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Composing Music For Video Games - Key & Tempo

By Dan Harris & Joe Gilliver | Published May 04 2014 05:33 PM in Music and Sound
Peer Reviewed by (jjd, Dave Hunt, CRFaithMusic)

composition audio music key tempo

When composing music for visual media, especially films, TV shows, adverts and video games, it is key to be able to reinforce musically what is happening on the screen. Two areas that establish the mood of a composition is that of the key and the tempo. Further to the video tutorial that covers these areas briefly, this article was produced to delve into a bit more in depth about the choice of key and feel of the tempo. Although the initial post was related to composing for film the same musical techniques can be applied when composing for video games. This article is purely an introduction to one small side of composition. It is part of a larger series that is intended to inform both new composers and developers.

The Youtube video which accompanies this article to help demonstrate what is discussed can be viewed below:




Know Thy Character & Environment


When considering what to compose it is important to grasp the character's personality, morals and attitude in the visual, as well as the environment they are in. We need to learn and get to know the person the actor is portraying. When it comes to putting music to the visual, it needs to suit every aspect of the scene down to the last detail like “What is the weather like?” or “What season does the scene look like its been shot in? Does it have an essence of summer about it or does it look cold like winter?” We can then take these details and enhance the emotions that need to be accented.

We're massive Star Wars fans and love the work of John Williams. The music he composed enhances the scenes. Think of the‘Imperial March' when Darth Vader walks in. It wouldn't have worked so well if he would have marched in to the sound of ‘Waterloo' by Abba!

So how is this acquiring the right tone and ideas for a scene achieved?

One of the techniques we use is to find key words that associate with the characters and the environment in the visuals. Here are some of the examples we came up with when watching the Grazia Fetish advert:

Environment: Shady, Noir, Erotic, Gloomy, Street lit

Character: Devious, Flirtatious, Enticing, Seductive, Silky (model's movements)

Starting with the environment, we can establish immediately that it's very dark, subtly lit with hints of red, purple and blue. This makes the scene feel like it is set outside at night time and the only light available is from neon shop lights and street lights. The elements of shade and rain portray a 'dark' feel, there's nothing really happy and joyous about the environment.

Looking at the model's personality in the scene, she gives off this mysterious, flirtatious persona. The way in which she speaks with her body language, the way she opens her eyes slowly, the way she turns to look at the camera, the way in which see runs her hand up and down her leg, they are all very silky smooth movements.

What is she trying to say with all these looks and movements?

Every smile she gives off has a hint of seductiveness and 'up to no good' intent about them. The look in her eyes gives off a mischievous and luring impression. We may even go as far as to say she has the “Hey, big boy” look! As the scene unfolds the “Erotic” meter gets turned up the more it goes on. That straight, serious face that we see at the start becomes a raunchy, playful smile.

So how can this translate musically? Through the choice of key, utilising a minor one for example to put emphasis on the 'dark' feel, and also through tempo. Let's discuss key first.

Major Or Minor?


The reason why we try to pick major and minor keys for compositions is for the emotional feel. Essentially the harmony of the chords and the choices of notes in the melody portrays the feel and emotion of the piece. We associate 'major' as a happy feel and 'minor' as a sad vibe. Before we go any further into this, we need to remember for every major key, there is a relative minor and vice versa. The relative minor is found 3 semi-tones below the route note of the major scale.

I have chosen C major for this example because there are no sharps or flats, I have also added the names for each chord to show how the harmonies are the same.

C Major Scale: C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim, C.

A Minor Scale: Am, Bdim, C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am.

As you can see, both scales share the same notes and chords. The only difference you can see from this example is that one scale starts on a different note to the other.

So what's the difference if they are both the same?

The difference is in the 3rd and 6th notes of the scale. For example, in the major scale, the gap between notes 2 and 3 (D & E) are a tone apart. Whereas it is only a semi-tone apart in the minor scale (B & C). This difference in the scales are what make the major and the minor scale sound the way they do.

