as possible, but I always struggle to see how it applies to composers.
Paying for Facebook ads promoting yourself to directors isn’t likely to work. Blogging or content marketing might bring a few visitors to your website but is it really likely to land you many gigs? I’m not sure.
There is one thing that I think a lot of composers need to stop doing though: promoting themselves to other composers. Having a network of “comrades” is great, and maybe you’ll get a few scraps tossed your way at some point. Amazing. But, your musical network should only be half of your contacts – the other should be media professionals (directors, producers, editors, etc.) More on that below.
One thing that can sometimes help is building a bit of hype around your projects though. You can do this by showing lots of “behind the scenes” type of stuff on social media.
Firstly, it helps the people you’re working with see that you’re genuinely interested in their project (and if a potential future collaborator sees that too, they’ll be more inclined to work with you).
Secondly, if you’re just starting out and the small projects you’re working on are being entered into smaller media festivals, getting some interesting things about your music in front of the festival organisers can really help you stand out from the crowd and get them backing you.
A key piece of advice to remember though is that presentation is important. The first glance of something can instantly help someone connect with you. Make sure your website looks amazing, and is a clear showcase of your music. Make it super easy for people to hear your music and contact you. Embed a music player on your homepage and consider a contact form.
I’ve heard of composers recommending other composers, having never heard their music, based purely on the fact that they present themselves professionally. Sometimes the fact that you know how to write and produce good music is almost a given.
That reminds me of another point: make sure everybody you know knows that you write music. Carter Burwell and Danny Elfman both got started because their friends recommended them to a director simply because they knew they were in a band and made music.
“”Just beautiful,” he said. “Impeccable presentation. You’d never know from a quick glance that he has absolutely no idea what he’s doing.””–Neal Acree, quoting his College professor
7. People Skills
Closely linked to “marketing” is “people skills.” There are a variety of things you need to be able to do when it comes to working with people.
First, and most obvious, is “networking.” It’s a skill that so many people, myself included, simply aren’t comfortable with. It’s hard, it’s uncomfortable, and that’s because it requires you to take a leap of faith. Will this person like me? Will I say the right thing? What if it’s awkward?
Do you know the answer to those questions? The answer is: what does it matter? At the end of the day, if you reach out to someone and then never speak to them again you’ve still given yourself an infinitely bigger opportunity to make a connection than if you hadn’t reached out.
There are certain “tricks” that you can learn to help with networking, but the simple version is this: don’t try and sell yourself, and show genuine interest in them.
Other skills you’ll need:
- Coerciveness: not only to convince someone that you/your music is the right fit, but also to coerce musicians into giving their best performances, or to convince a director that paying a teeny bit extra for live instruments will help make the project better
- Openness: you need to be honest with people, and open to feedback. You may not always be correct, and you need to accept that. And even if you are correct, sometimes taking on feedback and trying something different can present new ideas or opportunities.
- Giving: the more you give, the more you’ll get in return. It’s a simple as that. Help people as much as you can, for every “win” in your career make sure you give something back by helping someone else. Sounds a bit spiritual, but nearly all of the successful people I’ve spoken to have mentioned how important this is.
“You can make more friends in two months by becoming really interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you…
…which is just another way of saying that the way to make a friend is to be one.”–Dale Carnegie
Although my image says differently, I don’t mean “EQing” – I mean filtering through all of the “noise” that is out there. There is so much content, so many projects, so many people; you need to know where to start.
In terms of filtering through what to learn: find a few select sources that you like and trust. Don’t try to watch/read/listen to every single bit of information out there or you’ll never get anything done. As long as you are finding ways to continuously improve, it doesn’t matter what you might be missing.
You need to filter out who you’re listening to as well. Facebook groups are an amazing place to continuously learn new things through the questions of others, but they’re also full of a lot of misinformation. Figure out who posts correct and useful information, and who’s bullshitting.
Finally, you need to filter out the projects that you should be working on. When you’re first starting out you’ll likely be looking at working for very little, or maybe even free (the golden rule there is that if you’re not getting paid, no-one should be getting paid) – you need to decide whether a project is worth your while. Don’t say “yes” to anything.
Find out what the director/producer has planned for the project. Will they be submitting to festivals? Do they have a distribution plan? What’s the overall aim of the project – are they trying to get funding for another, larger project that you could be involved in, for example? All things to consider.
