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Sheet Music: The Map To Your Score

Originally published Spring 2017 in The Score, the quarterly journal of The Society of Composers & Lyricists, by Designing Music Now, and by Scoring Notes.

Not every score will need to be written down as sheet music before it’s recorded. However, if you’re hiring musicians those players almost always need something written down for them. Scoring for media is very particular and the parts for live players are usually written out note for note. Composers vary widely in their need and ability to notate their ideas, but generally the larger the project is and the more live musicians there are, the more important sheet music becomes.

I’m fortunate to work almost exclusively with live ensembles. As a result, my career has been largely centered around sheet music for the last 15 years. In addition to being a busy orchestrator and working with live orchestras all over the world, I also do a lot of work with sheet music publishers and I was part of the development community at Sibelius before it was sold. I am deeply into notation in a way that only a small subset of musicians are. I’m going to share some tips and tricks about sheet music preparation that may help to improve or streamline your processes, hopefully resulting in more free time and better art. The basic workflow I describe here is usually the fastest and most accurate way to get from raw MIDI to a printed score.

Sheet music is both a creative opportunity and a cost center

If you are outsourcing the creation of sheet music, then score prep becomes a hard cost that’s difficult to work around and it can be a big one. If you have the time and experience to do it, preparing your own sheet music can save a lot of money. It is also a chance to look at your music in a new light because it can be very clarifying to see your music the way the musicians will see it. If you use a copyist, they usually won’t have any authority to change the music. When you notate your own music you get another opportunity for creativity before your sessions. It can be very time consuming, and schedules often will not permit you to take that time, but score preparation can be a valuable process both monetarily and creatively.

The cost of good orchestration and score prep might be worth it though. At every budget level, it’s common for half of the music budget or more to be used during the recording days. In order to keep costs down, every effort must be made to achieve both speed and quality in the studio. One of the keys to efficient recording sessions is excellent sheet music which is well thought out and appropriately notated for the context.

Sheet music is a written language which allows the abstract concepts and emotionality of music to be written down, much like written words can express the abstract nature of thoughts and feelings. Different instruments and genres may require different dialects of notation. If your music is fluently and eloquently written then your communication in the studio will be substantially more effective, leading directly to a better end product. If it’s not well prepared, it can cause confusion and unnecessary questions which waste expensive studio time.

Tim Davies sums up the importance of appropriate notation nicely. “When you put new music in front of an orchestra, be it at a session, a read-through in college, or a rehearsal of the London Symphony Orchestra, they have to read the notation at face value. Understanding today’s performance practice – or more precisely, the lack of a standard practice – becomes very important, and will help you spell things out in a way that gets exactly the sound you’re looking for in the clearest and most concise way possible.”

From the demo to the page: The best workflow

Whichever notation platform you decide to use, you need to know it inside and out. The software won’t do everything for you. When it’s time for score preparation you usually won’t have a lot of time, so you can’t be digging through manuals or menus to figure out how to make the tool work. As always, the final product is only as good as the person using the tool. Study the software thoroughly, and for the love of music don’t try to use the built-in notation in your DAW for anything but the simplest of tasks.

To get from your DAW to a finished score as quickly and precisely as possible, you must be aware that there is a big difference between performance MIDI and notation MIDI. That’s part of why the built-in DAW notation is always heavily flawed. The way we perform notes is not the same as the way we write them on the page. When converting a sequenced demo into sheet music the raw MIDI is wrong in many ways and always requires substantial changes.

For example, if you play staccato 8th notes the MIDI will look like alternating 16th notes and rests. If you intend to play a melody of even 8ths, your rhythm might be loose and they could come out as overlapping notes or more complicated rhythms. You may sustain a note with the pedal, but the MIDI shows a short note. A timpani patch may have left and right-hand samples spanning the whole keyboard, so the MIDI would notate the right hand on a second staff in treble clef. Instruments with octave transpositions like bass, glockenspiel, and celesta may be in the wrong octave. Keyswitches need to be deleted. The number of MIDI tracks in the demo is almost always different from the number of score staves, so the MIDI needs to be expanded or collapsed almost on almost every cue.

8th note figure:

Sustain pedal:

When preparing to export MIDI you need to examine every single note and think about how it needs to look on the page. This first step should absolutely happen in your DAW, not in notation, and it’s something you can probably do much faster than anybody else because you already know your intentions. All notes should be quantized to the exact durations you want to see on paper, meaning you quantize both the attacks and releases. Before exporting your MIDI you should go through each cue, track by track and note by note. Note overlaps that create a legato feel in the demo should be removed. Tracks that use the sustain pedal should have the notes extended to their full duration. Percussion note durations almost always need to be fixed because they are almost always either too short or extremely long to allow for a sample’s ring-out. It sounds slow, but it’s much faster in your sequencer than in notation.

Loose rhythms:

You should always add key signatures and time signatures in your MIDI files because it makes the MIDI import cleaner. It is simpler to change time signatures in your DAW and you need your DAW to match the score anyway, so make sure they are all correct before you export. Time signatures can be changed later of course, but there are some artifacts created by those changes in the notation programs which are nice to avoid.

If you have MIDI tracks that will become multiple staves on paper, it’s best to divide that MIDI up into multiple tracks in your DAW. When too much information is on one track, the notation gets messy and sometimes impossible to decipher. Instruments that use the grand staff like piano and harp need the hands separated to two different staves. Single tracks for 4 horns, full string ensembles, drum kits, and other similarly layered tracks need to be divided also. It’s sometimes helpful to split up notes which will be notated as separate voices on the same staff. The note values will import properly when they’re alone, and you’ll be able to simply merge them instead of correcting the notation.

Raw piano MIDI: All on 1 track, everything overlapping, rolled arpeggio chord at end.

Clean piano MIDI: No overlaps or rolled chords. Right hand only needs arpeggio line. Left hand just needs to be merged to use two voices.

Conversely, it is very common that MIDI tracks need to be collapsed down, but that is usually best done in the notation program and not in the sequencer. For example, you may have 10 different tracks for violin all using different articulations, and the distinction between articulations would be lost if you put all the notes into one MIDI track. In that case, the fastest and best method is to import the 10 violin tracks to notation, add the appropriate articulations to each track throughout, and then copy/paste the notation into one violin staff. This approach could also work with brass articulations and effects, multiple guitar sounds, multiple sample libraries which are layered, or anything else.

