Updated: Aug 16, 2021
As video game music composers, the way we practice should reflect our unique medium.
We’re incredibly lucky to be video game music composers. For us, it’s the most wonderful job in the world and we know it. Somewhere out there, some kid is playing a game that your music is in and their minds are getting blown. It’s impacting them deeply. It’s going to change their lives and your music was part of the experience. It’s the same thing that happened to each one of us and it’s exactly why we’re here today.
Part of the magic in our music is the way that it is experienced within the game. In 1964, Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan coined the term, “the medium is the message.” It’s become relatively ubiquitous in communications studies, and Wikipedia describes it as such: “The content of the medium is a message that can be easily grasped and the character of the medium is another message which can be easily overlooked.” We all easily grasp the content of video game music: we play the game, we listen to the soundtrack, some of us even buy the sheet music when it’s available. However, what makes the music of video games so magical is its unique characteristics compared to other forms of music. Video game music is dynamic and interactive in a way that is impossible in other mediums. Its ability to bridge genres and styles is unsurpassed. Nothing is off-limits as far as instrumentation is concerned. Sure, it soundtracks the games but really, it soundtracks you as you play the game.
Our practice must account for these characteristics
Our practice must account for these characteristics but the question isn’t why, but how? The ways many of us practice and maintain our musical habits have been developed through some mix of formal music education and self-education through written and online resources. However, most (if not all) of those resources have been made with the purpose of helping you compose traditional forms of linear music. Don’t give those resources up though. If we were to lose those foundations, video game music would have nothing to stand upon. Instead, we need to try and augment our habits with additional routines that support the idiosyncrasies of video game music.
So, here are five exercises you can use to practice video game music composition. This list is by no means exhaustive. If you have tips you’d like to share, leave them in the comments below or share them on social media with the hashtag #vgmCompositionTips and, if we have enough, I’ll post an article in the near future cataloging them all for easy access.
1. Study in-game musical form
Video game music, by its very nature, is dynamic. As conditions in a game change, the music has to react and change accordingly or the intent of that specific cutscene or gameplay moment is lost entirely. These changes can occur quickly and fluidly as well. Many modern games, such as Horizon Zero Dawn or Wolfenstein, give the player a lot of freedom in how they handle any given situation. The player can take a stealth approach or they can go in guns-a-blazing. Often the player can move fluidly back and forth between these two playstyles within a single instance of combat. The action has to be scored dynamically. Furthermore, if a game asks you to spend a lot of time in a single area, then adding variation to the music keeps it from getting stale and predictable.
The dynamic music that is called for in situations like this is accomplished by interactive systems that can vary the form of the music according to the game state. These changes in form can be studied in the same way that we might study a sonata or a jazz performance. By studying the in-game implementation of music, it’ll help provide a better understanding of how to arrange your own music for usage in the various game you score.
For this exercise, load up your favorite game and go to a place within the game where there is continuous music but no threats to you as the player. Often times, towns and villages are great places for this. Then, just sit and listen. Take note of what you hear first and try to establish the primary theme in the music. Take not of variations on that theme. Listen for other themes and sections that might be introduced. See if you can discover patterns and similarities. Expand your research to multiple games. You might discover a lot of commonalities.
2. Practice vertical composition
One of the techniques unique to video game music in comparison to other forms of media is vertical composition. Vertical composition is where layers are added and removed from a single looped piece of music to create variation and motion in the music. In the technique instrumentation is the key to creating the momentum. Sometimes it’s used to dramatically change the music but often it’s simply used to keep things interesting without using more musical material than necessary.
A great example of this technique in use is Beneath the Mask from Persona 5. This music plays while you’re at Café Leblanc and at certain other points within the game. Its A and B theme (or, the verse and the chorus in the vocal version) both use the same descending Cmin7 - Bbmaj7 - Gm7 chord progression anchored by an ostinato figure moving back and forth between the notes D and F. Instruments get pulled in and out to make it seem like there is more variation happening than there actually is.
Practice this exercise by writing a chord progression on piano, guitar, or an instrument of your choosing. Then write five unique lines for different instruments that work overtop that chord progression (even better if they all work when played together). Now, loop that chord progression and pull those different instruments in and out of the mix and listen to how the quality and the mood of the music changes as you do that. Sometimes, playing the chord progression outright can exert too much influence over the mood of the music despite changing instrumentation. Take a page from Beneath the Mask. Write an ostinato against which everything else plays. Use it to imply the key and the chord progression without shackling yourself to it strictly. See if you can come up with something interesting.