Another thing to try to work out: does the director respect music? If not, there is no point whatsoever in working with them. Any media creator that doesn’t think about, or has no respect for music, is unlikely to move onto bigger projects. Make sure they’re actually interested in, and have thought in detail, about where music will work in their project – or that they at least want to discuss it in detail with you. If they’ve no time for you, don’t make time for them.
I’m usually the last person to say things like that, but I’ve worked on short films for free before and not even been credited in the official online platform, and even had my name spelled wrong within scrolling credits. Particularly if you’re working for free you need to make sure you’re being respected. Don’t accept anything less than a full screen credit with your name spelled correctly ?
Of course, it’s best to not work for free, and most good directors should understand and appreciate that and will have set aside a budget for music. Sometimes though a project is really worthwhile and is worth being involved in. You just have to filter the bad ones out!
Basically, you need to work out whether the financial reward (or lack thereof) is justified by the project. A TV commercial is going to do nothing for your “exposure” (I know, I know – don’t start…) so you should be expecting a good payout. However, a short film tackling an issue really close to your heart not only gives you more artistic expression but could also lead to other projects. Something like that might pay less, but could be more worthwhile in the long run.
“I’ve learned how to use my spam filter pretty effectively.”–“Weird” Al Yankovic
Understanding the art of negotiation can help you in so many walks of life, not only with your music. One thing to understand though: negotiation isn’t about “winners” and “losers” (at least, not the style of negotiation that will help us). It’s about working collaboratively to figure out the optimum outcome.
Some things that you’ll need to learn how to negotiate include:
The Musical Direction
You’ll have to negotiate the creative direction of the music with various people. Some of those people might be extremely creative (like directors) and others might have more of a financial interest (like studio executives). Either way, they’ll all want to have a say, and you need to work with them to decide on what the final music will sound like.
The Final Mix
In the final dub – where movie, sound, dialogue, and music all come together – you’ll need to negotiate the music with the other creatives. Everyone has worked hard at their individual parts, and everyone wants to make sure that hard work is heard. Again, it’s about collaborating to make sure the final dub best serves the image.
Remember, it’s not a “fight” to try and get more money, it’s a negotiation to work out how to best serve the project. You need to be able to have a realistic discussion about what the project can afford within their budget, and what they could afford if they could stretch ever-so-slightly.
Bear in mind how powerful the word “no” can be – and not in a good way. A “no” can halt discussions entirely. Have you ever tried working out a plan with an overly negative person? Nothing happens! In contrast, people who say “yes” are so much easier to work with, and get stuff done with. Try to avoid saying “no”, and instead work on getting to solutions.
“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainty.”–Francis Bacon
Maybe a bit dull, but essential.
You need to be organised. At a basic level, you need to make sure you can create sensible folder and file structures on your system to keep all of your projects organised. Keep earlier drafts of things in case a decision is reversed. You should be able to access any draft, of any cue, or any project that you’ve worked in quickly and easily. The last thing you need is to be opening and bouncing old projects time and again every time you\re sending samples to anyone.
You also need to be able to manage a project. Early on, you’ll probably find you’re a one-person show, looking after everything yourself. But then you’ll get a slightly bigger project, and will need to manage other people (like instrumentalists). The more you step up, the more moving parts you’ll have to handle – organisational skills will be absolutely essential here.
Keeping your contacts organised is also essential. Don’t just rely on your email client to automatically save contacts – create groups, address books, whatever works for you and keep as many details about the person as possible. It’s so easy to forget someone’s name but remember their company, or vice-versa. I know some people that even have a “Christmas” or “New Year” list that they email every year, just to keep the relationship alive.
If you’re not a natural “influencer” on social media, it’s a good idea to try and commit to a schedule so that you’re consistently sharing relevant updates. Even if that’s just a weekly “here’s what I did this week” post – someone looking you up as a potential collaborator would love to see that you’re active online. Likewise, you have to keep on top of all of the platforms and websites that you have a profile on – it’s no good having a picture and description from 10 years ago on a talent site. Create a bookmarks folder with all of those platforms grouped – then whenever you have an update you can open them all at once and edit to make sure they’re all up to date.
“A place for everything, and everything in its place.”–Isabella Beeton (possibly…)