Before you export your MIDI, think about whether your DAW uses non-destructive quantization or not. Some do and some don’t. If yours does then you may need to tell it to apply the quantization destructively before exporting, or else your export may be the original untouched MIDI. When imported to notation your quantization might not produce perfect results, so the next step should always be a quick proofread of the rhythms. You may need to correct any number of things, but things like momentary note overlaps, grace notes, percussion notation, harmonics, fermatas, divisi, glissandi, and tremolos never import properly and always need manual fixing.

Now that your rhythmic notation is correct, the next step is to get all the music onto legal score staves. Depending on how you programmed your MIDI this might be a simple or a nightmarish task, and this is where your orchestration choices begin. A trombone section patch would need to be split into the appropriate number of staves, but if you have a three-note chord and four trombones you have a choice to make. The note you assign to the 4th trombone makes a big difference in the tone of the chord. Those kinds of little choices compound continuously, so as you wrangle your MIDI into place you are actively sculpting your music. Strings can be particularly difficult to reduce to the requisite 5 staves, especially in active or epic music.

Notation is highly subjective – enjoy it!

Once the MIDI is on the correct score staves, the orchestration work can begin in earnest. Many people incorrectly define orchestration as the assignment of notes to instruments, something you already did when making your demo. That is more correctly called instrumentation. Even most published orchestration books are actually only about instrumentation. Orchestration includes instrumentation, but it is much broader and includes arranging, voicing, dynamics, expressive markings, articulations, phrasing, breaths, bowings, colors, the balance of acoustic mass, conductor markings, and any other aspect of music notation that you can think of. It is the art of managing groups of instruments and explicitly notating all of the subtleties of the music in order to help the music to speak with maximum eloquence. The orchestration is just as important as the instrumentation, and an orchestrator with experience and good technique can elevate the quality of the music substantially.

Choose a systematic way to mark up your music, either one measure at a time or one staff at a time, and work the cue from top to bottom. Sight reading music is difficult enough already, so you want to give your players as much help as possible at the recording sessions. The more detail and subtlety that you can notate, the more likely you are to get the performance you want. Dynamics should be reiterated after long rests. Every articulation should be clarified and every phrase marked. When necessary, give indications about the click and tempo. Provide courtesy accidentals. Consider bowing, breathing, and tonguing. If the music notation seems like it’s still not specific enough, then use language to clarify. Try to anticipate every question the musicians might have, every mistake they might make, every subtlety they might miss, and give them the information they need to capture your vision.

However, be wary of over-notating. Some composers try to turn every MIDI controller move into a dynamic marking, but that kind of detail gets a bit silly and counterproductive. Always stay aware of the natural tendencies of the instrument, and don’t bother to explicitly write out things that they will do automatically. For example, an electric guitar needs a crescendo hairpin at the beginning of a quiet chord if you want to hear that. A string section often does not.

If you can leave out obvious or redundant notation it will keep the score cleaner and easier to read, and it will also be easier to make changes on the fly. If you feel the urge to over-notate because you don’t quite trust the players, ask yourself whether or not you have the right players. Tim Davies has strong opinions about over-notating. “Thinking they are doing the right thing, inexperienced orchestrators clarify things that do not need clarifying and state things that are either obvious to the players or an inevitable result of the notation or physics of the instrument. They do not know where and when the orchestra can be left to do its thing.”

It is very common to record in other countries because many foreign orchestras and individuals provide more competitive pricing and contract terms, and it’s very convenient to produce remote sessions from your home studio. If you are planning to record overseas, then try not to use English on your scores. Use the traditional Italian terms for everything. Players in Prague may not understand “a little more quickly” but they will understand “poco più mosso.” The Italian terms have transcended the language and become a part of music that trained musicians worldwide understand.

Create gorgeous print-ready music

Once your orchestration is finished, it’s time to begin cleaning up the score. This is where sheet music preparation turns into a publishing venture and not a musical one. The dynamics, articulations, slurs, and all other music elements have default placements, but many should be improved to get a really professional look. Some notation programs automatically avoid collisions between notation elements. Not all of them do, and none of them get it right all the time. At the very least you need to make sure that all of your music is clear, readable, and not colliding with anything else on the page. Also, make sure that everything is attached to the correct staff and beat. If an element’s attachment point is incorrect in the score, it may end up in the wrong instrumental part.

The layout of your sheet music makes a big difference in how it will be perceived. Always use portrait orientation, and make sure all of the scores and parts end with a full page. Pay close attention to the horizontal and vertical spacing, looking not only at the notation but also at the white space on the page. The balancing of white space is a critical aspect of all forms of publishing, and music is no exception. Adjust your layout so that the horizontal and vertical density of notation is similar from page to page, the pages are balanced within themselves, and adjacent pages are similarly weighted with music. This aspect of score preparation is very much a subtle art, and the automatic layout and spacing options in the programs only give you a start. For truly professional looking scores you need to control every aspect of music spacing yourself.

Recording sessions use slightly different conventions from published music. The first rule is clarity above all else. If clarity is ever at odds with the beauty and grace of traditional publishing standards, clarity wins. Conductor’s scores are in concert pitch. The scores are usually on 11×17 or A3 paper. Time signatures on the scores are oversized. All measures are numbered in both score and parts. Double bars are used very frequently. Key signatures are often not used even in tonal music, although that’s not a fixed rule.

The preparation of the instrumental parts is an iterative process, and once you have a system in place it’s not hard to do quickly. The staff size should be quite large to make sight reading in dim studios as easy as possible. Your margins can be small to help compensate for that. Page sizes are concert 9×12 or oversized 10×13. Whenever possible put a rest or an empty measure at the end of a page, allowing time for the eye to travel up to the next page or for a page turn. Your parts will inherit all the relative placements of the score, which should look good if you prepared the score well. Regardless, you will need to spend time doing good layouts and cleaning up positioning to make sure that everything is as clean and clear as possible. Always bind or tape your parts, because loose pages can easily cause wasted studio time. Taping is preferred because all plastic bindings make noise.

