Writing Music for Film: Getting An Education

The question often arises ‘do I need a musical education to become a film composer’. Most composers would say that getting an education in writing for film is essential to your success yet there are others that say you don’t need one at all. Looking at the top composers doesn’t seem to give us a clear cut answer either. Some of the biggest names in the film industry today (Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman) don’t have a formal education. These composers cut their teeth on writing pop, rock and jazz music. Then there are other famous composers (James Newton-Howard, Alfred Neuman, and tons of others ) who have had an extensive music education.

The Rise of the Film Music Program

During the heyday of the silver screen (30’s- 50’s), there were many composers working their craft yet the art form was still relatively new. There were no schools or programs at that time that taught composers the craft of writing music specifically for film. There were only traditional music programs which taught classical theory, history and composition. The only way a composer could learn the ways of composing for film was to have an apprenticeship in the studio system or to just fly by the seat of their pants. Most scores those days were orchestral and classical based music, so most film composers had a formal education.

Today, there are tons of programs created specifically for writing music for film; some better known and more respected than others. The best programs offer composers courses in music theory, music history,  and production (utilizing modern technology and software). Most of all, they focus on the craft of writing specifically for film; an art form of its own and not the same as getting a traditional music education. Attending and taking advantage of a great music program can take years off the learning curve and may give you a step up in your career.


Film composers must be able to compose in a variety of styles. It’s beneficial for composers to know is how to write and arrange for the orchestra, but they also need to be able to compose in other popular styles. Styles incorporated in modern scores would be jazz, world music, avant-garde, pop and many types of fusion. This can be done without an education but it can be much more difficult without knowing the fundamentals. Having a basis in music theory, ear training and composition makes it easier to integrate these elements into your scores. Essentially it’s the same thing as trying to write fiction in a variety of styles without having the skills to break down elements and figure out how to put it all together.


Other skills that a music education will get you is the ability to communicate with other musicians. Getting to work with other musicians and composers is great for forwarding your career. Knowing how to communicate and express yourself musically is essential. As far as communication goes, you can’t leave out the ability to read and write music. While most composers create most of their music on the computer, the printed page still has it’s advantages. It’s essential in putting down lead sheets for other musicians and vocalists. It’s also great for composers in evaluating other scores. It’s good for furthering your own education and understanding musical styles and idioms. It’s great for writing out chord progressions and lead sheets for everything from jazz tunes to rock jams. It’s also invaluable in putting together sketches and arranging complicated themes. I’ve know quite a few musicians’ careers that have been stilted by their inability to read music.

A formal music education will give you:

  • a good basis in fundamentals that will serve you for a lifetime
  • help in the creation and composing process
  • allow you to dissect and recreate virtually any style
  • look great on your resume and get you other related music careers (teaching, industry positions, etc)

There are misconceptions and skills that an education won’t give you:

  • won’t also automatically make you a great composer or writer
  • won’t automatically get you gigs
  • won’t teach you the business side (that’s another education in and of itself)
  • won’t give you is the desire and determination to make it (see note above)

Tools and Credibility

An education only gives you the tools and it’s up to you to put in the time to be able to use these tools effectively.  It won’t automatically get you work but it can really help with networking. Having a degree from a well known institution will increase your credibility and make some producers and filmakers sit up and take notice (although still not a guarantee). Finishing a post secondary education tells people that you are professional and that you have what it takes to stick with it.

Do Your Homework

If you decide that you want to attend a post secondary institution, do your homework*. There are now tons of programs out there and some are better than others. Some are great for giving you the fundamentals and essentials that will carry you for the rest of your career. Others are just glorified programs in how to use Pro Tools. Make sure that they are teaching what you want to learn. If you want to be a film composer, there must be the essentials: music theory, arranging and composition, music (and film music history), and how to use modern technology. Courses in how to market yourself and some business skills are also invaluable. Be careful about schools that seem to offer it all. Invariably there are too many courses being offered and there may be some weakness in some areas. Ask around and go online and make sure the school is well known and has great instructors in your area of interest.

*Always do your homework. A little due diligence in any area always goes an extraordinarily long way.

Take Advantage

We all know how the music industry is very much a DIY industry. If there are any shortcuts or help aids out there that can help your career and carry it along, you should take full advantage of it. Even though I’ve had an extensive education in music composition and performance, there have been times when I wished I had gotten a better education in other areas. I worked through engineering, mixing and marketing largely through years of running my own independent studio. While I’m proud of what I have accomplished, I realize now that I could have saved a couple of years of ‘reinventing the wheel’ by getting some professional help when I needed it. If you have a chance to get an education, to get some help in an area where you are weak, then by all means take it. Don’t be nice about it either. If you enroll in a course take advantage of all that it has to offer. Bug and bother the people at the institution and figure out all of the things that they offer. Then, while you are there, take advantage of all of their facilities and especially the faculty. Corner every faculty member you can and get as much info as you can. Take as many notes as you can because you may not be able to absorb it all. I have notes from my education in the 90’s that I still go over and review.

If you have the chance to get a formal education, I encourage you to take it. If you don’t get the chance or don’t have the funds to make that happen, you’re going to have to make your own education. If you’re motivated, you can learn more on your own. Having access to good instructors and mentors though, can be invaluable and save tons of time and energy.

It’s About the Journey

You’ll notice that whether composers had a formal education or not, they took the time to learn the craft. Whether writing pop music, world or classical compositions, they worked hard and learned the process. Film composers have a love of many types of music. Most have extensive knowledge of world music and can usually play a number of musical instruments. Whether you get a formal education or not, you’re going to have to learn the essentials to being a film composer. Be an information hog and grab every piece of learning that you can. When it comes to being a musician and a composer, the education never ends. It’s always a journey of learning and discovery.