Have you ever watched a movie and wondered who is behind the music? Mariko Horikawa is a music composer and copyist who has worked on films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, La La Land, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Sing. She has already received recognition for her work, and her piece “The Land of Ice and Fire” was nominated for the Best Original Score at the 2016 International Filmmaker Festival in Milan. Although originally from Japan, she currently lives and works in Los Angeles where she creates compositions and does work on major movies. We talked to Mariko to learn about life as a professional musician, her advice for others who want to be in the music industry, and about the importance of music in movies.
How did you first get started playing music?
I got my first piano at the age of 2. It was a brown, beautiful, classic YAMAHA piano. My mom used to play the piano, so I started playing along with her. First, I was just playing on my own and tried to imitate her, but soon, fortunately, my babysitter happened to be a piano teacher from the top music school in Japan, Tokyo University of the Arts, and she started teaching me the piano. At that time, I was just having so much fun learning music that I was jumping around the room or dancing while my teacher was teaching me. But the more I practiced, the more I played well, and it became interesting. Moreover, I was happy that I was able to play four hand pieces with my mom.
I moved when I was 6 and the teacher changed. The new teacher was so strict and more serious about taking lessons and tried to make me a professional pianist. She taught me the basics of practicing the piano as a professional musician and helped me with building up technical skills. I started entering several competitions, and earned several awards from them. However, at that time, I was more just playing the piano than enjoying it.
Things changed when I moved to Virginia at the age of 9 for my parents’ work. I was there for 2 years. My new piano teacher was a French woman who had studied at Conservatoire de Paris. The way she taught completely changed my impression and interest toward piano. She taught me music with stories and imagination. She also taught me the difference of the sounds between touch of the key. Also she let me play several pieces from Aaron Copland, Gershwin, and Grieg that I never learned in Japan and these experiences not only expanded my musical knowledge, but also helped me win the Virginia State Competition.
After I returned to Japan in 1996, I auditioned the Piano Music Academy in Japan and became a member and receives several awards.
I started playing in the band as a keyboardist when I was in Keio University. From then, I started to play several kinds of music such as Funk, R&B, Jazz, Acid Jazz, and Fusion.
I’m happy that I found something I really want to do. So I just try to write everyday to find my own sound and create more music
You’ve moved around a lot, living in both Japan and the United States. Has your international experience influenced the type of music you write?
I think living in both Japan and the United States has influenced the type of music that I write a lot. In Japan, I used to listen to and learned a lot of Japanese traditional folk songs. But when I was in Virginia, I learned several kinds of music, such as American old folk songs, kid’s songs, campfire songs, Gospel, Rock, Hip Hop and more. And from an educational point of view, I was lucky enough to learn from several teachers around the world and through them, I had a chance to play several styles of music from old to new. These experiences expanded my way of composing.
Recently I think my composition is more influenced by hymns I used to sing throughout my school years back in Japan. I used to attend Sunday School in Elementary school, and my Junior High and High Schools were Christian schools, so I am familiar with hymns. I was singing hymns every day for 6 years in Junior High and High School, so there are always some part of hymns somewhere in my music.
What made you first want to become a professional musician?
I had been thinking about becoming a pianist or a piano teacher since I was 9 years old. But I wanted to experience other things than music and wanted to look into the music industry from outside the music world. So I attended general University in Japan and entered YAMAHA Corporation after my graduation. After I started working for YAMAHA, I got inspired by how they teach and started taking several lessons again, such as piano private instruction, Electone group lessons, synthesizer, and gospel lessons. Since then, I’ve practiced day and night everyday after and before work whenever I have time. 2 years later, something struck me and I thought, “If I want to go with music, now is the time!” I figured out that Berklee was having an audition in Japan, so I started preparing for the Berklee Audition and started thinking seriously about my career as a professional musician.
What was it like attending Berklee College of Music?
Berklee helped me find myself and made me realize what I really want to do in the music industry. Berklee taught us about our options in music industry jobs through courses. Also, in each class, they treated us as professional musicians. Sometimes they were strict, but they always supported us and led us in the right direction. If I had something in mind that I wanted to do, they always understood what I wanted to do and give me advice to support the idea.
Why did you decide to pursue film scoring?
First of all, I love movies and TV dramas. During breaks, I might even watch 5-6 movies (as many as I can) a day. But when I first attended Berklee, I was thinking about majoring in Performance and Music Therapy. I was interested in film scoring, but I had never thought of myself as a composer, because I had never composed until I attended Berklee. Berklee made me compose and arrange so many songs for homework. At first, I became more interested in arranging songs than composing, but when I thought of my style of writing and playing music, I thought that film scoring was the best style for me to learn and develop. When I write or play music, first, I imagine of the scene, situation and the emotional feelings of the character, and try to express them through music. That matches the way of writing for film and TV.
What is the life of a freelance music composer like?
Being a composer is not always easy, but I’m happy that I found something I really want to do. So I just try to write everyday to find my own sound and create more music.
How do you decide what type of music to write for a particular scene? Does it come naturally, or is it difficult?
Sometimes it comes naturally and sometimes it’s difficult.
If a client has specific image of the orchestration and instrumentation or a particular kind of music in mind, I will create with their request in mind to make it closer to what they want. If they don’t, I will talk through with them until we have a common vision. Sometimes, we use existing songs as a reference to share our image of what the composition should be like.
Which compositions are you most proud of?
This song was nominated for the Best Original Score at the International Filmmaker Festival in Milan in 2016. I created this song without recording any instruments but instead used DAW and sample libraries.
Can you tell us more about your current projects?
My workplace is one of the best music preparation companies in Hollywood. We work with various famous composers and artists. We’ve recently worked on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Trolls, Allied and the Oscar winning La La Land. My job there is a music copying, and preparing scores for musicians in recording sessions and concerts.
I’ve learned a lot there, not just as a music composer but as a composer, as well. I learned about the film industry in Hollywood and how people collaborate to make the music for big films.
What are your primary responsibilities as a music copyist?
As a music copyist, I can’t just know about neatly creating scores, I also need to know about music. I have to know about all the instruments, from their ranges to their techniques, and, of course, the definitions of music notation. I always need to pay attention to how the music moves and how the instruments move by reading the score and making the score easier for musicians to read, to make the recording sessions or performance go smoothly.
What is your advice for someone who wants to pursue a career in music?
This isn’t just about music, but you should always try your best and work hard towards your dream. It’s important is think about everything positively. Even with the tasks I have to do at my work that are not what I really want to do, I try to think that this information may be needed in the future. I try to learn what others do and how they create their teams. There is no ending to learning, so I am trying to always absorb knowledge from others.
What are your goals for the future and what’s next for Mariko Horikawa?
My goal is to become a composer who can touch and move people’s hearts and feelings. It is hard, but I want to deliver messages through music to talk to people’s hearts.