How to Select and Work With a Composer for Your Film

Here are some thoughts based on an outline I created for a round table discussion for Women in Film Chicago, with some inspiration from the discussion and correspondence that followed.

Kristin Cotts working in the studio.

Kristin Cotts working in the studio.

The first question to ask yourself regarding music for your film is whether or not you need it at all. Most of the time, the answer to this question is, “Yes, of course.” However, by considering whether music needs to exist at all, this will help to bring into focus the role of music and sound in your film. Once you have decided you need music, you can start thinking about where you want it, and how much, in addition to what kind of sound you want, what emotion you want to convey, and what point of view the music will be taking in your film. At this point, these are questions to consider, but you do not have to have a definitive answer to any of them. It is the composer’s job to help you answer them as you begin the process of working together.

When looking for a composer, I think the most important thing to look for is that the two of you communicate effectively with one another. Experience and musical style are not insignificant, but a composer’s ability to help you articulate your vision for your film is paramount. Discuss your vision and ask her what she thinks about it—what it means to her as a spectator and as an artist. Pay attention to the kinds of questions she asks. This sort of connection matters more than the length of her resumé or the number of awards she has won.

One choice you’ll have to make is whether you want to use live or electronic instruments. It is much cheaper to have your composer create sounds using computer software rather than having them recorded live in the studio. However, you might decide you’d rather have the visceral sound of a couple of live instruments. Some styles of music lend themselves to electronic instruments much more than others. Sweeping orchestral scores are much easier to create on a computer than rock band scores, but jazz and blues really benefit from real musicians with real instruments making the music. You can also do a combination of live and electronic instruments, which will help to add depth and contour to the musical mosaic of your film.

Breakfast at Ina's Premiere Chicago International Film Festival, Katie Cotts (right) and director Mercedes Kane (left).

Breakfast at Ina’s Premiere Chicago International Film Festival, Kristin Cotts (right) and director Mercedes Kane (left).

When explaining to your composer what you are looking for, imagine you are talking to an actor. If you are making a narrative film, you may want to use a lot of the same adjectives you use when speaking to actors. You do not need to know musical terms or even identify instruments. Rather, you want to be as specific as possible in describing the emotions you are looking to convey. Do not assume the composer knows what you are trying to elicit from watching the scene. Music can completely change the emotional statement you are making. Is the woman sad because her dog died, or does the dog symbolize the end of an abusive relationship and thus a new chapter of her life? Music changes everything.

At this point, you should also really get into the concept of point of view. Whose point of view does the music adopt in each scene? An omniscient commentator? One of the characters in the scene? A non-human thing like an oncoming storm? At the end of The Terminator, when Arnold Schwarzenegger is driving a truck and chasing Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn, the action is seen from the Terminator’s point of view, but the music is following the fear and movement of his prey. This sort of tension between the music and the action can be very powerful.

In narrative film, one of the most enjoyable challenges for a composer is moving effectively between dialogue and action scenes and back again—creating tension, excitement, romance, or any other variety of landscapes—and then stepping back so as not to interfere with the dialogue. Generally, composers will use faster, more intricate, melodic lines during action sequences, and then move to sustained notes during dialogue to prevent taking attention away from what is being said.

In documentaries, the convention is to have richer, more complex music over the B-roll, and sustained notes or no music at all when people are speaking. I have, however, scored a film where the director asked me to have music only during the interviews and none during the B-roll. It was a documentary about a restaurant, and she wanted to emphasize the sounds of clinking glasses and china, the hum of conversation, and the shouts of the staff. It was an interesting challenge that ended up working very well.

Working on an arrangement for singer-songwriter Jenny Bienemann with Quartet Parapluie.

Working on an arrangement for singer-songwriter Jenny Bienemann with Quartet Parapluie.

In experimental films, anything goes. But as always, music changes everything.

Finally, when thinking about music for a film, filmmakers will often turn to the music or performers they know and love already. Many film composers are used to replicating the sound of something that already exists, and I’ve always prided myself on my ability to do this without copying the original in any threatening sort of way. However, lately I’ve been thinking about the importance of originality in art. As I look at the film listings, I see that seven out of ten of the top films are sequels or reboots of some sort. Also, the market for original composition has dried up considerably in the past fifteen years or so because more films are using work that’s already out there. While it is really helpful to composers when filmmakers give us a sense of what they’re looking for through music they already love, I think that films would be richer and more poignant if they would be willing to allow the composer to express herself in her own way, rather than expecting them to sound like something that has already been approved. Giving up this kind of control can be scary, but when a director or producer requests that the composer replicate something that already exists, she is giving up a wonderful opportunity to comment on the world in a new way. And after all, that’s why we love to make art!

To learn more about Kristin, you can visit her website here. She can also be reached at