BySam Cooper, writer at
Spastic writer and a lover of all things with the word "espresso" in the title.
Sam Cooper

Music is often the last thing we think about when we watch a movie. It lives in the background under layers of special effects, cinematography, acting and storytelling, only to rise to the surface when the story intensifies. Without music, wouldn't be the all-encompassing experience we love, but the process of creating a film score is shrouded in mystery. How are musical scores written? Who writes them? How much does it cost?

While there are answers to these questions, they might not be what you expect. Here's everything you need to know about the challenge of writing film scores.

'The Aristocats' [Credit: Disney / Buena Vista Distribution]
'The Aristocats' [Credit: Disney / Buena Vista Distribution]

Composers Aren't The Only People Who Write Movie Music

You know Hans Zimmer and John Williams? They're pretty big in the game, but they're not the majority. DJs, producers and popular artists often collaborate with composers or write scores on their own. JunkieXL brought home with electronically-based music, and M83 composed the soundtrack of Oblivion.

How Long Does It Take To Write A Score?

Alright, alright, alright, movies are a lot of work, but just wait until you hear how much time composers are given to craft a two-hour score. The average is 6–12 weeks. On paper, it seems like a sufficient amount of time, but given the expanse of cinematic arrangements, it's a challenge to get everything done. 6–12 weeks factors down to roughly two minutes of music per day. Alexandre Desplat, who was given only three weeks to score The Imitation Game, gives a bit of insight into what it's like to be a composer.

"With this job, there is no Sunday."

'The Opry House' [Credit: Disney]
'The Opry House' [Credit: Disney]

Composers Don't Make Bank

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2011, film composers averaged an annual salary of $54,000. In other news, if you aren't Howard Shore, you won't be raking in the cash. However, there are exceptions to the average. Big composers sign contracts with studios and work on packaged projects, increasing their earning potential. But for most composers, scoring a movie isn't exactly a financially superfluous opportunity.

Music + Movies = A Lot Of Math

Music is math. Pleasant math, yes, but nonetheless a concept that can be broken down into strings of numbers. Because of the dynamic audio effects in movies, film composers have extra pressure to balance the frequencies in their music. Too many high-pitched textures or mid-range instruments can make listening to a soundtrack an excruciating experience. Balancing frequencies is important, but timing is also vital. Composers match tempos with frame rates to ensure scenes maintain a solid rhythm.

'Empire' [Credit: Fox]
'Empire' [Credit: Fox]

Orchestras Are Falling Out Of Favor

In the early days of filmmaking, composers relied on orchestras to voice their work. Now, many composers use synths to create scores. Hans Zimmer was one of the first to incorporate synths in his music, but even for projects without an electronic aesthetic, today's reproductions of orchestral instruments can match the qualities of a live performance. It's a cost-saving measure that allows composers greater control over the music.

Music in movies might fade to the background, but it takes a lot of work to make each scene come to life. From less-than-exciting salaries to mathematical struggles, film composers have one of the most crucial jobs in the entertainment industry. The next time you hear the music build, listen for the blood, sweat and tears buried beneath the notes.

What's your favorite film score?


Latest from our Creators