What Does It Take to Be a Composer?
Editor's Note: When he's not writing for EBS, Garrett Steele is a real-life, I-get-paid-to-do-this composer. If that sounds like the life for you, you would be wise to take headed of his words of wisdom.
Writing music is incredibly empowering. Hearing people perform that music—collaborating with other people to turn a fragile idea into a real experience—is even more so. In fact, it's one of the greatest feelings there is.
But getting there takes work.
Lots of difficult, frustrating work, while you sharpen your skills and look at your heroes who and wonder how long it will take you to get where they are. I can't give you patience. But I can suggest some things to take with you if you want to write music for a living.
Work Ethic and Good Habits
The hardest part about being a composer is composing.
That sounds stupid, but it's true. You've got to sit down, every day, and do it. Do it until it becomes a habit. Even if all you do is two measures; even if those two measures suck—hammer at it until the habit is there.
Because when you get a commission for a symphony or a job scoring a video game, you're not going to be able to sit around moon-eyed, waiting for inspiration to strike, as though inspiration were some mystical force that you channeled. Composing is an art, but it's also a craft that can be refined and honed, and a job that can be performed at will if you know what you're doing well enough. No matter how hard it might seem, make every day productive, even the tiniest little bit.
In this era of digital distribution, people expect a lot for a little. Budgets tend to run on the thin side. That means you're generally expected to handle composition, performance, recording, mixing, and mastering yourself.
When you get into more regular scoring work, there may be a project budget, or a package. The package is the way a lot of people go nowadays. Rather than budget out line items, they just give the composer a set amount of money. The composer uses some of it to make the music happen—hiring musicians, bringing in recording engineers, etc.—and pockets the rest as their fee for composing.
That means that even in situations where you do kinda-sorta have an actual budget, it can be in your best interest to do the bulk of the work yourself.
Gear isn't the most important part of being a composer, but here are some things you may want to consider picking up as you develop your interest and skills:
- A “dots on lines” notation software like Finale or Sibelius
- A digital audio workstation like Ableton or Reaper
- A decent mic, if you're doing live music, and some kind of MIDI keyboard for everything else.
- Real speakers—if you're mixing and mastering, you don't want to do that on your laptop speakers, because those sound different than every “real” speaker out there. As soon as your stuff comes over a car stereo or a TV it's gonna sound like garbage.
- A controller to let your mic and monitors talk to your computer
A Friendly Attitude
People talk about “networking,” and that can either be a sort of cynical, almost-pathological pursuit of business connections, or it can mean that you stay open and friendly to people that you meet, and try to remember them.
If you get hired to score a piece and you realize that you absolutely need a dilruba part to make the feel work, and then you remember that you went to a conference with a dilruba player, well, that's how things get done. And that dilruba player will likely remember you, too, should they ever find themselves in an ensemble that's looking for new pieces to play.
This isn't a question of backhanded dealing, this is a question of being a person that people can trust to get the job done, because at the end of the day, people hire the folks they know that can trust.
A Knowledge of Music Theory
There are lots of people who get by just fine professionally without a formal music education. If you have a really unique approach to playing your instrument, if you write for a niche where people are hungry for new stuff, you can get by without a degree.
But at the end of the day, no matter how good you are without knowing the “rules,” everyone who learns the rules gets better and goes deeper than what they were doing before.
Even if you study the whole of Western tonal harmony and only consciously take away three things, those three things will make you a better composer. But more than likely what will happen is you'll come away with a deeper understanding of what you've been doing vs. what everyone else does, and you can make more informed decisions about your work.