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Want to know how to become a film composer?

Let's be real for a moment: getting into film scoring isn’t easy.

But it’s not impossible…

In this article I’m going to unveil 36 actionable tips on how to become a film composer.


I’ll even give you some strategies that you can put into practice today.

There Are Many Ways To Become A Film Composer

Before we kick things off, let me quickly explain one thing:

There’s no single route into the film music industry.

Read the biographies of famous composers, or listen to the interviews on the soundtrack.academy podcast, and you’ll discover that every working composer has a different story.

I even ask every guest that I intervew what their one piece of advice is on how to become a film composer - and I've had a different answer every single time.

There’s no secret.

There’s no super-special-hidden-mystical-ninja “job board” where those “in the know” go to find work.

That said…

There are a whole bunch of small things you can do that will increase your chances of breaking into the motion picture soundtrack business exponentially.

And the best part? Most of them are listed here.

I’ll be adding to this list with new suggestions, and will be expanding on many of the tips in separate articles or videos - subscribe to the newsletter to be notified when they’re released.

Okay, let’s dive in.

How To Become A Film Composer By Working On Yourself

self improvement for composers

Be Flexible & Know Where You Can Make Sacrifices

The lifestyle of a film composer usually involves all kinds of last minute changes.

Projects get pushed back or pulled forward, opportunities come up out of the blue, and deadlines constantly change.

That means you need to be flexible, and you need to be able to make sacrifices.

The secret is to work out which projects are worth the sacrifice, and which aspects of your life are flexible.

What You Can Do Today:

Take stock of your life. Decide what’s flexible and where you’re willing to make sacrifices, so that when the time comes you know, with certainty, what you can say “yes” or “no” to.

Find A Job That You Hate (...Or One That Pays!)

When Neil Spencer Bruce came on the podcast he said musicians should find a job that they hate.

Now, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but I get the sentiment:

You need to be motivated to become a film composer!

The problem with "jobs" is that they take up a lot of your day. And in the time that you have left you’re often too tired or demotivated to do anything to further your film scoring dreams.

By finding a job that you hate, you’ll constantly push yourself to make your dreams a reality.

You'll actually focus on how to become a film composer!

That’s the theory at least.

Of course, there’s another option…

…find a job or skill that you can charge a high rate for, and work for less hours.

This is particularly effective if you can keep your costs low too (more on that later!).

I have a friend who does exactly that. She freelances for 4-6 months of the year, and that funds her lifestyle for the remaining 6-8 months. Pretty sweet, right?

You might be surprised to discover that you already have a skill that you can charge good money for. If not, consider retraining if this is a route you want to go down. Just remember the reason why you’re retraining: to free up your time to become a film scorer (not to become a full time chartered accountant!)

What You Can Do Today:

Look at your current employment situation and consider your “exit strategy” - how are you going to make the leap into film scoring? Do you have the time / motivation to compose alongside working? Is there something else you could do or retrain in that could earn you the same money for less hours of work? Can you reduce your overheads? Basically: map out your career over the next 5 years, with a plan on how to become a film composer.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I’m not encouraging you to storm into your boss’s office tomorrow morning and quit. I know composers who are totally happy to compose alongside day jobs. This advice isn’t for everyone!

Develop “Teflon Shoulders”

This doesn’t mean “shirk all responsibility” (although sometimes the expression is used that way).

It means that you need to learn to let things slip right off your shoulders.

Don’t let anything weigh you down.

Sometimes you’ll get feedback that hurts. Sometimes you’ll get no feedback at all.

Let it slide right off.

It’s tempting to get precious about our music, but in reality our one and only goal should be to serve whatever project we’re working on. In essence:

Don’t treat your music as a masterpiece, treat the project as a masterpiece.

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I like to compare composition to photography: new photographers might take 20 shots to get one good one. Over time, that ratio might drop to 15:1. Then 10:1. And so on.

It’s the same with our music: when we’re starting out, we’ll need to write more in order to find the good ones. Only after time will we get closer to nailing it on the first attempt.

What You Can Do Today:

Submit a track for feedback! Find Facebook Groups or other online communities that allow you to share your work (many have weekly/monthly feedback threads) and submit it.


If you’re feeling brave, you could even submit something that you know is poor quality and see what happens! If you’re feeling really brave, try Reddit’s “RoastMyTrack” subreddit.

The point isn’t to get helpful feedback, but just to get any feedback. Learn to remove your emotions from the situation. Take on board any useful feedback, and ignore everything else.

Support Yourself Physically, Mentally, and Socially

Persistence over a long period is absolutely vital in the film music industry. I’m going to be sharing quite a few resources on persistence in my Facebook Group soon (so join if you haven’t already!)

The only way you’re going to be able to remain persistent in the long run is by forming strong habits that support your physical and mental health, and by building yourself a support network.

Technical skills are only one part of how to become a film composer, the other part is soft skills - including self-care.

What that means depends on you as an individual, but in short:

  • Find a way to include physical activity / exercise in your daily routine
  • Work on your mental health - do things that energise your mind
  • Make friends who can help you out when you need it (and vice versa!)

What You Can Do Today:

Create a morning routine that incorporates physical and mental exercise (like Noah Kagan’s “Morning Maker”). Once you’ve done that, reach out to ONE person who you’d like to have in your support network - this can be an existing friend who’s on a similar path to you, or a new friend (browse the comments in a few Facebook Groups to find people who seem to be on your wavelength).