It’s wise to notate one big cue completely so that the score and all of the instrumental parts are complete and ready to print before you continue notating the rest of your score. Doing this will establish the notation conventions required for that particular score, and using that file as the basis for your notation template will help you avoid duplication of work as you move through the rest of the music.

Score preparation is a detailed craft that takes many years to perfect. These suggestions will only get you started, and a serious study of music notation and music engraving is required if you want your scores to look truly professional. If you plan to do your own score prep then your scores don’t need to be the same quality as a published master engraving, but they need to be very good and very clear. By doing it yourself you can save money, extend your creative processes, and further perfect your music. If you’re lacking either time or expertise, then orchestrators and music copyists can help. As with all things, it’s safe to assume that you get what you pay for.

If you don’t embark on a serious study of music notation, then at least have some references handy. Elaine Gould’s “Behind Bars” is a great one. A great resource about notation practice which is specific to our world of music for media isTim Davies’ blog deBreved. I highly recommend it if you’d like to learn more about the specifics of orchestration and notation grammar from a film composer’s perspective. But to explore the vast world of how notation and orchestration affect music, there is no better guide than scores of your favorite pieces of music.

Guerrilla Film ScoringJeremy Borum is the author of Guerrilla Film Scoring.
For a 20% discount go to and use discount code 7A20ASCAP

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Scoring The Next Gig

Originally published Summer 2016 in The Score, the quarterly journal of The Society of Composers & Lyricists, ASCAP We Create Music blog, and Designing Music Now.

There are no guarantees in any culture in the world that art is going to be sustainable and provide you a good living. As a composer you might become well paid eventually, but you will never have a steady or predictable career path. Being highly skilled and highly experienced is not enough in the music industry. Instead of a corporate ladder, musicians have a huge rock face to climb. A resume is unlikely to help you as a composer, although a credits list may. Submitting demo reels is the composer’s equivalent to submitting a resume, but unsolicited demos don’t usually get much attention. Formal interviews are few and far between, but chance conversations at parties could be pivotal. Degrees and certificates don’t make you more hirable, but the knowledge and experience gained certainly does. So how do composers actually find work?

Diversify Yourself

There are few musicians who find work doing one specific thing for their whole careers. Only the most successful are able to be exclusively composers, performers, or bandleaders. If you want to stay gainfully employed, you need to be a Swiss army knife of musical skills. That way, when one doesn’t keep you busy the other can. As your career develops, you may be able to specialize more and focus more on specific aspects of music. In the beginning you need to exploit your skills in every way possible.

The composers who find work readily are the ones who are a one-stop shop. Producers and directors usually don’t want to be bothered with any of the details of the scoring process, and especially not with the problems. They want their composer to handle it, get help if necessary, and deliver a great product. If you are able to take a score from concept to completion quickly, cost efficiently, and with high quality, then you will get work. It doesn’t matter to your director if you do it alone or with help. In the beginning of your career you will not be able to hire many people to help you, so in order to get work you almost have to have the ability to do everything by yourself.

Be Prepared For Auditions

One of the important keys to finding work is to remember that composers, no matter how established, are always auditioning. Every piece of work is a calling card and an audition piece for the next one. Every performance you give is a representation of your artistry. Every person you work with is an opportunity to leave a good impression. Everybody you know outside of work might know somebody in the industry. Every event in your musical life has the opportunity to be an influential impression that leads toward future work. Make sure that no matter what you work on, you put your absolute best into it. Also, remember that everything with your name on it needs to represent you as fully as possible. You never know when an old track will resurface.

The other thing you should do is to be very open, honest, and excited about what you do. Enthusiasm goes a very long way, and yours can impress people long before they listen to your demos or talk to you about a potential project. You shouldn’t be in the music industry if you don’t love it. If you love what you do, then let it show. A genuine, honest expression of passion and expertise will excite and impress the people around you.That enthusiasm can produce results from the most unexpected places.

Maintain Director Relationships

The need for trust and mutual creativity leads directors to search for composers in very personal ways, because those things can’t come from credits, education, ability, age, or celebrity. Personal relationships trump credits every time. When a director hires a composer they need somebody who they can trust with their art. The two need to have a simpatico relationship, a mutual understanding of what music the project needs, and a working relationship that both parties enjoy. If the interpersonal aspect doesn’t work, the creative relationship will fail. All of the other credentials can be negotiated if they need to be, but a shared artistic vision and constructive working relationship are not negotiable.

Your goal is to make yourself indispensable to directors, and to fill their needs so fully that they never consider going to someone else. When you successfully serve both the specific project’s needs and the director’s needs they will almost certainly return to you with more work in the future. A strong relationship with one director could also lead to work with one of their friends or colleagues. Over time, that relationship could turn into a reputation within a whole community, and when it reaches that tipping point it can open a lot of new doors.

Build Community

Since relationships are so critical to the career path of composers, it’s important to think about how you want to go about forming and maintaining those relationships. Composer careers grow organically. The growth may be fast or slow, but it is never random. New growth and opportunity springs out of what is already there. If the music stands on its own and speaks well for itself, and if the composer does the same, then opportunities and relationships grow naturally. Over time a career increases in size and substance. At some point a snowball effect begins and it can begin to roll on its own, picking up size and speed without too much effort. The key to the growth and the snowball effect is that the core has to be strong, because it can’t hold together otherwise.

For composers, the core is made of relationships. If you maintain and strengthen them then your career will be strong enough to survive. If the relationships are weak and people consistently fall away then it will be much harder to gain critical mass and achieve a snowball effect. The relationships are not only with clients, they are with colleagues, competitors, friends, acquaintances, and admirers too. The solid core of a successful career is a whole community, and it’s for that reason that you need to spend time thinking about and maintaining your connection to your community.

Position Yourself Tactically

On a practical level, there are many ways in which you can position yourself for new relationship opportunities. The most obvious is to surround yourself with people who might want to hire you. If you are selling water, you want to be where people are thirsty. If you are composer, you want to be where people are making products that need music. The fastest career development happens face to face, person to person. In a perfect world you would be the only composer in a community of potential clients, and over time you would get to know all of them. If you choose a group of creatives and make yourself a part of that group, then over time you will be recognized as the composer of the group. That can eventually turn into work opportunities.

