Majoring in composition can open many doors to jobs, connections, and endless possibilities for creativity. Here’s what you need to know.
By Caitlin Peterkin
Think about the last movie or television show you watched. Do you remember the soundtrack or score? What about the music in a philharmonic orchestra or opera you’ve seen?
While these are obvious examples of composers’ works, and reflect one of the most common career paths for those who pursue a degree in the field, composition majors have gone on to jobs such as writing art criticism, being a music director for a church, and working at a music publishing house. This variety of career opportunities comes from rigorous training and studies, making connections, and plenty of creativity.
Getting There: Examples of What to Expect
Many universities, colleges, and conservatories throughout the country offer degrees or concentrations in composition at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
At Lawrence University Conservatory of Music, the Bachelor of Music in Music Theory/Composition offers courses in composition, orchestration, electronic music, music history, and advanced theory and analysis. Students also are required to take 12 units of ensemble work. A jazz-emphasis track is also offered for those interested in jazz composition.
“One of the most important aspects of the program is that we emphasize performance,” says associate professor Joanne Metcalf, “so that by the time a composer graduates, they have had many performances of their compositions and have assembled a solid portfolio of scores and recordings of their music.”
At Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, the Bachelor of Music in Composition also places an emphasis on performance, including piano and keyboard proficiency and major ensemble requirements. The curriculum includes music theory and literature, music history, notation and calligraphy, orchestration, and electronic studio resources. Liberal arts courses in foreign language, math, English, and humanities are also expected for students to complete the degree.
The BM in Composition at Ithaca College School of Music provides not only a foundation in traditional Western music, but also exposure to jazz, electronic music, film scoring, and other media. Interaction between composition students and students in other departments is highly encouraged — film students seek composition majors to score their films while musical theatre majors perform student composers’ works.
Dana Wilson, professor of music, adds, “Composers are required to have a piece played on a composition recital at least once each semester, to develop a specific portfolio, and to give a complete senior recital.”
Another college that encourages inter-departmental collaboration is Cornish College of the Arts. “Students are absorbed in music making, practice, and rehearsals from morning to midnight with lots of opportunities to also collaborate with students from the other artistic disciplines – theater, dance, film, etc.,” says Kent Devereaux, department chair. The BM in Composition allows for exploration in multiple musical traditions, and seminars in composing for jazz orchestra, chamber ensemble, percussion, dance, and more.
Characteristics of a Strong Composition Candidate
• Passion & Curiosity
“When we review composition portfolios, we’re looking for evidence of curiosity and imagination,” says Metcalf at Lawrence Conservatory. “We’re interested in young composers who have opened their ears to compositional developments of the past 25 years – or at least the past 100 years – and tried to implement them in their compositions, rather than trying to imitate composers of the 18th and 19th centuries.”
• Creativity & Imagination
“In evaluating compositions submitted by applicants, we are looking for engaging musical ideas which emanate from creative impetus, musical sensitivity, curiosity, invention, and a substantial appreciation of the experience of creating, performing, and critically listening to music,” says David Dzubay, chair of Indiana University Jacobs School of Music composition department. “The works should display imagination in their use of melody, rhythm, harmony, counterpoint, and texture, and demonstrate the composer’s awareness of elements of extension, development, variation and contrast in creating a formal structure.
While Cornish College of the Arts looks for an individual, distinctive voice and curiosity, Devereaux says, “We also want to see evidence that a young aspiring composer understands the amount of discipline and hard work it takes to learn the craft of composing, so when they graduate from Cornish, they have the skills they need to compose for just about any situation.”
• Basic skills & knowledge
“What high school students need to know is that being a composer is a combination of being creative and having actual skills,” says Ed Smaldone, director of Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College. “You need to be a creator, an imaginative, out-of-the-box person, but you need to know what’s in the box at the same time.”
What Are Auditions Like?
Look at the audition requirements for composition majors at schools you may be interested in attending. You’ll see that composition majors are typically asked to submit a portfolio of manuscripts of original compositions. Often, but not always, instrumental auditions are not necessary. Pay attention to the details of what each school expects, since every school is different. Many schools also require an interview with faculty. And some require a pre-screen, where you’ll need to submit a portfolio (details of which are spelled out by each school) to be considered for an interview, along with an audio recording of a live performance of your compositions.
4 Tips for Becoming a Composer
1. Listen, listen, listen!
“Expose yourself to composers from different time periods and who compose in different styles,” says Devereaux. “Students today have access to more music than ever before so I always encourage composers to just explore and listen to as much as possible.”
2. Go online.
“Get on SoundCloud and YouTube and seek out music by living composers that will fire your imagination – composers like David Lang, Steve Reich, Jacob TV, Louis Andriessen,” suggests Metcalf. “And start getting to know the music of some of the important figures of the last century: Stravinsky, Messiaen, and Ives are good to start with.”
3. Learn to play the piano.
“Piano is an important tool to be able to realize and experiment,” says Smaldone.
4. Learn to improvise.
“The ability to improvise is crucial for composition – if you can’t improvise, you have no idea how to make things happen in real time,” emphasizes Smaldone.
Both Dzubay and Wilson suggest getting to know many performers. Not only will they expose you to new material and help open your mind, but it is crucial to have experienced musicians to play your compositions live, which is “the ultimate learning experience.”
Is Grad School Necessary?
While students with an undergraduate degree can go on to have successful careers, many professionals in the field encourage pursuing advanced degrees, especially if teaching is a goal.
“In general, I’d recommend at least another two years of study in composition for a composer’s technique to fully come to fruition,” says Lawrence Conservatory’s Metcalf.
Devereaux estimates that about half of Cornish students go on to pursue grad school. “It’s definitely something that we encourage because it allows the student to further broaden their base of understanding and continue to hone their craft,” he says. “We’ve also been very successful at getting all of our grads into the top composition grad programs with full scholarships and TA positions, so why wouldn’t they?”
Career Paths in Composition
Besides traditional composing, film composing, and teaching, composition graduates have gone on to a variety of positions, including:
- Arts administrator
- Arts writer
- Arts consultant
- Band manager
- Choral conductor
- Music producer
- Theater company owner