How To Become a Music Editor
“A Music Editor is the technical and creative liaison between the Composer and the filmmakers,” says Chris Brooks, a Los Angeles-based Music Editor who has worked with the likes of Martin Scorcese and Rob Reiner. “Beyond that Music Editors have a large variety of tasks on a film that are divided into two distinct categories.
“One is the work for the Director, [Film] Editor, Assistant Editor, and Producers. A lot of that work takes place before a Composer is hired— such as creating temp tracks, which means taking existing music and shaping it to use temporarily in specific scenes. (Those temp dubs are used for preview screenings and executive screenings.) There’s other work in production: for instance, if there are scenes with music in them that require playback, the Music Editor coordinates the use of all music on the set.
“The other aspect is working with the Composer. That [work] begins in the spotting session, in taking notes, providing information and updating info as the process of composing goes along, [plus] updating spotting notes and keeping cues up as films change, making [sure] those conform to the music and letting the Composer know what changes are coming down the pike as they come down.
“The most important aspect of what we do with the Composer is represent the music at the final dub. It’s our job to see that the Composer’s intention is represented in the final film. There’s also a lot of bookkeeping and organization.
“Music Editors tend to be hired by the Production Editor or Director or be on the Composer’s team. (If there’s a long-running relationship the Composer has with the Director, that relationship usually extends to the Music Editor as well.)”
He adds, “I also produce music, so there are a whole bunch of tasks I take on on top of my regular editorial tasks. Some Editors are like that, but it varies widely from Composer to Composer and Editor to Editor.”
The average yearly salary for a Music Editor is approximately $45,800. Music Editor salaries can range from $43,000 to $52,000.
“It’s definitely a union rate and there are a lot of contractual rules about how we’re paid,” Brooks says. “We’re paid a weekly rate and that’s spelled out in the contract. There’s no such thing as a daily rate or a flat rate for Music Editors, not officially. Most are paid above scale, although probably not the ones that are just starting out.”
Of the hours required of a Music Editor, Brooks says “it runs the gamut. There are certainly a lot of nights and weekends, working 60, 70 or 80 hour weeks. I’ve worked through the holidays and all that. It depends on the project. Some projects and some people are like that, but others are like 9-6 hours.
I don’t know if this is the case for everyone who’s a Music Editor but I have done a great deal of traveling in my career. (Namely, because I work with a Composer who lives in London and now I work a lot in New York. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t do a modicum of traveling.”
He adds, “The most wonderful thing about projects we do can also be the worst thing; it’s that they’re going to end. Like my wife says, you can do anything for a short period of time. So if you’re on a really horrible project, you know it will only be a few months, then you’re on to something else.
“The problem with that is if you’re on a really wonderful project it’s going to end and that’s sad because the people are so great. I do Rob Reiner’s films and they’re so fun; the people are wonderful and you don’t want it to end. When you work with the good people you don’t want to go back to the creeps.”
Brooks describes the usual trajectory as graduating from a music or film music program then seeking out assistantships, apprenticeships or internships, preferably in a major media center like New York or Los Angeles.
Once a Music Editor has been working in the field for a while, Brooks says, “I suppose the pinnacle of all that is doing big feature films for the studios,” which means more money and more prestige.
Like many aspiring Music Editors, Brooks moved to LA after college to find work in the film industry.
He says, “What I did was I made notes of who was on all the television shows and films I’d see. I kept a list of who the Music Editors were, then I went about contacting them. I called all of them and made appointments to go see them and see if I could get in as an Assistant or Apprentice. There are internships, all that stuff.”
He advises, “Television is always a good place to start because there’s a lot of work and a lot of people who need Music Editors. The great thing is that it’s constant; you’re doing a show every week and you end up getting a lot of experience. At the same time, it’s probably not as high pressure as doing a big feature film.”
- “Look for work with student Composers and filmmakers and volunteer your services.
- “Learn all the music software: Pro Tools, Logic, Digital Performers, and all the plug-ins.”
Experience & Skills
Technical skills are a requirement, but a knowledge of music is even more important. “Again, a music background is probably more important than film because those things can be learned—even the software and all that,” Brooks says. “We use all those tools, but it’s only a portion of our job. Pro Tools editors are not Music Editors.”
Brooks jokes that the right kind of personality to work in music editing is “someone who knows how to keep their mouth shut.” It’s also important, he adds, to be “someone who’s humble, easygoing and has the ability to fit in without having to always be the focus of attention. It’s definitely a service-oriented position.”
Education & Training
“A music background is always preferred. I have known a few who didn’t have a music background, but most do who are any good. [Get] a degree from a music school or a Film Music or Composition degree,” Brooks says.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“The biggest suggestion I’d have for any Music Editor, Film Composer or anyone who wants to be in film music is to learn as much about filmmaking as possible because that’s the language one needs to communicate with filmmakers. They understand how to communicate dramatically but not musically.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Using it as a stepping stone to being a Composer. It’s not. It can be, but no professional Music Editor who has dedicated their life to doing this work wants to learn that this young kid who’s beside you wants to be a Composer. We’re not interested in that; it is kind of an insult.
“It also doesn’t work because Composers trust us with their music and if there’s an idea that I want the Composer’s job, they’re not going to work with me.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“What is your contribution to a film? Probably that’s just because people aren’t thinking of asking questions because most people don’t understand what contribution we make. Filmmakers don’t even understand until we’re in the process!”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“The thing is a lot of people don’t realize what we do, especially with temp dubs and being on a film for a long time. We end up shaping the approach to the music because we’re in the right place at the right time and temp dubs are so important to filmmakers these days, for better or worse.
We create them, they fall in love with them and they end up getting the Composer to create something in that vein. We influence greatly how songs work in films because we cut songs to go into films.
“We can basically make or break whether a song stays in the film by the way it’s positioned, mixed or cut around dialogue because if you play a song over a scene that has dialogue if you have lyrics and dialogue at the same time it doesn’t work and it gets thrown out. There’s an influence there that’s subtle, but it exists.
“The way the layers of music fare, in the end, has to do with the relationship we have with the filmmakers and how effective the Music Editor was in conveying the emotions; it doesn’t mean just making it louder but also being part of a team that makes decisions about how things play.
“I’ve seen Music Editors who had adverse relationships with the filmmakers and the music was treated poorly because of it. On the other hand, a Music Editor can calm down potentially contentious situations by being on the team playing ball.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Relationships. It’s all about relationships. Also, how do you define success? That’s how I define success. Life’s too short to work with assholes.”
Christopher Brooks is a Los Angeles-based Music Editor and the author of the book Music for Filmmakers: Understanding the Impact of Music in Film. Over the course of his impressive career he has worked on over a hundred TV shows and films, including classic films like Goodfellas, X-men, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Pleasantville, Batman Forever, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series. Recent credits include Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora and Amazon’s The Boys.