So to conclude, for us to achieve the mood we wanted to give in the clip, it was about choosing a minor key and minor chords that set a solid foundation to build a melody on. One that will enhance the visuals.

Tempo


This particular composition is set to 91 BPM. This tempo works so well with the visual not just because of how it links with the cuts of the shots, but also because of how the groove falls into place. If you watch the full advert for instance there are two points (00:46 & 01:18) which the tempo of the track plays a key role in emphasising what happens visually. Let's discuss one of these points, at 00:46, when the snare hits on the beat as she lifts her head. The drop of the music before the snare hitting adds to the rise in the composition that follows by allowing it to breath. If you look at her face, she looks as if she is about to overcome a situation and has a certain 'driven' look. It was this point that was key to emphasise and the tempo allowed for this to happen perfectly. If the track was faster it would lose the groove and feel rushed, if it was slower it would lose the pulse and lack the edge it has.

There are a few things that I want to mention that make up the composition that the tempo directly corresponds to. Let's start with the rhythm section, the foundation and groove of the piece. The drums are very straight which allows the bass to slot nicely into place with that 'pulsing' feel. To add extra attitude and rawness to that pulsing bass line is 2 distorted guitar parts, the first one being a palm muted 8th note rhythm to reinforce that rhythm section and the other was a “this one goes up to 11!” guitar tone that rings the chord out on each chord change. All this gives that raw edge to the composition that it needs. Lastly, notice how simple the rhythm section is. Its primary objective is to create that pulsing rhythm that many would consider “the groove” allowing space for the lead part to shine on top of it.

Another element in this composition to briefly look at is the string part and the end section with the guitar solo. These add depth into the emotion of the song. A good place to start with when writing a lead part is to emphasise on chord tones, notice again how simple the string parts are, highlighting certain notes of the chord that add flavour and draw attention to a particular element of the chord. Very simple, but effective. Lastly, credit to a great guitarist, Ben Monaghan, for the guitar solo at the end. Personally, I've played with many guitarists who judge a good solo with how much smoke they can create from the fretboard. Ben came up with clever little phrases sitting slightly in the back of the mix interweaved with a synth line bringing a little extra to the final progression of the song.

These are just some of the things that went into constructing the composition for this advert. I hope this article has inspired you and given you fresh ideas to try out for your own work.

Joe Gilliver & Dan Harris

www.ocularaudio.com


Contact - joe@ocularaudio.com



About the Author(s)


Ocular Audio is an audio production house dedicated to the creation of bespoke audio for visual and interactive media. As part of our ongoing mission we inform individuals who are interested in the art of musical composition, sound design and audio production.

www.ocularaudio.com


License


GDOL (Gamedev.net Open License)




Comments

Totally usefull for lone wolves ;)

I am having a problem with the video. At the 2:22 mark it seems to skip straight to the end. Is anyone else experiencing this oddness?

@jjd, yes.

Use this link to watch the rest:

http://youtu.be/oNfLcuYXf5E?t=2m22s

Well, this is a beginning but there is more to it. If you take the Am, and lift the last note half a tone, G->G#, you get the minor harmonic which is what gamers may be after. It is the scale for Malmsteen and other neo classic metal artists. 

 

Other case, take the Am and put the second note half down, Bdim-> A# (which should be a B flat for perfect semantic but Bflat and A sharp are the same). Then you get another beloved scale for gamers, the Phrygian scale or "Metalica" scale. Raise the third to major and you get the Jewish scale (Assassin's Creed I and II).

 

Finally, take a major tone and diminished the second and augment the sixth and you get the arabic scale, mix that to some metal background and you get the perfect feel for an arabic war zone game (Modern Warfare).

 

 

As you can see, music is way too large and complex to be summarized in one article. Some people dedicate their lives to learn it and still there are always new horizons. But this is a start and hopefully there will be a following.

