I’ll talk about scoring, building your business, and fees in this guide to film scoring.
Story and music have come together to express emotion for an incredibly long time. Traditional theatrical performances like the Chinese Xiqu, Japanese Kabuki, and the Indian LokNatya have used singing, dancing, and instrumentation to convey emotion and tell a story for hundreds of years.
And now, we still use the same technique to add weight to our stories, whether it is a Hollywood blockbuster or an indie film. The only changes we can find are how the visuals and music are dramatized. Both the music and visual representation used to be overdramatic in the past. However, we now use much more rational and natural expressions of emotion.
I must mention that this guide will focus on the pipeline or the steps taken in film scoring and the business of film scoring, rather than the music composition. The reason is that every composer approaches their composition differently, and there is no set rule. Furthermore, film scores often require you to compose in many genres and styles, making it infeasible to attempt an exploration in a guide.
What Is A Film Score?
The music accompanying a cinematic motion picture (film) is known as a film score. It has two kinds: theme and underscore. A theme is a piece that represents a location, a character, a cause, etc. Conversely, an underscore is a score that adds emotional weight under dialogs, action sequences, etc.
Who Are Involved In A Film Score Production?
A well-financed film score production generally involves a composer, an orchestrator, a producer, a music editor, copyists, a music supervisor, and performers. Note that only live music requires all of these people. So, if you’re using computers to make music, expect far fewer collaborators (or none).
I must also mention that, in the past, the production house would have an in-house crew and departments for the entire scoring process. However, hiring independent organizations or crew members is much more common instead of having them full-time nowadays.
Let’s have a brief look at each crew involved in film music production:
The composer is the most important person in music production as they are the one who composes the thematic pieces and the underscores. In larger productions with a tighter budget, you could also hire co-composers to assist you in creating underscores. However, the credit often goes to the leading composer in the title credits.
An orchestrator takes a piece of melody or basic harmonic arrangement and arranges them for an entire orchestra or a band. Often, modern composers are capable of orchestrating their works themselves. So, it’s rare for a budding or even an intermediate composer to have an orchestrator unless the composer intends to hire one themselves.
The producer directs and supervises the recording session to ensure quality. Sometimes, a producer might also assume the role of mixing engineer after the recording. Furthermore, in a film with a moderate or low budget, the composer often serves as the producer.
- Music Editor
A music editor takes the orchestrator’s work and uses a DAW to create a mock-up piece. They must be fast with their work so that the director and film producers can listen to the music before the recording takes place. Sometimes, the director may even decide to use the mock-up straight, with no additional recordings. Note that modern composers often use a DAW as an integral part of their composition process. So, there’s generally no need for a music editor nowadays.
A music editor could also be someone who syncs the music to the picture and works alongside the mixing engineer of the film. They are responsible for making changes to the recordings to fit them with the dialogues and sound effects.
Once the orchestrator is finished creating a score for the entire orchestra, the copyists derive and produce sheets/staff notations for individual performers. They used to be essential in the past as they hand-wrote each copy of the score. However, contemporary computer software like PreSonus Notion and Steinberg Dorico has made creating multiple copies of the score much more manageable with almost no error.
- Music Supervisor
A music supervisor has two responsibilities: to act as a bridge between the director and the composer and to handle sourcing commercial music in film. When a composer needs any help or confirmation, the music supervisor is the first to reach out instead of the director. And often, the music supervisor decides whether the director should hear about the issue.
Similarly, the director works with the music supervisor to outsource popular songs or even collect classical music as temp tracks (temporary music to assist in sharing ideas with the main composer).
The performers are the session musicians who play the instruments for recording. They need to be able to sight-read and perform flawlessly, which will undoubtedly increase the cost of production. So, unless the budget is substantial, it isn’t uncommon for composers to perform everything themselves (using DAWs and MIDI).
What Is The Film Scoring Process?
The first step after being approved is signing the contract. Then, the composer and the director or producer(s) “spot” the primary cues in the film and decide what kind of music each scene requires. Next, the composer begins composing. Once the music production is done, the music is mixed with the film’s audio.
Let’s have a look at the steps in the process in more detail.
The First Conversation
Whether you got your gig as a friend of the director or whether you applied via a job ad, the first meeting with the director is generally the same. If you’re approaching the director, you should already know what kind of project the director is working on. Conversely, if the director approaches you, you will get a briefing on the sort of project they’re developing. This step is when you talk about the project’s motives, difficulty, budget, deadline, etc.
