Composer for student films – 5 tips on working with composers

Composer for student film 4
5 tips for working with a composer on your student film

Not sure about how to work with a composer?  First time?  Or perhaps you’ve had a bad experience before??  In fact, where do I find a composer for my student film?!?  So many questions.  Well, I’ll try to put your mind at ease.  Working with a composer on your student film should bring some great things to your film .. but it does help if your film’s good to start with!  However, working with a composer at those final stages of your project can be unnerving.  That’s fine.  But these 5 tips should make working with a composer on your student film a dream .. or at best, not a nightmare 😉


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5 tips summary

  1. Easiest place to find a composer is online (forums).  Best place to find one is through recommendations.  If you want complete control of your music use a music library instead of a composer.  Some composers will charge, some won’t – just ask.  Communication is key!
  2. A composer should leave you with some music.  But remember they need time to do this – at least a week (for a short film).  Two would be ideal.  Communication is key to receiving the music how you want it and when you want it!
  3. Talk to the composer in terms of emotion – which emotions are you trying to convey at this point in the story.  You don’t have to know the name of any musical instrument – and don’t pretend you do.  So communicate with them!
  4. Use a temp track (music to edit to) but be excited about what the composer will produce.  They will not produce music that sounds exactly like the temp track – so welcome the change.  You want to produce original work, right?  Communicate this.
  5. Composers may annoy you.  Talk to them, ask them how it’s going, make sure you’re both on the same page and you’ll get your music.  Most of the time it’s just manners.  Communication is key!


Finally read the summary at ‘The End’ – this tells you what to do when you receive music from the composer.  Enjoy 😉

1) Where do I find a composer?

Composers are a rare breed – you don’t normally find them out in the sunlight.  Don’t worry – most of them won’t drink your blood, they prefer coffee.  Finding a composer for your student film can be difficult if you don’t look online.  Good places to start are any notice boards/forums (digital or real world) in your uni, past students (they might be able to recommend a composer they worked with) and forums (Student Filmmakers or Student Films).  Vimeo used to have a popular networking forum, but it’s been stopped.  Don’t be surprised if you get a strange response from a composer on a music course in your uni – composing music for film is a very different skill than composing for a group of musicians or doing covers with your band.  Talking of bands, that might be just what you’re looking for!  Some composers aren’t rock stars, and if that’s the sound you want it might be best to find a rock band instead.

You can always get in contact directly with a composer (like me).  But there can be too many to choose from.  To help you decide, you could ask composers to send demos through (once you’ve explained your idea to them) – then you can choose who you like the most.  You do need time to do this.  But make it clear to each composer that you’re asking different composers and haven’t made your mind up yet.  Otherwise, you can come across as rude.

Then there’s library music (or production music).  This is precomposed music which you just drop in.  The BBC uses this – if you can’t see a composer in the credits there’s probably been some library music going on.  Sites like Universal, EMI and Felt Music are popular production music sites.

There are some guys out there who let you use their music for no cost at all – it’s called ‘copyright-free music’.  Here’s two sites – Kevin MacLeod (an American guy) and a guy called Eric (he pops up on many film making forums).  Personally, I have an issue with this music.  Art is a business and I think it’s fair that artists get paid for their work.  And by offering something for free I think that music can be viewed as having no value – not a good message to send out to the world.  But a great place to find music for your student projects or political films.


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Will they charge me?

Some will, some won’t.  At the end of the day you are primarily doing a student film, not a business venture – that’s just my opinion.

2) I’ve never worked with a composer before – what will they do?

Hopefully they’ll leave you with some music.  Typically the composer starts working once you’ve finished editing.  So the music’s almost the last thing to happen.  Scary, right?


Composer timeline

How much time does a composer need?  Depends how long your piece is, but I’d give them at least four days to work on the music (if you’ve got a really short film, like under 3 mins).  Of course, you’ve hopefully already got the composer on board at this point – so I’d add another day or two (in which you discuss what the music will be like and perhaps, if there’s time, the composer sends you demos).

You have to remember that in general they are the only person working on your project.  They might have other commitments (like uni work, a job, hobbies, or other films) – especially if you come to them last minute.  So give them some notice when you need the music by.  Tell them you need it before the deadline so that you can make any last minute tweaks.

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Hopefully this music will be either what you (as the director or producer) expected or even better.  What if it’s not?  Well, in tip 3 I’ve given you some advice that’ll hopefully help you get what you want from a composer 🙂

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3) How does the process work (aka what you need to do?)

