Scoring for Film and TV or Video Games – 5 Ground Rules

Like most careers in modern music, there isn’t one straight path to scoring for film and TV or video games. While it would be great to follow in the footsteps of a John Williams or a Hans Zimmer and learn the craft of orchestration and classical underscore, the reality is that there are very few jobs that ask for those specific skill sets.

By Daniel Weidlein

By all means, you should aspire to write the next Star Wars theme song, but the vast majority of media composing gigs have gone the way of the rest of the music world. Who would have thought that Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails could stay true to his musical self and win an Academy Award for best original score? And yet that’s exactly what he and Atticus Ross did with The Social Network, which is almost entirely rooted in the electronic world.

Composing for film and TV is an ever-changing landscape. Many of the jobs are now in the video game industry, and those are often the projects with the biggest budgets. Listen to the score for the Halo series of games and compare them to a Hans Zimmer score. The production value is pretty much the same (Zimmer actually composed a score for the Call of Duty game franchise). The great thing is that the ability to create a score like this is getting easier and easier.

While it is unfortunate that many films no longer even need to hire an orchestra, a wealth of new opportunities arise when you can either a) create a realistic-sounding orchestra with high-quality computer samples, or b) compose a score in a style that fits both your own musical flavor and that of the show (even if it has nothing to do with the traditional film score). Either way, this has opened the door to creating professional-sounding portfolios and reels with very small budgets.

Every composer has a different path to becoming successful, but there are 5 basic ground rules that most would agree with:

1. Seek Out Projects

If you are fortunate enough to be in school for music, seek out every student filmmaker you can and offer to score their films. Jonathan Armandary, a graduate of Leeds College of Music in the UK and a successful film composer, makes a great point: “The standard approach to [learning how to compose] for moving image that most students take is to use an existing film, remove the soundtrack, and write their music over it. I was never a fan of that, so I opted to find new, independent films and offer my services to the directors and producers for free.”

Armandary states that many of the great director/composer relationships were sewn early on, so why not develop those relationships while also honing your craft?

Seeking out these projects is not just for improving and fine-tuning your work, but also to establish a track record. Often, your ability to conduct yourself professionally can be as important, if not more important, than the composition itself. MTV’s Teen Wolf composer, Dino Meneghin, explains: “It’s really about your experience and your ability to deliver. Especially with movies, because of the deadlines, people want to know that if they’re putting that much of the responsibility in your hands against a tight deadline, you’re not going to screw up or crack under the pressure.”

2. Practice!!!

It’s so easy to get ahead of yourself and think about how you’re going to get your next gig, or how you’re going to set yourself up to meet the right production team. Don’t forget that writing is not something that just happens overnight. Ariel Ramos, a music theory app developer and film and television composer from Miami, best known for his work on the television shows Pushing Daisies and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, puts it best: “Most of us who want to write music are also instrumentalists and I can assure you we all spend many hours a day practicing our instruments, because we know without practice we can’t play! With practice, one tries to translate will into action, with practice one learns what actions are feasible and consequently what to aim for. Composing is exactly the same, but many students forget how important it is to practice the skill, every day!”

3. Network

Scoring gigs probably won’t just fall into your lap. You need to make people aware of your skill sets, and allow them the opportunity to get to know you as a person as well as a composer. But you also need to know how to do this the RIGHT way. Jay Vincent, one of the youngest composers to win a BMI Film & TV award for his work on Cartoon Network’s hit television show LEGO Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitsu, says, “I tried to learn as much about film as I possibly could. I attribute a lot of my success to the fact that I love film, which has allowed me to relate to directors and other film people. When I walk into a meeting with a director, I’m at distinct advantage if I can talk about my favorite movies and directors, as opposed to just my favorite composers.”

4. Forget the Word “No”

David Schwartz, composer for Arrested Development, comments: “Take every musical experience you can, even if you don’t know where it’s going to lead.” While we all dream of getting to the point where we can turn jobs down, don’t even think about it right now. Every composer, every musician, every successful person agrees that their greatest opportunities most often came out of other jobs or projects. Schwartz got his first major scoring job on the TV show Northern Exposure after one of the show’s executives heard a score he wrote for a friend’s film (for very little money—in this case, a Roland sampler which he used to score the film!) that was never even released to the public.

5. Manage Your Time

Scoring is time-consuming. Very time-consuming. So the question arises: how do you make time for scoring until it becomes a solid means of financial support?

There are various ways to think about this. You can consider becoming an assistant to a composer. You’ll need to be prepared to do a lot more than just music-related tasks (eg., office jobs, grocery shopping, you name it…) but you’ll also get the opportunity to watch firsthand how the work is done. As you gain the trust of the composer, you may start to get more hands-on with the work. Usually these jobs will pay something, but not a lot.

If you’re willing to live on very little for a while, this can be a very fruitful path to success and may open up jobs for you. And if your composing employer is offered a job that he or she doesn’t have time for, maybe you can take the job instead.

Photo Credit: Daniel Weidlein

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Daniel Weidlein (danielweidlein.com) is a multi-instrumentalist, producer and composer. He owns and operates The B(e)at Cave recording studio in Echo Park, CA and is a graduate of USC Thornton School of Music.

Thanks to these composers for contributing to this article –

Jonathan Armandary is a graduate of Leeds College of Music in the UK, and is a trained saxophonist and pianist.

Dino Meneghin, known for his work on MTV’s Teen Wolf, is a graduate of USC Thornton School of Music and is a trained guitarist.

Ariel Ramos, whose work appears on Pushing Daisies and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles graduated from Berklee College of Music and continues to be a performing jazz pianist as well as the founder of mDecks, a music theory books and app company.

David Schwartz, known for his work on Arrested Development, Deadwood, and Northern Exposure, attended Berklee College of Music and is a trained bassist.

Jay Vincent, known for his work on Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitsu, graduated from USC Thornton School of Music and then returned for a post-graduate degree in film scoring. He is a trained vocalist.

Comments

  1. Samuel

    I am a music performance major who is thinking of switching his major to film and video game composition. I am switching mainly due to money concerns. I think I would enjoy composing for other people but only if it had my own feel musically. What should be my concerns going into this?

    • Film and video game composing does not guarantee an income especially upon graduation. Get as much experience as possible via internships, apprenticeships, attending relevant conferences where you can meet and network with people in the business, and getting a music portfolio of your own compositions. Also read our article on careers in composing.

  2. Kody

    I’m a recent graduate from University of Evansville with a Bachelors in Music. I find your article encouraging and am looking for leads with companies hiring in the areas mentioned. Thank you for your time, I’m very appreciative.

    • You’re not likely to find an employer looking to hire in this field. You’re more apt to find internships and entry-level apprenticeships but a lot also depends on your skills and experience composing and who you know and who you can get referrals from.

  3. Jason

    Forget the word “no” is terrible advice. Everyone has the right and should exercise the right to say “no”. Take as many jobs as you can, yes, but also respect yourself, respect the profession of composition, and learn how to turn down people who mistreat you. If you don’t respect yourself, no one will.

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