By motives, I mean the project’s story and characters. For example, some composers might not prefer to work on films that use controversial topics, theological stories, political ideologies, etc. Similarly, if the movie demands complex orchestrations or live performances, make sure the budget and the time constraints are reasonable.
Another thing you should consider is matching your skill and experience with the director. If you have a considerable amount of skill, you should be working with a similarly skilled director. Avoid working on projects that won’t take you forward – either financially or in your career.
Opening the contract was (and is) probably the scariest moment in my film scoring experience. There are way too many words to read, and most of them sound like they’re deliberately trying to complicate things. Thankfully, there are plenty of sites and online courses nowadays that can help you learn about contracts.
You’ll generally find the following topics in a composer contract (in no particular order):
The first thing is your fee or the music budget if you are also responsible for the entire music production. The production company might decide to handle the music production (orchestration, recording, mixing) and only pay you a composer’s fee. Or, they might give you the entire music budget and let you figure out how to spend it (and save your cut) to produce the music.
It goes without saying, but make sure you are capable before you accept the responsibility of the entire production. Your skills must include vast technical knowledge, leadership, and finance management. I love and would recommend the freedom such a contract provides, but I must warn you about the backlash you could receive in case of a mess-up.
- Payment Method
This section determines how you will receive your payments. There are two general methods: paying 50% upfront and 50% later or paying in one-thirds. If you are responsible for the entire music production, make sure you receive enough funds per payment to pay your bills and the rest of the crew. For instance, it’s a good idea to have the second 50% before the recording takes place so that you can pay the orchestra/band.
- Time Frame
In this section, you and the director/production company need to agree on a time frame that constrains you and the production company. First, it needs to mention when you will receive the film’s cut. Note that this cut could either be the final version of the movie or only a picture-lock (before color grading, VFX, and sound design). You could also agree to work on short cues of the film at a time – it’s better to receive half a cut of the film early on than the full cut with a tight deadline. Second, the contract should mention your deadline. Use this information to formulate a plan regarding how you’ll produce the music.
The contract will also mention what rights the production company asks from you. Some companies might prefer to buy the copyright from you, where all the future royalties and soundtrack revenue will go to the company. Conversely, another method would be to provide a sync license to the company while retaining the remaining rights, although it’s rare in major productions. So, the best idea is probably a blend of the two methods, where you agree to give your rights for a share of the royalties and soundtrack revenue.
This section states how and where you’ll be credited. Keep an eye on how your name is spelled. If you prefer a stage/artist name, make sure the credit reflects it. And if the payment doesn’t satisfy you, the least you can ask for is a major credit at the start of the film rather than at the end credits.
This section covers any extra, mundane expenses you might need. These primarily include travel expenses. However, sometimes, the music budget might include such expenses already. So, it’s a good idea to ask the music supervisor/director about it if you have doubts.
- Public Relations
If the production company wants you to appear on interviews, ads, commentaries, or DVDs, this section must mention it. It could also mention that you disagree to appear publicly.
- Hire Exclusivity
If the production company demands that you exclusively work for them during the contract length, the contract should mention this. However, you should also take advantage of such an agreement: you can ask for more money to work exclusively.
This section mentions how you are to deliver the final music and the demos in-between. Most of the time, a simple WAV file of the music is enough. However, if there’s a separate music editor, you might need to render stems. Similarly, the production company might demand perfect mock-ups as demos before the actual recording, which is time-consuming and something to consider regarding your fee.
This one isn’t always written in a contract. However, if you have talked to the director about it, you should make sure your agreement mentions how many reviews you will provide and the additional fee (or none). It’s worth noting that, generally, filmmakers expect reviews regardless, hence the previous section.
Spotting is the process of planning the score for the film. If the director or the producer(s) has a plan in their mind, you will sit down with them (online or offline) and watch the film together. Write down their notes for each scene, and make sure you write the timestamp as well.
However, there are also cases when you have the freedom to plan out the music yourself. And in this case, here are some steps to help you out:
The first thing you’ll receive before the picture-locked cut of the movie is the script. Reading the script helps you get the vibe and scale of the movie. Note the characters, locations, era, etc. You could develop ideas for character themes or settle on an era-specific music style (medieval, futuristic, etc.). The latter is also called localization, which, as the name suggests, might also include traditional music based on location.
A thing worth mentioning here is to avoid sounding too cliché or even racist – yes, music can do that. If the entire movie has a particular feel, but one character has an extremely localized theme for no reason, it can be off-putting.
