Part 1: The Four Skill Sets of Successful Media Composers

Media composers possess four main skill sets, each extremely well developed. You cannot be lacking in one, otherwise it will take you much longer to succeed and you will become frustrated. These skill sets are:

1) Composing Skills / Musical Style / Dramatic Writing;

2) Collaborative Skills/People Skills;

3) Technical fluency (MIDI, music production, middleware, etc);

4) Business acumen/ entrepreneurial skills.

Composing Skills / Musical Style / Dramatic Writing

This is the most important skill set. An aspiring composer should have a deep understanding and knowledge of the craft of composition: ability to write a memorable, emotional theme; command of various styles; facile writing, re-writing, revisions; command of form and thematic development of a theme. Composers should develop their ability to evoke emotions and dynamic change of feeling on the fly. Film and video game scoring requires composing dramatic music, so composers must have the ability to write evocative, emotional, story-telling music. We are storytellers, just like the director, except we work with tones, harmony and instrumental color.

As a media composer, you must develop a unique, personal style — your signature style and voice. For example, it doesn’t take long to recognize a John Williams score, even if we may not have heard it before. His style is instantly recognizable. The same could be said about Thomas Newman. It takes years of searching and discovering your individual musical voice, so don’t worry if you haven’t found it yet. It’s an innermost personal journey of self-expression.

How do you sharpen your composing chops while also developing a personal style? Compose daily – even if you write 16 measures, or even 8. In addition to composing, make a point to learn, research and listen to new music daily. This will allow you to develop your skills, become versatile, get inspired. You will learn to emulate fluently other styles, which clients WILL ask you to do.

Your individual style is the accumulation of your own passions and interests. Your influences can come from art, literature, philosophy, modern life, history, and any other ideas that speak to you. Your individual style & aesthetics will also be a reflection of your taste in music – music that resonates with you and energizes you. You can also be influenced by whom you grew up listening to, as well as your memories, interests, and passions. This style will also be a result of your cultural and national identity, as it is with my Bulgarian roots being present in my music. (An extensive blog on developing an individual style is coming soon.)

Example Of Developing an Artist’s Style 

To grow as an artist and try out compositional ideas I have not done before on a job, I composed two stand-alone orchestral CDs. In composing thematic music without the pressure of client’s expectations or deadlines, I became a better composer. You can listen to my most recent one, The Woman Astronaut, winner of the Hollywood Music In Media Award here:

The Woman Astronaut album is also available on iTunes.

Other Examples of Artist’s Style

There are many great examples of video game composers who have developed their own unique styles. Here are just two examples of composers who have definitely made bold stylistic statements with their music, and you should make a study of video game composers as part of your process of becoming an established video game composer.

Austin Wintory – Journey game – “I Was Born For This”


Gareth Coker – Ori and the Blind Forrest OST


Collaborative Skills / People Skills

Successful media composers have the ability to understand and support another person’s creative vision. They have learned to accept and implement feedback, to interpret (often) inarticulate demands for musical themes and/or revisions, and to understand tastes and expectations. These collaborative skills are honed and practiced over years and decades, over many collaborations, over countless jobs.

While in school, you are receiving feedback for your music from your composition teachers. If you think the feedback stops once you graduate, think again! You will continue to receive feedback & demands for revisions from clients as long you’re in this business. Learn to implement revisions with the feedback your collaborators will give you. Often, our clients (filmmakers) cannot articulate precisely what they want because they are not musically trained. They get nervous and apologetic… Our job is to get them to speak in dramatic, emotional and storytelling terms. We don’t talk about clarinets and counterpoint. We ask about character motivation, back story, subtext, emotional arc of the scene, emotional beats and so on. You see, all storytelling questions, not musical terminology. Our job is to take the director’s feedback on the music (which may be inarticulate, nebulous, or puzzling) and turn it into a musical and meaningful revision of our music.

