Videogame Composers: How to quickly Start from Blank

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You’re tasked with writing a music track for a level. Where would you start?

Starting work from a blank piece of paper may feel like one of the hardest things for composers. At the start of writing every piece, you doubt yourself with every melodic ideas and chord progression choices you’ve made, and until you’ve spent hours and hours working on the piece to get to that “point” where you finally feel confident in what you’re writing.

I find it easier and faster to that point if I can ask myself these 5 questions.

1. Gameplay?

That’s right. We as game composers need our music to serve the overall gameplay. So, what is the gameplay like? Are there any specific mechanics that may decide how you write this music out?

For example, the game Food Drive is a high-score based game. It runs on time, and can also track how well the player is performing throughout the game. Based on these gameplay elements, I can immediately eliminate the need for writing 2 minute of looping music, but instead think about how the music will evolve based on the time left. In this case, writing small bits of musical phrases that will transition from one to another is better. Designing this layout ahead of time saved me hours of precious time.

2. Emotion?

Music plays a vital role in creating emotion for the player, along with the visuals of the game. If you start out the composition process by defining a specific emotion that can be defined by a couple of adjectives, such as ‘Warm’, ‘Chilly’, ‘Grandiose’, or ‘Heartbreaking’, you are already saving yourself a lot of time by unconsciously swaying into another emotion down the line.

3. Instrumentation?

Start out the piece with very small list of instrumentation. Usually it’s best to keep musical ideas big and list of instruments small, down to 8 and 12 at maximum. By defining what instruments you want to use in your piece, you can stop yourself from adding a harmonica into your epic trailer down the line. Doesn’t mean that it’s bad to experiment with new instruments, but beware of how much time it can cost you.

4. Melody?

Melody is the single most powerful weapon you have as a composer. It is a single line that gets absorbed into your players’ heads as they play the game and listen to your music, and keep them coming back for more. You can work on your melody before you even sit down on your desk. While you’re doing chores, like washing dishes or vacuuming the floor, hum to yourself a melody after considering all of the three mentioned above. If you want to up your melody game, try listening to a lot of Mario games and pay attention to why its so memorable. Easily singable, interesting rhythms, constantly moving melodic line, dominant chordal notes on down beats, chromatic decorations, room to breathe.

It’s like a fun puzzle piece to starting your piece from a strong melody. Write 1-2 measures worth of simple phrase, then try stretching it out, or doubling its speed. Take one of the intervals and use it for the bridge section, or take 3 notes and transpose them up, or reverse their order in order to make something more interesting. It’s little things like that that contain similarity to one simple phrase of melody that our ears LOVE.

5. Chord Progressions?

Chord Progression supports your melody. You may want to try expanding beyond your original chord progression that you had in mind. I-IV-V-I is okay, but what about secondary dominants? 9th, 11th and 13th chords? How about inversions? What about transposing your piece half way through? Depending on what chords you use, your piece can sound great or impossible to stop coming back to.

 

That’s it for today. Now it’s time for me to go write a track for a level. Thanks for reading!

Love,

Daniel

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