Trained composers enjoy a wide variety of possible career paths, almost all of which involve combining composition with another aspect of music-making. The vast majority of compositional careers blend creative activity with performing, conducting, teaching, administration of music, or other musical (and, in many cases, non-musical) endeavors. All of these contain the potential for fulfilling, satisfying professional careers, and the exact makeup of a given composer's career will differ from composer to composer. So, while there is no definite way of knowing exactly which path you should follow as a composer, here are some examples of typical career paths taken by composers. Ultimately, your own career as a composer will depend upon a large number of elements, and be influenced by many things. What connects all composers, however, is the innate desire to create music, something which goes beyond the particular differences between individual careers.
Ultimately, whatever your career path, you will likely find that your professional career combines many of the endeavors listed below, and will undoubtedly include many not included here, or even not yet invented!
Typical Composition Career Options
Be a composer-performer
Many composers, by virtue of their musical backgrounds, are performers as well. There are many advantages for the composer who also performs. The most clear advantage is that you, as performer, are in a position to present your own music in the manner in which you intend it to be heard. Such noted composers as Frederic Rzewski, William Bolcom (piano), Steve Reich (percussion), and many others combine careers in performance with those of composition. Additionally, as a composer who performs, you have the opportunity to make friends and contacts among your fellow performers - those who will be performing your music.
Be a composer-conductor
Although related to the above category of composer-performer, many composers have found the dual career path of composer-conductor to be very advantageous for their careers. Conductors, by the nature of their profession, are able to exercise influence over - in an even broader sense than that of solo or chamber performance - the performances of their works, and many composers have found conducting to be a necessary skill for the promotion of their music. Such composers as John Adams, Pierre Boulez, and Esa-Pekka Salonen follow in the distinguished line of composer-conductors from Hector Berlioz through Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss to Leonard Bernstein.
Be a university professor/instructor of composition (and/or another field)
A time-honored career path, and one with many advantages for a composer, is that of university teaching. Eligibility for full-time faculty positions, especially in the United States, typically requires the completion of a doctorate in composition. American universities and schools of music traditionally offer two types of composition doctorates: the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph D) degree or the Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) degree. NB: the latter type has named variants, such as DM or MusD (Doctor of Music).
Some of the advantages of a faculty position are that the composer is assured a steady, reliable source of income which is independent of composition. This can be a very helpful aid to take pressure off the composer's creative activity, so that he/she can focus on work which is of interest and artistic value. Many composers who work strictly on a freelance basis are obliged to take the jobs which happen to come in; besides the feast-or-famine nature of this work style, the work can often be artistically unsatisfying, and take time away from more engaging creative activity.
Another advantage is the ready availability of a network of colleagues and performers, whether faculty or student, to perform and learn your work. Most university schools of music have either new music ensembles or offer concerts devoted to new music, and the daily coexistence of composers and performers within an academic environment is very conducive to collaborations.
Faculty composers are often recipients of grant support from their institutions. Universities invest in their faculty members, and support the professional activities of their artist faculty, because accomplishments by faculty reflect well upon the university, as well. As a result of the fundamental desire to assist and support faculty, universities typically offer grants or fellowships for creative, performance, or recording projects to music faculty. This internal source of funding can serve to make a project possible which might be more difficult, or impossible, without such an institutional sponsor; or, an internal grant can help make a project more attractive to potential external funders, who might give additional money having seen the prior vote of confidence given the project by the composer's own university.
Be a music copyist
Many composers have begun their careers as music copyists, either on a freelance basis or engaged principally to assist one established composer. A good music copyist, devoted to this specialized and labor-intensive skill, may establish a comfortable living in his/her craft. The hours of such work are long and, as with many freelance jobs, may come in batches of huge amounts of work separated by times of little to no work. Sometimes, a rush job might require sleepless nights of work. However, there are some clear advantages to this. Times of comparatively slow copying work may be devoted to original composition; working closely with an established composer provides immediate and sanctioned access to that composer and, by extension, the network of colleagues, performers, administrators, and others in the music business whom it is helpful for a composer to know. Because of the nature of this work, copyists tend to live in New York or other major metropolitan areas where there is a large amount of work, and where the composer can take advantage of performances and contacts available there.
Work as a composer's assistant
A species of the copyist job listed above, serving as an established composer's assistant (personal assistant, business manager, or such) may be an excellent way to establish connections in professional circles. While such work means that your own schedule is necessarily secondary to the person employing you, the many fringe benefits (in addition to those listed above, under "copyist") frequently offset these inconveniences, especially for an aspiring composer beginning a career.
Be a pianist/music director/dance accompanist/rehearsal pianist
There is always need for good pianists who sight-read read music well. If you are a good pianist with strong sight-reading skills, you will find a ready variety and need for your services. Theatrical companies, dance schools and companies, singers and instrumentalists, churches, and many other organizations need music for any number of activities, performances, and enterprises. It is possible to build a strong, varied, and interesting career as a pianist or organist while still finding ample time to compose and develop creatively. An additional benefit of being a working performer is that you continually meet and collaborate with potential performers of your own music!
Compose music for video games!
In recent years, the complexity and sophistication of video game scores has increased dramatically, offering classical composers extraordinary opportunities for creativity. A Washington Post story by music critic Anne Midgette speaks to this trend: "Video-game concerts, a movement that's more than a blip on orchestral landscape" (July 28. 2010).