The most reasonable way to build a career is to find directors and producers who are working at your level, and collaborate. It’s very possible those friendships could become life long collaborations. Also, if you’re able to help someone with a spec project, if it goes really well, there’s a good chance that person will come back to you for the next project. That worked for me in one very key instance, which eventually led to me scoring CSI: NY.Bill Brown
One of the most tried and true ways to develop a career is to find directors or video game designers who are working at your level and grow with them. If you can maintain your working relationships with them while you walk the bumpy road of the industry together, then your successes become mutual. Most collaborations are there only for a season, but there are many stories of collaborations that became lifelong ones and highly successful. It is difficult to work as an equal with people who are much more successful than you are, because they usually don’t feel a need to reach down and pull you up to their level. In the same way you should avoid working with people who you feel are below your own level, because they will diminish the quality of your work. You need to start working with people at your own level, grow with them, and make yourself indispensable to them so that they bring you on to new projects.

The musician community is another important source of work. Although it might seem like other composers are your competitors, that is not really the case unless they write music very much like your own. The reality is that musicians hire each other back and forth all the time. The opportunity for learning is also a very important factor that makes your community of musicians important. Whether it is a professional organization like the Society Of Composers And Lyricists, or a group of band buddies that meets at a bar, having a community of other musicians can give you support, knowledge, experience, and sometimes additional work.

Guerrilla Film ScoringJeremy Borum is the author of Guerrilla Film Scoring.
For a 20% discount go to and use discount code 7A20ASCAP

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Writing On Demand

Originally published Winter 2016 by ASCAP We Create Music and by Designing Music Now.

Get Over Yourself

If you are afflicted with the idea that a working composer or songwriter can also be a pure artist, the best thing you can do is get over yourself right away. In the music industry composers can be artists, but they are service providers first and artists second. They are serving a film, TV show, artist, game, or advertisement, and many of those products don’t require music that is groundbreaking or thought provoking. Composers often need to write simple functional music that does a job in a very specific way. Sometimes there is a need for great artistry, but other times the right music for the job is not a work of art that makes the composer proud. There is no room for an artistic ego in the world of commercial composing because scoring is often more like a craft than like an art. If you want to sustain a career as a professional writer you can’t be precious about your music.

As a practical craft-oriented composer there are many things you can do to make your writing process more fluid, more efficient, and more cost effective. If you set yourself up correctly and focus on the right things then you can give yourself a head start, help your creativity to start flowing, and allow yourself to enjoy the circumstances that lead to making great art when the context allows it. As Thomas Edison famously said, genius is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration. The pursuit of excellence is the pursuit of focused and determined work. If you approach the work intelligently you will accomplish more and find your moments of inspiration more easily.

Choose Your First Target

The beginning of the writing process is critical because it sets the tone for everything that follows. It’s very important to know both where and how to begin, because both can make a big difference in how the project evolves. That is particularly true in situations where you don’t have much time or the budget is small. In those situations you need to get yourself creatively on the right track immediately to make sure you finish on time and stay within budget. Choosing what to write first is not the biggest choice in the compositional process by a long shot, but a well chosen starting point can facilitate your writing and your collaborative process.

It’s important to plan your first attack tactically and not start writing at random. You might choose tasks as widely varied as writing a theme or hook, scoring a scene, penning a lyric, attacking a dramatic climax, or writing some simple underscore that isn’t pivotal in the film or game. The important thing is not the task itself but why you choose it. Choosing a starting point because it’s an easy one isn’t a great way to begin, because easy spots have many possible solutions and they won’t inform the rest of the project well. Choosing a difficult starting point isn’t much better, because since no creative conventions exist yet you might create a larger creative obstacle than is necessary.

When you are choosing where to begin writing, the best choice is one based on what you will learn, not on what you hope to accomplish. Writing, especially in the early phases, is all about exploring. Choose a film scene, game area, or song section that will unlock something seminal for you. The areas that are best to begin with are the ones that are the most unique to that project, the most deeply characteristic moments that set it apart from others like it. They are the spots that will most quickly show what works and doesn’t work, sometimes in a very unforgiving way that brings great clarity. At this stage, even writing the wrong music can be a good learning opportunity and not at all a waste of time. In the beginning, successful writing is learning what the film, the characters, or the director need and want.

Write Quickly

The music industry is deadline-driven just like any other industry. If you want to survive as a guerrilla composer you have to develop the skill of writing very quickly without sacrificing the qualities that will get you rehired and keep you artistically satisfied.

The most common thing that slows composers down is self-censorship. If you are too self conscious when writing and too self critical then you’ll be paralysed. When you are first starting to write it’s important to get moving, not to write something brilliant. You don’t need to nail it perfectly the first time, and in fact you rarely will. Move forward assertively even if you haven’t fallen in love with your work yet. If you don’t allow yourself to move forward it’s going to be difficult to find the brilliant music that lies ahead of you. Don’t wallow in your successes or your failures, and instead have confidence in your skills and trust in your process.

You need time management skills to create time for your writing, and you should use the same skills to focus your time while you are actively writing. Multitasking has been shown to reduce productivity in purely creative tasks by up to 40%, so you are better off if you don’t do it. When you are at your writing station it is easy to get sucked into changing sounds, processing audio, mixing, and other non-writing tasks. It’s best to defer that fiddling for a later time because it interrupts the creative flow of your writing. You could do all of those things simultaneously, but the writing in particular will benefit from uninterrupted focus.

Another good way to speed up your writing is to group similar tasks to increase efficiency. When you do one isolated task on many cues or songs at once the work can sometimes feel repetitive and mundane, but it can also produce tangible and much needed progress. When working on different pieces simultaneously it will appear that you are making slower progress, but in fact it often makes your work much more efficient. You can also find time savings in grouping your music by mood or by theme. Writing your way through a project sequentially can work, but it is not necessarily the best way to go about it. Non-linear workflows based on task or musical content can spark creativity in valuable ways.

Forget About Writer’s Block

If you get writer’s block you need to leave it behind right away, because writer’s block has no place in the life of a working composer. In the same way that a mechanic goes to work and fixes engines, you need to go to work and write notes. You will not get many gigs if you are unable to write on command, so you cannot allow yourself to indulge in writer’s block. Just like stuttering, writer’s block is learned and it can be unlearned. If you simply don’t allow it, or if you put yourself in situations that can’t allow it, it will go away.

