The orchestra I play in is planning to commission a piece of music for our 50th anniversary concert in 2017. We've commissioned music in the past, and had music written for us, by amateur composers. These were great, and in a few cases the composers are also recorded by professional orchestras, but the composers had day jobs other than composing.

I don't know what term to use when referring to a composer who is not an amateur: one who makes their income from composing. The obvious antonym to "amateur" is "professional" but the term "professional composer" does not sound right. I cannot imagine anyone writing, for example, that Arvo Pärt is a professional composer.

What is a nuanced way to refer to a composer's professional standing?

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    Any composition work that gets you paid makes you a professional. – Neil Meyer Oct 2 '15 at 12:48
  • @dumbledad Check out my answer below. :) Also, the commission for your orchestra, is it by invitation only or is it an application? I would very much like to be a part of this opportunity. – jjmusicnotes Oct 2 '15 at 13:54
  • "Not dead broke" composer :-) – Carl Witthoft Oct 2 '15 at 14:19
  • "working composer" might be good in some cases -- maybe in between "emerging" and "established" :) – NReilingh Oct 2 '15 at 22:43

As a composer myself, I tell non-musicians that I'm a Professional Composer, it's just the easiest way to describe it. Here's the thing, very, very few composers throughout history were able to make a living solely off writing music. Even now, there are a only a handful of composers in the US who are able to do this. JS Bach worked for 4 different churches, Haydn work for the Esterhazy court, and many, many, many composers throughout history made their primary source of income by teaching and not composing.

Even most of the best-known composers today teach full time and pursue composing outisde of their regular job, and yet, I'm sure no-one would argue that Frank Ticheli, Jennifer Higdon, or John Corigliano are professional composers.

That said, here are some very common ways to refer to composers at various points of their career:

Student Composer - Any composer still in school (BM, MM/MA, DMA/PHD)

Emerging Composer - Successful graduate students and young professionals outside of school up until around the age of 35.

Established Composer - People that experience a consistent amount of work / recognition; people with advanced careers.

Beyond these three points, it can be specific to the vitality of their career: world-renowned, seasoned, etc etc.

In my experience professional and amateur refers more to the mindset of the composer. Someone who is very entrepreneurial, always delivers on time, and actively pursues opportunities is someone who is professional. Someone who is lackadaisical, misses deadlines, and doesn't actively pursue opportunities is amateur. Amateur composers don't typically make it past the "Emerging" phase as they just don't put in enough work.

I hope this answer sorts it out for you.

  • 1
    In general usage, amateur is frequently used to indicate the individuals motivation, and need not (always) imply a lack of professionalism. – Dave Oct 2 '15 at 14:12
  • I like the term 'established'; that does bring weight. – dumbledad Oct 2 '15 at 14:53
  • I do realise that most, if not all, composers will also get money from other things like performing, teaching, conducting. You look at someone like Mahler and it's a wonder he had time to compose at all. I meant more a distinction between someone who is, say, a bank manager but also composes and someone who is just doing music. Still someone like Borodin messes with that distinction too! Anyway, great answer. Thanks. – dumbledad Oct 2 '15 at 14:57
  • There is an unfortunate ambiguity in those two words: on the one hand, "professional" means "makes a living off of it", OTOH, it can refer to the person's attitude, and thirdly, it can also refer to their skill level. However, there is no real relation between those three. Someone can have a professional attitude but lack the skills (which can fortunately be solved by training and gaining experience), have the skills, but lack the attitude (nothing to do about that), and most sadly, make a living off of shoddy, low-quality work. OTOH, I am a self-taught sound engineer for a small Jazzclub … – Jörg W Mittag Oct 2 '15 at 16:46
  • … and I and all the others in our club pride ourselves in being very professional and delivering high-quality experiences for both our musicians and our audiences, despite all of us being unpaid volunteers working for free in our free time, and most of us not having any formal training in the areas we work in. And, being a registered non-profit organization, we aren't even allowed to be "professional" in the first sense. – Jörg W Mittag Oct 2 '15 at 16:48

Hmmm. I think maybe you're over complicating things. I would just call them a composer, and that is how I've seen it written for every professional, whether it's on a website or a piece of sheet music or a news article. I would think their resume and biography would be the context clues to impart your meaning.

Though if someone else has a better name I'd like to know of it.

  • The trouble is, unless they are a household name, it is hard to distinguish a professional composer you have never heard of from an amateur composer you have never heard of without looking them up. It would be great to find a term that avoided the web search for the composer's biography – dumbledad Oct 2 '15 at 7:21
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    A problem I see is everybody who's written any piece of music for even a small profit would then try to call themselves "Professional Composer". Also "Amateur" sometimes gets misinterpreted as a negative comment on quality. So I'd agree just "Composer" seems the most dignified way. – Andy Oct 2 '15 at 7:29
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    It doesn't really matter to me whether a composer is professional or amateur. The quality of music they make is what matters.Is there a certain reason you need to make a distinction? You were pretty vague about what context you will be "referring" to them in. – musiclover238 Oct 2 '15 at 7:34
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    If it's just advertising blurb you're looking for, then how about accomplished, or renowned ? – Tetsujin Oct 2 '15 at 9:04

I think the phrase you're looking for is

published composer

The orchestra I play in is planning to commission a piece of music by a published composer for our 50th anniversary concert.

  • Interesting - but the amateur composers who worked with us were also published – dumbledad Oct 3 '15 at 10:50
  • @dumbledad - Oh dear. In that case, maybe you could say a widely published composer or a major composer. Also, I like Tetsuijin's accomplished and renowned. – aparente001 Oct 3 '15 at 18:52

'Full-time composer'. Though I wouldn't use this sort of label. Big him up in other ways.


If you mean an established composer, try "living composer"! If you mean a person who earns their lunch money composing, then use the phrase "professional composer". I've definitely heard and played both types in reading sessions.

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