Scrap the idea of a budding, young composer scribbling away frantically at his manuscript, or indeed languidly contemplating his muse – nowadays, the future John Williams is much more likely to be selecting sound samples on his MacBook Pro, earplugs in, instant messaging his peers for advice. Or so it would appear from the students currently enrolled in the Master’s Programme in Film Scoring and Visual Media in Pulse College, Dublin, Ireland.

Why Pulse College?

Derek Gleeson conducts © Pulse College
Derek Gleeson conducts
© Pulse College
Housed in the famous Windmill Lane Recording studios (where U2, Van Morrison, Elmer Bernstein have all recorded), this MA in Film Scoring has already gained huge traction in the showbiz world. Boasting a teaching staff which includes celebrated Hollywood composers like Andy Hill (former VP in music production at Disney), Conrad Pope (orchestrator for Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Star Wars) and Christopher Young (Spiderman III, Ghostrider) has helped it achieve status in the cinematic world within the three years of is existence. Its credibility is further enhanced by its world-class facilities, its regular collaboration with the Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra and the chance to compose for and conduct a 110-piece orchestra at the end of its programme. But for course director and conductor Derek Gleeson, the MA in Film Scoring at Pulse College is made even more attractive by offering some composers residency of one month in Los Angeles where the all-important networking and contacts are made.

And so how does film composing work in practice?

Most film directors will give a composer the timing notes but allow the musician to imagine the scene rather than overanalysing it visually. The most important thing for Samantha Van Der Sluis, an Australian graduate of Pulse College now working in LA, is the tempo mapping and making sure the musical “hit points” occurs exactly with the action on screen.

It takes time for the composer to find his or her voice. For Singapore composer alumnus Si Hao Ting it is important to remain true to one’s roots and cultural heritage. That will give more authenticity to what one composes.

Apart from technology which is constantly evolving, what are some of the significant changes in composing for films?

The pace of writing has changed significantly. Forty or fifty years ago, a composer could have taken three to six months to work on a film score. Now he or she is expected to turn a complete score around in four to six weeks. Consequently, huge pressure is exerted on novice composers with such harsh deadlines.

How do composers specialise in a particular genre of film?

Chris Young © Pulse College
Chris Young
© Pulse College
According to celebrated Hollywood composer Christopher Young who had just flown in to teach at Pulse College, most composers stumble into their genre. He himself was first offered to write music for a horror film which led into another horror film until ruefully, in his own words, he has become identified almost solely with that genre. He dislikes being pigeonholed as a horror composer and would much rather diversify into other genres. However, as all budding composers are too aware, you accept work whatever the genre.

Supply and Demand

If all that sounds bleak, course director Derek Gleeson insists that the demand for composers have never been greater with more and more series and films made for online giants such as Netflicks, Amazon films as well as the usual demand from Hollywood. However, in conjunction with that optimistic outlook is that the competition for places has increased.

How does a composer get a contract?

The route into films still relies on old-fashion networking. Christopher Young stressed the same point. “You must know how to sell yourself.” Sales technique is equally important as compositional ability in getting yourself recognised. One such one who appears to be very successful is Stefan French who has just graduated from Pulse College, He has already garnished several awards including The Great Wide Open which won Best Short film at San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival, the ASCAP Foundation “Steve Kaplan Film and TV Award 2015”, and being twice nominated for IFTA awards.

The Business of Music

© Pulse College
© Pulse College
Given the vital importance of self-promotion a whole module on the MA is dedicated to how each students’ online presence is built up; promotional websites, social media and online distribution of videos. While online presence is a sine qua non, Christopher Young advises not to neglect good old fashioned schmoozing with directors at social events. Perfecting one’s sale pitch is a recipe for success as a composer. 

How much can future composers expect to earn?

Composing is not investment banking, yet future remuneration is an important consideration for anyone entering into this industry. Composers might typically earn between 1% and 3% of what a film grosses at the box office. Given how hard it is to break into this industry many young composers are prepared to work for significantly lower than this just in order to get one’s name known.

Is it inevitable that budding composers graduating from Pulse College will go to Hollywood?

Hollywood exerts an inexorable attraction for composers. However, according to Tony Perrey, President of Pulse College, Ireland is a good place for film composers. He argues that Ireland is reaching critical mass for film and television shows, pointing to the fact that Pinewood Studios (home to James Bond, Star Wars and Harry Potter) has acquired a large site in Limerick, and that the ever popular Game of Thrones was shot here as well. Pulse College, with its excellent facilities, is the obvious choice for the musical side of things, something on which current graduates from this MA programme will be hoping to capitalise.

Final pieces of advice from Christopher Young

It is important for those starting off, that they understand composing for film as a collaborative process. The music is subservient to the visual end of things. In business terms, it’s a service, not an end-product you are selling. Every composer has to learn how to sell such a service.

Join Christopher Young for a Q&A on 20th October 206, to learn more about the Pulse College 1-Year MA in Scoring for Film & Visual Media program. Click here for further details.


Article sponsored by Pulse College.