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Composer Job Description, Career as a Composer, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: Varies—see profile

Salary: Median—$34,570 per year

Employment Outlook: Fair

Definition and Nature of the Work

Composers create original music ranging from pop to jazz to classical. They may write music for film scores, operas, ballets, other stage productions, or even television commercials. The musical themes and background music for television shows are created by composers. Some composers are also arrangers. An arranger takes an existing piece of music and puts the melody in a certain order to be played by different instruments. Arrangers can change the melody to form new harmonies and can change rhythms. They sometimes write a new melody that is used as a counterpoint, meaning it is added to an existing one.

Education and Training Requirements

Individuals interested in a career as a composer must study music, focusing on music theory, composition, and music interpretation. A composer must be able to play at least one instrument very well; most know how to play several.

Serious musicians typically begin their musical training during childhood, either with lessons at home or at a teacher's studio. If a child shows ability and wants to pursue a career in music, study may be continued at a music school. These schools, known as conservatories, offer complete courses of study in all aspects of composition, theory, and performance. In addition to formal training at school, a young musician may attend a summer music camp staffed by trained music teachers.

Getting the Job

It is extremely difficult for an unknown composer—or for almost any composer—to get an original musical composition performed. As a result, most composers have to supplement their income by working at other jobs while they are composing. They may gain experience and contacts by arranging other people's music, or by working as copyists, copying other people's music. Most conservatory graduates teach music at some point in their careers, either in a school or as a private tutor. Some composers play an instrument professionally, either in a symphony orchestra or a band.

A composer may apply to the government or to a private foundation for a grant. The National Endowment for the Arts supports talented composers while they write their music. To be successful, composers need more than talent—they need persistence, resilience, and good contacts in the music world.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Many factors, including talent, luck, and timing, determine the success or failure of a beginning composer. Getting a composition performed is often as difficult as writing the piece itself. The employment outlook for composers through 2014 was considered average. Keen competition and rare opportunities can make the job of a fledgling composer quite difficult.

Working Conditions

Composing or arranging is solitary work. Composers and arrangers may work at home or in a studio. They usually work at night and on weekends and have long hours of practice and rehearsal. There is a high rate of unemployment among musicians, but few have unemployment insurance. Most support themselves by taking other jobs.

Earnings and Benefits

Composers usually receive payments, or royalties, each time their work is performed or published. Those who write popular music earn a great deal more money than those who write classical music.

Where to Go for More Information

American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP)
One Lincoln Plaza
New York, NY 10023
(800) 95-ASCAP

MENC: The National Association for Music Education
1806 Robert Fulton Dr.
Reston, VA 20191
(800) 336-3768

National Association of Composers
P.O. Box 49256, Barrington Station
Los Angeles, CA 90049

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a composer in 2004 was $34,570 per year. The top composers in the field earned more than $75,000 per year. Most composers are self-employed and must provide their own benefits.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCommunication and the Arts