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4 Ways to Start Original Game Music

Do you find the “blank canvas” at the start of composition a daunting task? Or are you working with a composer who can’t quite meet the mood you’re looking for in music? Read on for some useful tips.

The art of game music is the art of finding themes and sounds to match a particular mood. In most games, there are several different moods throughout the experience. The only exceptions are short, one-scenario games or, of course, games without music.

Consider the classic Super Metroid, which begins with ambient music fitting the emptiness of a lonely planet in distant space. Later areas have heavier music as the threat level increases, with most intensity focused on boss battles. The final escape sequence builds perfect tension for a planet ready to explode.

The ebb and flow of a game experience must match the ebb and flow of the music experience. Otherwise, the player will end up confused, overwhelmed, dissatisfied, or in the worst case, bored.

Musical emotion can be difficult. There’s no one-to-one connection, because it’s not an exact science. However, we can build on tradition to ease the process of finding a specific emotion or mood.

Here are four ways to approach a new piece of game music that will help find the desired feel.

1. Use music theory (or a tool) to construct a chord progression

Although it’s possible to write upbeat music in a minor key or a sad tune in a major key, music theory exists for a reason. If you’re willing to work with the theory, it can serve as a strong baseline.

This chord progression tool can generate a progression for specific moods or feelings. There are several other similar tools available online. You can even draw from your own knowledge of music theory to come up with similar chord ideas.

The chords are no guarantee to fit the exact mood, but if you begin with sad chords and focus on a sad mindset, you at least have a direction for the piece.

2. Quote or mutate an existing piece of music (build on tradition)

Many composers (although honestly, more lawyers) get hung up on the idea of originality, but this misses a plethora of opportunities that come from building new work on what has come before. Sad music is sad because it’s similar to sad music that came before. There’s no getting around that.

So, grab a piece of music that fits the mood that you’re aiming to achieve. If you’re worried about the final piece sounding too derivative, grab two or three pieces. Be careful that you don’t take too many, however, as you can end up with a jumbled, confused mess that doesn’t fit the original mission.

There are many ways to alter an existing composition to make it your own:

  • Transpose it to another key or shift from major to minor, being mindful of how this affects the mood.
  • Use different instruments with unusual intonations that make the theme less familiar.
  • Instead of pulling the main theme from a piece, pull supporting elements and make them the theme.
  • Alter a handful of notes or rearrange the order of sections in the theme.
  • Use a bassline or harmony that doesn’t “define” the piece.

If you venture too far from the original work you’re using as a basis, you might end up losing the original mood you were going for, so be cautious about how many of these twists and turns you take.

Test the new composition on friends who know the source but aren’t intimately familiar with it. You’ll be surprised how little you have to change before the tune becomes unrecognizable.

3. Base the work on one of your older compositions

Along the same lines as #2, if you have worked on a similar piece before, you can use that to inform you new piece.

Every composer has a style, and quoting or modifying your own work is a good way to develop it. When you continue to develop pieces in this way, the resulting mutations become your style. This helps to maintain consistency in your wok, which most clients and fans will appreciate.

The same tricks listed in #2 can work to alter your previous work into a brand new, original piece.

4. Come up with words to form a melody line

If you’re a wordsmith, lyricist, or otherwise a connoisseur of language, this might be the best approach for you. This idea comes from a GDC talk by a composer for mobile games, although I’ve unfortunately lost the source. If you’re able to find it, please let me know!

Instead of starting with the music, start with words. Think of them as lyrics if that helps. These words should match the desired mood for the piece.

In the GDC talk, the composer used the example of an ice castle level. He came up with words about exactly that–an ice castle. Something along the lines of, “The grand ice castle is so shiny and bright.”

The lyrics don’t have to be Grammy-worthy, but the more they match the content, the easier it will be to find an ideal melody. The rhythms and sounds of words lend themselves to music.

Get this melody down, then develop the rest of the song around it. Find a chord progression, build supporting parts, and be sure to keep the mood in mind as you go.

Conclusion

These four strategies don’t need to exist in a vacuum. You can start with the chord progression and invent a melody through words to match, or combine your previous work with the work of others. You can use the chord progression from another composer’s piece as the basis for words to flesh out a melody.

In the end, these methods are meant as a way to spark the creative flow of composition, aiming the work toward the desired mood. As a composer, you’re responsible for a good chunk of the atmosphere of the games you work on, so it is important to match moods and create the appropriate player emotion at every step.

Thank you for reading. I hope these tips help you in your compositions or working with composers.

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