Well, this is a beginning but there is more to it. If you take the Am, and lift the last note half a tone, G->G#, you get the minor harmonic which is what gamers may be after. It is the scale for Malmsteen and other neo classic metal artists. 

 

Other case, take the Am and put the second note half down, Bdim-> A# (which should be a B flat for perfect semantic but Bflat and A sharp are the same). Then you get another beloved scale for gamers, the Phrygian scale or "Metalica" scale. Raise the third to major and you get the Jewish scale (Assassin's Creed I and II).

 

Finally, take a major tone and diminished the second and augment the sixth and you get the arabic scale, mix that to some metal background and you get the perfect feel for an arabic war zone game (Modern Warfare).

 

 

As you can see, music is way too large and complex to be summarized in one article. Some people dedicate their lives to learn it and still there are always new horizons. But this is a start and hopefully there will be a following.

 

That sounds really interesting! I would like to know more -- how about writing an article expanding on these different scales? I realize that a subject as vast as music can never be completely covered, but as a n00b it is great to know that there are these different scales out there and now I have a search term that I can use to find more information :)

 

-Josh

Hi Josh, 

 

:) well I gave something like 5 different scales only, there are hundreds of possibilities! An article would be too broad or too long. 

 

The article would have to go through scale and then harmony which is the art of mixing note together to create a broader wall of sound. Simply put, harmony tells you if you can play a chord or two notes together based on the mode and scale of the song...

 

And mostly, I would have no time...

 

Fafase 

Well, this is a beginning but there is more to it. If you take the Am, and lift the last note half a tone, G->G#, you get the minor harmonic which is what gamers may be after. It is the scale for Malmsteen and other neo classic metal artists. 

 

Other case, take the Am and put the second note half down, Bdim-> A# (which should be a B flat for perfect semantic but Bflat and A sharp are the same). Then you get another beloved scale for gamers, the Phrygian scale or "Metalica" scale. Raise the third to major and you get the Jewish scale (Assassin's Creed I and II).

 

Finally, take a major tone and diminished the second and augment the sixth and you get the arabic scale, mix that to some metal background and you get the perfect feel for an arabic war zone game (Modern Warfare).

 

 

As you can see, music is way too large and complex to be summarized in one article. Some people dedicate their lives to learn it and still there are always new horizons. But this is a start and hopefully there will be a following.

Hi Fafase. Thanks for expanding on this, really appreciated. There will be follow up articles on not just harmony, but also other areas. The intention is to create a bit of a catalogue that can people can delve into. It's also so people who are relatively new to composing for visual media can get to grips with it. I know what is was like starting out and when people started quite intense theory at me it took me a while to catch up. More examples will come in the future that's for sure :)

 

- Joe

Hi Joe, I realize I might have expressed myself in a wrong way but I just want to say that I do not mean to minimize your work! more likely to say you are going for a long trip.

On the other hand, if you want me to help and give some feedback on your article I would be happy to help.

fafase

I have to be honest, I find this tutorial to be pretty skim on the details, examples and suggestions on how to handle different types of media/situations. For the past few days I've struggled with what exactly to say because I don't want this to come off as super negative or insult either of the authors. But this read more like the introduction and less like a full article.

For example: "We're massive Star Wars fans and love the work of John Williams. The music he composed enhances the scenes. Think of the‘Imperial March' when Darth Vader walks in. It wouldn't have worked so well if he would have marched in to the sound of ‘Waterloo' by Abba!"

 

Your point is well taken but it's an extreme example. There are realistic examples where a composer could miss the mark but still be trying to support the right mood but they're not discussed. For example what about a section where the sound design is low and heavy and a composer writes a cue that is also heavy and low. Would that work? No. What about scenes with heavy dialog versus no dialog? These are the kinds of lessons young composers need to learn about - either through experience or articles. But sadly, this isn't really discussed in the article.

 

I realize some of the video and the comments touch on going past just major and minor, which is just the surface. I wish more time was spent on instrumentation as that can make much more impact than just the harmonies used. Using your same Star Wars example from above - imagine the Imperial March played by kazoos. The tempo and key/mode would still work but the audience would think it's hysterical instead of ominous. See my point?

