A film composer is a powerful partner for a filmmaker. A great film score elevates storytelling, heightens emotional impact, and lands gut punches. Collaborating with a film composer can take your art to the next level.
Can you imagine the Star Wars films without their immortal character themes? Would BlacKkKlansman be the same without its iconic electric guitar-led score?
But what is a film composer like to work with? What does a film composer do, and how do you collaborate with them as a director?
If you’ve never worked with a film composer, or just want to know how to better communicate with one, read on. We talked to award-winning film composer Claudio Ragazzi for tips on finding and working with a film composer.
Some quotes have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Claudio Ragazzi has worked as a film composer since the 1990s. His early major studio features include Next Stop Wonderland and The Blue Diner. He has worked on multiple award-winning features, documentaries, and series.
He is also an Emmy nominee and winner for his work on the PBS series Postcards from Buster.
Claudio is also a GRAMMY-winning guitarist. He has performed at venues like Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and the Royal Albert Hall. As a musician, he’s contributed work to several films, including Something’s Gotta Give and Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro, for which he also composed music. Listen to a clip of Claudio Ragazzi’s music for the former below.
Claudio Ragazzi is currently a professor in the Screen Scoring department at Berklee College of Music. We are thankful to him for taking the time to talk about his career with us.
So exactly what is a film composer? What does a film composer do?
A film composer creates the musical score of a film, series, short film, or documentary. They work closely with the director and editor to identify both the placement and quality of the musical cues for a piece. The broader term “media composer” is sometimes also used to include composing for advertising, video games, and more. For details, check out Berklee’s film composer job description.
Take this clip of a pivotal scene from Jaws. It shares the scene both with and without its Oscar-winning score and answers the “what does a film composer do?” question nicely.
Increasingly, notes Claudio, filmmakers (particularly indie filmmakers) rely on licensing music from libraries rather than hiring film composers. Indeed, these libraries can have professional material and work for smaller budgets. So what’s the advantage of investing in a film composer instead?
“It’s like going to a tailor… You can just go to your local Marshall’s or whatever and get a suit. Or you can get it tailored to your own needs. That's one way to think about it.
Another way to think about it is also that... the most popular libraries and the most popular cues within a library are going to be used simultaneously in different films.
… [Some of these libraries]... sound great and they have great musicians and they write great sounds and everything. But a lot of the time what happens is that you may end up with something that sounds similar to the person who is presenting their film at Sundance just before you.”
Licensing music from a library typically does not give you exclusive rights to a cue. If you want a score that is tailored to your story, and will only be heard in your film, hire a film composer. It may be more accessible than you realize.
In fact, Claudio says that sometimes hiring a composer can be a cost-effective way to upgrade the overall quality of your film. Music and sound have a huge impact on the perceived production value of a piece. A little investment in the score can go a long way.
We asked Claudio: how do film composers get hired? Claudio emphasizes strong networking practices as the key to finding great collaborators, including film composers. By building a strong network, you can ask other producers and directors for their recommendations. Through networking,
“You can get a sort of like word of mouth, or you can get some background on how it was to work with that person.”
Make sure that at least some of the festivals and events you attend feature work by filmmakers working in your general budget bracket. Then ask them what composers they worked with and what the experience was like.
Many filmmakers find a composer and then stick with them long-term. But it’s important to remember to extend the circle, too, since that insularity can lead to less diversity in film composers, which hurts the industry (and society).
Go outside of your typical network of collaborators. Cultivate awareness of your unconscious biases to make sure they don’t get in the way of hiring someone great.
“The question is, in this industry… how do you change the landscape… how do you avoid giving the same gigs to the same people, right? How do you break the pattern of having a predictable… race and gender… and how do you change that?”
You should also be watching a lot of work and noting any composers whose scores stand out to you.
So what should you budget for? How much does a film composer make? Claudio shares that an emerging composer might charge about $10,000 to $15,000 for a feature. A more established composer might start at more like $20,000 to $30,000.
Ultimately, the question of “how much does a film composer make?” depends on the type and length of the project and how much scoring will be needed.
Don’t have that $10,000 in the budget? If there’s a particular composer you think would be a great fit for your project, reach out to them anyway.
“Having a conversation with the composer, I think, is a good thing. [The conversation] could be, ‘Listen, I really would like you to do this, this film. I love your music, but I ran out of money…’
And then if you're straight with the composer, the composer could say, ‘Well, I mean, I really like the film, too’, and maybe you can get into some kind of an agreement.”
As long as you approach the conversation respectfully, it’s always worth an ask. Even if they aren’t able to take your project, they might recommend someone else! You never know when a composer has a mentee they’ve been looking to give a big break to.
You’ve found the right film composer for your project. Now it’s time to set them up for success by establishing some important points upfront. The types of conversations you’ll have with your composer will vary based on their working style and each particular project. In this section, we’ll outline the basics that generally apply.
