The effect movie, TV, and video game music has on viewers and gamers is powerful and has spiked an interest among musicians to learn the craft of writing to picture. Many composers work in all three mediums, which requires the ability to write for orchestral and electronic instruments, understanding the technology for pairing music and visuals, how to run a recording session, and the business aspects of this industry.
It’s a fairly technical field, so most college programs cover the same requisite skills for the job: foundational music theory and composition skills, history and techniques of film music, orchestration, conducting, and creating electronic scores using sequencers and sample libraries. Below, we will look at a three undergraduate and several graduate programs for those seeking a scoring career.
Berklee College of Music
Many cite Berklee as having the nation’s top-rated undergraduate program which has been training media composers for decades. The college established a film scoring major in 1979, music synthesis major in 1984, and added video game scoring specialization within the Film Scoring curriculum in 2009. The Shames Family Scoring Stage is the largest recording studio at Berklee and ranks alongside the best studios in Hollywood, providing essential experiences for aspiring composers. With more than 6,000 students at the Boston campus, the instrumentalists and singers needed for even the most adventurous student scores are readily accessible.
The final project for Berklee students involves creating a finished media production that begins with creating a temp score for existing video and ends with a final soundtrack production plus additional steps that include recording and mixing scores and musical stems. Also addressed are the business, legal, and marketing aspects of a scoring career.
Berklee’s Valencia, Spain campus offers an intensive, one-year master’s degree program in scoring for film, TV, and video games, making a deeper dive into all facets of the field. The final project has students composing and conducting their orchestral score to picture at a top recording studio with professional players. Past projects have found the grad students leading sessions at London’s Abbey Road and Air Lyndhurst studios for their culminating experience, which becomes a major component of their portfolio. (Visit https://www.berklee.edu/berklee-today/fall-2015/abbey-road to read about a student group’s experience at Abbey Road Studios.)
New York University, Steinhardt School
Located in Manhattan, Steinhardt offers a B.M. degree in Music Theory and Composition: Screen Scoring. Foundational training includes core music skills and historical survey courses in Western music, film music, and world music traditions. Further instruction includes four courses in orchestration and private composition lessons every semester. Students learn DAW technology and software programs as well as recording and mixing principles. Steinhardt’s undergrad students also take 20 credits of electives in composition, songwriting, and scoring and in other areas of their choice. NYU students also collaborate with young filmmakers among the university’s Cinema Studies students. The networking opportunities and internship possibilities in general around New York City are plentiful and enhance the student experience.
Steinhardt also offersr an M.M. degree in screen scoring. The program provides intensive training from faculty members and visiting artists as well as opportunities to work with celebrated professionals. Students collaborate on multiple scoring projects, and will graduate with a network of contacts and a portfolio containing many varied recordings that showcase their abilities.
University of Miami, Frost School of Music
Frost offers a B.M. in Media Scoring and Production with stated goals that include cultivating a highly competitive skill set in media scoring production techniques, an understanding of the music industry, and the ability to craft and execute a sound business plan. Frost graduates leave with a polished portfolio and electronic press kit showcasing their personal brand identity.
Frost also offers a two-year, M.M. program Media Scoring and Production with further emphasis on orchestral and electronic scoring, and more. The program is structured to be flexible enough for students to tailor their experience to their areas of interest and learn to adapt their skills to the future technological developments in the industry. Students also learn to create and execute a sound business plan and develop a portfolio that highlights their brand identity. The Frost media scoring program has been named by the Hollywood Reporter in their annual “Top 25 Music Schools for Film and TV” article for the past five years.
University of Southern California (USC)
The nation’s premier graduate-level scoring program is the intensive, one-year M.M degree track in Screen Scoring offered at USC’s Thornton School of Music. Occupying the catbird seat in Los Angeles, USC affords its students a vantage point for observing the entertainment industry close up. Students hear from its chief composers, recording engineers, music supervisors, and movie directors and producers, and other professionals who visit weekly for the Industry Forum and Composition Forum Lab.
The curriculum includes spotting for cinema, scoring for orchestra, and specialized explorations of scoring for motion pictures, TV, and games, conducting, film music history, recording, mixing, and editing for the screen, advanced scoring technology, and entrepreneurialism for composers.