School Is Optional - Do It For The Right Reasons

A lot of aspiring composers seem absolutely set on going to study film scoring at college/university.

That in itself is fine. Improving your skills is an essential part of being a film composer.

But…

So many aspiring composers seem to be under the impression that going to school will lead them directly into the film music industry.

That is simply not the case.

Learning the skills of film scoring isn't the same as learning how to become a film composer.

Yes, some institutions have links to studios or well-known composers - but that guarantees nothing. If it did, those institutions could charge a heck of a lot more than they already do!

One thing that studying does allow is for you to focus entirely on film scoring for a number of years, and during that time you can start forming all-important relationships with other filmmakers, including filmmaking students.

That’s the real benefit of film scoring schools.

I need to add a small disclaimer here: getting a degree helps in all kinds of other situations in life. It proves that you can be educated to a high level. It would be downright irresponsible of me to tell you not to go to college/university - having that qualification can offer all kinds of alternative avenues and backup plans for you (and many of our favourite composers had backup careers either alongside or before their composing careers). Just go for the right reasons.

What You Can Do Today:

If you’re considering a degree in film scoring, take a step back and think about the real reason that you want to follow that path. What do you really want to get out of the course? Once you’ve identified that, you can then make sure that the institution you’re considering offers exactly what you need.

Be A More Interesting Person

Picture a beige wall for me.

Go ahead, visualise it.

Not fun, is it? And there’s nothing about that beige wall that’s going to stick in your mind.

You can probably see where I’m going with this…

Don’t be a beige person. Beige people are boring.

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Bring vibrancy into your life, and you’ll naturally become a more vibrant person. I’m not talking about dressing yourself head-to-toe in neon colours, I’m talking about becoming interesting.

Learn about stuff. Read. Get involved in your local arts scene (not just music). Become fascinated in things yourself, and you’ll suddenly find you become a fascinating person to be around.

And then you’ll be memorable.

What You Can Do Today:

So many things! Order a book (or visit your library). Make a list of all the creative events going on in your local area this month and add them to your calendar. Start learning a skill you’ve always wanted to try. The sky’s the limit!

How To Become A Film Composer By Treating Film Scoring As A Profession, Not A Hobby

Treat Film Scoring As A Profession, Not A Hobby

Work On Your Time & Project Management

I learned a valuable lesson on time & project management as a student…

I’d decided I wanted to find real projects to work on (instead of just rescoring the assigned movie scenes). So, after okay-ing it with my tutor, I set to work on finding projects.

Using online filmmaker directories (like shootingpeople.org and mandy.com) I started reaching out to directors & producers. My message was simple: I’m a student looking for projects for university work. Are you working on anything that I could have a go at? Or do you have any old projects I could rescore?

(I worded it a LOT better, obviously, but you get the idea!)

Fast forward a few weeks and I can distinctly remember sitting in a café with my classmates saying:

“I don’t know how I’m going to do this. I just have too many projects to score!”

Then the phone rang…

...another project…

“Yeah, no problem! I can do that. Next week? Sure thing.”

What followed was months of utter mayhem. I wrote music that I have literally no recollection of. It was hard work, but I didn’t miss a single deadline.

That situation forced me to work out a strategy for managing multiple projects and for optimising my time. It was a valuable lesson in film scoring that I was fortunate to learn by accident early on.


(P.S. There's a hidden strategy on how to become a film composer here : build relationships with filmmakers regardless of whether they're currently working on a project. In fact, if you know about a project they're working on, it's often too late already!)

What You Can Do Today:

There are many different methods of time and project management, and you’ll have to experiment to find out what works for you. A good first step is to identify your process; list all of the steps you go through in creating a score, so that you can see all of the elements you need to manage, so that you can systemise your process.

Create What The Job Requires

Imagine you hired someone to tile your bathroom. You describe exactly what you want using the words that you're familiar with, but when you return to see the end result it’s completely different.

What went wrong?

Maybe you used the wrong words? Because, after all, you’re not a tradesperson yourself. Why should you know the difference between grout and cement?

Next question: who’s at fault?

Is it you for maybe not using the right terminology? Or the contractor for not understanding that regular folk might not know the right words for things?

This is a long and complicated way of saying:

Read and interpret the brief!

Learning how to become a film composer is often learning how to translate non-musical language into musical ideas.

Don’t assume anything when it comes to the brief. Examine the language they’ve used, ask yourself whether they mean what they’ve written, or whether they could mean something else. If possible, seek clarification.

Remember: just like you might not know the right words when it comes to tiling, a filmmaker might not know the right words when it comes to music. It’s your job to learn their language.

What You Can Do Today:

Browse through TAXI’s current list of music briefs and read through the language used. Think really carefully about what’s written and try to put yourself into the shoes of the person writing it. What do they really want from that brief?

Be A Professional, And All That Comes With It

I mentioned that I met all of my deadlines during my months of mayhem.

That’s one part of being a professional.

If you want to learn how to become a film composer, you also need to learn everything that’s required of anyone looking to run a business:

  • Forming relationships as a professional (including how to act in professional environments)
  • Staying organised (file management, keeping a schedule, your address book, backups etc.)
  • Contracts and legalities (and the intricacies of how they work)
  • Business finances & budgeting
  • And much more!

What You Can Do Today:

Identify business areas where you lack understanding and put a plan in place to fill those gaps in your knowledge! Essentially, create a business strategy.