The key to creative productivity is productivity itself. Although it is widely understood that instrumentalists need to sit and practice their instruments, people don’t often think about composers sitting down to practice composition. If you want to become a great composer, you need to do it a lot. Most of the time you spend writing will be uninspired and will require a lot of diligence just like when you’re in a practice room. Don’t worry if you don’t love what you’re writing, just write. Productivity breeds more productivity. Don’t spend too much time sitting around scratching your head or thinking about the problem over coffee. There is always plenty of work that needs to be done, so stay busy and keep your creative wheels moving.

The truth is that nothing is blocked. The core of writer’s block is a lack of confidence. It is an internal insecurity with which people paralyze themselves. It can also come from a misguided belief that inspiration is required to write, or from a desire for a specific combination of mental and emotional states before anything can flow. It is waiting for divine inspiration and perfection before starting, but perfection should be the end goal, not the beginning.

Mostly, writer’s block is simply a fear of failure. Once you realize that false starts and failure are important steps on the path to success your writer’s block will disappear like notes in the wind.

Guerrilla Film ScoringJeremy Borum is the author of Guerrilla Film Scoring.
For a 20% discount go to and use discount code 7A20ASCAP

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Team Building in an Indie World

Originally published Winter 2015 in The Score, the quarterly journal of The Society of Composers & Lyricists, by Designing Music Now.

What is the fastest way to become a better composer? It’s probably to stop doing everything by yourself.

The traditional division of labor in the scoring process has eroded completely. Composers used to be one player in a fairly large music team. They put notes on paper, attended recording sessions, and bore few other responsibilities. As our industry has evolved our responsibilities have steadily increased. Today’s composer is responsible for every step of the music team’s process, and very often a lone guerrilla composer replaces the entire team of yesteryear. The support network which used to be built-in has evaporated.

We don’t have the luxury of being specialists any more. As scoring budgets shrink, our responsibilities move towards infinity. Today we must have a thorough balance of artistry, craft, and business, wearing all of the hats and managing many disparate tasks single-handedly. We are expected to own and operate our own studios and do a huge number of other tasks not expected of us ten or twenty years ago. We’re not composers, we’re the CEOs of small music businesses and we’re responsible for every aspect of music production.

Lower budgets and package deals naturally give us fewer incentives to hire help. The less we spend the more we keep, and without adequate funding the music team shrinks. Although the music team shrinks, our workload doesn’t. A guerrilla film composer also has the job description of every team member he doesn’t hire: orchestrator, copyist, studio owner, producer, performer, conductor, recording engineer, music editor, and mix and mastering engineer.

Guerrilla Film Scoring is now the norm. It is an irreversible reality imposed by the relentless progression of technology and the massive surge in independent film production. A lucky handful of composers still have the luxury of working within a Hollywood system that is well funded and has clear division of labor. The rest of us must fight our way through the wild jungle of the music industry. But must we do it alone?

Be Business-Minded

Core music team for the Dreamworks film Need For Speed (some members missing)

Core music team for the Dreamworks film Need For Speed (some members missing)

If you want music to be your business, you should treat it like a business. There is a big difference between a sole proprietor and a small business owner, and most composers operate more like sole proprietors. A sole proprietor’s business begins organically. They take a liking to a certain type of work and begin to charge money for it. As they get more and more successful they get busier and busier. When they start to get very busy their career begins to own them, not the other way around, because they are time-poor and yet continue to do everything themselves. The need for total control is a very common malady, and it often limits professional growth.

A small business owner has a better plan for future growth. Those with the mentality of a business owner are more prepared to build a team and are always looking for good help. They try not to do work unnecessarily, and they recruit more troops instead of increasing their personal time commitment. There is no shame in getting good help. On the contrary, a team of people is an admired and respected asset that converts easily into income. It is possible for you to be successful as a sole proprietor artist, but you will have better chances if you think like a business owner.

Although it may feel like you need to work alone, it’s often possible to build a team. There are always other people working at your level, and you can usually find mutually beneficial ways to team up with them. Even if you’re a brand new composer with no budget who is trying to break into the industry, you could team up with a brand new sound engineer who also needs credits. If you’re creative and you reach out to other people in the industry you can always find a way to collaborate and build a team.

Have Your Team Ready

A collection of skilled people isn’t necessarily a team. When you assemble a group of people for the first time it may work out wonderfully. If they are seasoned professionals, they will surely get the job done. However, a team is something more than an assembly line that functions well. A team has a connectivity and a synergy that generates energy, ideas, and superior results. A newly assembled group may work like a team, but you might get a collection of impassive service providers instead.

The only way to know a team’s dynamics is to test it, and that’s why it’s important to have your team in place before you need to rely on it. To find team members get recommendations, meet people, try them out on small jobs, or do any number of other things to test the waters. Doing that will give you experience with those people, and that’s very important. A very skilled individual might not be the right fit for your music or your personality. If you explore your options and try out lots of people you’ll know whether to keep those freelancers in your back pocket or not. Then, when you need your team you’ll be able to pull everybody together and the team dynamics will be based on the relationships you have already built. That situation is much more likely to produce good results.

The deadlines and pressures of the scoring world can sometimes make scoring feel like a battle. Once you have experience with trusted collaborators you will be better prepared to go to battle together. When you have some history with people they are more likely to want to see you succeed, so you can more easily trust your team and put your reputation into their hands. When they are invested in you to the point that your goals become theirs, then the team’s effectiveness rises to a new level and carries your music much further. That means the final product is much stronger, and you effectively become a better composer as a result.

Gather Your Troops

Core team for the orchestral album Dream Gallery: Seven California Portraits

Core team for the orchestral album Dream Gallery: Seven California Portraits

First and foremost, your schedule will dictate the size of your team. Many composers like to keep their teams small so that they can make as much money as possible, but that’s not always practical. Delivery dates are usually non-negotiable because our work fits into a much larger production timeline. Even if you have the expertise to do all things well, if you don’t have the time to do them you need to find help to be successful. The majority of composers hiring help do so not because they’re unable to do things, but because they don’t have the time to do them alone.

