Getting Started With Composing Music for Video Games
Music plays an important role in telling stories. While this is clearly seen in film and television, less attention is given to the importance of music in the gaming industry.
A videogame composer writes evocative scores for games, including themes for each character, stage, and battle (if it's a fighting game). For those familiar with the popular Final Fantasy series and its victory theme, which was composed by the legendary Nobuo Uematsu, it has become a recognizable part of modern pop culture. Final Fantasy's victory theme has become so popular that some people still use it as a message alert or ringtone for their mobile.
Check out the victory theme below.
In the same way a film composer will read the script and watch scenes from a film, so to will a videogame composer play and study the game in order to create music that informs the narrative beats. Game music is like film music in that each score needs to be timed perfectly to elevate the experience.
However, there are some distinct differences between composing for film and for a game. In an interview with Gameumentary, game composer Jared Emerson- Johnson explained that gaming had different dimensions not found in other mediums. The biggest difference is that game music is designed for an interactive environment that is controlled by the player. “When you are writing interactive music in games, apart from it being really fun, you also end up thinking about it a lot more. You are not just scoring directly to a picture, but there’s an infinite number of directions that the music can go at any time.” A game composer will have to score everything from important narrative set pieces to the players walking down corridors.
Some games have received acclaim for their scores and the entire game's soundtrack has become an OST, which means royalties for the composer. There have been cases of a game's soundtrack even getting its very own symphonic performances, and Japan has led the way in bringing to life a number of classic titles including Nintendo’s uber successful Pokémon game.
Music placement plays an important role in any videogame genre. Not only does music evoke feelings from the players but they also encourage people to keep playing the game. In a study presented by The Washington Post, it was mentioned that sound is a "crucial component for player feedback," especially for slot machines. This is because the jubilant sound effects or celebratory sounds are tied to wins or even partial losses disguised as wins. In short, music can act as a positive reinforcement even to losing players.
Even for the casual titles that are featured on Spin Genie that carry commercial licenses such as Transformers: Battle for Cybertron and Ghostbusters, without the music, a huge element of the game would be missing. According to a study by Griffiths and Parke in 2005, "Winning sounds are carefully constructed to be heard over the ambient noise of the environment, in order to draw attention to the machines and to raise the self-esteem of the player, who then becomes the center of attention on the floor." If you've never heard of a soundless slot machine before, that's because there isn’t one. If there wasn’t music to accompany the slot, there wouldn’t be any atmosphere to the game.
Connectable Musical “Blocks”
Here's a technique that can be useful for fledgling videogame composers. According to a webinar hosted by Noteflight titled Video Game Composers – the Five Critical Skills, it was mentioned that connectable musical blocks help players create more effective videogame music.
Chance Thomas, the presenter of the webinar and author of Composing Music for Games: The Art, Technology and Business of Video Game Scoring, said that the idea is to compose a series of small "blocks" of music, which can vary in length and be connected in any order.
Each musical block has a function: the intro, which sets the mood for the stage that's about to start; the loop, which is a short, repetitive section of music which can be played continuously until the stage changes or the main character dies; and the transition, which is the connecting music that accompanies an in-game scene that aims to keep the player's interest. Remember these three elements of videogame music and use them as basis whenever you need to compose.
Watch the rest of the webinar below.
Composing a Sample
Taking cue from what the webinar said about layered loops, which are can be played over and over again, you can now try and create music for your game, which is 4 bars in length but has 3 different versions. Here's an example to get you started.
- The first 4-bar version can have serene sounds. This can be used when the main character is just walking around and exploring the game.
- The second 4-bar version includes extra parts to introduce intensity to the game. This sound will be triggered when the main character encounters a monster or if they are preparing for a battle.
- The third 4-bar version is the most intense and provocative music. This would play in the middle of battles.
In order for you to compose music on your PC, you can download recording software such as Soundtrap, GarageBand, Logic, or Mixcraft.
That's it. Hopefully, with these ideas in mind, you can create your own video game music and thrive in a lucrative career that pays around $75,000 annually. But, that’s easier said than done. This will at least give you an idea of what can be achieved, and the baby steps you need to go through to start your journey.