Learn ALL The Roles

“Composer” is just one of the many roles of the music and sound department. Learn the skills and responsibilities of everyone else (like the orchestrator, arranger, music editor, sound designer, etc.).

But that’s not all…

You should also learn all of the filmmaking roles as well. What does an editor do? How about the director of photography? Who needs to be on set, and who’s behind the scenes?

Learning how to become a film composer is about learning how to become a filmmaker.

The more you embrace that you’re a part of the filmmaking team, the more integrated into the film world you’ll become. I’d even recommend trying to work on movies in whatever capacity you can - even as an extra, or a runner - just to be around a film set.

What You Can Do Today:

Find and reach out to any local production companies to see whether you can work for them in any capacity, or even just visit for a day to shadow. Follow blogs like https://nofilmschool.com/ or https://www.studiobinder.com/blog/ for a deeper insight into the makings of a movie.

Bring Something To The Table

Remember my beige wall analogy?

Well, a beige person is the type of person who turns up and brings nothing to the table.

You cannot be that person.

In order to become a successful film composer, you need to make yourself valuable.

What you bring to the table can vary. It might be that you make everyone’s life easier by being super useful. It could be that your artistic and creative ideas absolutely transform whatever project you’re working on. Maybe you’re insanely good at promoting things and can help bring a new angle to the movie promotion.

Whatever it is, bring it.

What You Can Do Today:

Figure out your superpower. What’s one thing that people always say you’re amazing at? Or is there something (other than composing) that you love doing that you have a knack for? How could you incorporate those things into your working relationships? 

Discover The Life Changing Power Of Discomfort

If you’re like most people, you probably hate being uncomfortable.

You avoid uncomfortable situations like the plague (...or maybe the coronavirus?).

Right?

I mean, that’s totally natural. We’re predisposed to avoid discomfort.

But, it’s an inevitable part of life, so why not embrace it and turn it into something powerful?

To become a film composer you’re going to have to put yourself into many uncomfortable situations. Whether it’s reaching out to strangers, facing rejection on a regular basis, battling with your imposter syndrome when tackling new projects, etc.

Whatever it is, discomfort is a part of this life.

But each and every one of those situations is an opportunity for growth.

If you weren’t reaching out to people, you wouldn’t be building relationships.

If you’re not being rejected, then you’re not pitching enough.

If you’re not facing imposter syndrome, then you’re not working at a level that’s pushing you forwards.

Learn to enjoy the discomfort, and you’ll be able to put yourself forward for so many more opportunities.

What You Can Do Today:

Try Jia Jiang’s “100 Days Of Rejection Therapy” or Noah Kagan’s Coffee Challenge to start developing your capacity for discomfort.

How To Become A Film Composer By Getting Your Finances Under Control

Bootstrap Your Business

I’m constantly monitoring the composer communities around the web. Without question, the most commonly asked questions are about sample libraries.

A lot of composers are stuck in the mindset that someday they’ll discover the one perfect sample library that will magically elevate them to the next level.

It won’t.

If you already own a few pro-level sample libraries and you still can’t create pro-level music, then the sample libraries aren’t the problem.

The same goes for every other piece of gear.

Buying stuff is NOT how to become a film composer.

Modern film composers are gear junkies - desperate to get our next dopamine hit via the next "I promise this is the last" tech purchase.

I’m not saying that investing in your setup isn’t important. I’m just encouraging you to think a little longer and harder about your purchasing decisions.

Invest in what you need, and in the things that will genuinely help you to progress your career, but remember:

The less you spend, the less you need to earn. The less you need to earn, the sooner you can be a full-time composer.

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What You Can Do Today:

Make an inventory and a budget. List all of the hardware and software that you already own and decide if it’s enough (for now). Look for any glaring holes in your collection that you really need to fill. Then, go through all of your expenses and see where you can cutback without sacrificing quality of life. Work out how much you need to get by on - that’s your new income target.

Focus On Creating Assets

Create it once, sell it over and over.

That’s the gist of assets, except the word “sell” is a bit misleading.

The basic idea is that you should focus on things that can continuously bring you income over an extended period of time. 

One of the great parts of composition is the potential for royalties.

Whenever you compose, or take on a project, think about how you could continue generating income from that composition or project in the long run.

Just like bootstrapping your business, part of knowing how to become a film composer is knowing how to manage your finances, including your assets and their royalties.

When you start out you might be working for free on small independent films - films that aren’t likely to ever generate many royalties. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t use the music you’ve written for that film, tweak it slightly, and submit it to a production music library, does it?

This is one of the other problems with “jobs” - you end up trading your time for money without generating any kind of underlying assets. For example, I worked for years teaching at a University. The pay was great, but I wasn’t doing anything to generate assets. So when I left, the money stopped. Had I been focusing on generating assets, the income would have kept coming.

What You Can Do Today:

Go through the catalogue of music you’ve already written and see how much of it might be repurposed. What else could you use it for? How can you get the most value out of each track? Think how else you could generate assets in your film scoring business.

Remember That This Is A Career AND A Living

It’s easy to think that you need to start treating composing like a “job” - but it isn’t.

It’s a career.

Now, imagine you were trying to get a successful career in something like marketing, or accounting, or real estate. Whatever you fancy.

How would you do it?