Learn how to interpret the language that clients speak. One of the most important collaborative skills is to connect with them on a personal level. Figure out how they communicate, what their temperament is, and learn to “read” them and adjust to their personality, energy level and vibe. Film scoring collaboration usually happens over the course of a few months or even years, so excellent communication with your client is a must. Have you composed for student theater, student films or games, or any other situations where you had to support another person’s ideas? If not, seek these opportunities out! You only learn how to be an amazing collaborator through practice.

Additionally, learning how to collaborate in a co-composing situation is vital. The irony of my career is that I went to Hollywood to be a film composer, but my first real break was as an additional composer on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen video game for which Steve Jablonsky (the Transformers composer) plugged me in! You never know what life-changing opportunities will present themselves. Learn how to collaborate by simply finding opportunities to work with your friends – student games, passion projects, documentaries, even PSA’s! You will learn how to create a constant flow of ideas back and forth, how to respond to those ideas, and how to ask probing questions of the director; questions that help you revise and polish your work.

Technical Fluency

There is such an abundance of sample libraries and affordable sequencing software, that we can create a professional sounding demo in our home studios. This leaves no room for music that is not professional sounding, so your production skills must be top notch. This includes sequencing, MIDI mock-ups with samples, demo mixing, and producing your demos with and without live musicians.

Elias Basic Screen showing Horozontal and Vertical

Elias Software’s Elias Studio

One of the most critical things you can learn as a video game composer is how to write adaptive music. In order to do this well, you need to have some understanding of the tools that game developers use to implement your music into their games.  Learning Elias, for example, is one relatively quick way to develop your understanding and your skills for creating adaptive music.  There is a series of blogs on this site that will help you get started with Elias.

FMOD Savana Music Player

Adaptive Music in FMOD Studio

You should also familiarize yourself with other popular middleware like FMOD and WWISE. The series of blogs starting with The Technical Composer, Part 1 on this site will be a great introduction to those if you are not already familiar with them.

Make it a habit to constantly learn and grow, and keep up with new technologies and tools that are available to you. Build a circle of tech buddies and supporters – a circle of people you can learn tech skills from, ask questions when stuck, or troubleshoot tech problems. Attend classes in MIDI sequencing and production of mock-ups that are offered at UCLA Extension and many schools. Attend NAMM meet-ups. Building a community of tech supporters is vital. I’ve never opened a manual on a synth or software (well, I did read the Digital Performer manual in 1997). Everything I’ve learned is from practice: watching my peers sequence music, asking questions, getting mentored, and then trying out on my own projects. You can have the most expensive samples, but if your sequencing skills are basic, the music would still sound unpolished. Think of your sample libraries as your tool, as your tractor. You will still have to till the land; the tractor alone won’t do it for you.

If you’re not sure where you are on the spectrum of fluency, ask yourself these questions: Can I sequence MIDI? Do I know how to produce MIDI mock-ups that sound professional and close to the real thing? Am I aware of the many tools available for music production today? Am I fast and proficient in MIDI sequencing – meaning can I fully produce a mock-up in a day or less? You can increase your speed by creating customizable templates in your DAW instead of starting from scratch.

Business Acumen / Entrepreneurial Skills

Once you begin your freelance career, you are running yourself as your own small business. You need to think like an entrepreneur. Like any business, you need to have multiple streams of income to survive. The successful composers are deliberate about planning their career moves. Do you know how to search for jobs and promote yourself? Do you know how to make yourself stand out as a desired candidate for jobs? Do you know how to “read the room” and understand the filmmaker’s tastes, desire, needs, and insecurities?