Second, your weaknesses dictate what you must outsource. They are the bottlenecks in your schedule and the limitations in your production value. Begin by delegating the tasks that are the most tedious or unfathomable to you. They will be the easiest to let go of, and you will be more willing to trust in the expertise and authority of your colleagues in those areas. In the long chain of scoring production tasks, from the first concept to the last cue delivered, identify your weaknesses and get help with them. It’s a smart way to begin building your team and the fastest way to strengthen your position.

Thirdly, your budget dictates the size of your team. Deadlines and production values are usually non-negotiable. Only after you are confident that you will meet your schedule and quality goals can you assess your budget and decide if it can support additional team members. You may want to get additional help for creative reasons, hiring more live players for example, or to free up more time. If your budget won’t allow it then you have to take care of everything else yourself. Because composers feel attached to their work it is a consistent temptation to use all of the available money to make the best product possible, but if you do then your career quickly becomes a hobby. There are times when that investment is appropriate for your business, but unless you have a clear business plan that requires investment your budget should probably limit your team size and you should take some profits on every gig.

Another important factor in deciding which tasks to delegate is the kind of experience you want to have. Whatever you want to be doing in your ideal successful future, you should be doing that thing right now. We become known for the things we are actively doing, not the things we hope to do. Work brings more similar work, and success breeds success. You should try to delegate anything that gets in the way of the work you want to do. The other side of that coin is that you should identify your weaknesses and get help with them. You don’t want to become known for sub-par work, so always try to avoid doing tasks that you know you can’t pull off very well.

Delegate Effectively

A lot of composers do things incorrectly when trying to delegate. Delegation is not giving instructions and monitoring the result. That is supervision, and it is what most composers do. The reason most composers supervise instead of delegate is that they don’t correctly transfer authority. Supervision is very involved, and the people under you need to check in with you continuously to stay on track. Delegation requires that authority is transferred to your team members, enabling them to take the actions necessary for accomplishing their task autonomously. Only then are you truly free to focus on other things. When you bring somebody onto your team you should focus on the result that you want, not the process that your team members use to get there. When you micromanage their process you are not giving them the freedom and authority to help you in the best way possible.

When delegating you should let go of the details and embrace the value of your team members. Give people credit for their work, even if it’s just through verbal affirmations, and adequate space to do that work to maximize their potential. If you’re working with a mix engineer then you should give him as much authority over the specifics of the mixing process as possible. If you have an orchestrator doing something for you, let that person re-voice your ensembles and just check it at the end. You should arm your team with information about your goals and your artistic intent, but you should also empower them to make their own decisions and accomplish your goals their way. You should be a guiding force, but you should not be in the middle of what they’re doing.

Learning to delegate is sometimes difficult. It’s very common to believe that nobody else could do a particular task as well or as efficiently as you. That’s a struggle that most small business owners in most industries have. It will serve you well to remember the humbling fact that all of us in the music industry are highly replaceable. There is a huge world full of musicians and very little of what we do is actually unique to us. That’s a bit depressing for the individualist in every artist, but it can also reassure you that there is plenty of good help out there. When you find good help you are free to let go.

The best way to make the process of delegation easier is to work with people who have expertise that surpasses your own. You have excellent reason to trust them, it’s much easier to let go, and the end product is better as a result. Many composers begin their team building by going in the other direction and finding younger inexpensive helpers. This is a good way for you to get help, but it is difficult to truly delegate because you need to supervise and educate. If instead you look up the experience ladder and find ways to collaborate with people whose skills surpass your own, delegation becomes a real pleasure. It also becomes a situation in which you can learn and grow, and that has great benefits as well. It may cost you more to do so, but it may be well worth it.

With good delegation it won’t take long until you are a more focused composer, more productive, have more free time, and are creating a product of much higher quality. There is an extremely wide spectrum of how people delegate, ranging from not delegating at all to team composing. The choice of what to delegate and what to control directly is very individualistic and very personal, but in the music business the value of teams can’t be understated.

Want to be a better composer? Stop doing everything yourself.

Guerrilla Film ScoringJeremy Borum is the author of Guerrilla Film Scoring.
For a 20% discount go to and use discount code 7A20ASCAP

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Musicians: Networking The Right Way

The Ultimate Question:

The question “How do I find work?” is one that can baffle even the most successful artists. The music industry has become extremely diverse and the work is spread out extremely widely, so Guerrilla tactics are needed more than ever before. Any industry relating to the arts is whimsical. Styles change, tastes change, the personalities of the creators and consumers change, and the arts themselves change. It can be very difficult to pinpoint a need and position yourself to fill that need. Even if you’re able to do that, it can still be difficult to monetize what you have done. The methods of finding work are constantly changing, and the type of music that sells is changing even faster. No matter how long your music career lasts, the difficulty of finding work will persist throughout for all but a lucky few.

At least half of a composer’s job is simply finding work, and finding work can be harder than doing it. Jobs will come and go. At times you will be busy beyond belief. At other times you won’t have any projects and you will need to create work for yourself. It is a volatile industry and you usually will not be able to choose when those times come upon you. If you want a career as a composer you need to be prepared to spend considerable energy finding work, and you’ll have to do most of it Guerrilla style.

Build A Network That Endorses You

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Buy it on Amazon

If the director of a film, television show, or video game needs a composer and doesn’t have the right one, they will almost certainly begin their search by asking their colleagues for recommendations. It’s very rare that people will begin by cold-calling agents or putting up advertisements. People seek personal recommendations because their options are vast. There are tens of thousands of composers to choose from, the process of starting a composer search from scratch is daunting, and nobody has the time for it.

For directors, asking friends and colleagues for recommendations does two things. First, it reduces their options from infinite to numbers that they can probably count on their fingers. Second, their colleagues act as a trusted filter and they can be confident that the short list is a good one. When somebody can simply ask around, follow up on some recommendations, and get exactly the right composer for the job, then that is the approach they will take every time. Only if that doesn’t work will they begin to approach agents or place notices in industry publications.

That moment of personal recommendation is gold to a composer. If you can be the name on the top of somebody’s mind, the website they happen to remember first, or the inspired genius that somebody raves about, you will be head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd. It doesn’t mean you’ll get the job by any means, but it opens a door for you in the most flattering of ways. When you were recommended to somebody, your first interactions will be preceded by a benefit of the doubt and you will have their full attention. The moment in which your friend recommended you is the moment in which your art is monetized, or at least gains the potential for it.