As with every collaborator, you’ll want to be sure you understand how much your composer charges. Some composers work with a flat fee, while others prefer to charge by minute of music.
Beyond these conversations, you’ll need to discuss how much your film has budgeted for the score. In terms of logistics, budget availability will affect the composer’s approach to the score more than any other factor.
This is particularly true when it comes to using live versus digital instruments. Hiring musicians and renting studio space add up. If live instruments are to be used, they’ll need to know how many musicians they have the budget to hire. If any at all.
Your composer should be able to suggest ways to achieve your vision within different budgets. For example, say you’re envisioning a full live orchestral score, but don’t have the budget for it. Your composer might suggest using digital instruments for some of the score, but using live instruments for solos only, saving considerable budget.
What is a film composer expecting in terms of timeline? The timeline for scoring a film will vary by project and situation. However, it’s helpful for filmmakers to be familiar with what Claudio calls “the Hollywood Model.”
This is the typical timeline followed for big-budget studio films. With the “Hollywood Model,” you’ll sign your composer on at the outset of the project. You’ll watch a rough cut together, around 90% finished. At that time, you’ll typically talk about specific cues and goals for the score.
The composer starts their work in earnest once they are sent the final, locked cut. Typically, the composer will then finish their work in six to eight weeks.
The exception is obviously if there is in-story music, such as a song that needs to be lip-synced by an actor. In that case, the composer would work on that before shooting begins.
If you’re working in documentaries, independent films, or some streaming projects, different timelines may apply. For example, a composer working with a smaller budget may need more time to get everything recorded and ready. For some projects, the composer might be brought in to start preliminary work at the script stage.
If you understand “the Hollywood Model,” you and your composer can use that as a template and adjust based on your project and composer’s unique needs.
Some filmmakers have a sense of what they’re looking for from the score from the outset of a project. In those cases, it can be helpful to provide your composer with points of reference as soon as you bring them in. Just keep in mind they typically won’t start working until you have the rough cut referenced above.
That can include sharing the mood or emotion you’re hoping the score will evoke. For example, for a horror film, you might say, “Even though nothing overtly violent happens in the first and second act, I’d love for the score to help create a tense, dark mood. The music is telling us that something bad could happen.”
Or for a rom-com, you might say something like, “When these characters meet, it makes them feel like they’re floating. I’m hoping the score will make the audience feel like they’re floating, too.”
It can also be extremely useful to provide reference tracks. Similar to temp tracks, which we’ll go into in the next section, reference tracks give your composer an idea of the kind of sound you’re hoping for. They’ll get clues about things like genre, instruments, tempo, and overall feeling.
It’s important to remember that the composer’s job isn’t to replicate your reference tracks. That would be both creatively and legally murky. But reference tracks can help your composer better understand what’s in your head when it comes to your vision for your film.
If you’re not sure how best to communicate your initial vision to your composer, just ask. An experienced composer will have gone through this process with several filmmakers. They’ll ask you specific questions that will be helpful to them.
As with all of your collaborators, the way you communicate notes to your film composer affects both your working relationship and your work process. Giving notes to your film composer can come with extra complications if you’re not sure how to talk about music.
The most important thing to remember when talking to your composer is to use storytelling language, not musical language. In fact, that might be the most important takeaway from this entire article.
“The worst type of communication that I had is when a filmmaker doesn't have (or even if they have) a background in music. When a filmmaker and a musician start talking in musical terms, I think that's usually a recipe for disaster, right? …
I had people that are actually highly educated say very silly things, like, for example, ‘I don't like minor chords.’ ‘Don't use the flute.’ Or, ‘The cello is too sad.’ Or, you know, like some things like that. And then… you cannot take that literally because, okay, if I'm going to write a whole score with major chords... it's going to sound horrible.”
This doesn’t mean you can’t share your musical ideas for the piece! Just keep in mind that even if you have some understanding of music theory and composition, you may not fully understand the implications of giving a musical note using technical musical language. You may think it means one thing, but reality could be different. This can be frustrating for your composer and get in the way of producing their best work. It can also delay your timeline as you add more rounds of revisions.
Instead, use story-based or emotional language. A good film composer understands how to read a scene and support its arc through the score. So, try talking to your composer as you might talk to one of your actors.
Instead of trying to do their job for them by making specific musical suggestions, it’s almost always more productive to make the story and emotional goals of the scene as clear as possible to them.
“[I teach my students] how to read a scene, you know, how to read a particular montage, for example… And how you, as a composer, can get elements like tempo. The tempo of an edit, the colors, the suggestions of volume. Panoramic versus closeups.
A story has a tempo, has a color, has a mood, has a dramatic story, has volume even, you know, has density... has a whole bunch of things. And now I'm going to have a conversation with the director about the emotional needs.”
