Spotlight on Film Composer and Author Tom Harrison

Spotlight on Film Composer and Author Tom Harrison

Tom Harrison is a busy musician, composer, producer, orchestrator, and arranger. He is also the author of the recently published “How to Become a Film Composer” on Centerstream. This book is a great resource for anyone interested in a career making music for TV and film. Tom was kind enough to talk to us about the book, his background, and his career.

Where did your interest in music begin? 

I was eight when I went to Gordonstoun, a boarding school in the north of Scotland. I’ll never forget, in my second year there, 1998, one of the older boys brought in the latest Offspring CD, Americana, which we probably weren’t allowed to have because of all the bad language on it. We all crowded around the little dorm room stereo to listen to it and it totally blew us all away. This was not the Spice Girls, this was something totally different. 

After that, I got a copy of Green Day’s Dookie from Sound & Vision, the record store in Elgin and that was it. It wasn’t long before I grabbed a drummer and the only two guitarists in school, got hold of a bass guitar and started a punk band. I was the lead singer too. 

When did you first suspect you might choose composition as a career?

Right after the first gig I did with my band, I knew I would go on to a career in music. It just hit me like a wave. At age 12, I just knew deep down what I wanted to be. I didn’t have a single doubt about it which I think served me well. My parents could not have been more supportive, they were incredible. 

My interest in composition came a little later. I had just finished getting a national high mark in my music A-level and I was studying at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Surrey (where I am now a senior lecturer in film scoring part-time). An A&R guy in London told me I was too posh to be a rockstar which, at 18, really upset me. That’s when I realized that I shouldn’t try and compete with the Arctic Monkeys, I should go into a field that requires the classical background I gained from Gordonstoun. 

I knew I could be a film composer because I had lots of music theory knowledge and I loved music that told a visual story. I was utterly obsessed with Genesis at that time. I also started doing theatre acting which completely opened up the dramatic, theatrical side. 

Who were some powerful musical influences or mentors to you?

Green Day, Genesis, and The Beatles were the big three. Studying with Nigel Gaston at Gordonstoun really exposed me to all sorts of other music though. I used to lie on my bed at home with my eyes closed and listen to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony or Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan und Isolde. I knew that I wasn’t going to be a punk rock musician forever, I knew that I had a mission that somehow incorporated these orchestral forces.

How did you get from Moray, Scotland to Berklee College of Music?

I grew up reading about Berklee in all the guitar magazines. I was a big Steve Vai fan for a while so I think I must have heard about it through that. In any event, I had it in my head that this was the best place in the world to study a breadth of different musical styles. 

In the UK, all of our schools are either contemporary or classical, there isn’t any one school that does everything like Berklee does. I was pretty obsessed with Berklee as many people are. I grew up in the middle of nowhere on a farm, my nearest neighbor lived a mile away, so, going to Berklee was a bit like going to Mars for me. 

Can you tell us a little about your experience in the Berklee film scoring program?

I adored it. To this day I consider it to be some of the best years of my life. It really was a dream come true to go there. To be surrounded by 4000 of the best young musicians in the world was just amazing. The tutors were also on a level that blew my mind. I had friends who, on day one, could literally sight read anything, play anything. Many of us went from being the best musician in our schools to being distinctly average compared to some of our peers. I had to study really hard which I absolutely loved. 

The film scoring program was brilliant. I think it’s even better now because they have probably double the facilities they had when I was there. It was so exciting because all of the tutors like Eric Reasoner, Richard Davis and Sheldon Mirowitz were the real deal, they had lived in LA and worked on really big movies. Again, coming from a farm in Moray, this was unimaginable to me.

What instigated the transition from Boston to LA? What was that like?

That first year in LA was probably the most productive I’ve ever been. I knew I wanted to live in LA and work in the film music business, I went at it like a wild animal. I had one or two connections in LA so I was able to get a chance to apply for an internship with composer Deborah Lurie. 

Debbie sent me a challenge to test me out, she asked me to transcribe this crazy rock cue from the new Footloose movie she was working on. I told her I was in my exam week at Berklee so I’d try my best to get it done. She told me that it could wait till next week but I assured her I could handle it. I bought a giant pizza and locked myself in my room for 8 hours straight and got the transcription done in one sitting. When I sent it to her (three days earlier than she asked for it) she texted me in all caps “YOU GOT THE GIG.” 