You probably wouldn’t hop from one job to another. And if you really wanted to be successful, you probably wouldn’t be tracking your hours and making sure that you never worked more than your contracted time.

Of course not.

You work hard at building relationships, developing a good reputation for yourself with the people that matter, and on progressing up the ladder in one industry.

And every now and again you’d be working beyond your contracted hours, on things that weren’t expected from you, but that you know will help you to progress.

You need to apply that mindset to your film scoring career as well!

There’s one thing I need to add though: in any career you should expect some form of compensation for what you’re doing. You wouldn’t go to work at an accountancy firm for free (except very early on in your career if you’re interning). The same applies as you progress in your film composing career - you should expect compensation based on your value and experience.

What You Can Do Today:

First, identify where you’re currently at in your film music career. Should you still be “interning” or are you now stepping up to the next rung of the ladder? Then, map out how you’d like your career to progress - consider what the next steps are, and what actions you can take to step up. You're creating your composing career plan here.

How To Become A Film Composer By Learning Marketing Strategies

Marketing Yourself As A Film Composer

Please...Stop The Self-Promotion

Whenever I ask composers what they’re struggling with, I often get the response:

“I need to know how to promote myself”

And I see other bloggers and YouTubers handing out all kinds of crazy advice about putting your music online, and adamantly proclaiming that you absolutely must have a YouTube channel and upload all of your music (along with customised visual animations, of course) for the world to see.

Sure, it’s important to have an online presence as a composer.

But only so that you have somewhere to send someone when they ask to hear your music.

Because, trust me on this, the chances of someone stumbling across your music on YouTube and deciding to hire you off the back of that are next to none.

Do you know who listens to film composers' music on YouTube?

Other composers.

Do you know who hires film composers?

Not other composers.

(Of course, there are exceptions).

Instead of asking what you need to promote your music, ask yourself how you can start meeting the right people and not need to promote your music to them.

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Because no one likes having music shoved under their noses.

One last thing…

There’s nothing wrong with making sure your music is visible online - as long as it’s not taking hours of your time away from other things that you could be doing that actually move the needle.

Just don’t think that by “putting it out there” that anyone is going to find it. 

There’s over 40,000 songs added to Spotify every day, and over 300 hours of video content uploaded to YouTube every minute

That’s a lot of noise.

Uploading music to the internet isn't how to become a film composer.

Here's some more advice on promoting yourself as a film composer:

What You Can Do Today:

Delete all of your online accounts.


Lol, just kidding. Serious answer: ask yourself what you can do today to meet a filmmaker. Really, that’s the only kind of “self-promotion” that’s going to help you progress.

Create A Killer Showreel & Website

Your showreel and website serve one purpose: trust.

That’s another common misconception. Composers seem to think that filmmakers will somehow discover their website, be blown away by what they see, and pick up the phone.

Not the case.

"Being discovered" isn't really how to become a film composer.

Realistically, the vast majority of people who see your website and your showreel are people that you have sent there.

So you need to tailor them for that.

What does the person who you’ve sent to your website need to see next?

(In marketing, you’d be thinking about where the “customer” is in your “marketing funnel”)

Same goes for your showreel: what does the person you’re sending it to need to see?

I’ll be releasing more content on website design and showreel creation for film composers soon.

What You Can Do Today:

Design your website & showreel! Take a look at some other composers’ websites for inspiration (my top tip: keep it as simple as possible - fancy animations and whatnot are purely distractions) and design the layout and structure of your site. Then, plan your showreel. Movie trailers are a great place to look to help structure your showreel - analyse the emotional structure of a number of trailers in a style you’re hoping to replicate and start gathering any pieces you have that match it.

See Things From Their Perspective

One of the golden rules of marketing is to think of the customer.

Too many people do things because they want to do it, without thinking about what their customer (or, in our case, client) wants or needs to see.

Even to the point of not thinking about where our client might be.

For example, almost every single day in my Music For Moving Image Facebook Group I have to delete posts from composers trying to promote themselves.

“What’s wrong with that?!” You might ask…

Think about it for a moment.

The group is an educational group for composers.

So who do you think make up the vast majority of members of the group?

Aspiring composers.

What benefit is there to promoting your music to aspiring composers?

None whatsoever.

Always think of your ideal client.

Where do they hang out? What would they want to see/hear from a composer? How would they want to be approached by a composer? What are their problems?

What You Can Do Today:

Here’s a fun exercise: create a “customer avatar” of your ideal client. An avatar is an imaginary person who you can think of everytime you’re doing any kind of marketing - you just pretend you’re writing to that one person. DigitalMarketer have a great article on creating customer avatars.

How To Become A Film Composer Through Networking

Your Most Important Film Scoring Skill: Networking

Working For Free…

Brace yourself, contentious topic coming up!

Whenever a composer advertises their services for free, you see a lot of vitriol in the comments from other composers.

“They’re undermining our craft”

“The devaluing the entire industry”

And so on and so forth.

But the fact of the matter is that to get started, you often have to work for free.

Don’t get me wrong, advertising your services for free is a bad idea. As is replying to paying job advert saying you'll do it for free. Not only because you’ll face the wrath of the composer community, but also because any filmmaker that replies to that kind of post isn’t worth working with.

Good filmmakers generally understand the value and importance of film music, so they aren’t seeking free music from randomers on the internet.

The right way to go about working for free is (as always) to start building relationships with filmmakers at your level.

