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
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.
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
Contact - firstname.lastname@example.org
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.