Music Composer / Writer Careers

The music that delights audiences at concerts, musicals, movies, or in recordings… is the product of composers’ and music directors’ hard work and talent. Music directors—also called conductors— lead orchestras, choirs, and other musical groups during performances and recording sessions. They select musical arrangements and compositions to be performed, and study musical scores to prepare for rehearsals. They ensure that musicians play with one coherent sound, balancing the melody, rhythm, and volume. Composers write original music that orchestras, bands, and other musical groups perform. They may also write lyrics. Composers often study different musical styles, though some focus on one genre, such as classical or hip hop. They also may write for musical theater, compose movie scores, or write commercial jingles. Most music directors work for schools and religious organizations, or are self-employed. Performances often require some travel and evening and weekend hours. Composers work in offices, recording studios, or at home. Though they may work anywhere in the country, many jobs are in New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, and Chicago. Music directors need a master’s degree in music theory, composition, or conducting; choir directors may need only a bachelor’s degree. Popular music composers submit recordings of their music to bands, singers, record companies, or movie studios. They often post recordings of their music online on their own website, or social media.

Music composers and songwriters write music to be performed or recorded in various contexts.

Music is a language, and composers are the writers who are fluent in it, using it to express their creative ideas. With tools like sheet music, composition software, and instruments, composers are able to test out different sounds and organize them into solos, songs, symphonies, and more. Most composers have a particular style that reflects their musical preferences or training; however, it's common for composers to explore different genres in the pursuit of their craft. Composers tend to be masters of theory and many are accomplished musicians in their own right, with an exceptional understanding of how sounds fit together and the effect they can have on a listener.

Composers often work from a single instrument, such as a piano, which they can use to produce sounds. Every composer has a different way of working; some composers write music by ear and then transcribe it, while others write music down and then tinker with the notes. The development of contemporary music software has made complex composition possible to a wider array of people who may not have knowledge of music theory or access to physical instruments. Once a piece is complete, a composer may use software to produce sheet music for instrumentalists or to produce a digital demo; this makes it possible to share and develop, adding new orchestration, lyrics, or beats.

Work as a composer may include...

  • Writing and arranging original music for artistic purposes
  • Transcribing sheet music or other musical notation
  • Working with performers to develop sound
  • Revising existing work to fit new constraints
  • Using music software to record ideas

So much contemporary media features original compositions, from concept albums to video games to performance art to advertisements. Many composers work on commission, signing on to create music for specific projects. In these cases, they are hired based on a portfolio of existing compositions that is representative of their capabilities. Composing is rarely a full-time job; more often composers have a time frame in which to finish writing music, during which they may be paid a stipend or contracted amount. Composing original music is a time-consuming and thoughtful task, and anyone who hires someone to write music rather than using pre-recorded sounds is after something special. For a composer with the right network, writing music can be lucrative and fulfilling work.

Becoming a professional composer requires a deep understanding of music. While some composers without formal training go on to create musical masterpieces, it helps to have training on one or more instruments and some education in music theory. A Bachelor's degree in music composition can provide an aspiring composer with structure and guidance, as well as helping them to start a portfolio, though many composers find that obtaining a Master's degree gives them an edge when it comes to finding gigs, contracts, or residencies.

If you want to create music for all kinds of exciting projects, a career in music composition or songwriting might be for you.

The Society of Composers promotes composition, performance, understanding, and dissemination of new and contemporary music.

The American Composers Forum supports and advocates for composers by demonstrating the vitality and relevance of their art.

The American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers promotes the art of music arranging, composition, and orchestration within the entertainment industry community and the general public.

The American Composers Alliance is an organization that encourages the performance of American concert music by keeping the music in print and available for the long term future.

The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers is a professional organization of songwriters, composers, and music publishers.