How to Become a
Composer

Male composer playing guitar with headphones in a recording studio

If you are interested in a career as a Composer, then you came to the right place. This is a guide that is packed with information and resources for becoming a Composer. Here you can learn about educational requirements for the job, what the position pays and more.

What Does a Composer Do?

A Composer writes and directs original musical compositions that can be used for several different purposes. The compositions can be used for theatre, TV, radio, film, computer games and other areas where music is needed.

Depending on the project, Composers work with Directors, Producers, Music Supervisors, Music Editors, and Musicians. Once a musical piece is composed it will be performed by a musician or an ensemble. The composer needs to ensure that the music complements the project.  In a film the music should help tell the story enhance the scene. The music composed may be instrumental or have lyrics.  Some common Composer duties and responsibilities are:

  • Create musical concepts based on imagination or sounds in the environment.

  • Study films scripts to define musical scores that can be used to create moods or atmosphere.

  • Use computers and synthesizers to compose, orchestrate, change and arrange music.

  • Collaborate with others to complete final scores.

  • Apply elements of music theory to create harmonies and melodies.

  • Determine voices, instruments, harmonic structures, rhythms, tempos, and tone balances required to achieve the effects desired in a musical composition.

Composer Skills

A good Composer is creative, flexible, willing to experiment, collaborate and, most of all, has musical talent. Composers are expected to know how to play at least one instrument and they should be able to carry a tune. Some soft skills expected of Composers are paying attention to detail, being adaptable, having a strong work ethic and being able to work quickly. Being a Composer usually means that one works at home or in a studio.  Work hours could be at night and on weekends as well as long hours of practice and rehearsal. It is generally solitary work.

Other key Composer skills include:

  • creativity and alternative thinking to develop new ideas

  • being reliable, responsible, and dependable

  • working with others in a cooperative manner

  • being open to change

How Do You Become a Composer

Education and Training

Those interested in a career as a Composer must study music, focusing on music theory, composition, and music interpretation. Many colleges and universities offer a variety of degrees in Music such as a Bachelor of Arts in Music Composition, a Bachelor of Music in Music Composition, or a Bachelor of Science in Music Composition. The post graduate degree possibilities include a Master of Arts in Music Composition, a Master of Music in Music Composition, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Music Composition. In most institutions, an audition is a requirement for those interested in pursuing these degrees.  A number of schools also ask students to perform their own compositions at a recital. Whichever degree one opts for, it is vital to remember that any Bachelor's degree in music composition is rigorous and can take four years or more to complete.

To get into this career one not only needs to have a good formal training but it is essential that one develops a strong background in creating compositions by practicing for ensembles for film and video games. A good idea is to work on student films as this not only builds one’s portfolio, but also provides real world experience. It is good to know current and relevant recording, editing, and sampling software. Generally a Composer is able to play at least one instrument very well; however, most know how to play several instruments. Playing an instrument helps a Composer to express their compositions and also aids in adjustments during the compositions stages.

Finding a job

Factors such as talent, luck and timing, determine the success or failure of a fledgling composer. The job growth is expected to be slower than average, at 3 percent from 2014-2024, due in part to funding difficulties. Even though the number of people attending musical performances is expected to increase moderately; the employment outlook for composers is considered lower than average. Despite the growth many people are expected to enter this profession making it highly competitive to get a job. Most composers are self-employed and provide their own benefits.

A well-written resume will stand you in good stead when searching for Composer job positions. For help constructing your resume that will profile your skills and experience, take a look at our library of Composer resume samples.

Once you have your resume complete, you need to start your online search for Composer job opportunities’. As you do this be sure to think of anyone in your professional network that could help you.

A cover letter that clearly expresses your talents and skills in becoming a Composer is vital.  If you need help with this, get some cover letter inspiration from our collection of cover letter samples.

How Much Do Composers Get Paid?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics an estimated 82,100 people worked as music Directors or music Composers in May 2014. The median annual earnings for Composers and music Directors were $49,820 in that 2015. The lowest-paid Composers make about $10.13 per hour, while the highest-paid can earn more than $48.63. The bulleted list below will include Bureau of labor Statistics data for the top 10 states for median wage from highest to lowest.

Top 10 States for a Composer Salary

Composers and Music Directors in the following states make the highest median hourly wage in the U.S.

    New York

    $37.04

    Massachusetts

    $33.18

    Washington

    $32.92

    Illinois

    $32.55

    Ohio

    $29.13

    California

    $29.04

    Rhode Island

    $28.21

    Texas

    $26.83

    Oregon

    $21.44

    Connecticut

    $20.86

    Composer Resources

    Still need more information? We put together this list of additional resources to help you as you continue to explore a career as a Composer.

    On the Web

    The Composer’s Site
    a site that lists composer competitions.

    MENC: The National Association for Music Education
    a website that addresses all aspects of music education.

    National Association of Composers
    a non-profit organization that promotes the performance of American concert hall music.

    SoundCloud
    a sound platform where anyone can create sounds and share them.

    Industry Groups

    American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers
    an organization that helps with giving and obtaining permission to perform music.

    Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI)
    supports businesses, organizations that play music publicly as well as songwriters and composers by offering blanket music licenses.

    Composer Books

    The Triumph of Music: Composers, Musicians and their Audiences by Tim Blanning
    provides a context for the way famous composers' music was received in their own time.

    Instrumentation and Orchestration
    An introduction to writing and scoring music for each instrument of the orchestra.

    The Complete Guide to Film Scoring
    exactly as the title states.

    The information in this article comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job postings and other online sources.