- Watching The Film
Once you receive the picture-locked film, start by watching the movie entirely to understand its pacing and mood. If you have the time, you should watch it multiple times without writing anything down just yet. Let yourself have an emotional reaction to the visuals and story. After all, most of your job is to emphasize said emotional reactions.
- Separating Cues
In this step, you’ll separate the full-length movie into many parts to help make it digestible. This step holds two purposes: to help you score and to help your computer. The latter is especially true if your computer isn’t capable of running hundreds of tracks at once. So, you can work on short pieces with fewer tracks per project and put them all together when you’re done. DAWs like REAPER, Cubase/Nuendo, and Digital Performer make this step particularly easy, thanks to their project within a project feature.
I prefer using pen and paper to write down my musical ideas for each cue I have created. In this step, you can think about the tempo, style, chord progressions, and transitions between cues. Furthermore, now’s a good time to polish your themes for characters and locations that you created based on the script.
Finally, if you have questions regarding the film, get in touch with either the director or the music supervisor (if there’s one). There is generally at least one scene in a movie where forced perspective is necessary—for example, a comical piece of music in a scene where a serial killer murders a character. However, you need approval from the director/music supervisor first to attempt the feat.
You’ll likely get a directorial note if it’s something this important, but if you have a creative new idea, you should let your supervisor know.
In this step, you start composing the score. I’ll focus on how most modern composers prefer working in this step: using a DAW to compose and create a mock-up simultaneously. If you’re working on low to medium-budget films, you are probably solely responsible for producing the music without any other collaborator. So, you need to be familiar with the technical knowledge such a responsibility brings on top of having composition skills. Let’s talk a little more about the essential things in film music composition:
- Digital Audio Workstation
While almost all DAWs can make practically any kind of music, certain features make a DAW much more superior for film scoring. They include basic features like easy audio recording and video playback to grid warping, tempo/time signature changes, subprojects, MIDI articulations, etc.
Hence, my recommendation would be one of the following DAWs:
Both Cubase and Nuendo have very similar features, but Nuendo has additional features suitable for film audio post-production (unnecessary for a composer). They both feature grid warping, which lets you intuitively set a measure or beat to a specific real-time position without having to calculate the tempo. Another feature I like is the MIDI expression, which lets you intuitively assign articulations to sampled instruments. You’ll not have to fiddle around with key switches or CC data curves. And finally, the chord track lets you create a chord progression that automatically transforms the pitches of other events (including audio clips). It also comes with an assortment of high-quality instruments and effect plugins.
REAPER’s most significant advantage is its customizability. You can make REAPER look and act like any other DAW, but the process can be a bit of a rabbit hole. Similarly, many features like grid warping and MIDI expression become available only after adding custom scripts created by other users (many available for free with some amazing paid ones). There are thousands of such scripts. Note that REAPER doesn’t come with any instrument, making it cheap and giving you the freedom to choose instruments you like. And finally, subprojects let you create a project within a project, which helps you focus on a cue or import a theme project without rendering manually. I would recommend REAPER for people who love getting deep into customization and work for audio post-production, game music/sound design, etc., on top of music composition.
- Logic Pro
If you are a macOS user, this DAW could be your favorite choice. Developed by Apple itself, Logic Pro is a moderately priced DAW that has many features that you find in DAWs like Cubase. You can use markers to label your cues and cut the video into multiple scenes. Then, you can focus on each scene individually. Similarly, Logic Pro comes with a handy assortment of sampled instruments and synthesizers.
- Digital Performer
Designed specifically for film scoring, MOTU’s Digital Performer mixes traditional linear DAW workflow with modern niche clip-based workflow, which might be a source of inspiration. You’ll find features like “chunks,” which lets you load multiple cues and timelines into one project. Similarly, the “conductor track” enables you to create punches and streamers for conducting, which is essential when recording live performers. And while the workflow is very similar to most linear DAWs, the language is quite different, which may be a learning curve if you’re coming from another DAW. Still, considering all the instruments, plugins, and features that come with it, it just might be worth the effort!
The first step to composing a score is localizing it. Note what kind of movie you have. It could be a dystopian sci-fi, western, medieval fantasy, modern-day romance, or slasher horror. Whatever it is, you need to decide what kind of vibe you want. Consider using traditional instruments from a particular era like the lute or a specific location like the Chinese guzheng. Similarly, try music scales like Arabian or Japanese Hira Joshi to define the locality even further.
