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Music

What's the Difference: Film Composer vs. Orchestrator vs. Music Editor

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

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Danny Elfman Teaches Music for Film

Most composers get by with a little help from their friends. Here’s a breakdown of the jobs of a Hollywood composer and their two most important hires—the orchestrator and music editor.

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Danny Elfman Teaches Music for FilmDanny Elfman Teaches Music for Film

Oscar-nominated composer Danny Elfman teaches you his eclectic creative process and his approach to elevating a story with sound.

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What Is a Composer?

A film composer creates the musical score that accompanies a film, which is called the film score. Typically, they’re responsible for every aspect of original music in a film. This includes:

  • Maintaining a budget for all aspects of a film’s original music.
  • Hiring musicians and staff.
  • Meeting with the movie’s director to “spot” a film in order to identify all places where film music should be present.
  • Writing and recording demos to audition various themes on different instruments and orchestral textures for the director’s consideration.
  • Composing their own music for the film to sync with various action sequences within a scene.
  • Managing the recording of the music by conducting orchestral music, employing live performers playing individual instruments, or using software instruments controlled by a MIDI keyboard.
  • Fielding and responding to notes from other members of the production team. Most film composers will insist that their notes come exclusively from the film’s director, but in some cases, other team members, particularly producers, may give direct notes to the composer.
  • Executing a final version of the score that addresses all notes and edit requests and then providing a final mastered version of the soundtrack.
  • Occasionally writing a separate score to accompany the film’s trailer—though there are production companies that exclusively make film trailers which often have in-house composers and libraries of licensed music.

What Is an Orchestrator?

Apart from the director, a composer’s most important collaborator is the orchestrator. How is orchestrating different than composing? Orchestration gets into the weeds of a piece of music and prepares it to be performed by live players. With an ear toward creating the best overall sound, an orchestrator focused on making the musical composition playable by a live symphony orchestra as opposed to digital performers. If the composer has written a divisi—something where, say, the violins play two different parts—the orchestrator will determine exactly how the music will be divided, whether it’s simply between first and second violins or a more unusual arrangement. It’s up to orchestrators to pass a complex brass or woodwind part between players rather than have it be performed by one person in recording sessions.

Danny Elfman Teaches Music for Film
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What Is a Music Editor?

Music editors keep track of how a movie itself is being edited after the initial spotting session, since it is likely that a movie will continue to evolve well after it is spotted. During film scoring, a music editor keeps the composer updated on how the cutting is affecting cues, how many bars of music are changing, and more. The music editor may even inform the composer that new shots, or even scenes, are being added that haven’t been accounted for in the orchestral score. The music editor will also stay in constant communication with the orchestrator in regards to how the music is changing.

Want to Learn More About Music?

Whether you're an aspiring film composer or simply want to learn more about musical composition, navigating the complex world of music and film can be daunting. No one knows this better than versatile and accomplished film composer Danny Elfman. Danny has scored over 100 films ranging from The Nightmare Before Christmas to Good Will Hunting. In Danny Elfman's MasterClass on music for film, the four-time Oscar nominee shares his approach to writing feature scores, working with directors, and identifying themes and melodies.

Want to become a better composer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons from master composers, including, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, Itzhak Perlman, Herbie Hancock, and more.

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