Work at a publishing house or recording company
Many composers are employed by large publishing houses, especially for those which publish the work of contemporary composers, because their particular expertise and training in new music gives the composer a sense of discrimination and knowledge of quality. Publishers frequently spend time attending concerts, "scouting" for new talent to employ or engage. As a publishing scout, composers might find this an excellent way to attend concerts, meet composers, and learn about the newest music. Recording companies also seek to employ composers for repertoire selection, curating of their discography, and other important duties.
Work in radio
Although the number of public-radio stations which perform classical music, let alone new music, are diminishing, there is still room for composers to find work. University-affiliated radio stations (such as WBUR in Boston and WUOL in Louisville) frequently have entire programs devoted to new music, and such stations need composers (or, at least, prefer composers) to select repertoire and work on the shows. NPR (based in Washington, DC) and its local affiliates often have new music, and subscription media such as XM Satellite Radio (also based in Washington, roughly 1 mile from the Catholic University campus!) employ composers. A recent BM Composition graduate worked for a while at XM Radio before continuing on with graduate studies at another prestigious conservatory.
Work in software
For those with computer and technology skills, there is a great need for trained composers to work on music software programs, whether professional or educational. From notation software programs such as Finale or Sibelius (where composers, with their specialized knowledge of notation, are needed as consultants both in the design and upgrade process) to audio software such as ProTools, Cakewalk, or Sound Forge, to keyboards, MIDI interfaces, software design and programming, composers have much to contribute and are in demand. Educational software for music theory, ear training, or performance-based software, is a growing market with a need for trained musicians. Internet-based media such as iTunes may employ composers, as well.
Work for a presenting organization (arts administration)
Every symphony orchestra and opera company, as well as many new music, chamber music, and concert series organizations, need knowledgeable people to work for them in their task of presenting concerts. A "presenter" is the general term used for an organization which sponsors, advertises, and funds concerts: thus, institutions such as Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center are all presenters, as are such organizations as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Tanglewood Festival, and the Capital Fringe Festival. All large organizations, particularly those which present new music, or have new music as part of their repertory, benefit from having knowledgeable and trained composers on their staffs. There is room on the "business," or arts administration side of such organizations (which involves marketing, accounting, legal, education, etc.), as well as the artistic side (see below).
Work for a symphony orchestra, opera company, theatrical or dance company
Composers often work in the artistic side of a presenting organization: for example, they might serve as staff music directors for music theater or opera companies, or as rehearsal pianists, vocal coaches, or conductors for these organizations; as members of the music staff, they may serve on programming committees, helping to select repertoire for future seasons, or serve in artist relations, which involve direct contact with resident and visiting artists. There are many ways in which a composer (especially a composer with performing skills) may participate in, and contribute significantly to, the life of a presenting organization.
Work as a music journalist/critic
Many composers have found a way to combine their normal concert-going habits with music criticism: although full-time music critic positions are few (and confined mostly to such major newspapers as the New York Times and Washington Post), composers may be asked to attend concert and write reviews as "stringers" - that is, external non-employees engaged on a contract basis (paid for each review). This may be a fulfilling and artistically interesting way not only to attend concerts free of charge (an excellent benefit!), but also to participate in the musical discourse of a city. With the advent of internet publications, there are also many outlets for reviewers to contribute to online journals (such as ion arts).
Work for a composer service organization
A very important capacity in which composers can work in the field of new music is to work for one of the many composer service organizations, such as the American Composers Forum (based in Minneapolis, but with regional chapters across the USA), the Society of Composers, Inc., or the American Music Center (both based in NYC). These organizations, through grant programs, opportunity lists, and (in some cases) festivals and conferences, seek to promote the music of their member composers, and trained, knowledgeable, and well-connected composers are always desirable employees. Many such organizations may only be able to afford part-time help, but many full-time positions are available.
Work in commercial music
Every television or radio commercial, every computer start-up system, every cell phone company, and every video game manufacturer needs someone to compose the music (or, in many cases, the motives) for its musical products. Composers may find a surprisingly lucrative career in advertising and commercial music: soundtracks for 30-second commercials pay astonishingly well, and many composers have combined work in commercial music with their own classical work. Advertising companies exist in all major metropolitan areas, but there is a freelance basis to this work, as well.
Work in television or film
Composers have always found work in television since the medium's inception: networks have "logos," or short jingles identifying them; news broadcasts have theme music, and all sitcoms and documentaries hire composers to create music for them, as well. As with advertising composition, work in TV can be extremely lucrative. Film composition, a genre to which many aspire, offers great financial rewards to those composers at the top of their field, but also is a very demanding discipline in terms of hours of work. Many film composers are confronted with the need to score a feature-length (say, 100-minute) film in less than a week; if the film company employs electronic scores, this is more feasible, but many still employ traditional orchestras, requiring the composer to write very quickly and then (if the film company is large enough) turn over the work to a copyist (see above) for generating score and parts for the performers. Despite this frequently-hectic pace, many composers have had very satisfying careers in film music. (Michael Schelle's book The Score: Interviews with Film Composers, Silman-James Press 1998, provides an interesting set of perspectives on the profession).