Sometimes you have to drop everything, dig really deep and pull out all the stops. If someone gives you a challenge, you’ve got to do it better and faster than anyone else and do it all with a big smile. That’s how you beat impossible odds and have a career in this business. Funnily enough, it was my Finale skills that got me that job!

Can you tell us a story from your first days as an assistant?

I have literally thousands of these, I could honestly write a second book of just assistant stories. I’ll go for one from my CSI: Crime Scene Investigation days working with my main man Mr. John M. Keane. We did this episode with Gene Simmons from Kiss. 

The scene was Gene walking into the lab. They did this slow pan from his feet upwards, all in slow motion as everyone looked on, mouths agape. I remember John handing me a guitar and asking me to play over the scene. I just had this vision of Gene watching the show with his family, listening to me play the guitar – crazy. 

That whole gig was really surreal because it was just me, John, and John’s dog in his studio, cranking out 25 minutes of music a week to an audience of 10 million people. I don’t know if it’ll ever truly sink in that I got to work on that with John, probably the greatest honor of my career. 

As a composer, what, so far, was your best day ever?

To be honest, being a composer has been really tough, it’s a really difficult job for a lot of reasons. However, there are these amazing moments that make it all worth it. 

Finding out my music was used on WWE Raw made me so happy. I think that’s my favorite library music placement, maybe SNL, I don’t know. The WWE Raw placement led me to work with Ring of Honor wrestling. I composed a custom entrance theme for them, that was my favorite custom project I’ve ever worked on. It got played over the loudspeakers at Madison Square Garden so that was huge for me. I got to fly to Dallas to see ROH perform too and go behind the scenes which was fabulous – I was a massive wrestling fan when I was a kid. 

These days I just want to work on projects that make me happy, and this was one of them.

What’s your typical day like?

These days, I do a lot of lecturing at the Academy of Contemporary Music. I’m really enjoying that, it feels amazing to give back to the next generation of composers. When I’m composing, I get up at 7 a.m., eat breakfast, then play as many different real instruments as I can to build a track. 

I’ve always tried to work between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. I’m not one of these people who work until three in the morning unless I have to. If I’m working on a custom project, I might get up at 5 a.m. and work like crazy so I can be done by dinner time. Snuffy Walden taught me to work super early in the morning. James Horner told Snuff that if you start at 5 a.m., you can get a ton of work done before the emails and phone calls start at 9 a.m.

What sets you apart from other film composers?

I think the breadth of musical knowledge I have and also my interest in all kinds of different music. I buy a lot of exotic instruments and really enjoy playing them. I have no interest in sounding like Hans Zimmer, I really like to do my own thing. I use a lot of heavy electric guitar in my music and a lot of drum kit because I’m still a punk rocker really. I really like using my 7-string guitar, which brings a very different flavor to the recipe. 

I also got to work as an assistant to a lot of different composers so I picked up so many tips and tricks from them. Most people assist one composer for years, which I did do, but I also got to work with a whole range of different people who work so differently from each other.

Who are your film scoring role models? Have you met or worked with some of them?

Honestly, John M. Keane and Snuffy Walden were both amazing to work with and I love their music. I worked with Snuffy at the start of my career, watching him work so quickly blew my mind. He would watch the scene once, nod his head, and then play something on the guitar that was just perfect for the scene, first time. 

John was the same. John’s an incredible drummer and is known for being a genius with an analog synth, plus he knows how to work every single thing in a recording studio to an insane level. One morning, I came into the studio and he was playing a Bach English Suite on the grand piano, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I suppose, if you start out by playing drums and singing on The Tonight Show at age 6, you end up being pretty good at music by the time you’re all grown up! Hopefully someday I’ll be as good a film composer as those two guys.

What is your workflow as a composer? Do you start at the guitar or piano, or a DAW?

When it comes to film music, I always start with the DAW pretty much. I think of it as this canvas in front of me that I’m building on as I go. I never have any idea of what I’m going to compose until I’m sat at the computer and then I’ll just start tinkering with a mandolin or a synth or something and suddenly I’ll be off to the races. 

I like to sketch out the skeleton for the whole scene first and then fill it all in. If it’s a really long scene that changes tack then I’ll do it in sections. I do a lot of cartoons too, those I have to do in tiny sections, usually each bit is four seconds long or something. I love scoring cartoons but it does take a lot of time and thought.

What was your introduction to music notation software?