I also wish there was more discussion on modes - like how lydian is great for child-like or fantasy genres for example. It also makes sense to not try and show how to do X in all of the available music programs out there because that would take way too long. But at least showing some examples in the video would have been helpful to new users. (You can always use a disclaimer that the steps involved may differ for other DAWs.) I also saw little explanation of how to deal with interactive media which differs quite a bit from linear media.

 

If it was a series then I could be more forgiving. I'm also curious as to why the full version of the advert's audio wasn't included. I'm sorry to leave a not-so-great review but I was hoping for a bit more substance. In short, it can still be an article aimed at beginners and have more details, examples and suggestions to better help them get a handle on scoring to media.

Hi Joe, I realize I might have expressed myself in a wrong way but I just want to say that I do not mean to minimize your work! more likely to say you are going for a long trip.

On the other hand, if you want me to help and give some feedback on your article I would be happy to help.

fafase

Hi Fafase,

 

You didn't express yourself in a wrong way at all. I appreciate any feedback on what I write and how it can be improved upon. Your input is much appreciated. 

 

Cheers

Joe

I have to be honest, I find this tutorial to be pretty skim on the details, examples and suggestions on how to handle different types of media/situations. For the past few days I've struggled with what exactly to say because I don't want this to come off as super negative or insult either of the authors. But this read more like the introduction and less like a full article.

For example: "We're massive Star Wars fans and love the work of John Williams. The music he composed enhances the scenes. Think of the‘Imperial March' when Darth Vader walks in. It wouldn't have worked so well if he would have marched in to the sound of ‘Waterloo' by Abba!"

 

Your point is well taken but it's an extreme example. There are realistic examples where a composer could miss the mark but still be trying to support the right mood but they're not discussed. For example what about a section where the sound design is low and heavy and a composer writes a cue that is also heavy and low. Would that work? No. What about scenes with heavy dialog versus no dialog? These are the kinds of lessons young composers need to learn about - either through experience or articles. But sadly, this isn't really discussed in the article.

 

I realize some of the video and the comments touch on going past just major and minor, which is just the surface. I wish more time was spent on instrumentation as that can make much more impact than just the harmonies used. Using your same Star Wars example from above - imagine the Imperial March played by kazoos. The tempo and key/mode would still work but the audience would think it's hysterical instead of ominous. See my point?

I also wish there was more discussion on modes - like how lydian is great for child-like or fantasy genres for example. It also makes sense to not try and show how to do X in all of the available music programs out there because that would take way too long. But at least showing some examples in the video would have been helpful to new users. (You can always use a disclaimer that the steps involved may differ for other DAWs.) I also saw little explanation of how to deal with interactive media which differs quite a bit from linear media.

 

If it was a series then I could be more forgiving. I'm also curious as to why the full version of the advert's audio wasn't included. I'm sorry to leave a not-so-great review but I was hoping for a bit more substance. In short, it can still be an article aimed at beginners and have more details, examples and suggestions to better help them get a handle on scoring to media.

Hi Nate,

 

Firstly would love to say I really appreciate your feedback. You are well established and I love your work, so it's nice to make your acquaintance on here.

 

As you mention in your feedback this article really does just skim the surface of one very small area of composition. And this was the whole point of the article. My last intention with any of my articles is to overpower any reader with too much information that makes it hard to digest. I believe in order to communicate any information properly it should be easy to process and take in. If I tried to cover too much in one article it's focus would be lost and therefore ineffective in its aim. This is just an initial article. Down the line instrumentation, chord choice, melody will all be covered in greater detail. As will other key areas such as why compression and EQ can make so much difference to the same audio when used in different ways, and how this changes the audios overall effect on the listener.

 

This article, and future articles in the series aren't just aimed at composers. Yes they are aimed at helping new composers understand my personal view points and workings. But they are also intended for game designers and developers to digest in order to understand greater the effect of audio on visuals.

