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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Game Audio Instrumentation: The Paradox of Choice

Hello, world! This is a retrospective about Shuriken, a Super NES style original soundtrack for a hypothetical action platforming game released on 25 September 2017. Today we’ll talk about choosing instruments for a game soundtrack, and how this affected my experience with Shuriken. These ideas also apply to developing an album regardless of genre.

Note that today, I’m talking about traditional game audio, the kind of music that loops without variation. Modern tools allow for infinite variation in how to handle loops and stems, including adaptive and reactive music. Those are out of the scope of what Shuriken was attempting to accomplish, a classic soundtrack that would have been released alongside a Super NES game in the mid-1990’s.

Electronic Music and the Paradox of Choice

A difficulty electronic musicians face is the overwhelming amount of instrumentation available. Nothing can stop an electronic musician from making a song with guitar recordings alongside a breakbeat sample, virtual synth, and sounds from old Nintendo consoles. This can be a double-edged sword. While it’s great to have such flexibility and this combination might result in a cool sound, the number of choices makes it difficult to come to a firm decision on what instruments to use throughout a project in order to remain consistent.

Historically, music has been rigid with instrumentation. There were set kinds of orchestras with a set number of each instrument. These were all common, well-known instruments from the period and location. Mozart wouldn’t throw in a didgeridoo because it was unknown to the western world.

Even with the choices available to an electronic musician, it’s important to have an end goal in mind when choosing instrumentation. If breakbeat electronic guitar chiptune is the target genre for your album, go for it. No one can stop you.

The key here is that it’s a conscious choice. Heading into an album with a plan to make synth-rock then turning around and ending up with breakbeat electronic guitar chiptune can only result in a confused mess. The work might be salvageable, but it would require a lot of reworking, especially for earlier things which were meant to be more traditional synth-rock. At the very least, the work would need a new focus on this new genre, otherwise it will continue to shift forever.

When I started Shuriken, I made the conscious decision to produce a somewhat authentic Super NES sound. That meant focusing n the technical specs of the Super NES’s audio capabilities, using sampled instruments from the console. This limited what I could do, but still left my with a lot of choices for instruments.

Super Audio Cart, the Kontakt-driven sample bank I used for samples from the Super NES, has hundreds of options for base recorded sounds. Beyond that, it offers several options to tweak sounds and create new combinations.

Most modern ROMplers and samplers work this way. Not only do you have loads of possible sounds, you can also change the sounds to your liking, resulting in a near-infinite amount of sounds for you to choose from. So, choosing Super NES wasn’t enough. Choosing Super Audio Cart wasn’t enough. I had to keep working to find a focus.

Games and Genre

A fascinating thing about game music is that it rarely sticks to a known genre, unless it’s (again) a conscious choice like Jet Set Radio or Dance Dance Revolution. Most larger projects require a plethora of emotional experiences brought on by different genres. Final Fantasy IX includes operatic orchestral, organs, rock, a bit of classical guitar, and even some electronic undertones at times.

Because of this, I didn’t want to limit Shuriken by genre. I knew the battle themes needed to be intense rock-inspired pieces, the cutscenes would be more cinematic, and the levels somewhere between, ranging from mellow to intense. Still, I needed limitations. I couldn’t jump into a full game soundtrack with the only idea being to make it sound like a Super NES game.

The best limitation I could come up with was to select a small number of instruments. Granted, I made a huge mistake in not using motif as much as I should have, but the common instrumentation was a good step in the right direction.

I made a spreadsheet to show myself which levels had which instruments. Then, I went to consolidating that list. When there were two similar instruments (such as STRINGS Section 1A and STRINGS Section 1B) I chose one of the available options and converted everything to that choice. It didn’t make sense to have two different string sections, two different clarinets, two different electric basses, and so on. This greatly reduced the number of instruments used through the soundtrack.

 

The Google spreadsheet I used to track data about Shuriken, including instrumentation

 

Every time I went through the soundtrack, I had fewer instruments. I’d ask myself if a sound was different enough to merit a unique instrument for that track, and for the most part the answer was no. Sure, Organ B3 had a certain darkness that sounded great for a certain cutscene out of context, but introducing the Drawbar Organ that would be prominent in later tracks made more of an impact.

Seeking Connections

The effect of a game soundtrack happens over a long period of time. The player hears several tracks repeat in a traditional game soundtrack, which breeds familiarity with the sound of that one loop. This makes it even more jarring when music comes along that doesn’t fit the mold they’ve come to expect.

Granted, there are times you want a jarring effect, when you want to say to the player, This is where things change or This is where things get serious. But overall, the best soundtracks are those where you hear a random song and instantly think back to the experience you had. Few people familiar with the games will hear Earthbound or Mega Man X and wonder what game it might be from.

The smallest callbacks can sometimes make the biggest difference. The exact combination and reverb of electric guitars prevalent in Mega Man X or the unique sound effects riddled throughout Earthbound bring them a special character. Mega Man X is especially in strong in its limited palette of instrumentation for each installment, although the soundtracks never get old because of variation in style, rhythm, and arrangement.

Shuriken, on the whole, failed a bit in this regard, as the small connections in instrumentation were the only connection running through the soundtrack. In retrospect, I should have spent more time creating a consistent palette of sound that would run throughout the game, even with extreme variations. As the project went on, the instrumentation got away from me and introduced too many different sounds, creating a disconnect throughout the overall soundtrack.


Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. I hope you found the information useful. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

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Happy composing!