Music Composer

The Job and What's Involved

Music composers create musical works to be interpreted and performed by orchestras, voices, groups of musicians and soloists. Compositions can be in any style, including classical, rock, soul, rhythm and blues, pop, jazz, funk, blues, swing, big band, country and folk. In popular music, composers are often known as songwriters.

Composers of any style of music have usually had instrumental training and many are performers, sometimes known as singer-songwriters. Composers apply musical knowledge of rhythm, melody, tone and texture in a variety of ways. They have to be aware of the possibilities and limitations of each instrument, including the human voice.

Some composers use electronic tools, such as computers and synthesisers in their writing. Developments in music technology have created new opportunities for composers, changing the way they write, record and distribute music. Writing music for television, films and computer games is a growing but competitive field. Some composers also write for sound libraries.

Unless they have been commissioned to write a piece of music or intend to perform themselves, composers need to interest a publisher or performer in their composition.

Composers work on their own or in collaboration with other composers, musicians or performers. Very few composers are able to make a living from composing. Most do other work, some of which is music-related, such as teaching or performing. Increasingly, many spend time promoting their own work often via social networking sites and by making downloads available.

Composers work long and irregular hours, writing, practising, rehearsing and performing. Evening and weekend work is common. They may write at home, in schools and colleges, offices, recording studios, music venues or even on the move. They do not necessarily require access to an instrument when composing.

They may have to travel to visit publishers or artists who will perform their work or to attend rehearsals and hear performances of their work.

For choral work, composers may earn around £300 per minute of composed music. For title music, composers may earn around £350 per minute of composed music.

For orchestral commissions, composers may earn between £500 and £1,000 per minute of composed music.

The Musicians' Union and the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) websites have information on rates of pay.

Composers are likely to be self-employed and to earn an income from a variety of sources, including commissions, recording contracts and sales of recordings and sheet music. They will also earn royalty payments for performances and broadcasts of their compositions. There may also be fees for orchestration, arranging and electronic realisation, for attendance at rehearsals or recording and for creating professional demo tapes prior to a commission.

Competitions and awards can also provide sources of income.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

A career as a composer is challenging and requires a combination of resilience, training and talent. It may take some time to become established as a composer. Composers at the start of their careers may benefit from bursary schemes, or may be appointed in association with an orchestra or a community music centre. It is important to have networking skills to build contacts and find out about job opportunities.

Most composers are self-employed. A small number work for music publishers, mainly as arrangers or orchestrators. Some are retained by theatrical companies, festivals, universities, cathedrals and choirs.

Education and Training

Composers of classical music need extensive formal musical education and training, often to postgraduate level. Most have learnt to play one or more instruments from an early age. They usually start at school by taking a series of graded examinations, including theory of music.

After music training, it is possible for those interested in composing to take a course at a university, music conservatoire or college of further education. Summer schools, music competitions and festivals can supplement study.

Useful qualifications include:

GCSE's and A levels in music

BTEC National Diplomas in music practice or popular music (entry is usually with at least four GCSE's (A*-C), or the equivalent)

There are two main types of higher education courses:

Specialist Degree Courses - offered by music colleges (conservatoires).

Music Degree Courses - offered by universities or other higher education institutions.

University degree courses may concentrate on the academic side of music. Conservatoires traditionally trained performers and now offer courses in composition. Entry to music degree courses may be relaxed for applicants with relevant experience who do well in an audition.

The minimum academic requirement for entry on to a degree course is usually two A levels, including music, with five GCSE's (A*-C) or the equivalent. In addition, most courses often require at least a grade eight in an instrument from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. Auditions and interviews form part of the selection process.

Demand for these courses is very high and competition can be fierce.
A wide variety of postgraduate and Masters courses are also available.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

To develop as a composer, experience is more relevant than formal training routes. Composers need to make a name for themselves by:

  • Building a profile, often through social networking sites or their own website.
  • Forming collectives with other composers and performers.
  • Entering competitions.
  • Applying for bursaries and awards.
  • Participating in schemes for young artists.
  • Joining amateur groups.
  • Providing new music repertoires for performance in schools.
  • Writing new works for amateur music societies.

This may take many years, and even after establishing a reputation, it can be difficult to maintain a successful career.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A composer should:

  • Have outstanding musical and instrumental talent.
  • Be self-disciplined and determined.
  • Be dedicated to what is a very demanding profession.
  • Have the ability to produce work to a consistently high standard.
  • Possess good organisational skills.
  • Be resourceful, with good networking skills.
  • Be flexible and prepared to work in a variety of contexts.

Your Long Term Prospects

Some composers achieve great success and receive regular commissions.

Some move into other areas of the industry, such as writing music for the media, including television, film, advertising and video games.

Get Further Information

British Recorded Music Industry (BPI),
Riverside Building, County Hall,
Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1 7JA
Tel: 020 7803 1300

Conservatoires UK Admissions Service (CUKAS),
Rosehill, New Barn Lane, Cheltenham,
Gloucestershire GL52 3LZ
Tel: 0871 468 0470

Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM),
10 Stratford Place, London W1C 1AA
Tel: 020 7629 4413

Musicians' Union,
60-62 Clapham Road,
London SW9 OJJ
Tel: 020 7582 5566

PRS for Music, Copyright House,
29-33 Berners Street, London W1T 3AB
Tel: 020 7580 5544

Sound and Music, Somerset House,
Third Floor, South Wing, Somerset House,
London WC2R 1LA
Tel: 020 7759 1800

UK Music, British Music House,
26 Berners Street, London W1T 3LR
Tel: 020 7306 4446

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