Do you need a Degree for Film Scoring?

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Do you need a Degree for Film Scoring?

If you are looking to get into film scoring, one of the decisions you might be grappling with is whether or not to get a college degree. This is a question that is still up for debate in an industry that has seen tremendous success from both classically trained and non-trained film scorers.

Multiple award winner and four-time Oscar nominee Danny Elfman, for instance, is famously referenced for having no formal education in film scoring. Entirely self-taught, Elfman has gone on to score for over 100 movies, including Good Will Hunting, American Hustle, and Batman. On the other hand, Academy Award winner John Williams who has composed for Harry Potter, Star Wars, and the Indiana Jones series, studied at the famous Juilliard. He also played piano extensively in New York before transitioning to film composing.

These two examples illustrate that there is a case to be made for both directions. The one clear thing is that some type of education or knowledge is paramount for film scoring. Let us look at each of these options separately:

Thoughts on a Formal Degree

A formal degree in music or specifically in film scoring will give you a deep theoretical understanding of the subject matter. It will provide insight into ancient and contemporary styles of music and the history surrounding them. A degree will also equip you with music writing skills, orchestral training, and familiarity with film scoring technology.

More importantly, a certificate in film scoring will allow you to engage with the industry, either in the form of an internship or collaborative projects. This is a great chance to wet your feet and understand the industry better.  It will expose you to different aspects of the job, and allow you to identify and nurture your strengths. You will also be able to network widely and make contacts that will become useful when you start looking for work.

If you are just out of high school, joining a degree course in music or liberal arts might be a good foundation for a film scoring career. This is because it will equip you with broad skills without confining you to film scoring in the case that you change your mind later. In the event that you wish to continue into film composing, then it will be easy to add on the required technical skills.

On the flip side, a college degree in film scoring is not an automatic ticket to a job. You will still have to prove your worth in a market where skills might be regarded as higher than a certificate. Going to school does not teach you the practicality of running after jobs or coping with the stress of failure and rejects either.

Thoughts on going the informal way

If you decide to pursue film scoring without going for a formal degree, you have your work cut out for you. This is because you have to teach yourself, a feat that requires an extraordinary amount of discipline. When we say that Danny Elfman did not have any formal education, this does not mean that he soared through on talent alone. He traveled the world extensively, performing in France and learning percussion instruments in Africa. Elfman also acted as a singer-songwriter for the rock and band Oingo Boingo. It was from these experiences that he amassed a wealth of experience in music writing before venturing into film scoring.

Luckily, today’s aspiring film scorer’s do not have to start from scratch like the likes of Elfman. The advent of technology has provided all the necessary tools to self-teach, including YouTube videos, books, and webinars. You can even join a master class taught by Danny Elfman himself or learn actual degree topics online. In the same breath, you can learn about film composing technology, including software and other necessary programs.

One important aspect will be the ability to hone your style, something fresh and creative that is likely to get you in the door. When you feel confident enough with your skills, you can start applying for internships, looking for collaborative projects, and sending out demos of your work.

Thoughts on Interpersonal Skills

Whether you attend a formal college or self-teach online, there are other soft skills that you need to develop for a successful career. Unfortunately, you cannot learn these in college or from an online masterclass. These can only be nurtured by increasing your awareness and being deliberate in your actions.

Film scoring is essentially project work done in collaboration with other people. You, therefore, need to have excellent interpersonal skills such as timekeeping, listening, conflict resolution, and teamwork. You will need to send your demos and pitch your work to hundreds of directors, and some convincing sales skills will be necessary. Networking is crucial as this is how you can learn about upcoming projects or films. This calls for socialization skills, knowing the right groups to interact with and which forums to join.


It is safe to say that a formal college degree in film composing is not a prerequisite to success in the industry. This, however, does not void the fact that you need an education or specific skills to thrive. When it comes to film scoring, understanding different music genres, the orchestra, conducting, and related history is essential.

The same goes for technology used in the industry, such as film scoring software, virtual instruments, and computer hardware, among others. As long as you master these skills, it will not matter much how you acquired them. If a director listens to your demo and finds that it is the exact sound or style that he needs for a particular part in his movie, he will not ask to verify your college degree.

To conclude – you do not need a diploma or certificate to work as a film composer, but you need prerequisite skills to succeed. Whether you get these skills in a formal college or university, or you teach yourself online shouldn’t matter very much.