Composing Music for Theme Parks — "It's a Thing"
As children, we often believe performing is the only avenue for a professional musician. Once you advance as a string musician, the world of music careers opens right up.
From professional musicians and star-level performers to conducting, recording, and producing, career paths available to those who want to make a living in music are many and varied.
Composition + Theme Parks = A Match Made in Fantasyland
Today, we want to spotlight a unique composition niche: theme park music.
If you’ve ever been to a theme park, you know how much the park’s music contributes to the magic, excitement, and drama of each moment. Perhaps you notice the giddy feeling that arises as calliope-inspired tunes accompany you through a carnival-themed area or the kiddie rides. That’s an entirely different emotional color from the loud, booming, often hard rock-like music that accompanies a roller coaster ride or the dark and sinister chords that build suspense in a haunted house.
All of that music was composed by musicians and composers just like you. Theme park composition is a less competitive niche than other composition realms. Many people, musicians included, don’t realize “it’s a thing.” So, making your mark as a theme park composition can open doors into TV and film scores or other composition niches.
Tips From Some of the Music World’s Best Theme Park Composers
If you have a particular passion for theme parks, a flair for emotional drama, and a natural inclination for composition, theme park music composition may be a wise career path for you.
1. Branch out into other instruments and arrangements
Richard Bellis is a professional composer with decades of experience composing theme park music. He started on the piano and had a teacher who spent a portion of each lesson writing bars from contemporary music. This experience gave Bellis a connection to both classical and contemporary music forms.
His father was a band teacher, so Bellis brought his newfound chord knowledge to his dad and asked how he to apply it to writing for other instruments. As he recalls in an interview with Tomorrow Society, “He taught me the ranges and transpositions of various instruments, and I started experimenting. Soon I had formed a band and was writing the arrangements. From there, I continued to write arrangements for big bands and finally professionally for singers, Las Vegas acts…”
Understanding how to compose for a range of instruments, rather than your preferred instrument, expands your possibilities.
2. Consider heading to music school for composition
In the professional music business, it’s not just about what you know. It’s also who you know. Meeting the right “whos” (aka “connections”) requires aligning yourself with industry social networks. Attending a top music school for composition is an excellent first step. The professors, alumni, and other university connections can go a long way towards helping you get your foot in the door by introducing you to the right people.
Your music school’s career counselors can introduce you to internship opportunities you wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. While you may not start out composing theme park rides, you might find yourself working for the TV or film industry for soundtracks, which can naturally open up to writing music for any rides created based on particular movies, cartoons, etc.
3. Theater and theme park composition go hand in hand
That’s a natural segué to understanding that opening up your horizons can be the best way to become a professional music success. Bruce Broughton is another well-known theme park composer. While he has risen to the top of the Disney composition empire, Broughton originally wanted to work as an animator. However, he got hooked once he scored an animated feature, and that experience ultimately led him to theme park composition.
Professional theme park composer Nick Hutson has written theme park music for Alton Towers Resort, Chessington World of Adventures Resort, Six Flags Mexico City and Sunway Lagoon in Malaysia. He jokes that most people don’t even know that what he does is considered a “real job.” As a young composer, Hutson dreamed of writing for musical theater, but through his podcast, “Musical Talk,” he wound up making connections in the theme park composition niche. His success led him to the relationships he needed to compose for musical theater as well.
The more you learn about theme park composers, the more you realize that keeping fingers on the pulse of theater, TV/film, and theme park opportunities is a savvy strategy.
4. It helps to be sympathetic and cooperative
Understanding the role music plays in leading a person’s emotions to a particular place is undoubtedly important. However, composing for theme parks is very different from writing for yourself or another songwriter. When you compose music for theme park lines, rides, settings, or attractions, you compose music driven by someone else’s visions. The client provides briefs for what they expect, and your job is being sympathetic enough to intuit what they want and deliver.
5. Be ready to compose emotional loops rather than lines
As with written bodies of poetry or literature, music composition typically works to create a beginning, middle, and end, so the song or piece of music takes the listener on a specific emotional journey. In theme parks, many of the songs you hear are part of the background, like the songs they play while you’re standing in line or walking through a particular themed section of the park, so there isn’t any specific action to narrate or enhance.
In such applications, composers must create music that loops back on itself and suspends the audience in a particular emotional state, setting them up for the ride(s) or the next experience. In some ways, creating these dynamic loops for specific scenes, narratives, or levels is very similar to composing music for video games.
The more you immerse yourself in the world of musical composition possibilities and crossovers, the more successful you can be pursuing your dream career as a composer. Perhaps you’ll compose a piece of music for a major theme park’s next most successful ride!