Composers and Arrangers


Exploring this Job

Musical programs at local schools, YMCAs, and community centers offer good beginning opportunities. It is especially helpful to learn to play a musical instrument, such as the piano, violin, or cello. Attending concerts and recitals and reading about music and musicians and their careers will also provide you with good background and experience. There are also many videos available through your school or local library that will teach you about music. You should also form or join musical groups and attempt to write music for your group to perform. There are also many books, DVDs, and online resources that serve as good references on careers in composing and arranging.

You should also consider participating in the American Composers Forum's NextNotes® High School Music Creator Awards contest. Applicants must be between the ages of 14 and 18, and they can submit their work individually or as part of a group (up to eight people). The forum says that "all styles of music are eligible. Your submission may be for any voices, instruments, and/or electronics. Six entrants will be selected to receive the top prize [$1,000, mentorship, and other benefits], up to 30 applicants will be chosen as an Honorable Mention, and all eligible applicants will receive a free one-year student membership to the American Composers Forum and a free one-year subscription to Noteflight Premium." Visit for more information. 

The Job

Composers express themselves in music much as writers express themselves with words, or painters with line, shape, and color. Composing is hard work. Although they are influenced by what they hear, composers’ works are original because they reflect their own interpretation and use of musical elements. All composers use the same basic musical elements, including harmony, melody, counterpoint, and rhythm, but each composer applies these elements in a unique way. Music schools teach all of the elements that go into composition, providing composers with the tools needed for their work, but how a composer uses these tools to create music is what sets an individual apart.

There is no prescribed way for a composer to go about composing. Generally, they pursue their work in some kind of regular, patterned way, in much the same fashion of a novelist or a painter. Composers may work in different areas of classical music, writing, for example, symphonies, operas, concerti, music for a specific instrument or grouping of instruments, and for voice. Many composers also work in popular music and incorporate popular music ideas in their classical compositions.

Composers may create compositions out of sheer inspiration, with or without a particular market in mind, or they may be commissioned to write a piece of music for a particular purpose. Composers who write music on their own then have the problem of finding someone to perform their music in the hopes that it will be well received and lead to further performances and possibly a recording. The more a composer’s music is played and recorded, the greater the chances to sell future offerings and to receive commissions for new work. Commissions come from institutions (where the composer may or may not be a faculty member), from societies and associations, and orchestral groups, or from film, television, and commercial projects. Almost every film has a score, the music playing throughout the film apart from any songs that may also be in the film.

A composer who wishes to make a living by writing music should understand the musical marketplace as well as possible. It should be understood that only a small percentage of music composers can make their living solely by writing music. To make a dent in the marketplace one should be familiar with its major components:


Composers usually rely on having their music performed in one of two ways: They contact musical performers or producers who are most likely to be receptive to their style of composition, or they may write for a musical group in which they are performers.

Music Publishing

Music publishers seek composers who are talented and whose work they feel will be profitable to promote. They take a cut of the royalties, but they relieve composers of all of the business and legal detail of their profession. Composers today often self-publish their works.


A musical composition written for several pieces or voices requires copying into various parts. Composers may do this work themselves, but it is an exacting task for which professional copiers may be employed. Many composers themselves take on copying work as a sideline.


Computers have become an increasingly important tool for composing and copying. Some composers have set up incredibly sophisticated computerized studios in which they compose, score, and play an orchestrated piece by computer. They can also do the copying and produce a recording. Perhaps the most significant enhancement to the home studio is MIDI (musical instrument digital interface), which transposes the composer’s work into computer language and then converts it into notation.


Knowing the recording industry is important to a composer’s advancement. An unrecognized composer will find it difficult to catch on with a commercial recording company, but it is not uncommon for a composer to make his own recording and handle the distribution and promotion as well.

Film, Television, Computer and Video Games, and Advertising

There is a very large market for original compositions in feature and industrial films, television programs, radio and television advertising campaigns, computer and video games, and videos and DVDs. The industry is in constant need of original scores and thematic music. Working as a composer in this capacity requires a sound knowledge of both the project or product and the intended audience. Jingle writers are specialized composers who help businesses advertise their services or products via a short, memorable song, or jingle, used in television or radio commercials. The most successful jingle writers are creative, work well under pressure, and are talented musicians and arrangers. Most projects pay a flat fee for writing or arranging the jingle; however, a residual fee is given for those actually performing the piece. 

Students interested in composing can tap into any number of organizations and associations for more detail on any area of musical composition. One such organization providing support and information is the American Composers Forum.

Arrangers generally create a musical background for a preexisting melody. An arranger may create an introduction and a coda (ending) for a melody as well as add countermelodies (additional melodies) to the original melody. In effect, the arranger composes additional material that was not provided by the composer and ensures that the original melody is set off by its background in an effective manner. Most arrangers are musicians themselves and have an excellent knowledge of musical styles and current trends.

An orchestrator takes a piece of music, perhaps one that already has a basic arrangement, and assigns the parts to specific instruments in the orchestra or other ensemble. For this reason, the orchestrator must have a tremendous amount of knowledge regarding exactly what the various instruments can and cannot do. An orchestrator may decide, for example, that a particular melody should be played by a solo flute or by a flute and an oboe, so that a very specific sound will be achieved. An orchestrator must also know how to write parts for various instruments. All the choices that the orchestrator makes will have a significant impact on the way the music will sound. Arranging and orchestrating are very closely related, and many professionals perform both tasks. Many composers also do their own arranging and orchestrating.