What is the Difference Between a Composer and Songwriter


The other day a close friend of mine told me that he always dreamt of becoming a songwriter, he told me that he wanted to create classical pieces of music and write for the theater and such. First, I complimented him for his dream and then I went on telling him that what he actually meant was becoming a composer and not a songwriter, he did not understand the difference so I decided to conduct a little research, here are the results!

The difference between a composer and a songwriter is that: A composer is a person who writes many types of music such as ballet, opera, or songs. A songwriter is a composer who writes only songs, (lyrics, sung in a melodic fashion accompanied by an underlying harmony). Therefore, all songwriters are composers, but not all composers are songwriters.

Songwriters tasks

Composers and songwriters have a lot in common, but since they both have different desired outcomes they also need to perform different tasks in order to achieve their goals.

Usually, a songwriter will focus his attention on music that is played in the charts right now, they need to be aware of what is hot at the present moment, but also what is new and upcoming, focusing on genres as well as artists is a must.

However, once you are on the top of the music pyramid and have access to big-name artists you have the power to influence and define what the next hot sound will be.

Take as an example Max Martin, who dominates the popular music scene even if he is not a stage name artist. He does that mainly behind the scenes by crafting perfect pop songs.

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In general, the tasks of a songwriter will include

  1. Writing new songs
  2. Writing lyrics to these songs
  3. Booking time in recording studios
  4. Experimenting with new sounds
  5. Coordinating the rehearsals
  6. Help the vocal performer deliver the best possible result when in the studio together
  7. Play instruments such as guitar, keyboard, and synthesizers or have other musicians play them for him
  8. Arrange or rearrange the parts of a song
  9. Make artistic decisions such as leaving certain instruments out and change the underlying harmony or top line melody

Composers tasks

It’s not necessary for a songwriter to receive any formal training in music composition and theory, plenty are the examples from successful songwriters who have been completely self-taught or have little knowledge of musical theory.

On the other hand, we have commonly seen composers receiving extensive training in music composition and theory at the very start of their careers. Many composers, even continue this lifelong musical journey acquiring even more knowledge and expanding their skills for countless years.

While most songwriters mainly focus on genres such as Country, Pop, Blues, and Rnb, we see composers being quite popular in the film industry, the theater, the opera, and a variety of schools. With that said from time to time, they may engage not only in Classical music, but also in musical styles such as Jazz, Country Folk or Pop.

In general, a composer’s job is to help tell a story, that story could be a part of a movie or video game, an intro of a TV show or a theatrical play on Broadway.
Delivering the story without distracting the viewer is a must, therefore their compositions must not contain sing along ear-worms (look at the billboard hot 100 charts for examples) but also avoid being monotone or boring. Finding the right balance is an art on its own.

The tasks of a composer include:

  1. Creating and arranging musical scores for television shows, movies, video games, commercials, songs, and orchestras.
  2. Meeting with directors.
  3. Meeting with producers.
  4. Focus on things such as the right mood and the type of message the musical piece must deliver.
  5. Practicing his compositions and improve them making them ready for performance
  6. Writing new musical scores
  7. Revising the existing musical scores
  8. Transforming existing music into a new composition

Do composers need to know more theory than songwriters?

A composer is not necessarily better than a songwriter, both of them share similar skills, but since a composer is subjected to a wider array of musical writing he needs to be more knowledgeable in the music theory spectrum. Also, it’s common for the composer to have knowledge of more diverse skills compared to a songwriter.

Is the term “songwriter” used only in popular music?

As I recently discovered, the term songwriter is used in a wide array of musical genres such as country and blues, however nowadays the term is mainly found in popular music.
But when is it appropriate to use the term songwriter? An example would be upon hearing a classical piece we would never say something like“this is a great songwriter” or “I like this song”, instead the correct terminology would be “this is a great composer” or “I like this composition”.

While not necessarily the same as a composer, being a pop music songwriter requires a tremendous amount of skills and knowledge, crafting a number one hit banger and topping the charts is something truly remarkable and a result only a few skilled songwriters can deliver.

How to work with a composer

If you are in need of a composer I suggest you implement the following tips in order to maximize your results.

  1. Figure out what style of music you need.
    Every project has its own requirements, game music would be much different than let’s say a National Geographic documentary.
    If you’re unsure about the type of music that is best suited for your project, try listening to similar work in order to get a view about the direction you may want to follow.
  2. Gather a few musical ideas, but before presenting them to the composer ask him to give you his opinion about the best type of music that suits your project.
  3. If you have the knowledge and skills try creating a simple demo that could guide your composer towards the right direction, it doesn’t have to be a full-blown out production. Providing the time signature, BPM, key, and underlying harmony will be more than enough to start with.
  4. If your project is quite big try to distinguish each section, also adding notes and mentioning the changes in style & feel would be quite helpful.
  5. In addition, you can always check an online library in order to come up with ideas or provide the composer with specific examples to reproduce for your project.
  6. Establish your budget
    if you have a really small budget then you must target composers that are at the beginning stages of their career since it would charge a significantly less amount compared to established professionals.
    Some composers may also work for free in return for a better royalty deal if none of the above works for you then perhaps royalty-free music is the way to go. Keep in mind that royalty-free music cant be copyrighted, therefore you may encounter the same composition in someone else’s project.
  7. Choose wisely
    Price is not the only factor when hiring a composer, you should always check credits and read reviews of other clients, generally avoid people with low ratings or with no rating at all.
    This of course, can be troublesome to composers who are just entering the field, therefore when in doubt ask them to send you examples of their work and maybe hire them for a small but demanding project in order to test the waters.

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Examples of famous composers

Throughout the ages there have been a lot of successful and famous composers, of course I can’t include them all but here is a list of my nine favorite composers

  1. Beethoven
  2. Mozart
  3. Brahms
  4. Rachmaninoff
  5. Tchaikovsky
  6. Mahler
  7. Dvorak
  8. Litz
  9. Berlioz


By the way, if you like you can leave your favorite composer in the comments section 😉 .

Examples of famous songwriters

Keep in mind we are talking about songwriters and not performers, as a lot of performers did not write their own songs an example would be Frank Sinatra. With famous hits such as “My way,” and “New York New York” he is a well-known artist but If remember correctly he wrote only two or three songs in his entire career.

This was nothing unusual at the time since one of the first bands that establish the notion that performers and bands should also write their own songs were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Here is my short version of a list of my favorite songwriters:

  1. Bob Dylan
  2. Paul McCartney
  3. John Lennon
  4. Max Martin
  5. David Bowie
  6. Chuck Berry
  7. Smokey Robinson
  8. Mick Jagger & Keith Richards
  9. Joni Mitchell

Where to hire a composer or a songwriter from?

If I were you and I wanted to hire a composer or a songwriter I would first look locally for freelancers and music studios, a simple google search will do. Then I would look online, here are a few websites to consider:

Above I shared a few tips on how to work with a composer but most of the steps are also applicable when hiring a songwriter!

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Conclusion

In this post, We talked about ways to work with a composer, where to find one and we also saw that the main difference between a songwriter and composer is that the songwriter focuses only on songs. I hope you have enjoyed the article, please share it and leave a comment below!

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