Networking That WORKS

Those recommendations will never come if you actively try to sell yourself all the time, nor will they come from “networking” in the common sense of self promotion and handshaking for the sake of furthering your own needs. Using your relationships for active marketing strains them and diminishes them. It doesn’t matter if somebody has your contact information and knows your work. What matters is that they like and respect you, and that they know of your abilities. The best way to monetize the relationships you have is to consciously not try to monetize them at all, because genuine relationships are, without fail, the most reliable conduit to work opportunities.

The kind of networking that works most reliably is drawing connections for other people, not for yourself. If you know one person who has a need and another person who can fill that need, connect them with each other purely for the sake of helping two of your friends. When you are the voice giving the personal recommendation, you are strengthening your relationships with those individuals, building your community, and forming new bonds that hold it together. Your contribution to the success of others will not be forgotten. Your thoughtfulness and good intentions will leave an impression — one of gratitude and trust. The trust and connection that is built out of those actions will eventually come back to you at some unknown time in the future. The absolute best way to propel your career forward is by pouring yourself generously into your community.

Genuine Community

Composer careers grow organically. The growth may be fast or slow, but it is never random. New growth and opportunity springs out of what is already there. If the music stands on its own and speaks well for itself, and if the composer does the same, then opportunities and relationships grow naturally. Over time a career increases in size and substance. At some point a snowball effect begins and it can begin to roll on its own, picking up size and speed without too much effort. The key to the growth and the snowball effect is that the core has to be strong, because it can’t hold together otherwise.

The key to finding work as a composer is unquestionably the relationships you have with people. You can not take them for granted nor draw on them in a way that makes the give-and-take unbalanced. The relationships that will lead to the most long term success are loyal ones based on mutual respect, generosity, common interests, and shared passions. When you build a real community around yourself and pour yourself into it you will find yourself in fertile soil where your career can grow freely and with support.

Guerrilla Film ScoringJeremy Borum is the author of Guerrilla Film Scoring.
For a 20% discount go to and use discount code 7A20ASCAP

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A Question Of Balance

We are not slaves, nor indentured servants, nor debtors. We owe the music industry nothing. Why, then, does it ask for everything? Unlike the majority of professions, the music industry routinely has a habit of following us home. And to be fair, a professional musician with a home studio chooses to live at work.
Our personal lives are not sacred or even sheltered. Whatever our boundaries are, whatever our limits of productivity or unemployment, whatever our priorities, all will be tested and challenged by the music industry. This threat to a healthy and balanced life is pervasive and affects everyone from aspiring graduates to career musicians. That means you.

Why is balance important? Let’s consider just a few of the things that are potentially at risk when starting or maintaining a music career: time, energy, sleep, stability, sanity, friendships, finances, families, fitness, relationships, weekends, vacations, and mental and physical health. We might have better odds in Vegas.
For many years I have been interested in how other working musicians find a balance between this crazy industry and their personal lives, and it is a subject I bring up often in conversation. Over the last several months I have pursued the topic more earnestly, conducting a little more than 75 interviews with musicians across the country in all stages of their careers.

When I first mention the subject to a colleague the most common reaction by far is an uncomfortable laugh, a break of eye contact, a shift of the body, and then a short period of silence. The question of balance is clearly a difficult one, and people generally either have no answers or are uncomfortable with the ones they have. The second most common response is ironic. The majority of people admit that it’s a very important issue and that they themselves are not particularly balanced. Beyond that there are almost as many responses as there are musicians. It seems clear that none of us have all the answers, so my goal in these interviews was to survey the landscape and share with you some of the collective wisdom of the community.

If you are not yet convinced of the importance of this issue, consider these statistics. Of the composers I spoke with, 52% said they think about balance often and an additional 35% said they think about it with some regularity, so 87% of you are already thinking about this topic on your own. When asked to put a value on balance, not surprisingly a similar 79% said it was either important or very important.

In sharp contrast to this, I can count on one hand the number of working composers who said they had it figured out to the point that it’s no longer much of a problem for them. Only 17% claimed that they felt very balanced and had developed a system that works for them, 44% said that they either need improvement or had no balance at all, and the remainder is in the middle presumably treading water. There is an enormous disparity between what people want to see in their lives and what they actually have. 87% of you think about balance with some regularity and only 17% achieve it.

When talking with many different people about what their ideal balance is and what it looks like there are surprisingly few areas of overlap, even with a sampling as large as this. There are just as many perspectives as there are people, and the point of comfortable equilibrium between the music world and the rest of the world is in a different place for everybody. What does having a balanced life even mean?

One person may say that the industry gets in the way of family life, but the next says that family obligations hinder their career. Some say music is a part of every aspect of their life, and some say it’s just something they do for work. Some insist that we must be 100% committed and always prioritize our work to be successful, and others insist just as loudly that we have to draw boundaries, say no, and take time off regularly. There is clearly no one ideal context or prescription for balance that could apply to us all. Everyone has a comfort zone, but the specifics of what that comfortable space looks like are wildly different from person to person.

Almost unanimous, however, were the causes of perceived imbalance and the first priorities dropped when things become pressured. The most common sources of imbalance will be familiar to you. Small budgets or otherwise limited finances, large expectations from others and from ourselves, short schedules, market saturation, the constant search for work, and a reluctance to turn down work or say no seem to tip the scales consistently.

Our own passion, emotional involvement, and perfectionism also play a role. Only 6% said that music was just a job they do for money. The rest of us have a built-in attachment to what we’re doing. That attachment can be described as hobby, interest, passion, addiction, obsession, or self-expression, but no matter what language is used the reality remains. We are tied to our work, perhaps intentionally and perhaps involuntarily, and this is both a source of joy and the source of all the trouble. Along with the things we desire we also get a host of things that bring imbalance into our lives, and because we love our work we carry those things with us all the time.
We cannot control the external forces that work upon us. They are larger than us and in many ways are indigenous to the music world. However, we can certainly choose how to react to them. Almost without exception the first things composers tend to sacrifice are diet, exercise, sleep, time off, personal goals, and relationships with friends, family, and partners. This is true of almost everybody, from those trying to break in to those who are about to retire.