You are a brand as an artist and composer. This is an abstract concept, which prompts the question – how do you brand yourself? If you are fresh out of school, you are branded by your school, any teachers that recommend you, and by your awards. I am often approached by students from all schools who say that their teacher (who knows me) recommended that they contact me. Their school and the teacher now becomes their brand, or what they’re known for. For those who have been in the business for five to ten years, your brand is your relationships, body of work, credits, awards, and distinctions, and possibly even your career trajectory (if you have an amazing story). In email communications to people who don’t know you, write your distinctions and awards in your email signature. For example, I write in my email signature that I am a Sundance Composer Fellow – this is a part of my brand that carries cache and credibility.

A career in the entertainment industry usually takes 5-10 years of gestation before any significant achievements materialize. As in all other businesses, the most important ability is to build, nurture, and sustain relationships. During your “development phase,” your most important goal is to build your career in a continually progressive trajectory (getting better jobs each year) and to establish one’s brand. The most challenging aspect is upward mobility – going from an indie game to a AAA project, from an indie feature to network TV or a studio feature.

As in all other businesses, the most important ability is to proactively build, nurture, and sustain relationships. Proactive fostering of relationships is a key entrepreneurial skill. That means working with someone and proving that you are trustworthy by delivering superb work on time and budget every time. Once you prove yourself to a client, you can leverage that job into new relationships and referrals. In this business, you are tested through your work. Although people skills and schmoozing are crucial, they come second to reliability and delivering excellent work.

One of the best ways to meet people and develop relationships with people in the industry is by attending conferences such as Game Sound Con in the US, Game Music Connect in the UK,  and the Game Developer’s Conference, in particular the Game Audio Track sessions.

Now that you have an excellent reputation and a few significant jobs on your resume, your goal is to leverage past jobs into new relationships, and existing relationships into referrals for future jobs. Simply put, after you deliver an awesome job, make new friends (not by bragging, but by showing that you could be useful to people with your talent and skills). And periodically check in with your inner circle of established relationships for referrals and possible future scoring jobs.

Did you notice, I just answered the million-dollar question that is burning on everyone’s mind – how do I get scoring jobs? And how do I get ahead? Every single meaningful and significant job I’ve ever had has come to me via a referral, or via an existing relationship based on trust and admiration. And the opposite is true too – the jobs I got from Craigslist or random strangers did not lead anywhere. And yes, it is all about WHO KNOWS YOU, wants you, loves your work, gets excited about working with you.


Penka during the recording of The Woman Astronaut, October 29, 2014 at the Bridge Recordings, Glendale, CA. Front row: Victor Rodriguez, Music Director, Penka Kouneva, composer, Larry Rench, Orchestrator.

Set goals for yourself and remain focused and tenacious! A composer must be ambitious, determined, and dedicated in his/her career. The Four Skill Sets are refined and deepened over a lifetime. A career as a media composer is not a short sprint. Our career is a marathon that takes vision, courage, intuition, and perseverance. Then you need some good luck, too. Best of luck!

For Further Reading

Penka’s Interview

For further insight into Penka’s philosophy on this subject, be sure to check out her in depth Interview here on Designing Music NOW.

Articles on Collaboration

The  Music Behind The Screen 

Collaboration Between Director and Composer  By Emmett Cooke

Additional Articles in this Masterclass Series

Part 2 – Seeking a Composer Assistant Job or Internship

Part 3 – Your Composer’s Career Toolbox

About The Author

Penka Kouneva is a Game & film composer of “exquisite talent” Penka Kouneva began her career in film/TV in 2000. She composed on PRINCE OF PERSIA: FORGOTTEN SANDS, TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN games (themes by Steve Jablonsky). Her solo composing credits include the indie features THE THIRD NAIL, MIDNIGHT MOVIE, PRIMROSE LANE and telefilms ICE SPIDERS, CHUPACABRA, NUCLEAR HURRICANE.   Recently, Penka scored the award-winning PS4 game Rollers of the Realm, H-Hour: World’s Elite on STEAM, the iOS games Intense Life, Galaxy, IronKill, Hades , VR rides and others.

Special thanks to Natalia Perez, Alexandre Cote, and Michael Sweet for their Editorial Assistance.



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