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Writing Game Music : Part III

By John Licato | Published Aug 14 2000 07:11 AM in Music and Sound

key note song minor play chord scale notes chords
If you find this article contains errors or problems rendering it unreadable (missing images or files, mangled code, improper text formatting, etc) please contact the editor so corrections can be made. Thank you for helping us improve this resource

Note:  
A revised edition of this article combining all 4 parts is now available here


Yeah, here we go now! Finally, I’ve come around to writing part III of this series. We’re gonna get into some good stuff now! This article is what parts I and II were leading up to. If you have already had a basic music education, then you can read this article. If not, I suggest reading articles I and II of this series.

Oh yeah, sorry I took so long to finish this article. You see, my computer was broken and this article was only half finished at the time.

Now, in this part we’re going to learn how to write variations on songs. This is something you can use as a last-resort, if you run out of creativity and just can’t think of any songs. Also, writing variations is a great creativity exercise (and whenever it’s a lonely Saturday night without a date, it’s something to pass the time!).

We’re also going to cover harmonization. At the end of part II, you saw me make two different versions of a theme. After learning about scales and chords, I’m going to teach you how to use certain instruments, chords, and styles to change the music to get the effect you want. I’m ready! Are you? Then grab a notebook, blink your eyes 20 times, spin around clockwise, and let’s go!


I : Intermediate Level Music Theory

Whoa....I just said "intermediate level music theory." Sounds smart, doesn’t it? After you read this section, you can tell your friends how smart you are. In article I, the entire article was a beginner’s level music theory. Before I go on to harmonization and writing variations, I have to teach you more music theory stuff. So here’s some info you’ll need to know.

A) Scales

No, not those things on fish, I’m talking about a musical scale. Let’s talk about major scales first. Remember what middle C is? I taught you about it in article I. It’s the C that’s one ledger line below a treble clef staff, or one ledger line above a bass clef staff. On a piano, it’s the C that’s closest to the center of the piano. Now, put your musically talented fingers on the middle C. Now, play that note, and play every single white note until you get to the next C up. When you finish, you should have played eight notes. From middle C to the next C, that was an entire octave. (abbreviated as "8va".) Just FYI, each note is twice the frequency of the note one octave below. So if you played middle C and somehow multiplied its frequency by two, you would be playing the next C up.

Anyway, when you played those eight white keys, you just played the C Major Scale. A major scale is eight notes, expanding over one octave. If you try to play all the white keys from one G to the next G up, you’ll notice that the second to last note (the F) sounds weird. Now, try it again, but when you play F, instead of playing F, play F#.

Interesting, yeah? Anyway, now try playing all the white keys from one D to the next. Sounds weird, don’t it? To understand why, you need to understand what an interval is.

If you remember from article I, the succession of notes is:

A    A#/Bb    B    C    C#/Db    D    D#/Eb    E    F    F#/Gb    G    G#/Ab    A  

If you start on one of these notes and move one to the left or right, that would be moving one half-step. So if I moved from C#/Db to D, that would be regarded as moving one half-step. If I moved from C to B, or from B to C, or from E to Eb, or from D# to E, each one of those would be regarded as a half step. Okay, you get the picture. So what if I moved two to the right or left? You guessed it---it would be moving a whole step. So from F to G is one half step, from A to B is a half step, from C to Bb is one half step, et cetera. These are called intervals. So the interval between F and G, for example, is a whole step. The interval between B and C is a half step. The interval between B and D is a one and a half step, or 1 1/2 step.

The pattern, or formula for a major scale is:

whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half

Or (1, 1, 1/2, 1, 1, 1, 1/2). Take a look at your piano and let’s play the C scale again. Start on C. According to the formula, the next note would be one whole step up. The next key would be a whole step up. The next key would be a half step up. So if you play the entire scale, you would see that you are playing each white key for the C major scale. Any other scale has at least one black key in it. This is easily forgettable, take a break now and let it all soak in before you go crazy!

And once you’ve recovered, we can continue. Let’s look at some scales just to make sure we all understand.

Attached Image: Image1.gif

Okay, measure one shows us the C scale, measure two shows us the D scale, and measure three kindly demonstrates for us the Bb scale.