If you’re new to composing for film, and wanting to learn how to become a film composer, the best people you can be working with are filmmakers that are new(ish) to filmmaking. You can learn and grow together, and if they suddenly “make it” in the industry, you’ll be taken along for the ride (hopefully…)

But those filmmakers likely won’t have any budget for their first projects, so you’ll be working for free. You have to decide if it’s worth it, and whether or not you’re being taken advantage of.

The gold rule that director Chris Presswell goes by is:

Work for free, but if YOU'RE not getting paid, NO ONE should be getting paid.

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And remember what I said about assets: if you’re working for free, make sure you maintain control of your music.

Make Friends. (Preferably In Person).

If you’ve read my free eBook on landing film scoring projects you’ll know my motto when it comes to finding work is:

Make friends. Be helpful. Be memorable.

Making friends is the first and most essential step of how to become a film composer.

And note that I didn’t say “build a network” - a “network” is a cold, calculated, business term. We’re here to make friends, to build proper relationships with the people we work with.

Remember that we’re working in a creative industry. How can we expect to work at our most creative if we aren’t working with people we know, like, and trust?

In-person relationships will always have more power than those formed over the ether, so do whatever you can to meet people face-to-face. I’ve always made a point of trying to meet the people I’ve worked with in-person, even if those relationships were first formed online, and even if it wasn’t until the premiere of the movie that I met them.


Meeting them in person helps to deepen our relationship and to make sure that I’ll always be the first person they think of when they need music.

What You Can Do Today:

Do some searching to find all of the filmmaking events in your local and surrounding area. Go to them, introduce yourself, and make as many new friends in the filmmaking community as you can.

Meet The Right People

As one of my daughter’s favourite books says: you can never have too many friends.

That’s true, but it can be helpful if you have the right friends too!

If you want to know how to become a film composer, you need to know who you should be meeting!

It’s important to learn about the film industry: the roles, who works with whom, etc., so that you can identity the best people to be working with.

In general, directors and producers are the people who choose the composers. But, if they don’t already know someone they’ll often ask for recommendations.

And those recommendations come from all over the place - I know composers that have been recommended by costume designers, boom operators, and a myriad of other roles.

Focus on directors and producers, but don’t ignore everyone else. Once you start hanging out in your local filmmaking scene, you’ll start to notice the relationships. You’ll see who knows everyone, and who the right people are to be talking to.

Just pay attention.

What You Can Do Today:

Check out this insane PDF of all the roles in filmmaking, and start opening your eyes and ears to all the potential people you can start talking to.

How To Become A Film Composer By Becoming A Filmmaker Who Writes Music

In my years of teaching I’ve often been surprised by the amount of film music students who don’t actually watch or enjoy movies.

Sure, they listen to the soundtracks, but they just don’t watch the movies.

I find it absolutely mindblowing!

Film music is a collaborative art form. Without visuals, our art is only half complete.

Our primary purpose is to serve the movie, and we can only do that if we actually know about film.

Adam Smalley once said that Carter Burwell could explain movie scenes better than the director could. That’s the level you need to be at.

Learn to talk in film language, not in musical language. Learn all of the roles of film. Learn film theory. Do everything you can to become a filmmaker who writes music.

What You Can Do Today:

Start studying film. Watch the classics. Read about camera angles, lighting, shots, character arcs, etc. so that the next time you watch a scene you can explain it better than the filmmakers themselves.

Shadow Composers To Learn The Craft

I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on the importance of working with filmmakers, not composers.

But there is one type of composer that you should try and connect with: successful ones.

Thanks to the wonders of the modern world, people who are making a living from music can be found in all corners of the Earth. If you can spend some time shadowing or working with one of those composers, it will be time well spent.

For two reasons…

Firstly, just watching someone’s process and learning how the industry works from direct experience is an absolutely invaluable education.

And secondly, one of the commonly recommended routes into the industry is the composer-assistant route.

In a nutshell:

  1. Work as an intern (for free) for a composer
  2. Become their assistant (many different kinds)
  3. Do the odd musical cue / orchestration now and again
  4. Be given more responsibilities, take on larger cues, etc.
  5. Do the projects your “boss” doesn’t have time for
  6. Become a fully fledged film composer!

Looks easy, right?

It’s a logical route, but in reality it’s full of twists and turns, and, as you’d expect, not everyone makes it through to the top.

You can even ask them what their advice on how to become a film composer is - you can ask 100 composers that same question and you'll get 100 different answers. So ask away!

Either way, shadowing someone successful will be time well spent.

What You Can Do Today:

Search for composers in your local area. You might have to look slightly further afield (I had a friend who used to travel cross-country weekly to do it - but now they work on big-budget feature films for a living!). Once you find someone, reach out and see if you can arrange to visit them in person, talk to them, learn from them, etc.

Fall Into Film Composing

One thing I’ve noticed through reading biographies of famous composers and from interviewing all of the composers for the podcast is that so many of them just “ended up” as film composers.

Yes, there are people who set their sights on it at an early age and went all in (hello Bear McCreary!) but many of them were on completely different paths (like Danny Elfman and John Williams).

Many times the journey into how to become a film composer actually begins as a journey into something completely different!

The point is, film composing is one of many things that you can do in music. If you just focus on being a musician, following what you’re passionate about, and being open to opportunity, you might find yourself being taken in all kinds of directions.

Just be involved in music.