 

The rest of the series will touch upon other areas of composition and go into some more detail. Then further down the line go into even greater depth and use more examples. Then other articles later down the line will go into the more interactive side of audio. Here I am just trying to portray some building blocks of composition.

 

I don't know how long it will be before I can get these other articles as I am trying to juggle this currently with a full time job, alongside composing, producing and gigging throughout the week and weekends. 

 

Cheers

Joe

I gotcha. :) Thanks for taking my feedback so well as I certainly wasn't trying to be inappropriate with it. I'm excited to see what else you bring to the table!

Hey Nate. Any feedback is always appreciated, as long as it's not in a hater attitude and deliberately negative. Yours was very constructive and reminded me of some other key points to cover down the line. I'm also now stating that they are part of series at the start of each article, something I forgot to do and am now quite annoyed at myself for haha. 

 

Am going to drop you a quick message about something actually. So just a quick heads up. 

 

Joe

My main concern on this, despite the interest is that it will quickly leave the trail of game development. Even though you would relate as much as possible the learning to be applied to games, this will turn out to be a music lesson. 

 

In order to get it properly done, long will have to be spent on theory (scale, harmony, rhythm) and then cultural references, why is music like this here and different there, why does this sound funny to us but not to them. Then we go into physics, what makes a C different than a B (frequency and all that) and also as mentioned into range of instruments and their place in the orchestra (brass ispoweful, cello is sad).

 

Again, I just mentioned a flake on the iceberg and I have not mentioned any games.  I would love to see this going and am curious on how it will be brought. I am just scared it will be really long and will be dropped on the way.

 

Fafase

Hey Fafase,

 

I have to agree with your concern and on the notes I have made and in my mind I am trying to keep everything as related to the visual media realm as possible. To me composing and composing for visual media such as video games are two different ball games. Composing is merely expressing ones self. Composing for film, video games, tv, etc. is helping to express what happens visually. So for this you don't just need composition skills but also the observation to take apart what is happening on the screen and aid in the telling of the story.

 

My aim here is to inform to an extent to ignite an interest but not to spoon feed every bit of information. It is essential that knowledge is gained through individuals own experience, not through just being told. So with this in mind we do aim to instruct people and give them the skills, but we don't think there is a great need to go into so much detail that little is left to learn by the reader. If people find it informative and helpful, and this leads them to experiment or read more then great (I will provide a further reading list at some point). If not the it isn't the end of the world and there is simply content out there for whomever comes across it.

 

Later in the series and in other posts we do I do intend to use specific games as examples as long as the developers are happy with that. Which will help tie everything in with the game development. 

 

- Joe

In relation to the apparent intent of the tutorial, I found the video clip to be quite tedious. The seven (!) minute clip was comprised of multiple repetitions of a relatively long sequence, interspersed with long static views, all to illustrate just one of several points of emphasis for the tutorial: the choice of key is important. From my own viewpoint, the clip says "Key is important. See?" ... "See?" ... "See?" ... "See?" By the time the clip closed, my response was "Alright, already!" I really didn't want to be presented with more of the same. Thumbs down.

 

In contrast, and only when I felt like giving the rest of your article the time it deserved, I found the content of the article to be detailed, logical and authoritative. Thumbs up.

 

IMHO, shorten or even lose the video clip; perhaps replace it with something more to the point: a sullen face with a minor chord, and the same face with an upbeat major chord. If the intent of the tutorial is to teach people, it's old school to beat them soundly about the head and shoulders before you begin.

Hi Buckeye,

 

Many thanks for your feedback on the video. I am inclined to agree on parts and must say this is a fault due to being new at video casting. The video clips for future articles I do intend to be shorter or more to the point. Alongside this I will also include short musical clips within the articles to illustrate points. 


Note: Please offer only positive, constructive comments - we are looking to promote a positive atmosphere where collaboration is valued above all else.




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