Students write music for 10 scoring sessions booked at such iconic facilities as Capitol Studios, Warner Bros., and the Clint Eastwood Scoring Stage with first-call studio L.A. musicians in ensembles ranging from five to 65 players. Each student also composes for five film productions created by graduate students in USC’s School fo Cinematic Arts and recorded on campus at the John Williams Scoring Stage with Thornton School musicians.
University of Rochester, Eastman School of Music
Eastman offers a Master of Music in Contemporary Media/Film Composition, and accepted students begin by taking placement tests in music history, jazz or traditional theory, and piano skills. The curriculum includes courses in film and video game scoring, history and analysis of film music, conducting, contemporary styles composition, digital programming, arranging for the recording studio, participation in ensembles, and a media composition forum.
Eastman’s Beal Institute for Film Music and Contemporary Media provides instruction and practical experience with visiting artists and opportunities to collaborate on cross-disciplinary and multi-media projects with students and faculty members from other departments. Institute students compose for recording sessions and live performances with Eastman instrumentalists, including conducting their scores live-to-picture.
Indiana University Bloomington, Jacobs School of Music
The graduate degree program in Music Scoring for Visual Media Program at Jacobs, requires a bachelor’s degree in composition or a demonstrated equivalent before students can begin to explore the staples of a scoring education: orchestration and synth orchestration, tailoring music to dramatic storylines, as well as facets of music licensing. A plus for this program is that it facilitates collaborations across majors with filmmakers and video game designers from the Media Arts & Sciences studies area. Additionally, the Jon Vickers Scoring Award (named for Jon Vickers, director of IU Cinema) pairs a winning student composer of a score for a silent film with student musicians, audio engineering and production students, and IU Cinema technicians and projectionists for a live-to-picture event.
The Pacific Northwest Film Scoring Program
Seattle, Washington’s Pacific Northwest Film Scoring Program has partnered with the Seattle Film Institute to offer a 40-week, low-residency M.M. degree in film composition. Like the Frost School, Pacific has been named among the top schools for scoring studies by the Hollywood Reporter. Areas of emphasis include instruction in software programs used in the industry, studio technology, mixing, creating music and sound design for games, plus business and contracts. Students write and conduct music for live recording sessions with professional musicians in state-of-the-art studios, and collaborate with student directors from around the world. By the end of the one-year program, graduates assemble a stylistically-rounded, demo reel, as well as invaluable connections from which to launch a career.
Columbia College Chicago
Columbia offers a two-year graduate program leading to an M.F.A. in composition for film, TV, video games, and augmented and virtual reality. The coursework includes techniques for dramatic scoring for live musicians and programming for digital instruments based on the industry standards for media music production. Through courses on the unique processes of film, TV, and interactive media, students learn to adapt their music to various contexts. For the program’s capstone project, students spend five weeks in Los Angeles for an internship with a composer of their choice based on their interests and aspirations. The end result is a student-led recording session for the thesis project with a full orchestra in a professional studio.
Giving advice for future grad students, Dan Carlin, chair of the screen scoring program at USC, cites the choice USC made to create an intensive, one-year program requiring 18 credits per semester. “The high cost of tuition will deter some students from choosing a two-year program,” he says. “We want to attract the top students and cost can be a factor.”
Carlin also mentions the advantages of studying in New York or Los Angeles because of the entertainment industry presence in those cities. Both NYU and USC give students access to top figures employed in the industry.
“When our students record their projects with L.A. studio musicians, we build time into the schedule so they can get feedback from people who make their living playing this music,” Carlin says. “They tell students how to improve their conducting, copy work, voicings, or whatever. You can’t get that from student musicians. Additionally, we’ve had our graduates get jobs because these musicians have recommended them to filmmakers they know. This is a word-of-mouth industry, so this is a very important factor.”
Mark Small, classical guitarist, composer, and music journalist, has spent the majority of his life in New England. He has composed classical, jazz, pop, and sacred music for chorus, wind ensemble, orchestra, piano, and guitar. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in classical guitar performance from New England Conservatory and California State University, Fullerton. He also studied guitar and composition at Berklee College of Music, and served for 26 years as editor of Berklee today magazine until his retirement in 2018.
An active music journalist, Mark has written for Guitar Player, DownBeat, Acoustic Guitar, Soundboard, Classical Guitar, and other music publications.