Tom Hunt

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Course Studied: BA Popular Music Studies

Year of Graduation: 2008

Top Career Highlights:

  • Creating the music for the Olympic Gold medals in the Dressage Freestyle Competition at London 2012 and Rio 2016
  • Helping to set Olympic Record scores with the music

Since graduating in 2008, Pop alumnus Tom Hunt has found a rather unusual niche for his composition skills – the world of dressage! And his talents have not gone unnoticed - Tom composed the soundtracks for both of individual dressage champion, Charlotte Dujardin’s Olympic gold medal wins in 2012 and 2016.

We caught up with Tom to talk about his musical experiences since leaving the conservatoire, and how they led to composing music for the very pinnacle of sporting competitions – the Olympic Games. 

How did your interest in music begin?

I took music at school, playing the classical guitar alongside being in a couple of bands. However, it was my cousin who was a big musical influence for me. He was a great lead guitarist and got me into listening to bands like Oasis and Coldplay, alongside reading NME.

Film scores were important, too – the music by James Horner for Titanic (1997) was a big moment in my musical upbringing. Apparently when I left the cinema, I couldn’t talk about it because I was so engrossed in the moment - the film score had such an effect on me.

Prior to leaving school, I decided that I didn’t want to go on to do A Levels. I subsequently heard about Leeds College of Music and the opportunity to study music at BTEC Level. Although I was nervous about leaving my hometown to study, the people I first met upon arrival were really supportive. During my course, we studied subjects that included World Music and Japanese Court Music before I moved on to doing my BA (Hons) Degree in Popular Music Studies. This was great for broadening both my horizons and overall experiences of music. Being exposed to a variety of music during gigs at The Wardrobe was so important.

How did you get involved in writing Gold medal-winning compositions?

Whilst watching dressage for the first time, I was fascinated by the horses that were dancing to music. It was music that I knew, such as Pirates of the Caribbean. However, for me the music did not seem to fit the sporting activity that was taking place, so I began to think creatively about the possibility of bespoke compositions.

A few weeks later I went to a local riding school, to ask whether people used original music for freestyle competitions. I was told rather bluntly that no one could afford to do that. Instead, riders got people to edit and piece the music together for them. However, I persuaded someone to let me compose for them by offering to do it for free – that was the very start of my journey with dressage.

Following this initial success, I contacted website horsehero.com – which has lots of lesson videos with top riders, mentioning that I was a composer of music for freestyle and asking whether any of the top riders wanted bespoke compositions. It was from this I got to work for notable dressage rider, Michael Eilberg. This subsequently led me to start working for Charlotte Dujardin in 2010, prior to the London Olympics in 2012.

How did your interest in dressage start? What was your knowledge before you started?

I had zero experience. I look back at university and I had no idea about the equestrian world or what it was – I didn’t even know it existed. There are a lot more people doing music for dressage now than there has been before. I now get approached for advice by both riders and budding composers as there is a growing need. There are lots of riders out there who are doing this and I don’t work with all of them so there are opportunities around. Riders are approaching music as something necessary to get a good score.

The technology has enabled this to happen. Dressage music is at the end of the day music. I did a hip-hop one recently because that’s what the rider wanted. The problem with straight pop music for dressage is that lyrics can sometimes get in the way. If you take that out of the equation, the focus switches to the melody. The judges aren’t keen on lyrics, yet the music has to tell a story.

How did studying at Leeds College of Music lead to your chosen career path?

I studied music because I wanted to do composition. I did take a lot away from my time at Leeds College of Music – in particular a different approach and the ability to think about music in a new way. I learnt that music is not just about melody, but structure too. I did a lot of gigging and performance based elements on the course and undertook a songwriting course with Danny Cope.

The experience of being around other musicians - watching them play and talking about music 24/7 all informed what I have ended up doing today. That immersive experience is irreplaceable. It has opened up different genres of music to me, as prior to that I was relatively closed minded. This is important in my line of work as now I have to write what the client or rider wants, not what I specifically want.

In 2008, I graduated with a 2.i. It’s hard when you leave university to know exactly what you want to do. All I knew was that I wanted to compose music for film. Coincidentally, this is something I’m getting into now, a little later in my career. However, I do definitely feel that I’ve taken a lot from university. It makes you who you are (without being cheesy). I recall the overall experience rather than specific moments.

How does songwriting and pop music relate to what you do now?

I always approach music – particularly in terms of structure (even if I’m writing for strings), from a popular music mentality because that’s my background and forte. It’s effective for dressage as there is repetition - a verse section for the trot, a walk for the chorus; it actually translates quite well, in a way that perhaps it doesn’t work for film where there is a more open structure and visual repetition might not occur.

The immediate thoughts that spring to mind when someone mentions songwriting is Noel Gallagher with a guitar, singing a song; however, it really is much broader than that. Songwriting and composing are becoming the same thing. I was a songwriter before I started my professional career but I’ve moved into a space which doesn’t require lyrics. Essentially, the process is the same. Songwriting shouldn’t just be limited to pop music but it could incorporate instrumental music too as it tells that all-important story. 

Since you started composing, has it become more of a norm to have bespoke compositions for a dressage event?

Music interpretation and the artistic score is a big part of the overall mark – a lot of the top grand prix international riders have opted to use bespoke music compositions. The judges have subsequently decided to see music which fits the movement as deserving of higher marks than edits. The complication previously arose when judges would give higher marks to music that they recognise - so multiple riders would use the same tracks.

What advice would you give to a prospective or current student?

There’s no point being narrow minded with music – you need to be open to many different things. At the start of my degree I was quite closed in my approach to the way I created music – using the same chords and a capo to change things. I did get criticised for that when I took lessons.
 
You have to be open to collaboration and experimentation. Being on your own is good to some extent but having someone else help you to think of ideas and to record them is much better. Collaboration is much better than doing it all in isolation. In a sense my work with dressage riders is still collaboration as they can give you an opinion. However, whilst studying, make sure you take advantage of being surrounded by other musicians and the opportunity to work with one another and experiment to find your own voice.
 
One of the most important learning points for me was to receive criticism from someone who you don’t know and have others critique your work. I used to be really precious about my work whilst at university but music is subjective. Ask your friends and family – see what they think. A lot of consumers aren’t musical and it’s important to keep this in mind. Always remember that the way a musician listens to a piece is different to the vast majority of the general public.

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Alternatively, check out some more information on our degree pathways in Film Music or Popular Music.

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