I had done some work with notation software at Gordonstoun but it wasn’t until I got to Berklee that I really started using Finale regularly. As a film scoring major you first go through a lot of classical composition modules (and some jazz arranging too) so I got pretty fast and accurate in Finale pretty early on. It wasn’t long before I had a few tricks up my sleeve that went beyond the general basic things you can do.

What do you like about Finale? What would you change?

I love how Finale is really in-depth and complex, you can do just about anything in it. So many software programs these days feel watered down but Finale really caters to the expert user, you can really get under the hood and customize things. At The Simpsons I learned about using macros to speed up the orchestration process. I use Keyboard Maestro to run my macros (which I then trigger with an external X-keys keyboard). 

It’s not a criticism, but it might be interesting if there was a macro builder inside of Finale.

Do you have a favorite Finale (or notation) story or tip you’d like to share?

When I was interning with Alf Clausen on The Simpsons, again, really early on in my career, I used to go out onto the Fox scoring stage and sit next to the music librarian who is in charge of making sure all the musicians have the correct parts to play. He was really kind to me and let me sit in the actual room where the orchestra (and the craft services table!) was, as long as I was quiet. The music librarian always had his laptop open and I’d watch him edit the orchestral parts at an unbelievable speed. That was the first time I saw someone use macros, his were really complex, to this day I don’t know how he built some of them. 

Spotlight on Film Composer and Author Tom Harrison - How to Become a Film Composer

I’ve been enjoying your book, “How to Become a Film Composer.” What inspired you to write it?

I kept seeing all these books on the state of the music business today and how one can become a professional singer/songwriter. I felt that there hadn’t been a new book about how to go about scoring films for a while, so I decided to write it. I felt that I could share a perspective from the front line of the film scoring business. Plus I had certainly fallen into my fair share of pitfalls along the way that I could help others avoid. 

I have spent most of my life constantly thinking about the music business and pushing myself to be a more successful musician. I realized that other people coming up in the business could really benefit from reading some of the ideas, thoughts and experiences I’ve had. 

This book was written with musicians in mind. Whether you are a classically-trained orchestral composer or a DJ who makes beats on a laptop, it will help you better understand how to take the music-making you already do and apply it to the craft of composing music for films and television. 

How is the book organized?

The book is presented in three parts.

The first part is entitled “The Art of Composing Music for Media.” In it, I share my belief that composers must always realize that we are first and foremost serving the drama. Every note we write has to help to tell the story of the film. I also discuss how important it is for composers to be able to write music in many different styles, and I share my approach to doing that. My focus is on the nuts and bolts of the craft of composing for film and television. 

The second part highlights the technical and computer skills that we composers need to have these days. The era of film composers working with only a pencil and paper has passed. If you want to succeed in this business, computer skills are a must. In addition, all of the supporting jobs – such as composer’s assistant or music editor – also require these skills. 

The final section covers branding and marketing yourself to build a career. I explore some opportunities, like music for motion picture advertising and production library music, that some readers may not have previously considered. And finally, I share my perspective on how to break into the film music business whether through assisting or otherwise. 

Besides “buy the book” what one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring film composer?

At the end of the book, I give three final pieces of advice that I think are really important: 

    1. Don’t wait for someone to ask you to compose music 
    2. Define your ultimate goal – even if it changes as you go and 
    3. Remember to enjoy it, all of it. 

These three points form my closing statement because they’re so important. Also, I advise people to always put their health before their success. I’ve been through times where I’ve worked so hard it’s made me unwell. I had to always remember to make sure I was looking after myself properly and not working myself into the ground. I still do!

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a fairly major library music project at the moment that is under wraps for now but will come to light at some point next year. I’m also working on some classical music which is a very different pursuit, I’m enjoying that. 

Honestly, being a senior lecturer at the Academy of Contemporary Music has been such a thrill so far. In addition to lecturing in film scoring, I’m also doing a lot of lecturing in music theory and I absolutely love it. It’s really exciting to see the light bulbs going off in the room as people start to understand it and gain a passion for it. Basically, I’m employing a two-pronged attack on the musical mountain at the moment, one is academic, the other is out in the industry. I’m finding that this new balance is making me very happy indeed.

Thanks to Tom for taking the time not only to speak with us, but also for sharing his experiences through his book and through his work at the Academy of Contemporary Music. You never know when one thought or word will redirect the future of a fellow musician of tomorrow.

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