The Modern Film Composer: Many Disciplines

Back in the day there was a system when it came to making music for film. The film companies owned the studios and ran a tight ship. Those days the soundtrack consisted of mostly orchestral arrangements and sometimes included some ‘modern’ instrumentation. In the 60’s, the studios started breaking away from the mold to include more comtemporary pieces and styles of music. This included the modern jazz, rockand pop idioms of the day. In the 70’s the synthesizer became more promiment as did the advent of the commercial soundtrack. The 80’s styles included more and more synth and rock influences to the point where the traditional orchestral soundtrack started to take a back seat. We also started to see more and more world influences in scores and soundtracks. In the past decade and up to today, the orchestra has once again taken center stage as far as soundtracks go with contemporary and synth sounds coming in a close second.

Throughout all of this, the composer has had to try and keep up with trends in music and technology. This includes not only a knowledge of the orchestra and writing for the symphony but the ability to write in a variety of popular stlyes. Some of the more prevalent stlyes would be rock, electronica, world and more recently hip hop.

New Developments

There has also been the development of the home/project studio where film companies are used to getting a complete soundtrack from a single composer. In the days of the studios, the composer would be responsible for writing and orchestrating the music. The recording and engineering would be taken care of by in house specialists. Typically these days, the composer may be responsible for all of this: from the initial writing of the score right down to the final masters. It has become that the recording studio is just another of one the disciplines that the modern composer must master.

The Modern Film Composer

The result of all this is the development of the modern day film composer. A few of the most popular composers of our day started out in quite different disciplines. There are the composers who started out in rock such as Danny Elfman and Michael Kamen. There’s Hans Zimmer who started in pop electronica bands. There are other composers like Mark Isham who are well known for their jazz skills and there are a handful of composers who are known for their songwriting abilities. Then there are composers like Quincy Jones who have not only written for film and TV but have written and produced some of the most popular music of our time.

Today’s modern film composer is no longer delegated to just writing for the orchestra. He/she must be able to write in a variety of styles. Most of today’s composers have direct experience in a number of different styles that brings a depth and quality to their work. Most composers now can not only write in many styles, they can play a number of instruments and have a good grasp of all of the modern technology available to bring their creations to life.

What You Need to Know

For all of those budding composers out there, it’s not enough to be ‘just a composer’ anymore. Most composers today can not only write in a variety of popular styles but also have a ton of computer, mixing and engineering skills. Composers are required to have complete mock-ups of a score before they even get the gig. This requires not only knowledge of putting together all of the samples but also all of the recording and engineering involved. Some composers have lost jobs just because their mock-ups weren’t up to snuff. They need to be able to make the temp sound as good as the final (or close to).

The Short List

A short list of skills required by the modern composer would be: familiar with computer operating systems, sequencers and software, audio engineering, recording and studio skills, basic marketing skills, trends in modern film scoring and styles, effective communication and people skills, and leadership skills. Plus there are all of the different musical styles and genres that composers have to be familiar with. These include: classical and 20th century music idioms, beat making and modern contemporary idioms, knowledge of jazz and more advanced music theory, scoring for orchestra, scoring for contemporary instruments, sample manipulation loop creation, world styles and instruments and of course working well under shrinking deadlines.

Keep in mind these are just the basic technical requirements. These don’t include the actual skill in writing to picture, working with musicians, communicating effectively with musicians, directors and industry people. There is also the whole area of getting the work in the first place. This includes getting to know people, using the internet and other means to get known, and the whole financial/administration/legal side of making it all happen. Have fun!