What You Can Do Today:

Create a shortlist of your current musical skills and passions and ones that you’d like to develop. Think of ways that you might be able to use those skills, and other ways you could be involved in music. Once again, look at your local area and see what musical things are happening. Get involved! You never know, you might uncover a new passion that you weren’t expecting!

Find And Follow New Projects

This is another topic that definitely warrants more content - I’m working on it!

There are new film projects popping up all the time. That’s new film scoring opportunities for you that are popping up all the time.

But how can you get involved with them?

The easiest way to reach out to someone is to first become their fan.

Keep an eye on any new projects that appear in IMDb. Find and follow directors on social media (Instagram is particularly good, thanks to its visual nature). Join filmmaking groups and forums (particularly ones centred in your local area).

Whenever you see a new project pop up, go and follow all of the people involved.

Comment, engage, become part of their journey.

But most importantly…

Do not promote yourself. (Yet).

You have to be genuine. Train yourself so that when you follow those projects you’re genuinely following them because you want to see them succeed.

After you’ve engaged for a while, consider reaching out to the filmmakers (director and/or producer) to introduce yourself. 

Again, think of their perspective

Not “I’m a composer, here’s my showreel” but instead “I’d love to know what your thoughts were on music for the project?”

Can you see the difference? One is about you the other is about them.

What You Can Do Today:

Join any filmmaking groups and forums (focusing on ones in your local area) and introduce yourself. Scroll through recent posts to find any new projects, and start following!

Reach Out - Creatively

“Hi,

This is clearly a template that I’ve sent to 1,000 other directors.

I don’t care about you or your project, in fact I don’t really know who you are - hence why there’s no personalisation in this email. But I’ll at least pretend by saying “I love your recent work!”

Anyway, this email has been all about me so far, so why not top it off by sending you an entirely unsolicited link to my showreel?

And now I’m just going to say “get in touch if you're interested, but only if you have money” and look forward to never hearing from you again.

Speak never,

[COMPOSER]”

Yuck.

I’ve sat with so many students over the years that have shown me, basically, that exact outreach email, pulling their hair out because they can’t figure out what they’re doing wrong.

There is an art to email outreach, that I cover in this video:

But there are other forms of outreach too - and the more creative you can be the better.

Bankey Ojo wanted to get into scoring animations. So he asked himself:

“Where could I find new animators?”

His answer was: universities.

He was new to animation, so he was willing to work on some lower budget/quality projects to get started, and so he reached out to a few universities that had animation programs. He offered to go in and give a talk on music to the students.

While he was there he made a whole load of new contacts.

And so what if a lot of them were students? Today’s students are the future industry professionals. Plus, universities sometimes have budgets for students to work with, and any students that would have the guts to reach out to an established composer would clearly believe they’re creating something good. Meaning only the best projects came his way.

On top of all that, making contact with a university like that would open you up to all kinds of future work with that university too - as a guest lecturer, workshop leader, or whatever else.

Win / win.

The point of all this is to think outside the box. Get creative with your outreach.

What You Can Do Today:

Ask yourself what Bankey did: what do I want to work on and where can I find people to work with? Brainstorm as many ideas as you can, then choose some of the more niche ones and reach out!

Know That You’ll Never Know Where Your Next Project Will Come From

Here are a few people I’ve ended up working with:

  • My wife’s former boss’s husband who needed custom music for a side project.
  • An actress that I recognised (by chance) while I was working at a Blockbuster (RIP) as a student, whose boyfriend was working on a documentary and needed music.
  • I was standing in for a sax player in a band managed by someone who owned a woodwind shop where I used to have my sax repaired. Since the event was at a dry ski slope, my manager acquaintance brought along one of his outdoorsy friends who I got talking to (being a keen snowboarder myself) who was a producer currently working on a climbing documentary.

Those are a few boring anecdotes about past projects of mine, but you can see how none of those opportunities came from me networking specifically with filmmakers.

They all came about by chance.

And I have plenty more stories like that too!

This is one of the reasons we get some many different answers when we ask "how to become a film composer" - because there are so many different routes, and so many chance encounters.

You never know where your next project might come from, nor what your next project might be. The key is to talk with people, let people know you “do film music” (providing the conversation goes in that direction, which it often does), and see where it takes you.

What You Can Do Today:

Work on your elevator pitch so that the next time someone says “what do you do” you’re able to, in as few words as possible, sum up what your ambitions are. Even if you have a job that you’d normally give as the response to that question, next time you could say “I work in IT, but really what I’m focusing my energy on at the moment is music composition.”

How To Become A Film Composer By Upgrading Your Film Scoring Skills

Do I Need To Learn Music Theory?

Yes.

And no.

Okay, next question!

Just kidding. I explain the benefits of music theory in my free Media Scoring Guide eBook, but let me give a quick breakdown of my thoughts, along with the common arguments.

Those in favour of music theory say that it’s the vocabulary of music. You couldn’t speak a language without learning the vocabulary, so you can’t expect to write music without learning music theory.

That makes sense.

But it doesn’t take into account the many different ways of learning a language!

You can learn a language through study - by learning the rules, taking a course, and actually studying.

But you can also learn a language by talking and listening. In fact, that’s how every one of us learned our first languages!

In fact, you can even speak a language perfectly (following all of the rules) without ever actually studying the rules. Just ask any English speaker to explain the difference between “a” and “the” and you’ll see this in action.

