Do Composers Actually Do Any Real Work?
Updated: Jun 5, 2020
Some people think that composers are lazy or just don’t need to do much to produce music. Composers probably just sit around playing video games all day and maybe whip out a new tune in 10 minutes before bed, right? They just press some buttons on their midi controller and out comes a cool track, right? They just snap their fingers and out comes a 15 minute orchestral piece, right? There’s nothing more to a composer than just writing down some scribbles on paper or clicking a few buttons inside of a digital audio workstation, right?
I am here to tell you NO!!!!
Being a composer is a lot of work AND it is a job just like any other job. It takes time to create quality music. Although the writing speed of composers varies a lot, genre can impact the writing speed of the composer as well (huge orchestral music taking much longer), a complete and finished 3 minute music track for a video game can take anywhere from 3-40+ hours to complete. Again, there are a lot of variables such as the music genre and if the music needs to be prepared for live musicians and recorded or not.
So what exactly might go into creating a piece of music?
Well, a lot. Before I go through the process, I want to say that a lot of composers these days, including myself, write most of our music inside of audio creation/editing software called a DAW (digital audio workstation), writing with pen and paper is mostly a thing for sketching these days. The process of music creation I walk us though will be focused on the creation of music within a DAW.
The Music Creation Process
The creation of a music track usually starts with research. In the research phase there may be no music actually sketched out, with a video game project we may be asking the game developer what they are looking for in the music, what kind of feel they want the player to have in that level, then if they have visuals to show us of the level we will look at that and discuss it too. If the project requires the composer to write in a music genre that they are not familiar writing then that composer may spend around 20+ hours listening and studying the genre, immersing themselves in the genre before they even write the first note of the music track.
After the research the composer then begins sketching out ideas. These may be melody ideas, chord progressions, the general soundscape of the music track and the instrumentation. The sketching phase is essentially the gathering of the main musical tools to be used. Like gathering the right parts and materials before you start building a house.
When it comes to planning, composers have different methods and how they plan, or don’t plan, can vary from each musical work. Some composers will decide from the very startup of their DAW project session how many sections there will be in the music, how long these sections will be and sometimes they will even mark how many musical phrases there will be within each section. Composers can sometimes even go deeper into the planning process than this. Composers will sometimes take those ideas from the sketching phase and decide what ideas will go in each section. Now on the other hand, some composers will not really plan at all and just let the music go where it’s going to go.
Once research, sketching, and planning is in order, the composer will finally begin fully writing out the music. Some composers will write from start to finish, some will write out sections in different parts of the music and then piece them together. There are a lot of micro decisions that must be made in the writing process. Micro decisions such as: what harmonies should I put here? Should I add inner voices? What instrumentation and texture do I want here? Should I change this note to this note? Should I put a key change here? What rhythm should the percussion be? And the list of micro decisions goes on and on…
When the music track is written there is a revising process. This involves going through and tweaking a few things here and there such as changing a note or two, or adjusting a rhythm. Sometimes the composer might even move around entire sections or even delete an entire section and rewrite it. Revising in music is much like editing and revising an essay that we did in school.
If the composer is lucky enough to have real musicians play their music rather than having virtual instruments play the music, then the composer needs to prepare the parts and turn them into readable sheet music form so the musicians can read it and play it. If we wrote our music in our DAW, we first have to make sure that all the notes line up with the rhythmic grid system within the DAW because if notes do not line up with the grid we end up with a complete mess when we convert the music into sheet music form. This process of lining the notes up with the rhythmic grid in the DAW is called quantization. Once we lined up all the notes of the instrument(s) we want to convert to sheet music, we then either open up the score editor that some DAWs feature and edit the score from there, or the way I often do it is export the score from my DAW as a midi or XML/MusicXML file then import that into a dedicated notation software such as Finale or MuseScore and edit the sheet music from there. Preparing sheet music for live musicians is also a profession on its own and can be extremely time consuming.
Once the sheet music is prepared and the musicians have learned their parts then it is time to record! Of course, if you are recording an orchestra or anything that involves more than two people being together at the same time, and they are not full-time session musicians, then good luck finding a time that works for everyone to all rehearse and record! Consider it a miracle brought onto you by the gods themselves if you find a time that works for everyone and you are not missing a person or two at rehearsal or recording time. Recording can be a fairly simple process though if you are recording just one or a couple people, but like what I wrote above suggests, recording something as large as an orchestra is a HUGE undertaking and almost requires a professional organizer to organize everything. Because it is so difficult and expensive to record many live musicians all at once, it is a common technique to mix virtual instruments with a few parts recorded by live musicians. Just having a few live musicians can make a huge difference in the overall feel of the music track.
Mixing and Mastering
Oh but wait, just because all the music writing is done and the live musicians are recorded doesn’t mean that the music track is done. After all the writing is done and the live musicians are recorded, the mixing needs to be done to produce a better sounding track. The mixing process involves adjusting the volume of all the individual parts in the music and adding compression, EQ, limiters, reverb, delay, and other effects as needed. Automation of volume and effects is also an important element to make the music sound more alive and realistic. I believe another part of the mixing process, which NEEDS to done by the composer when working with virtual instruments, is the adjustment of the volume or velocities of EVERY single note of every instrument and getting the expression and/or modulation just right on the virtual instruments that have this feature. You can imagine how tedious this might be when a music track might have 30-50 instruments with a combined note count of around 10,000+ notes. And of course, after all the mixing is 100% complete, there is the mastering of the music track. Mastering is the process of making sure the overall sound of the track is relatively consistent and that the sound also matches and is consistent with other music tracks in the project. Composers who are getting paid well for a project will often outsource the mixing and mastering part of the music process because it is in itself a skill that one may spend their entire lives perfecting. For smaller projects however the composer is often on their own and may have to do the mixing and mastering themselves due to the lack of funds to hire someone dedicated to this profession.
As you can probably tell, writing just a 3 minute music track can be a TON of work. There are so many elements to writing music; you have the research, the sketching, planning, writing, revising, part prep for live musicians, recording and then mixing and mastering. Composers work very hard to craft high quality music and deserve praise and money for the work they do. Thinking a composer doesn’t need to do much to create music and should write music for free is like asking a game developer to make a playable and sellable game for you for free or a web developer to write you an amazing website for free. It’s silly because they will spend many hours, days, weeks, months or even years creating that game or website for you. It is the same for the quality work that a music composer does. A composer’s work has value.