Let’s have a very high-level view of what composers do when they’re involved in a game project. Let’s see if we can establish a non-scientific vocabulary that game developers and composers can use to talk to each other. The better a game developer understands a composer’s craft, the easier, more efficient and enjoyable the collaboration will be for both sides.
First, why is there music at all?
I find this question intriguing. Why is it so common to have music in games? Some games want to be as realistic as possible with graphics and sound and yet, there’s no music that accompanies our actions in the real world. No sad piano that starts playing when our dog dies, no string clusters and glissandi when we hear strange noises in our house and we suspect zombies. (Ha! I’d start running when I suddenly heard a sinister music while sitting on a couch with the TV off). So why is there music in games? Is the game not interesting enough? The story boring? Is the ambience too quiet so we need something to listen to while we gather resources, jump our way to the next platform, or complete quests?
Maybe. Games can feel empty if there isn’t any music that fills the background. But in my opinion, there’s a far more important feat: I think music is the best and most effective way of transporting emotions in a way nothing else can. No sound, no people crying on-screen, no heartbreaking pictures can shake you up in the way music can. And easily so! Music has the power to significantly amplify whatever the game’s story requires the audience to feel. Thus, composers are able to influence the audience to the greatest extent. Music can add that extra tension to an action packed car chase, a narrow feel to horror first person shooters, or create an infinite landscape for adventures when, in reality, there is only a handful of hills and valleys.
Conclusion: One of the most powerful aspects of music is to transport emotions. Use this power in your game to leverage the player’s experience.
People have expectations, feed those expectations
Everybody has a long experience of playing games, watching movies, or traveling the world. We have a bag of personal experience of how things sound. Let’s think of a Western game for example. The hot ambience in Westerns is excellently transported by strummed guitars. Bells symbolize high noon, when there’s a shootout. Listen to a sample of Red Dead Redemption.
It’s because we have seen so many Westerns on TV that we can sort of guess that this music could be from a Western rather than a science fiction game. Maybe we can’t pin it down to a specific instrument or chord, but we have this gut feeling that’s based on our lifelong experience.
Composing music for games is about playing with those clichés to satisfy people’s expectations. At least up to a certain extent. To make it very clear: It would be very weird having electronic dance music in a Western style game, because this is simply not what people expect!
What music can tell us about location
Now that we know music can evoke emotions, and that we expect to hear certain music for certain kinds of genres, let’s pin this down further. For this example, let’s go from the Wild West all the way to Asia. The Asian culture is different from other cultures, obviously. Particularly interesting here is that the Asian culture developed different kinds of instruments! There is a plucked Japanese instrument called Koto or a bowed Chinese instrument called Erhu (make sure to listen to the sound bites on the Wikipedia pages). These instruments have a distinct sound and a special way they are played. As soon as you play a few notes with one of those instruments you instantly get this Asian feel in the music. Combine this with traditional Japanese scales and you immediately “know” this game has to play somewhere in Asia. Goal achieved.
Check out this sample from “Blossoms”, a free casual iOS game I worked on as the composer. It mixes Asian instruments with an orchestra, but still retains the Asian feel.
Other cultures developed their own instruments. A popular Middle Eastern instrument for example is the Armenian Duduk which evokes this wide open feel of an infinite desert. Here, too, make sure to listen to the sound bites on the Wikipedia page to get the feeling.
As you can see, different cultures have their specific instruments. We know the sound of these instruments from movies, documentaries, or personal travels. We associate their sound with a geographical region. If a game takes place, say, in the desert, I could try adding a Duduk to my composition to help make the setting more believable, because that’s the instrument you find in these parts of the world.
Conclusion: Music can give the audience a sense of geographical location. Help players immerse in your game by injecting the right location to the music.
What music can tell us about time
Similarly to our geographical sense there is a sense of time. If I wanted to compose music for a game that plays in the Middle Ages, I wouldn’t use a modern synthesizer as my go-to instrument. I’d look around to find videos that show what music people made in that time. And, apparently, there are specific instruments and scales that were used in the Middle Ages. Here’s an example of a medieval band called Flauto Dolce.
Did you get this feeling of kings, castles, jesters and feasts like I did? I would try and load the instruments from the video in my sampler (if I had them) and then try to mimic their playing style to get my first melodies down.
On the other hand, if I was composing for a modern, action-oriented Tron-style game, I’d look for cool and wobbly synthesizer sounds as this would feel more like a computer world with its technical, digital sounds to me. As a last example, think about the sixties era. It had its particular style of pop and rock songs one could recognize and associate with this time.
Conclusion: Music can give the audience an orientation in time. Use this to make your game feel modern, or ancient, or anything in between.
What music can tell us about the action
The pace of a game can be greatly manipulated with music. Action packed sequences benefit from fast rhythmical patterns. This could be percussion or rhythmical strings, horns or any other instrument. Here’s a combat example from the game The Binding of Isaac. Music by Danny Baranowski.
Compare this to the next track of the same album, which is meditative and calm.
Depending on the rhythm of various instruments, activities in a game can be perceived as fast, slow, forward moving and so on. Fast patterns make the perfect companion to get an extra kick out of a car chase or a battle sequence, forward moving patterns like this one from the game Ravenmark could accentuate a peaceful but hectic resource gathering period in a strategy game. Music by Josh Whelchel.
Here, too, music just amplifies that feeling of velocity or danger. And when music changes from peaceful to fast moving, or even dangerous, you know something is about to happen in the game. ATTACK!
Conclusion: Music can give the audience a sense of the speed of the action. Use it to increase tension or make players feel relaxed, depending on the current gameplay.
What music can tell us about size
Some instruments and musical techniques suggest a physical size to things. High pitches tend to sound like small things. Slowly played instruments that play low pitches like double basses or tubas make you think of impressively large things. This doesn’t only go for things. The same effect can be applied to spaces like landscapes. Music can create an incredibly open feel and limitless freedom like in this stunning video by Michel Fletcher (go to 2m 20s).
A voice and a long reverb give a strong sense of grandeur. Likewise, music can create narrow spaces to support a claustrophobic, horror kind of feel with the help of sound effects. The pitch is a big factor in this equation.
Conclusion: Music can give the audience a sense of size of things or spaces. Use it to underline the huge monster that’s about to appear or the claustrophobic hallway the player is supposed to cross.
WOW, music does all that stuff!
All those aforementioned elements are like building blocks. Depending on what effects need to be achieved in a game, let’s say an epic battle, a calm resource gathering phase, a vast and infinite landscape for adventurers to explore, or a narrow, claustrophobic house filled with monsters, a composer can combine those building blocks in different ways.
- emotional blocks (happy, sad, dangerous, horrified)
- geographical blocks (Asia, Middle East, Ireland)
- time blocks (future, sixties, Middle Age)
- action blocks (fast, slow, forward moving)
- size blocks (tiny, narrow, limitless)
Of course, these general directions, once mastered, can be explored creatively. Maybe you have a game that’s set in the future, but you deliberately use rusty-looking visuals and Middle Age instruments to get a medieval feel to stun your audience with an unusual combination. Or use Middle Age instruments to play modern melodies, as an accent in an otherwise electronic soundtrack. There are so many creative possibilities of using clichés, bending them, torturing them, creating completely new combinations of unheard-of music. And this is what it’s all about: Knowing the rules, exploring and bending them in creative ways.
With this introduction I hope to have given you an insight into the craft of composing music for games. You’re aware of the power music has to make the audience feel the way your story writer intended. Have fun, explore, and good luck with your game projects!