We’re movin on now!

B) The Key Signature

Why do they call them accidentals? Because they weren’t included in the key signature! Ah, I guess only a musician would laugh at that. Maybe they wouldn’t either. Anyway, you remember how accidentals only last for one measure? Key Signatures are a bunch of sharps or flats that are in front of the time signature that make those notes flat or sharp for the entire song, or until a new key signature is made. Let’s look at the D scale with and without a key signature:

Attached Image: Image2.gif

On the second staff in that picture, we see that with that key signature, we don’t have to add any accidentals in order to play the D major scale. So we say that this song is in the key of D.

Now remember, an accidental only lasts for one measure, a key signature lasts forever, until a new signature is written. So say that you write a song in the key of D. Then let’s say that in one measure, you want it to play F natural instead of F sharp. So you put a natural sign in front of an F. In the next measure, if a note is put in the F space, what note is played? The answer: F sharp! You see, a natural sign is just another accidental, and once the measure is over, the accidental no longer exists.

Okay, here are the keys and the sharps or flats of four key signatures:

Key of C: No sharps or flats

Key of C#: F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#

Key of Db: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb

Key of D: F#, C#

It’s weird. C# and Db are the same note, but still they are treated as if they were two different keys! I hope you see why this is so. No key signature can have both sharps and flats. If you call it C#, then that means that sharps are used. So the key must be represented in sharps. If you call it Db, then that means there are flats in the signature, because you can’t play a song in the key of Db and then expect for there to be sharps in the key signature. Put another way: In the key of Db, there is at least one flat, and that is obviously Db. So if there is one flat, there can be no sharps.

Anyway, I would make a list of all the sharps and flats of every single key, but I’m eager to go on to chords. Besides, you should be able to figure it out by now, it’s good practice! Now let’s just learn minor keys and then we can move on to harmonizations and chords.

C) Minor Keys:

Okay, you already know how to play major keys. Now let’s go on to minor keys. Remember the formula for a major key? (1, 1, 1/2, 1, 1, 1, 1/2) Here’s the formula for a harmonic minor key:

1, 1/2, 1, 1, 1/2, 1 1/2, 1/2

That second-to-last interval is a one and a half step.

Now play the C harmonic minor key. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? Listen to midi1.mid (see attached resource). Midi1.mid is a midi file that just plays the C minor scale going up, and then down.

Some of you might be thinking, "are there key signatures for minor keys?" Well, yes and no. Let me explain.

Every major key has a relative minor key. This minor key is the one that’s three half steps below it. So the relative minor key of C major is A minor. (Since the note A is three half steps below C.) The relative minor key of Eb major is C minor, etc.

The relative minor key of any key has the same key signature as its relative major. So then if you wanted to write a song in C minor, you would make the key signature the same as the key of Eb major. (Eb major has three flats: Bb, Eb, and Ab.)

Alrighty. There is one kind of minor key which is the most commonly used, and that is the harmonic minor key. I’ve made reference to this before, but haven’t really explained what this was. Let’s say we wanted to write a song in the key of G minor. Since G minor’s relative major key is Bb major, we would make the key signature the Bb key signature. (Two flats: Bb, and Eb.) When we play the scale going up, we use the formula for a harmonic minor key, which I’ve given above. But wait, the second-to-last note before the last G is not an F, like the key signature says. Instead, it’s an F sharp! And that’s the partially confusing part. When playing a song in a harmonic minor key, whenever you play the second-to-last note of that key, (in the G scale that key is F.) it is raised one half step.

Unfortunately, we can’t include that fact in the key signature. It would be easier if we would just add an F# to the key signature, but we can’t. (some of you might be thinking, why not put a Gb? Well, because then that wouldn’t solve our problem, because that would change the note G, and what we want to change here is the note F.)

Just to make sure we’re all clear, here’s some pictures of minor scales:

Attached Image: Image3.gif

Those keys are, in order: C minor, A minor, E minor, and A# minor. By the way, that little thingie by the second to last note in the A# minor scale is called a double sharp; it raises a note an entire whole step. Similarly, a double flat lowers a note a whole step. A double flat looks like two flat signs next to each other, or a double-b.