- Sound Palette
Once you have a general idea of how you want your score to sound, start creating a palette of sounds to use. You might already have a template of a basic orchestra in your DAW (highly recommended). In which case, you’ll want to add specific sounds like a unique synth to your template to give your score a particular feel. If you feel like you need multiple kinds of palettes, use a folder or grouped tracks. Doing so will create a sense of coherence all over your score and make it sound professional.
Choose which character’s perspective you’re using to write music. Is it the dragon’s carnivorous mind that bubbles with euphoria while stalking its prey? Or is it the mortified victim, frozen in mid-scream?
Do not prioritize minute details over the grand picture. Start by creating a draft over at least an entire cue. Suppose you start automating various parameters to make four measures of music sound perfect. What would happen if you realized it doesn’t fit as well as you thought it did? Either you’ll feel dejected over having to delete something you spent a lot of time on, or you’ll force yourself to accept the music despite not liking it.
Sometimes, however, you might not be able to compose a long piece of music without first listening to a perfected piece. In such cases, I go against my rule and work on a short piece with detail until inspiration hits me to create further.
You might have gotten lucky and successfully translated the director’s vision into music the first time you tried. However, you’ll have to redo or modify your music after the first demo more often than not. So, how do you go about finding out what’s wrong?
Like in any other field of work, experience helps in film scoring. And I mean experience with one director. If you know a director well, you know her ideas and visions. Hence, you’ll find a director working with one composer for almost all of their projects. A great example is Steven Spielberg working with John Williams.
However, if it’s your first time working with a director, you should start by listening to them explain what’s wrong. I suggest asking them to talk to you in terms of feels and emotions. Some directors might start talking in musical terms like, “Hey, what about trying the F minor scale?” I recommend you forget that conversation altogether because it seldom makes any sense.
Sometimes, the director might not like the “feel” of the music. It “feels” too western or too sci-fi. If that’s the case, it’s highly likely a result of your instrumentation. If it sounds too western, try switching the electric guitar for an acoustic. Or if it’s too epic, try changing the horns or trumpets for strings. If it’s not intimate enough, try higher strings and woodwinds.
Similarly, in a smaller-budget film, where there isn’t a temp track, I like asking the director to provide a reference that sounds closer to what they want. Then, you can try and figure out what they like about the reference. However, don’t ask for a reference too often, though – it can be tedious to search.
The basic rule is that if you feel like your composition works, try switching the instruments and the tempo before you make drastic changes. And if you can, stick with only a few directors by getting in touch with them from time to time to stay updated on their new projects. Finally, learn and build a vocabulary of how directors describe your work – find what a particular kind of harmonization or melody makes them feel.
I’ll talk about two things here: delivering demos and delivering the final audio. Technically, providing demos comes before the editing step, but I’ll cover it here anyway. Either you could let the director/producer(s) listen to the demos at your studio, or you could send a video file of a cue with your score. Make sure you export your videos with the highest possible audio quality (high audio bitrate).
Next, let’s talk about the final audio. A production company might require you to deliver the final score in the following ways:
- WAV Audio
Exporting your mastered score as a WAV file is probably the most straightforward method. Simply hit export, set the quality to 24-bit at 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz (whichever you’re using), and you’re good to go.
If you are working with a music editor, you might need to provide stems of various busses. The most common method is to provide individual stems of the strings, brass, woodwind, and percussion sections. However, sometimes, you might get requests to provide stems of high-pitched and low-pitched instruments, etc. It’s for controlling how audible the score is over a dialogue.
If the production company wants to promote and sell the soundtrack album, you’ll need to create one. While there isn’t a specific rule about how you can go about creating a soundtrack album, you do have to keep your music in chronological order according to the film. And you can include every piece of music or only those you deem necessary. Furthermore, make sure you master the soundtrack as an album.
How Do I Find Film Scoring Work?
For a budding film composer, the biggest issue is probably finding work. The reason is that there are thousands of musicians looking to do the same. And, as I mentioned before, the directors who have found a composer tend to stick with them. So, the best and the likeliest way for you to get work is via recommendation and friendship.
Here are some key things to keep in mind:
Thanks to the internet and computers, every person is expected to provide a final product from scratch. In the past, you could play an instrument, write compositions on a piece of paper, and let arrangers, orchestrators, recordists, performers, etc., handle the production side.
