Interested in composing for film and TV or other media such as video games and apps? Film and game composers and sound designers are frequently called upon to demonstrate a diverse set of skills in their work. Scoring movies in the digital age requires an in-depth knowledge of traditional musical disciplines such as music theory, harmony, and orchestration as well as an understanding of MIDI orchestration techniques.
The best way to learn how to score movies is to take film scoring courses or hire an instructor for private lessons. There are also a number of quality film scoring books that can help you along the way. You also need to be able to locate film scoring jobs and market your composer website.
For more resources about how to be a film composer, check out the following resources (we update these regularly, so be sure to bookmark them and check back!).
- Best Free VST Instrument Downloads
- How to Find Film Scoring Jobs Online
- Online Film Scoring Courses
- Best Film Scoring Books
If you want to get started composing music for film and games, it’s a good idea to develop your abilities in the following areas. Where possible, we recommend resources related to each field of study to help you brush up on your skills faster.
Equip Your Studio for Movie Scoring
A studio that is optimized for composing for film and TV (and/or game audio) will need the following:
- Digital audio workstation. For an excellent low-cost DAW for beginning and pro composers, you can’t beat REAPER at $60 a license and a fully functional 60-day free trial.
- Industry-standard music notation software (Sibelius or Finale).
- MIDI keyboard controller for ease of note input.
- Monitor speakers and headphone monitors.
- VST instruments/sample libraries. (Need some cinematic samples and presets to get you off on the right track? Get a month free of Splice Sounds when you use the promo code *MIDIFILM17* – click here for your free sounds!)
- Expression pedal or breath controller for controlling mod and expression data (if you don’t have assignable faders on your MIDI keyboard controller).
- Game music composers will need an industry-standard sound effects engine for creating adaptive music. FMOD and Wwise have free noncommercial versions.
Learn Music Theory and Harmony
Understanding the fundamental elements of music, including rhythm, harmony, melody, and song form, is essential for a composer. You should be familiar with the various scales, modes, chord types, and harmonic progressions. Developing your ear is also important so you can pick out these elements in popular music. To brush up on your theory skills, check out these free college-level music courses, such as the theory fundamentals course being offered by The University of Edinburgh.
Learn Arranging and Orchestration
As a professional composer, simply knowing how to program sounds into your sequencer isn’t enough. You must also know how to write idiomatically; that is, you should understand the role of all families and instruments within an orchestra and be familiar with common orchestral configurations and stage placement, as well as instrumentation concepts such as range, dynamics, tone, and transposition.
Other important topics within the study of arranging and orchestration include:
- Part writing for common instrumental configurations (e.g. four or five-part horn combos).
- Common voicing structures.
- Arranging for a rhythm section (keyboard, guitars, bass, and drum kit).
- Writing in both classical as well as various contemporary styles.
- Fundamental arranging and composition techniques, including modulation, modal interchange, reharmonization techniques, and counterpoint.
You should also be able to notate a professional-looking score using industry-standard software such as Sibelius or Finale. This will come in handy when creating complex arrangements and orchestrations.
The Study of Orchestration
Learn MIDI Orchestration
Knowing the ins and outs of an industry-standard digital audio workstation (DAW) such as Logic, Cubase, or Pro Tools is a necessity for today’s composer. Your DAW will be your primary tool as a composer, so memorize shortcuts and keyboard commands to maximize efficiency and time spent creating.
In order to create MIDI mockups that are as realistic as possible, you should understand the fundamental concepts of MIDI orchestration. Get comfortable working with the DAW of your choice to do the following:
- Perform common routing tasks such as multitimbral sequencing.
- Perform common editing tasks.
- Work with virtual instruments and apply a variety of instrumental articulations using keyswitches.
- Apply MIDI continuous controllers (expression, modulation, and volume) and velocity for ultimate realism.
- Apply tempo automation.
- Perform mixing tasks such as working with effects plugins, panning, automation, and EQ.
The Guide to MIDI Orchestration
Learn Film and Game Scoring Techniques
Composing for film, TV, and games requires a unique skill set above and beyond a traditional musical background. Film and game composers must be able to:
- Use music composition techniques to create different moods.
- Understand SMPTE time code and scoring to picture.
- Work with game audio programs to create adaptive music.
Learn Sound Design and Synthesis
An oft-overlooked skill among aspiring composers is the ability to create your own sounds using a synthesizer, either from scratch or by modifying existing sounds. Begin by gaining an understanding of the elements of synthesis, including pitch, amplitude, and timbre. Then learn how to generate specific types of sounds using oscillators, filters, and modulators.
Learn Audio Engineering and Mixing
Mixing skills are critical to film and game composers, as your demo reel needs to sound as polished as the songs on TV, film, and radio. Master the principles of compression, EQ, reverb, and pitch correction to make your tracks sound “radio-ready.”
Sometimes, you may also need to record live instruments such as acoustic guitar, horns, and vocals. You’ll need to know how to get the best sound out of each of these instruments by choosing the proper microphones and using the correct mic placement.
You should also have an understanding of acoustic best practices so you can optimize your home studio and avoid any sound distortion issues.
Work on Your Musicianship Skills
Technical clumsiness hinders musical expression: If you only know how to play a few basic pop chord progressions, your compositions will suffer. Mastering at least one instrument will help you immensely when it comes to getting your musical ideas down in a tangible form.
Keyboard is arguably the most useful instrument for a composer to learn how to use. Due to their intuitive layout, ultra-polyphonic capability, and (in some cases) assignable faders, MIDI keyboard controllers are especially helpful for sequencing and recording automation data.
Classically trained pianists, while capable of playing virtuosic passages, are often lacking in the area of improvisation because they learned to play everything by rote. If you really want to take your creative expression to the next level, a quality keyboard method will help you get there. If you set aside just a few minutes a day to work through the material, you’ll be surprised at how quickly your improvisation skills improve.
The more instruments you can play (and record yourself playing), the better. Even just adding one or two live-recorded parts or layering your virtual instruments with recorded tracks can make an entire MIDI’d composition sound infinitely more realistic.
Understand the Music Business
It’s essential for freelance musicians to gain a good grasp of how copyrights, royalties, PROs (performing rights organizations), and licensing agreements work. You should also be familiar with various titles in the industry, such as publisher and music supervisor, as you’ll be in direct contact with these types of people on a regular basis.
Develop Self-Discipline and Work Ethic
Be willing to work fast and for long hours, often in solitude, and for little or no money at first. The beginning can be tough, but with relentless ambition, talent, and an honest passion for music, you’ll eventually succeed.
Create a schedule for yourself so you can meet tight deadlines, and follow up with all of your prospects. Stay on top of emails and phone calls, and never let an opportunity go by.
Someone said that to become better than most people at something, all you need to do is read three books on the subject. While reading three books won’t make up for years of focused study, it can quickly level you up in an area where you were previously lacking, and that might be all it takes to land your next gig.