The urgent and the important are often different things, and we are often forced to choose between them. The work may seem urgent, but I believe the things mentioned above are fundamentally important to our life experience, our health, and to some degree our very identity. In my opinion we should not routinely surrender these things without a fight, and yet almost all of us do.

Before we can try to maintain a comfortable equilibrium between our pursuit of music and our non-professional pursuits, we have to know what we want that equilibrium to look like. Several of the people I spoke to were unable to find that balance, and the unbalanced nature of the industry drove them to other career paths. Some admitted that it has been an uncomfortable struggle for decades that will probably never be resolved. Others seem to have figured it out, and they found a way to thrive in the industry while maintaining the priorities that they value.

In the unpredictable world of music, it’s important not to look for balance at close range. There will be times when we are overworked and times when we are under employed, periods of joy and periods of tedium, feast and famine, success and failure. It is a roller coaster ride, and although we can direct our trajectory we cannot completely control it. To see the balance you have to look at the big picture, at the movement between these different phases, and at how much time you spend in each place.

What that balance looks like is different for everybody, so I am not particularly concerned with where the fulcrum of balance lies or how much time is spent on one thing or another. Some will never ignore a work related phone call at any hour, and they talk about music as a kind of addiction, passion, or calling. Others have rigidly scheduled time when they are off duty and don’t even think about music. Where the balance lies is an individual decision and a preference. What is relevant to all of us is the process of keeping that balance over time.

Despite the enormous variety of perspectives and opinions, those who feel good about their balance have one thing in common. They first chose a lifestyle and business model that they are comfortable with, and their career and life pursuits were then fit into that concept. Those people are fundamentally proactive instead of reactive. They know what they want their lives to look like both day-to-day and long term. They pursue those things actively instead of just trying to juggle everything that comes their way. They also make small conscious decisions on a regular basis that mirror the same fundamental concepts. Those small decisions can basically be split into two groups: Some establish boundaries between a music career and the rest of life, and others aim to integrate the two. Usually both approaches are in use simultaneously.

I’d like to mention some boundaries that seem to work consistently, but before any of you workaholics get upset, it’s important to note that the boundaries work in both directions. A locked studio door may block out the world while you work, but it can also give you a mental break during the hours (or minutes) that you’re away. These are just fences, and you can position yourself on either side.

Most often mentioned were boundaries of time that more or less boil down to scheduling. Locking doors, turning phones and Internet connections on or off, and generally scheduling things in advance are the most often mentioned and simplest solutions. We can’t do everything, especially not at the same time, and recognizing the limits of our time and how we can use it is critical. Many people spoke of increasing extra-musical commitments as the years go by, and most alluded to the fact that they simply became more efficient or focused in order to manage it all.

Mental boundaries are also important to keep you focused on work or give you space from it. There was an enormous amount of variety here as these solutions are more individual in nature, so I will avoid mentioning any specifics. Consistent, though, was the fact that those who felt the weight of all their responsibilities at all times also felt somewhat overwhelmed. Those who were able to clear their minds of clutter and focus on their immediate priorities had a more obvious sense of calm and peace with their situation. There are times to multi-task and times to focus. The composers I spoke with often talked about an ongoing search for mental boundaries or mental balance. When that is achieved it seems much easier to balance the task-oriented parts of our lives.

As much as we hate to admit it, there are also some real and tangible boundaries to our abilities. There are limits to our energy, our finances, our desire, our productivity, our abilities, our connections, our skills, etc. Those who openly admit their limitations are more likely to find productive ways to change them or work around them, so a certain amount of honesty with oneself seems in order. Those who try do it all try to do it alone, and try to do it now are the ones who feel unsettled or unbalanced.
While boundaries and limitations are important, concepts that allow an integration of our music and the rest of our lives are equally important. After all, most of us would agree on some level that being a musician isn’t just something that we do. It’s something that we are.

Most of us tend to integrate music into many or most aspects of our lives. For many of us music is our work, our hobby, our relaxation, our leisure activity, and our love. While on the surface this seems like an enormous bonus and perhaps evidence that we’re in the right industry, this is also precisely the thing that can lead us down the path towards imbalance. A certain amount of integration is desirable and enjoyable for us and for those around us, and a certain amount more tips the scales. Those amounts vary with the individual, but for everybody there is a slippery slope that leads from interest to passion to obsession and back again. The integration of work we love into the rest of our lives is a luxury, but it can also be a danger. Our personal lives are not sacred or even sheltered.

Few would argue that this is an unimportant subject, but while the concept of balance is generally valued the implementation is usually perceived as lacking. Surrounding this subject is a consistent gap between what most people say they want and what they actually have.

The moral of this story is not of my own creation. This is the common wisdom gleaned from about 75 interviews with composers like you. These are your answers, your solutions, and your advice.

Most importantly, almost any lifestyle can be compatible with music. You can work as a composer from any city. You can do it part time or full time or 100 hours a week. It can be the number one priority, or in the top 5, or in the top 20. This is an industry without rules. Everything goes, and anything can turn a profit if you’re clever.
The common wisdom says you should choose your ideal lifestyle first, and choose work that fits into that lifestyle second. Those who have done it in that order are much more content with their lives and with their careers. Consciously and proactively guide your life and your work instead of reactively juggling whatever comes your way. In an industry as nebulous and undefined as music we all have the luxury and the responsibility of creating our own destiny in a very real way every single day. Create your experience actively and not passively.

Work hard and stay organized enough to make it happen the way you want. Be aware of your priorities at all times and take small consistent measures to maintain them every day. Realize that doing so means saying no to things regularly, because every priority de-prioritizes something else.
Give yourself what you need, whether it’s twelve uninterrupted hours or regular breaks, time with a partner or time away, external support or isolation, total immersion or total separation. Whatever you need, find it or make it. Only you can create your most fertile and ideal working situation, so you are 100% responsible for creating and maintaining that space.

Lastly, remember your love. Every one of us began in this industry because we were attracted to and passionate about music. Guard that love, find the hot spot of that flame, and refuel it regularly. Without a love for music this is just another job, and as jobs go this is a tough one and probably a bad business decision. Pursue your passion and keep your sense of wonder alive. That is your voice, that is your joy, and that is your future in music.

A special thanks to all of you who contributed your time and consented to talk about this rather personal topic with me.