Now the counter-argument…

“Doing things theoretically kills creativity. There’s no rule book for music”

I can understand this fear too.

Composers like to be able to open their minds and create freely, without having to worry about following strict guidelines.

Here’s the secret…

YOU STILL CAN!

Just because you’ve learned music theory, that doesn’t mean that you’re restricted to following it. It also doesn’t mean that the theory is going to start eating away at your creativity.

Again, let’s use a language analogy.

When you form a sentence, you’re not thinking about whether you’re using verbs, nouns, or adjectives, or about which tense you’re speaking in, and yet you know about those words and rules.

You’ve mastered language so thoroughly that you’re able to process all of the guidelines without thinking.

Imagine what you could do if you mastered music theory to that level too?

And if you’re worried about music theory forcing you to write in one specific way then let me ask you this…

How many languages do you speak (out of the 6,500 available to you)?

Even in your first language, do you know every single word in the dictionary?

If you wanted to bring more diverse vocabulary into your life, you could learn new words and new languages. You can do the same to bring new flavours to your compositions: learn new theories from different cultures.

Music theory should not be mistaken for classical music theory. Everything musical is music theory, just like everything spoken is language.

Now my advice…

What You Can Do Today:

Realistically, learning how to become a film composer also involves learning about music theory. Promise yourself that you’ll make a habit of learning theory as you go. After you’ve composed music, go back and work out what makes it tick. What chords have you used? Which intervals are featured in the melody? Don’t worry if you can’t name them yet.


When you hear something interesting in a piece of music, figure out what it is! If you don’t understand something you read in a forum or group, Google it and actually take interest in learning it. Little by little you’ll become a master of music theory - and it will not hinder your creativity.

Keep Your Knowledge & Skills Up To Date

Music constantly evolves. Listen to film scores from 5 years ago compared to today and you’ll already notice differences - particularly in non-orchestral stuff.

You need to keep on top of those trends.

Watch as many of the latest movies and series as you have time for.

Pay attention to the scores, even listen to them afterwards (but remember: film music without film is only half of the art form).

Keep track of all of the new names in the industry - memorise the names of directors and other composers. Actually be an expert in your knowledge of movies and film music.

What You Can Do Today:

You’ll like this one: buy a cinema ticket! Netflix is great, but you’re not always getting the latest content (it still has a lot of stuff you should be watching though). Some cinemas even do annual passes where you can go as many times as you want - that’s an absolute goldmine for you.

Commit To Lifelong Learning & Practice

You need to be continuously developing your skills.

And not just in music.

Devote time to improving in all the areas that contribute to your film scoring career. Things like business skills, conversation & networking skills, self-care, marketing, communication skills, etc.

If you’re standing still you’re going backwards.

Commit to always progressing, always learning, and always moving forwards.

What You Can Do Today:

Go back over this list and identify any area that you’re lacking in. Create a learning plan for yourself to develop that skill. Make learning a habit that you do each and every day.

Develop Aural Skills - For Composition And Production

Your ears are one of your greatest assets.

Look after them, and train them!

You should be constantly working on your ability to hear better.

That includes both compositional techniques and music production.

The faster you can identify a chord or interval, the faster you can analyse music and incorporate new techniques into your composition. Imagine being able to listen to a piece of music and immediately knowing the types of chords used, and the important intervals in the melody.

And on the other side of the coin, have you ever noticed when you watch reviews of production gear, the reviewers say stuff like:

“OH MY GOD!!! Can you hear the difference?!?! That’s incredible!”

And you’re sitting there like…

“Err...what difference???”

Well, there’s a couple of factors at play.

Firstly: they’re usually listening on top quality gear in a top notch environment, which gives them a lot more detail. That helps.

But secondly: they’ve worked for years on their hearing. They’ve practiced hearing the difference between compressors. They’ve experimented with EQs and can instantly pick out which frequencies are spiking or causing problems.

So when they’re blown away by differences that you can’t hear, it’s because they can hear more than you.

It’s like a chef being able to tell you exactly which herbs are in a dish. I can barely name more than a handful of herbs, let alone identify the exact cocktail of herbs when they’re mixed in a dish. But the chef can, because they’ve developed their sense of taste.

So practice your aural skills!

What You Can Do Today:

Download these two ear training apps (or use them online) - one for music theory, and one for music production. Commit to a few minutes of practice every day on each.

Learn To Identify Musical Cores

The dreaded temp track.

One of the reasons composers hate them so much is that often the director doesn’t really know what they like about it.

That’s where this skill comes in.

You need to be able to quickly get to the core of a temp track - to really know what it is that makes the track tick.

Some of that comes from your communication skills with the filmmaker - knowing the right questions to ask to figure out what they actually like about the track.

The other part comes from being able to quickly catch the essence of a track. Being able to see the big picture of a track, without getting caught up in the musical details.

Again, it’s about putting yourself into the shoes of the other person and asking “if I was this director, what is it about that track that inspires me?”

What You Can Do Today:

Go back to that list of music briefs from TAXI and look at some of the recommended tracks. Practice putting yourself into the shoes of the client and figuring out what the big picture is. What’s the recurring theme through all of those suggested tracks?

Be More Like Tony Stark

Remember this line from The Avengers?

Agent Hill: “When did you become an expert in thermonuclear astrophysics?”

Tony Stark: “Last night!”

That’s your job now. To instantly become an expert in whichever style is called for.