3. Practice Your Transitions
This one might be super obvious but it’s important to not overlook it. Part of the magic in dynamic music is how it changes from one form to another. Sure, you could have the music fade out and in (and sometimes that’s the best call) but being able to fluidly move between musical segments using transitions and stingers can be a more sophisticated approach.
There are a few ways to produce a good transition in interactive music systems. You can simply compose the transition into the looping musical segment. This is easiest if where you finish your musical segment harmonically is compatible with both where the segment began and where your new segment will begin. For example, if your loop begins on Fmaj7 and finishes on C7 and your new segment will begin on a Dm, then you’re going to be okay harmonically. Of course, you can move to whatever chord you want to though if you make it convincing enough. I, personally, am here for the spice. Another way to transition between musical segments is the use of a smaller segment as a bridge between the two segments. And, finally, if you gotta do some real cowboy shit, you can use a stinger which is great for announcing that the transition is here and everybody’s going to like it.
A great way to practice this is to create two musical segments (length is up to you), that are radically different. The more different you make them, the harder the challenge will be. Then, try and transition between them as smoothly as possible using a stinger and a shorter segment used to bridge the two. You can also try to compose the musical segments in a way that they move seamlessly into each other front-to-back and think about the way you’re dovetailing parts together to make the transition smooth.
4. Compose the theme for a crazy, non-existent game
Video games as a medium is a unique synthesis. It is an amalgamation of programming, art, sound, storytelling, and design (among many other things). The source material for our games is just as much of a melting pot. For many indie developers, their first game is the opportunity to make the mash-up they’ve always dreamed of. These strange and wonderful hybrids often call for music that is just as unique; calling us to synthesize many styles, genres, and production techniques to create a sound that is authentic to the world the developer is creating.
Some might balk at this sort of approach but it’s a great opportunity to stand out and push yourself out of your comfort zones. An excellent example of this approach in action is Bastion and Transistor by SuperGiant Games. Part of what makes these two games so memorable is their soundtrack. Composer Darren Korb created new genres for each of these games by mashing up several different styles of music. For Bastion, he aimed to create “acoustic frontier trip-hop” whereas on Transistor he pioneered “old-world electronic post-rock.” They’re both musical combinations that you’ve likely never heard of before and may never again. They leave an impression as a result.
To get yourself in this sort of headspace, instead of just imagining a crazy genre mash-up, imagine a really out there game. Follow some sort of formula (I do 1. aesthetic, 2. style, and 3. gameplay loop) for maximum effect. So, you could be trying to compose the theme for an 8-bit spaghetti western dating simulator. Or, a low poly romantic looter shooter. Creating these outlandish and evocative game concepts will help you get into the strange headspace required to develop new and unique musical directions for yourself. And, you’ll end up with a hella cool new portfolio piece.
5. Steal Everything but the Music
Every video game composer has that one piece of music they so desperately wish they had written. For me, it’s Somnus by the incomparable Yoko Shimomura. Her music has always moved me but this piece, in particular, hits me like a ton of bricks every single time. Once I’ve listened to it, I often have to listen several times in a row before I can move on with my life. It is one piece I so, so desperately wish to have written.
Luckily, it has much to teach me and there are many ways I can learn from it, including this exercise. The music that moves us becomes part of the fabric of our DNA. It enters into our language and becomes patterns in our musical speech. However, this process is incredibly long. It begins in childhood and continues throughout our lives and, sometimes, it takes years before a particular influence emerges into our musical language.
For this exercise, we’re going to speed up the process. Find a piece of video game music you wish to emulate. Listen to it, and take notes. Try to catch big picture stuff like tempo, time signature, and key signature. Catch the arrangement as well. What instrumentation does it start with? How does it evolve over the duration of the piece and where does it finish? Take note of dynamics and timbre. Try to capture as many details as you can just shy of transcribing the music. Now, take all that information as a map and write music that follows that map to a tee. The melody, harmony, and rhythm will all be your own but you can begin to try and capture some other aspects of the music you wish you had written and give your musical DNA a hot injection.
It’s all about leveling up.
Being a good video game music composer has nothing to do with magical powers bestowed upon a select group of people by some higher, musical force. It’s just hard work and practice. That’s it. It really is that simple. But, that does mean that you have to practice and practice hard.
I hope these five exercises help you in your quest to become a better video game music composer. As I said before if you have your own tips, feel free to leave them in the comment section below or post them on social media with the hashtag #vgmCompositionTips and I’ll share as many as I can in a future blog post!