Gamesmithing: Composition I
In this article, I'll be looking at the composition of video game music. Too often you hear a great piece of music and you don’t have the foggiest how the thing was built. I'll go through my own composition process from the first germ of an idea to the finished product. This article will assume some basic knowledge of music theory.
It's easy enough to write a song*. Writing one for a video game comes with an additional set of constraints. The song doesn't exist in a vacuum, but needs to serve the needs of the video game. Some of the reasons for a song to exist can be mood-setting, building the environment, driving the narrative, or foreshadowing things to come. Repetition of themes throughout a game can add context to a scene or tie in an earlier plot element. The music lets the player know whether to get pumped for an epic battle or to relax, sit back, and smell the roses. In short, music communicates. Before you write a song, you need to figure out what purpose the song should serve.
*hahahahhaha but seriously
Looking at a concrete example is useful. Undertale has a great soundtrack, plus there's a fantastic article by Jason Yu examining how the music serves the game. I highly recommend checking that out. For my purposes, I'm looking at one song on the Undertale soundtrack, "Home".
What are some ways to describe the song? I can look at the structure of the song, a series of arpeggios leading into a halting version of the main theme. I can take a look at the emotional color of the song, with a solo guitar providing a warm and relaxing yet somewhat uncertain melody. I can also take a look at the gameplay context. You just fell down a mountain and were attacked by monsters in the Ruins. This song indicates to the player that they are in a safe area.
There's a reprisal of "Home" heard near the end of the game. This song, "Undertale", replaces the guitar arpeggios with "His Theme".
At this point in the game, the player doesn't know whose theme "His Theme" is. It's not until the end of the Pacifist route that this character is revealed. However, on a second playthrough of the game, hearing "His Theme" at this point adds a bittersweet note to "Undertale". The music speaks to what was and what could have been.
It's no coincidence that I choose to look at "Home" from Undertale as an example. I’m working on a game, Collision Bend, and I need background music for the protagonist's apartment. Thinking about what I like about "Home" helps me understand what I'm going for with my own song. The song will likewise be a solo guitar piece. (All the pieces in the game will be piano or guitar. I have narrative purpose intended for which instrument plays what.) It should sound warm and relaxed. It should indicate a sense of safety, although I'll be playing around with that. It should call out to a couple of specific themes, the outlines of which are shown here.
When I'm first starting a song, I usually play around on a guitar or keyboard until I find something that sounds promising. Sometimes I find a melody, sometimes a rhythm, sometimes a chord progression. Today, I found a single chord that I liked. Ladies and gentlemen: Amaj7
The chord has a lot going for it. It's a major chord, so there's that happy and relaxed feel. But! the "maj7" part of the chord (a major 7th, as opposed to a regular 7th) adds another layer to it. Compare it to a standard A:
A major 7th is just one chromatic step lower than the root of the chord. So, for example, the major 7th of A is Ab or G#. Having two notes so close to each other creates a tension within the chord. It gives the chord a different feel than a straight A major. It's less balanced and less stable. It's almost-but-not-quite together. It's exactly the feeling I'm going for. This apartment is a home base, a resting place, but there's a tension underlying it all.
So one chord is a good place to start, but hardly a whole song in itself. That said, I can stay within the chord for a little while and throw a melody on top of it. One standard technique for guitar (and piano for that matter) is to embed a melody within an arpeggio of the chord. Let's take one of the themes I showed earlier and weave it into the chord.
The theme is varied slightly from the example given above, but the reference to the theme is obvious enough at this point. I can hide it a little bit better, since I'm not going for an obvious reference. I'll add a little lick onto the end of each phrase. The player is at home and can take it slow. There's no need to rush headlong to the end of the theme.
The melody is developing, but one part of the song clearly is not: the bass line. One note repeated over and over again is pretty boring. When I’m songwriting, though, I put up a scaffold and build out before I build up. I’ll return to the bass line later after I have the structure of the song in place. It’s onto the next section. I want to move on from the repeated A chords, so I'll add in a chord progression to transition to somewhere else. I'm in the key of A major, so I'll put in a C# minor / D / B minor / E7 progression (III / IV / II / V). Arpeggios are the continued order of the day.
A couple things to note here. First and foremost, the C# minor / D / B minor / E7 progression takes us away from the land of A major 7, giving some needed variety. Second, the progression ends on the V chord, the dominant chord, almost necessitating a return to the tonic I chord on whatever I do next. Third, B minor (B D and F#) and E7 (E G# B and D) share a couple of notes. Using these as the highest and lowest notes for each chord gives a cool, almost sneaky transition between the two chords. This effect is heightened by the root of the last chord, E, not actually making an appearance.
Ending the last progression with the dominant means I'll head back to the tonic chord. I'll change things up by switching back to a simple A major chord instead of the Amaj7. This will give a different, brighter feel to the next section
The chords here aren't complicated - a simple repeat between A and B minor - and the rhythm remains straight arpeggios. I have a Bridge theme variation thrown on top for the melody, and then (for a little variety) I add a simple bass line on the B minor chord that alternates between the root and the fifth. The A chord gets a repeated root bass line to harken back to the intro.
When I was playing around with this, I found I liked the rhythm of the melody line. I'll take the transition chords from earlier and weave the rhythm and melody of the Bridge theme into the progression. It was an easy choice to reuse the transition chord progression instead of coming up with a new chord progression. Repetition within a song is the bread and butter of composition. The trick is to vary the repeated elements so that a repetition is both recognizable yet novel. Incorporating another melody is one way to achieve this. After this second transition, the song starts back at the beginning.
The Bridge theme is now on a journey, starting from simple and happy major territory and moving through several minor chords. It's changing, descending with some uncertainty, until it reaches the the tonic at the beginning of the song. Even though it resolves to the tonic, it resolves to our old friend Amaj7 and it’s different than the A chord it started out as. This gives the song a feeling of progression and development, even though it loops every two minutes. Music for video games almost always needs to loop. You’re always keeping in mind that the starting point is your final destination.
I've got a skeleton of a song in place. Now I can make it a little more fancy. First, I want to look back over the intro melody. There's a whole lot of A's in the bass line. During the lick, we can move the bass line downwards to create some motion.
Even with the bass movement, it still feels like too much repetition here. I'll split the first melody into two halves and move the first transition progression in between. While I'm looking at the first transition, I can add some simple fingerpicking in to make it feel less staid.
At the end, here's what I end up with. It's a simple piece, but it gets its job done.
At different points in the game, I want to have a different mood for the apartment. I might be trying to set a more wistful mood as the protagonist is looking back on her life. I might want the tone to be less relaxed if the protagonist is more stressed out. In the next article on composition, I'll show how the music can be changed to reflect these (and other) emotional shifts.