Film and Television Scoring Composer Careers

The music that delights audiences at concerts, musicals, movies, or in recordings… is the product of composers’ and music directors’ hard work and talent. Music directors—also called conductors— lead orchestras, choirs, and other musical groups during performances and recording sessions. They select musical arrangements and compositions to be performed, and study musical scores to prepare for rehearsals. They ensure that musicians play with one coherent sound, balancing the melody, rhythm, and volume. Composers write original music that orchestras, bands, and other musical groups perform. They may also write lyrics. Composers often study different musical styles, though some focus on one genre, such as classical or hip hop. They also may write for musical theater, compose movie scores, or write commercial jingles. Most music directors work for schools and religious organizations, or are self-employed. Performances often require some travel and evening and weekend hours. Composers work in offices, recording studios, or at home. Though they may work anywhere in the country, many jobs are in New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, and Chicago. Music directors need a master’s degree in music theory, composition, or conducting; choir directors may need only a bachelor’s degree. Popular music composers submit recordings of their music to bands, singers, record companies, or movie studios. They often post recordings of their music online on their own website, or social media.

Film and television scoring composers create the atmospheric soundscapes of TV and cinema.

Films and TV shows rely heavily on music to establish their setting and heighten their immersive capabilities.

Film composers work closely with directors and editors to establish the emotional arc, musical styles, and general tone they are hoping to achieve in the finished work. The choices they make determine the weight an audience will give to a certain moment. TV shows offer the opportunity for audiences to connect deeply with characters over the course of many episodes. Scoring can be a huge part of that connection; for example, some TV composers will compose themes for the show or for different characters that can be orchestrated or used in a variety of ways, or write special pieces of music for important scenes. A great score can really enhance the quality of a scene; listen for scoring the next time you watch a favorite show or film. Chances are it doesn't have the same effect with the sound off!

A scoring composer will usually join a project after shooting has finished, but some composers are a part of the team from the beginning, basing their initial compositions off the script or storyboards. They may play pieces live during pitch meetings, record demos, or construct multi-layered digital renderings of score ideas. These pieces can be cues that underscore specific moments or even original songs that characters will hear in-universe. Once an idea gets approved, it has to be recorded and mastered. Composers tend to be heavily involved with the recording of their pieces, with some going as far as to personally conduct a symphony orchestra or direct a chorus.

Scoring composers often collaborate closely with music directors, but their roles differ in a crucial way: while music directors choose existing pieces of music to support narratives, scoring composers create original pieces. Sometimes a composer will take cues from a music director's song choices or vice-versa; their goals are the same, but the methods are different.

Work as a film or TV scoring composer may include...

  • Going over scenes to capture their mood and mark music cues
  • Using software to create MIDI demos
  • Working with directors to develop a sound profile
  • Writing incidental and dramatic music for filmed narratives
  • Overseeing recording sessions and giving notes

Scoring composers are typically selected by a director during a production's planning phase based on a portfolio of existing work. For this reason, many composers start out working on short films, where they can demonstrate their capacity to craft an entire story's soundtrack. The more film projects a composer has under their belt, the stronger their portfolio, and the better their chances at being brought on for more projects. Lots of directors have close relationships with composers who they work with again and again; building this kind of connection with a successful filmmaker can present a composer with a great opportunity to build an exciting career. Some scoring composers maintain their skills by composing small pieces of music that productions can license for cues; this is one way to pay the bills without venturing too far from the field.

There is no one way to become a scoring composer. Many start out as musicians and are called upon by a director to provide music for a film; others study music formally, contributing their growing skills to a variety of projects in pursuit of a degree. Bachelor's degree programs in music can provide opportunities to score student films, but it's also possible to do the same thing in the wild. For a creative musician with a sense of mood, timing, and feel, scoring can be creatively challenging and fulfilling work.

If you want to harness the power of music to make stories shine, consider a career as a scoring composer.

The Society of Composers promotes composition, performance, understanding, and dissemination of new and contemporary music.

The American Composers Forum supports and advocates for composers by demonstrating the vitality and relevance of their art.

The American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers promotes the art of music arranging, composition, and orchestration within the entertainment industry community and the general public.