A day in the life of a film and TV composer
28.01.2021

A day in the life of a film and TV composer

Words by Benjamin Lamb

We chat with three TV composers about their experiences in the industry.

Have you ever found yourself watching a TV show and being totally amazed by what’s happening with the music in the background? Often, it’s not what we’re seeing, but what we’re hearing that tends to make a television series what it is. From the tiny sonic nuances that pepper each scene through to the blockbuster opening and closing themes, there’s a lot of work that goes into scoring for television.

To find out more about what it’s like to work in TV, we caught up with three masters of the craft who’ve had their work featured in shows like Modern Family, Neighbours and Chicago Fire to hear about what’s involved in the job, how to break into the industry and all the ins-and-outs of the world of TV.

Composers we spoke to for this story include:

  • Megan McDuffee has had her work featured in such shows as Chicago Fire, Lincoln Rhyme, and The F Word. Her first personal full length vocal album Inner Demons is out May 21. Find out more about her here.
  • Gabriel Mann worked on the super popular American show Modern Family as their musical composer for 11 years. Check out more info on him here.
  • Jamie Messenger works as the composer for the long running Aussie soap opera, Neighbours. He’s currently composing some piano pieces for people to play in lockdown called ‘The Covid Series’. Follow him here.

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Breaking Into The Industry

Like every other field out there, success equals dedication. Each composer has gotten to where they are today from saying yes to every opportunity that came their way.

As Gabriel Mann, who works on shows like Modern Family put it; ‘There are hundreds, maybe thousands of composers out there, and lots of music to be made for thousands of projects every year.”

Building a network is integral to making a name for yourself in the composing industry. Not everyone can be Hans Zimmer or John Williams straight away, it takes years of working with up and coming filmmakers who are trying to get their names out there too. Even in Australia, on websites like Starnow there are a tonne of ads from budding filmmakers looking for someone to score their latest project.

Megan Mcduffee adds that this is a great place for budding composers to start out; “Even today, the number one thing for me is networking. The more people you know…”

But, as Jamie Messenger tells us, there’s “no one path to composing.” 

Writers Room

No matter what format – TV, Movie, Trailers, Games – everything comes to life in a writers room. But when does the conversation about music come in?

“It’s different in every case,” Gabriel says.

Jamie Messenger, who works with iconic Aussie soap opera Neighbours, gives us a great insight into his process for composing the music for an average episode of the show.

“Every Monday morning I receive six new episodes of Neighbours with no music in them. My first job is to watch the episodes and decide which scenes need music. I either place music from a library of tracks I’ve built up or I compose new music for the scene,” he explains. 

“At the end of the week, I send all six episodes to my producer for feedback.”

Popular freelance composer Megan Mcduffee, who’s worked on many popular trailers, games, and movies agrees that there is no one way producers and directors go about getting music for their projects.

“The more seasoned professionals (directors / producers) tend to be a little more relaxed about their vision. They’ll just give me a general overview, and then trust me to do my professional job,” she says.

But it’s not always this easy.

“There’s also those kind of people that are new to the industry, and really have a problem with letting go of creative control.”

Cues

There’s more to composing then just theme songs though. Watching any movie or TV show, you’ll hear a myriad of music during each scene, often reflecting what’s happening on screen. These are referred to as ‘cues’. In many circumstances, cues will be placed in a huge library, and chosen as needed. 

As Megan says, “It’s a big music catalogue, if they’re looking for something quirky or comedy-flavoured, they’ll look in a particular library, and if they like mine, they’ll edit it into the show.”

Cues can be anything, she adds. “A lot of the placements I’ve got have been reality shows, so it’s 10 seconds of one musical piece, then 20 seconds of another.” 

But if you’re the composer for a show, you’ll work on cues yourself, like Jamie Messenger. He mentions how he pens the cues for an episode of Neighbours.

“I watch the scene a few times to determine where the music should start, and what style of cue and instrumentation it needs.

“I then improvise whilst watching the scene, and record the performance into Logic. I then build on the track. The most important part is getting the emotional tone of the scene right,” he adds.

Licensing

But as we all know, sometimes, you’ll hear a popular song during a TV show, and that’s usually the job of a Music Supervisor.

Jamie gives us a good explanation of what a Music Supervisor gets up to, which is one of his jobs on Neighbours.

“I get to choose which commercial tracks feature in the show. We have an exclusive deal with BMG and they have a library of pre-cleared tracks which I can choose from.”

Advice

For any budding composers out there, the composers give Mixdown some awesome advice for breaking into the industry. 

“Persistence is crucial. You can’t give up, it’s not a short game, it’s a very long game. It’s not a quick thing to build a career in music. That’s why all the Hollywood composers are over 50,” Megan laughs. 

Gabriel Mann adds, “Say yes, don’t be above doing the dirty work, get in there and do it all, and good things will happen.” 

Want some more pointers on how to approach film and TV scores as a musician? Head here.