Emotional or image-based language can be helpful. For example, you could say something like, “I want the music in this scene to make us feel as devastated as the character who is getting her heart broken.” Or use an image, like, “At the emotional climax of the scene, I want the music to feel like a dam that’s finally broken.”
Understanding the director’s intentions for a scene is vital to a composer’s process. Many composers learn to approach their conversations with directors by asking them emotion-based questions.
“It's almost like having a therapy session. You know, how does this make you feel? How [do] you want to feel here? Okay, let me try this.”
Remember, a good composer is never going to judge you for being musically ignorant. They understand that they’ve been hired to bring their technical musical knowledge to the table. Part of their job is to translate non-musician feedback into the score. Don’t be afraid to use poetic or abstract language.
Temporary tracks, more commonly called temp tracks, are tracks you insert into scenes to communicate the general feeling of the intended score. Temp tracks can be very useful to everyone on the team, including composers. They’re basically a shorthand for communicating your vision for the score.
“The way I like to think of temp scores is almost like somebody put in little pictures next to a script... they're just giving you an idea of what they want, right? [But] the temp score is never going to be part of the story because it's a little collage of different things.
[But a good composer’s score is] really supporting the story. It's just not music in the background or it's not like some temp scores where you have one minute that really works, and it's really brilliant, but then the rest of it, you don't know what to do with…”
So remember: don’t fall in love with your temp tracks! Leave room for your composer to create something custom for your project. Unlike a temp track, your composer’s score will move with your story. It will ultimately better support the story, even if it doesn’t sound exactly like the temp. And of course, creating something that’s too close to a temp track can lead to copyright issues.
It’s also helpful to let the composer know exactly what you like about each of the temp tracks you’ve selected.
Finally, when talking about something as subjective as music, it can be helpful to find a few ways to give the same note. Hopefully one of them will land with your composer.
For example, you might say: “What I liked about the temp track was the pace. The temp track felt fast and exciting, and this cue feels too slow. I’d really like this scene to feel thrilling. Even though it’s just a conversation between two characters, I want the audience to feel like they’re in the middle of a high-stakes car chase.”
This example note uses specific elements of a temp track, emotional language, and imagery to communicate what the filmmaker is looking for. The composer is far more likely to understand how to tweak their cue based on this note than if the filmmaker had just said something like, “I don’t like it, the temp track was better.”
We asked Claudio to name some of the most common snags he’s seen in his decades in the industry. You can help keep your working relationship with your film composer smooth by keeping these in mind at the outset of a project.
Be clear from the outset in what format your composer should deliver the score and establish a clear timeline of deliverable due dates.
For example, the type of mix you expect should be specified in the composer’s contact. There’s a big difference between a 5:1 mix and stereo mix. Not every composer will even have the equipment in their home studio to deliver every type of mix.
Some may require expensive studio rentals. As a result, being unclear on format and timeline can result in delays and extra budget.
To be safe, consult your editor at the start of the project to make sure you’re asking for the correct deliverables from your composer.
Timing is a huge part of film scoring. If your composer is scoring to the wrong edit, that could mean major re-working on their part, even if the cuts are only different by a few fractions of a second.
“... Your relationship as a composer should not only be with the director, but also you should have a one-on-one with the editors of the film to avoid other issues that sometimes happen.”
What is a film composer’s relationship to the editor? In many cases, your editor and composer will speak the same technical language that you may not be familiar with. Do what you can to make sure your editor and composer have a good working relationship and are in good communication.
Make sure to introduce your editor and composer early in the process, and avoid getting in the way of their direct communication.
We mentioned it in the previous section, but it’s worth repeating: give constructive notes your composer can actually use to make the score better!
Use emotional language, deploy reference and temp tracks wisely, and don’t be afraid to say the same thing multiple ways. A good composer will want to deliver the best score for the project, and your notes are key to helping them do that.
If the initial cues your composer sends are really not working for you, don’t panic. It’s a process. Thoughtful notes from you can go a long way toward creating a score that’s right for the story.
The composer’s job is ultimately to serve your vision as the director. But your project will be missing out if you don’t invite their ideas and respect their artistry as well.
If you’ve been watching your cut multiple times with a temp track, it’s also possible you’ve unconsciously become attached to the temp score. If possible, give yourself some time to get used to the new score before giving notes. You may realize that some of the things you thought didn’t work actually do!
We’re very grateful to Claudio Ragazzi for sharing his advice with us!
Now that you know how to hire your composer, check out our Indie Producer’s Guide to Crewing Up for tips on finding the rest of your team.
Hungry for more tips from top industry experts like Claudio? Give “On Production”, Wrapbook’s new podcast, a listen! Guests include people like unscripted TV producer Irad Eyal and noted documentary filmmaker Chuck Braverman.
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