What Does A Film Composer Do?

What Does A Film Composer Do

Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Danny Elfman. What do each of these people have in common?

We’d love to say something along the lines of, “They all had afros in the 80’s” or “They all once lived in Baton Rouge.” But alas, that’s not what ties these musical geniuses together.

Instead, the line that ties the three is their particular knack as film composers who can make a movie go from good to great. Or even great to phenomenal.

Most people think that film composers are only in charge of writing music for films. And, of course, that’s a big part of it.

But in this article, we’re going to draw back the curtain Wizard of Oz style and show you the magic that happens behind the scenes. Because while film composers have to write music, they also have plenty of other responsibilities as well.

What is a film composer?

Okay, let’s start with the most basic definition of a film composer. Film composers are industry professionals who write film music and film scores.

The film score is always original music. And as time has gone on, film composers work to bring the music composition to life.

As well as a single featured song. (Think “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic.)

See Related: What Was The First Film With Sound?

What does a film composer do?

You would think that a film composer is only in charge of composing music. But that’s only one element of their job.

A film composer must also act as music editor, the person who secures the sound stage, and more. They’re also in charge of maintaining the budget – especially for lower budget films – and hiring musicians and staff.

Many composers lead the recording process and recording sessions once they have gotten the “okay” from the film’s director. And they also execute both the rough cut and final cut of the final score.

Additionally, some composers write even more music to accompany the film’s trailer. But most often, those jobs are left to trailer makers themselves.

Types of film composition

You read that right. There’s not just background music in the many films you’ve seen!

Diegetic music

Diegetic music is something that can be heard by the characters. So whether that’s a radio or a marching band somewhere nearby.

Non-diegetic music

This is the background music you’ve become accustomed to when you think about film scoring. Characters cannot hear it and this musical score often influences the emotions of a scene.

A film composer may write both diegetic and non diegetic music for the film



Songs can be both diegetic and non-diegetic depending on the movie and the composers’ work. So, if you weren’t into that Titanic reference earlier, think “Singin’ In The Rain.”

(Just working to appease all kinds of movie buffs here. Don’t say we didn’t try!)

Why does a movie need film composition?

Sure, writing original music for a film seems like a lot of extra work. But that work isn’t without its great advantages.

To reinforce emotion

In the early days of the film industry, it was common for a piano player to be on set, providing mood music while filming. (Again, think of Singin’ in the Rain.)

So it only tracks that music ought to accompany film to reinforce the emotions as the audience watches too. Other industries capitalize on this too – whether it’s in commercials, theater, or other forms of entertainment.

And music is what can make or break a film. (Pro tip: amp up your student films with a killer soundtrack or variety of musical styles.)

Build suspense

We all know the notorious shower scene in Hitchock’s Psycho. But that scene wouldn’t be nearly as horrifying without those piercing strings to accompany Janet Leigh being stabbed.

Film music can reinforce the emotions of a scene or build suspense to draw out terror


A composer might also choose to leave the musical score silent in those moments of suspense. It really all depends on their personal preference as well as what they’ve discussed with the director.

So the next time you anticipate a jump scare in a movie, just know that the music will be there to enforce your terror. Literally!

Identify the characters

A composer will often write a musical theme to accompany certain characters. And as their character arc builds, their music may morph as well.

Take a meet-cute for example. Let’s say the musicians have established that one character is strings.

And the other is a piano melody. By the end of the film when they get together, those melodies may start to intertwine, giving the audience a much desired conclusion.

And the film composer will have played their part in making those emotions swell. Who said composing wasn’t the same as being a matchmaker?

Bonus: How To Become A Film Producer

What do you need to become a film composer?

Okay, yes, future contacts and a proclivity for making deadlines should have made this list. But we’re here to give you the bullet points!

Specific degrees

Not all film composers have degrees in music. But studying music composing and orchestration certainly doesn’t hurt musicians either.

In fact, many film composers earn their master’s degrees in music just to support having a strong background in music altogether. But that being said, many a composer have been born from simply watching movies.

So there’s not one size that fits all! And there are many types of composers that are needed in the film industry.

A digital audio workstation (DAW)

Some film composers prefer to work with live musicians. But more often than not, a film composer will use music composition software.

They might even use a DAW to create the first drafts of the film’s music. Then, engage with musicians in the production studio.

A modern film composer may use digital tools to write out their music


Either way, developing these technical skills in music is curcial for the contemporary film composer. It may even be the very key to catching your big break!

Play on!

Music in film is one of the most pivotal elements of storytelling. And a composer is no more or less important than the director of the film.

So the next time you’re watching a film, look up the composer. And see what types of musical elements they decided to include and why. Even look up what event spaces they rented out to record in!

There’s a host of lessons you can learn from each composer on every film. And getting your education – whether in school or through movies – is the best way to start on your path to becoming a film composer.

As Shakespeare said, “If music be the food of love, play on!” So go on and fill your next movie with the abundance of music while growing into the composer you were meant to be.

Keep Reading: How To Become A Director Of Photography

Mack Sennett Studios is a historic full-service photography studio, production sound stage, and private event space in Silver Lake, serving as creative home to the Los Angeles cultural renaissance for the last 100 years. Check us out on FacebookTwitterVimeoPinterestYelp and Instagram.

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