As this type of work is collaborative, I’ve always found it works best when the director tells me (as the composer) things.  Things like,

  • what your story’s about
  • who the characters are and what they, as characters, want
  • where there could be music
  • how much music you’d like
  • how long your project lasts (is it under 10mins or nearer 25?)
  • where there shouldn’t be music
  • where the music can emphasise emotions not already emphasised
  • what type of music you’d like
  • any type of music you really don’t want

So don’t worry if you’re not sure what type of music you want, or if you have a very limited musical vocab.  I agree – the buttons on the keyboards were much more interesting at secondary school than the actual music lessons.  The best thing to do is have a bit of a chat with the composer (through email, on the phone, fb, etc.).  Express what emotions you are trying to convey – the composer should have a few ideas how they can do this in music.

If you know exactly what you want this will help the composer more.  They won’t have to experiment as much and the process will be faster.  But please remember that this is a collaboration – the composer will bring something unique to your project – you might not be keen on 100% of their work.  The more you communicate, the higher the chance you have of getting something you want.  If you want complete control, spend hours looking through a music library and don’t bother with a composer.





It’s always polite to do this

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It’s always polite to do this

4) What not to do with a composer

Giving the composer a track (or a few) that you want your music to sound like isn’t a bad idea!  Send them some links from youtube.  You might have already used music in your work (especially if you’re doing animation).  However .. big word of warning .. the temp track (music you’re editing to) will not be your final track.  Be excited about what the composer will produce.  These will be fresh ideas that nobody else has on their film.

In summary, don’t expect the composer to produce a carbon copy of your temp music.  Don’t get upset when you hear your new music on your film for the first time.  Do expect to hear something different – and get excited about it – it’s different but new.

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Many recordings are subject to copyright – they’re someone else’s property.  If you want to use them, you have to get their permission (and generally part with your money).  The composition you get produced for you will also be someone else’s property (the composer’s) and therefore will have copyright.  I’d suggest you let the composer keep the copyright for their music (especially if they’re a student).  Just agree in writing that’s what you’re going to do.  I understand that copyright in education works differently (so you can use copyrighted material for your assessments, unless the tutor says ‘no’).  But, investigate copyright (speak to someone who knows or read around the web) if you’d like to have a profession in film/tv.  Plus, if you want to enter into film festivals, it’s worth thinking about.

The final product

As they’ve been working on this intensely for a week or two, the composer would LOVE to see the final thing.  In fact, they might want to use the film in their portfolio.  If you can, send them a copy of the finished thing and keep in touch with them.  You never know when you’ll need them again 🙂

Of course, if things have gone badly you might know that you don’t need them again – but I’m thinking positively.

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5) What might annoy you about ‘the composer’

Composers can be ‘precious’ about their work.  I say ‘precious’ not in a derogative way – they are masters of their craft and have been studying music for years (and without a doubt are still learning).  I say ‘precious’ with the meaning of, composers care about their music.  They believe they’ve produced their best work for you.
Of course, the scene on screen is the most important point to you, but not necessarily to a composer.  Therefore they can have strange reactions to your criticism.  The best way to avoid the strange reactions?  Communication – you’ll have more chance of getting what you want if you’re both singing from the same hymn sheet.

Composers can also leave things to the last minute – so push them.  Make sure they’re still with you and haven’t forgotten about your project.  Ask for updates to see how the work’s going.  You can also check that it’s going in the right direction!

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The End

So you get the file back from the composer.  Perhaps you’ve been sent ‘stems’ (individual tracks (eg the flute part), or sections (eg the low strings)) or a complete .wav file.  You’ve been communicating with the composer all along, you thought they knew what was in your head but ..

.. you’re not happy with it.

I’d say, don’t stress.  Mix the music in, export the file and submit it for marking.

In my opinion a student film is not about an Oscar.  It’s not about perfection.  It’s about pushing yourself and experimenting.  It’s about getting the mark.  But most importantly, it’s about learning something that you can use the next time you make your film, animation, tv programme, documentary, art film, youtube video, whatever.  It’s about learning what you didn’t like about it, what you did like about it and what you’d change.  But if you do pick up an Oscar, then it’s time to start worrying about how to do something that good again 😉

Hope that helps and you feel a bit more confident about working with a composer now.

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