In our interview, Nainita Desai described her process of deconstructing, analysing, and reconstructing music in order to quickly learn to write in new styles.

While it’s incredibly important to develop your voice as a composer, that voice still needs to be incorporated into multiple styles. One of the wonderful things about film music and film score composers is how diverse it is musically. You could be composing for western classical orchestra one day, and Jewish Klezmer the next!

What You Can Do Today:

Set yourself a composing challenge. Depending on how much time you have available to you, this could be daily, weekly, or monthly. Compose in a completely new style every day/week/month.

Embrace The Importance Of Production Quality

Everytime I say this it hurts, but it’s todays truth:

Well produced average music will always succeed over poorly produced excellent music.

Go back and read that sentence again. Out loud if you have to.

Learning music production is essential if you want to make it as a composer today. Even well-known composers who compose primarily orchestral music today still have to be masters of music production. 

Studios won’t gamble hiring a full orchestra unless they know the music that’s being recorded will work.

And, let’s face it, the majority of projects you’ll be working on in the early days of your career won’t have the budget to record large groups of musicians anyway - so you’ll be relying entirely on your production skills for the final product.

In an ideal world you’ll be creating excellently produced excellent music, but if you can’t do that you’ll need to settle for excellently produced good music. Not the other way around.

What You Can Do Today:

Browse the catalogue of a production music library (like Gothic Storm) and compare your music to theirs. How does the production quality compare? Would your music sit happily next to theirs? If not, you’ll need to work on your production chops. There are loads of tutorials on YouTube - start there!

Develop Your Voice As A Composer

This is really difficult as a film composer, as you’re continuously having to compose in different styles.

But it’s also really important to develop your own voice.

Don’t misinterpret this though. Some people think that they have to be pushing boundaries and always trying to do new, groundbreaking things in music.

You don’t.

Remember:

Serve the project first. If you happen to be able to work in something interesting, then that’s great. If not, don’t sweat it.

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“Your voice” doesn’t have to be something crazy and totally original either. It can just be a general feeling.

Take Carter Burwell, for example. Every time I hear his work, I know it’s him (even if I didn’t know beforehand). It’s something to do with how he places and structures his music, and parts of the harmony that stand out. But it’s nothing super obvious - just a general feeling that has ingrained itself into his composing style.

And that’s how I think about developing your voice: write as much as you possibly can, in as many different styles as you can, until you start to notice certain elements popping out in all of your music. Then you can draw on that and emphasise it, if you choose.

There’s a creative process that (as far as I know) was coined by Jazz musician Clark Terry.

I talk about it a lot:

  1. Imitate
  2. Assimilate
  3. Innovate

Here it is applied to jazz improvisation (but still massively relevant to us as composers).

And here’s YouTuber Adam Neely talking about it in a Q&A.

Learning how to become a film composer involves learning how to write in a myriad of different styles. Through all of that writing we need to find our voice. Kind of like learning how to talk in different languages - we'll always have our own voice and accent.

To add my thoughts: for film composers I feel that the “assimilation” step is about bringing together all of the different influences you explored in the “imitation” step, so that you’re kind of creating something new, but not yet truly innovative.

What You Can Do Today:

If you’ve already composed a lot of music, create a big playlist of a load of your tunes and just listen. See if you notice any trends or common themes. If you haven’t already composed a lot of music...START! Just start writing, worry about your voice after you’ve written a couple of hundred tracks 😉

Learn The Tools Of The Trade

“It doesn’t matter how many resources you have. If you don’t know how to use them, it will never be enough.”

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I don’t know where that quotation comes from, but I love it!

There’s two aspects to this statement.

The first harks back to what I said earlier about bootstrapping: buying more stuff won’t help you succeed if you don’t know how to use what you already have.

But the second aspect is more important here: every trade has its tools, as a tradesperson you need to learn how to use them.

If you were a construction worker, and someone asked you to drill a hole but you said:

“Ah, I don’t use Bosch drills, I only know how to use Makita ones.”

Well...let’s put it bluntly - you’d be a pretty sh*tty construction worker.

As a film composer, you need to be able to use a lot of different tools in a lot of different ways. If you really want to make sure that you’re equipped to work in as many different scenarios as possible, you’ll want to make sure you can use all of the tools you may come across.

You don’t need to be an absolute expert in all of them (although it wouldn't hurt!) but knowing your way around multiple DAWs, plugins, notation software, and various hardware is going to really help.

Many of the big companies do trial periods or money-back guarantees. Make the most of these to have a go and get to grips with their interfaces, just so that you can add that skill to your roster.

You never know, you might even fall in love with a different system!

What You Can Do Today:

Download a free version/trial of a DAW that you don’t currently use. Try to compose or mix a track using it. See if you can get comfortable with the interface, and make sure you learn the basic controls so that if you were ever forced to use it, you'd have no problems.

How To Become A Film Composer : Conclusion

passion led us here

So there you have it. How to become a film composer in 36 easy steps!

Okay...so maybe not totally easy, but a great starting point!

I genuinely hope that this article helps give you direction to your film scoring career.

Over time I’ll be adding to this article with new advice, and I’ll be creating separate pieces of content for many of the listed topics - be sure to subscribe to the newsletter to be notified when I release anything new.

And finally…

Leave a comment telling me which tip most resonated with you, and what you’re going to do TODAY to further your film scoring career!

Also, spread the love and share this article with a friend to help them in their journey too 🙂

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