Unfortunately, having one specialty makes you almost useless. So, you need to become a swiss-army knife of audio skills. Learn everything that goes into music production and even post-production or video editing, if you can. Learn to be helpful for directors in so many ways that they can’t send you out.
Having an online website with your demo reel is necessary, and how you present them is just as important. If you cannot build a website, consider hiring a professional developer. Similarly, learn the basics of video editing to make your demo reels less jarring and awkward.
- Maintaining Relations
If and when you meet a director, remain in touch with them. However, don’t be clingy by sending them messages twice a week. Instead, try to support their work, follow them on social media, be a positive vibe (yes, even when they hire another composer), and be respectful of their privacy. Your interest in them will reflect, and if they notice you are a compatible musician for them, they will reach out to you.
- Be Strategic
Meet people online and offline tactically. If you go out often but only meet fellow musicians or soccer fans, no wonder you don’t have any film-related clients. Surround yourself with potential clients both online and offline.
Furthermore, if you intend to get in touch with a director, find someone relatively at your level of skill and success. You’ll find them likelier to respond to your messages compared to someone who is already much more successful than you are. Similarly, avoid working with people you feel are below your level because they will weaken the quality of your work.
- Social Media
Post regular content on social media that are interesting and entertaining. Videos and pictures tend to work better than texts. Having a good number of followers can make you appear “successful” and more likely to receive work and higher pay. Hence, I recommend searching for other composers and related people who are successful on social media and learning what they are doing right.
How Much Should I Charge As A Composer?
Film music composers with some experience and a decent list of credits tend to charge between $200 to $1,000 per minute of music. However, your fee should be based on your bills, self-evaluation, your passion for the film, and the state of your career.
If the fee you are charging will not even let you survive the time you spend composing, it’s nowhere near enough. However, if you feel like you need better skills to charge more, I suggest keeping your regular job and improving your skills first. Or, if you can manage it, work your day job and also take the low-paying gig.
Now, let’s talk about negotiations. Usually, you’ll hear the question, “How much is your rate?” almost as soon as a director or a producer gets in touch with you. However, replying with a number may not be the best answer here, because you want to get as much money as you can but also not scare off the client.
So, you can go down two routes here:
You can avoid the rate question completely and reply with, “What is your budget for the film?” If you get an answer, you can expect around 5% of the budget to be used for music. However, if you don’t get a straight answer, try asking if they have a music budget in mind already. This question is linked to my next route of conversation, so let’s check that one out too.
Some filmmakers don’t feel quite ready to hire a composer yet. So, suppose you do want the gig and you know they are in no position to afford a standard rate. Then, you could say something like, “I generally charge ____ per minute of music, but I’m pretty flexible. So, why don’t you tell me what kind of budget you have in mind, and we’ll figure out a way to make it work.”
I truly am flexible, and it has helped me land small business relations that became fruitful later on. And there usually are ways you could make it work too. If it’s a small-scale movie, you’re better off using a few intimate instruments over a full-on orchestra, which considerably brings down the time and effort spent on scoring.
Finally, I’d like to talk about a fee chart. A fee chart is a chart where you can create a fixed rate for your work. The chart could include prices based on the complexity of the music, the length of the film, the genre of music, etc. However, I wouldn’t recommend creating a chart if you are just starting since you’ll likely need to negotiate anyway.
Here’s a video that has some excellent tips about deciding your fee:
Should A Composer Ever Work For Free?
Ideally, no. However, working for free may help you form a creative relationship with the director and their network. Do not work on big projects for free, as it’s way too much time and effort for the mere possibility of gaining more work. Similarly, note if you are being treated with respect or not.
If a filmmaker doesn’t seem to value your work, how can you expect them ever to respect you in the future? But if they seem genuinely passionate, helpful, and interested in your work, that relation could go on to become something excellent. And again, make sure whoever you work with is as skilled and intent on growing as you are.
And that brings us to the end of my short guide to film scoring. Of course, there are a ton of other things we could talk and learn about like negotiation or how to be social. As a film score composer, I could probably talk for days about this topic. However, I hope this guide answered some of the basic questions you may have had.
You’ll probably face failures when applying for film scoring gigs, and it’s important to remember that everyone goes through it. Auditioning is a part of a composer’s life, and so is rejection. We all face bad days in every career choice, and the only thing we can do is keep pushing and hope for the best. And that is exactly what I hope for you. Thank you for reading!
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K. M. Joshi is a multi-award-winning composer and sound designer, specializing in film, game, and TV audio. He enjoys making cinematic music, rock, blues, and electronica.