How to Become a TV and Film Composer (6 Steps to Success)

Are you wondering how to become a TV and film composer? Do you want to learn to be a music producer and get your music on adverts? Below are my 6 steps that are critical to becoming a successful professional composer and getting your music on TV and film.

I run an internship programme and meet a lot of enthusiastic young composers and music producers who have desires on doing it professionally.

The one question which keeps cropping up is “How do I make it?” As though becoming a professional TV and film composer can be distilled down into one simple action.How To Become a TV and Film Composer - Jim Hustwit - Larp Music

I think this expectation extends beyond music to anyone who wants to become a professional creative. You are essentially treading the line between art and commerce and it can be difficult to find.

I do not profess to have all the answers. I can only speak from my own experience.

In 2011 I quit my handsomely paid marketing consultancy job to become a TV and film composer. Luckily, years later I am still writing and producing music professionally. I say ‘luckily,’ but there has been an incredible amount of hard work on my part too.

From my experience it seems that “making it” (in any walk of life) is a combination of the following things:

Time

If you plant a seed, you don’t come back the following day and expect to see a tree. It takes years of nurturing and growth in the right conditions. The same can be said if you want to become a TV and film composer and get your songs in a movie.

In an age of “life-hacking” there is often the expectancy for things to happen overnight. Invariably they don’t. There is no one single lightning strike. Yes, you may wake up one day to find your track has been successful in a great music placement opportunity, but your skills and that track weren’t made overnight.

Success is the culmination of years of hard work and dedication. So make sure you that you enjoy the journey.

“Making It” Doesn’t Exist

The tendency is to become focused on “making it”. This will probably never actually happen because as someone who is passionate and driven, every time you reach your goal, you’ve already set a new one.

It’s important to have a vision and goals as this focuses your energy but these will evolve overtime. I started out wanting to be a singer-songwriter but after four years I realised that I enjoyed the writing and recording much more than the performing. So I switched.

And whilst I earn a good living writing and producing music, I don’t think of myself as having ‘made it’. I’m constantly looking to learn, grow and get better and as such the goal posts are always moving. I’m still looking for film and tv music licensing opportunities and asking myself how to get my music on more adverts, and in more films and TV shows.

It’s also worth pointing out that as a freelancer, you never actually know where the next piece of work is coming from.

Critical Listening

People often ask me “What education do you need to be a film composer?” For me the answer was none. I had no formal education in composition and I actually studied German and Business at Uni. So do you need a degree to be a film composer? Not at all, don’t worry if you feel that you are not experienced enough, as long as you are passionate and driven, then you will be able to learn everything you need, including critical listening.

This is an important part of how to become a TV and film composer because it enables you to dissect a piece of music, understand what is happening harmonically, rhythmically, instrumentally, melodically etc.

But more importantly it is the ability to listen to your own work and critically evaluate it. This is one of the key skills that a film composer needs. From a composing, production and mixing perspective, A/B your music with a commercially released production music tracks and try and understand why yours doesn’t sound the same. My orchestral scores don’t sound like John Williams’. I am aware of that and will take steps to understand what he is doing. Not with a view to copying but with a view to expanding my musical arsenal.How To Become a TV and Film Composer - Jim Hustwit - Larp Music

Critical listening is something which improves with practise, yet there are still some things you can do to actively better your skills.

After mixing a track I can go back days later and hear problems in the mix. I’m not sure I’ll ever truly be happy with a piece of work. I’m learning everyday how to become a music producer who is better than the one I was the day before. This means there’s always something I could go back and change but knowing when to leave your art alone is also important.

Excellence, not Perfection

As a creative, the pressure to create can be immense and pressure is a great way to stifle creativity. The good news is that this is self-imposed and you can get past it. But know that “perfect” doesn’t exist.

I am a reformed perfectionist, because trying to achieve the impossible is a thankless task.

So I switched my mindset to pursuit of excellence. Excellence does exist and is attainable. But knowing when to leave a piece of work is difficult. I often get to a point where I am constantly making tweaks on my music that the average person will not notice. That’s when I need to leave it alone and know that it is excellent.

Don’t Look for External Validation

I used to look for external validation from others before I could believe that my work was good enough. This stems from my childhood where I rushed home to tell my Dad that I got a B in a test and he asked why I didn’t get an A. That question gave me the desire to perform but for the wrong reasons… for his approval.

How To Become a TV and Film Composer - Jim Hustwit - Larp MusicWhen you want to become a TV and film composer, and for creativity in general, this is dangerous territory because everyone will have a different opinion. Not only that but one person’s art is another person’s abomination. Having the confidence to believe in what you do no matter what anyone thinks is very important.

It’s worth mentioning that I always play my music for people. It’s a strangely revealing process sitting next to someone whilst playing them your music. If during the playback you find yourself making excuses for parts, then those parts need some attention. But an objective perspective from an impartial third party who’s opinion you respect, can be invaluable.

I wrote an article on talking about the virtues and pitfalls of getting feedback on creativity

However, in the same way that you might take some of their feedback on board, you should also have the strength to reject feedback you do not agree with. Have the confidence of your convictions.

Be Proactive

If you want to become a TV and film composer then you need to know that as a freelance music producer you are running a production music business. And like any business you need to go and find customers, such as TV shows looking for music, music libraries, or independent films looking for music. When you find that customer, you need to service their needs and maybe even exceed their expectations so that next time they need music, they come straight to you.

I can’t overstate the importance of being proactive. You become a freelance composer through self-motivation, hard-work, and dedication. There are no job applications to fill out or interviews to attend, you need to find and create your own oppurtunties. Write or produce music even when you don’t have a brief. Be prolific. Because you’ll get better with every piece you write or produce. I used to get hold of old library music briefs and write for them which was great for getting me to write for genres I wouldn’t normally listen to and to try and emulate production techniques.

Whilst there is merit in emulating established composers and producers also be mindful of what you can do that’s different from everyone else. Play to your strengths and develop your own unique style. I’ve written an article on the importance of irreverence in creativity

Go to networking events, cold call production companies, write articles, submit music for tv, research film music placement opportunities… just do something.

Sitting around waiting for the phone to ring is a very disempowering way to live.

Conclusion

So there you go, my 6 steps to success on how to become a TV and film composer. “Making It” doesn’t exist and being a composer can be hard. But as long as you set goals, critically evaluate yourself, strive for excellence, have the confidence of your convictions and are being proactive you should be able to forge a successful career in music. But it will take time and hard work so above all you need to make sure you enjoy doing it. As Steve Jobs (probably paraphrasing someone else) said:

“The journey is the reward”

If this has been helpful then please share it. My Musical Musings are all about helping people navigate the complicated world of being a music professional, so the more people that this benefits, the better.

Jim Hustwit is a London based Music Producer and Composer.

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