II : Chords and Harmonizing Notes

A) The I, IV, and V7 patterns

Make sure all of section one leaks into your brain and stays there permanently, because we’re moving fast here. Okay, before we move on, you must know that a chord is two or more notes played at the same time. A triad is three notes played at the same time. Sometimes I will call a triad a chord, because a triad is basically a special type of chord. (Just like how a dog is a type of mammal, or how music is a form of noise.)

Each major key has three primary chords. These are three triads that sound beautiful and are absolutely essential to harmonics. (try not to confuse harmonics with harmonica...) The first primary chord is the I chord. This is the first note of the scale, the third note, and the fifth note. So the I chord for the C scale is consisted of the notes C, E, and G played at the same time. Go ahead, try it. Play those three notes at the same time. Don’t it just sound heavenly?

The IV chord consists of the first note, the fourth note, and the sixth note played at the same time. For the C scale, those notes would be C, F, and A. Finally, the V7 chord consists of the fourth note, the fifth note, and (pay attention to this one now.) the note one note below the first note. So for the C scale, those notes would be B(the one below the first note, not the one before the last note), F, and G. Got it? Now you can make up your own happy song with these chords. Go ahead, try it. Try playing the chords in this order:

I, IV, V7, I

The same basic rules apply to minor keys. So for the C minor key, the I triad would be C, Eb, and G. The IV triad would be C, F, and Ab. Finally, the V7 triad would be B(B natural, the one below the first note.), F, and G.

Now, if you want to become the best you can be on this subject, read on. If you’re late for a date with some hot music composer named John Licato, then you can stop reading now, because basically, you know everything you need to know if you want to make some songs. Still, who would you hire to write your music: A person who knows a little bit about composing, or one that knows a lot? Make your choice now, because I’m moving on.

B) Patterns and broken chords

If you’ve decided to move on, I love you!

Basically all songs and harmonics are based on the chords. This is probably the hardest part I’ve ever had to explain. Okay, each note on the scale except for the second-to-last one has at least one chord that it "matches" with. A chord "matches" with a note if that note is in the chord. So notes that match with the I chord in the C scale are C, E, and G. (Since those are the notes that make up the chord.) Try it. Sit on a piano, and with your right hand, play either one of the notes I mentioned, and with your left hand, at the same time, but one octave lower, play a I chord in the C scale. Sounds beautiful, yeah? Now try playing the same thing, but with the right hand, play one of the notes that are not part of the scale, like D, or F. It gives you a completely different sound.

Now, like I said earlier, each note has at least one chord it matches with. So let’s stick with the C scale again. Let’s look at the note C, first. What chords have the note C in them? The I chord, and the IV chord. (The I chord is C, E, and G, and the IV chord is C, F, and A.) Now let’s look at the note A. Unlike the note C, the note A has only one chord that matches with it, and that is the IV chord. (Actually, there are lots of more chords that match with these notes, but you don’t know all of the chords yet.) Go ahead, try it. Sit at the piano, and explore. By the way, you might think that the note D in the C major scale has no chord that it matches with. For now, just play the V7 chord with that note.

Now here’s a song that consists of two different instruments playing at the same time. The one on the top is playing the melody, and the one on the bottom is playing the harmony. It is also the file midi2.mid, which you can listen to in the attached resource file. Here’s what the music looks like:

Attached Image: Image4.gif

Love it yet?

Now, I must say, what if you decide to do it differently? for example, in the second measure, instead of having four quarter note chords on the bottom staff, we could put one half note IV chord and then one V7 half note chord after that.

But wait, if we do that, (pay attention to this one now:) then the second note on the second measure of the top staff wouldn’t match with the harmony chord that is playing at that time! The answer: Who cares. If you play it, it still sounds okay, and that’s all that matters. Many times, as long as the note of the main theme that is playing when the harmony chord first starts playing matches the chord, then it will sound alright. Sometimes, you don’t even have to follow that rule. It all depends on the composer and his/her style, which you will develop if you play and write music long enough.(confusing paragraph, eh? It was the simplest I could put it.)

Okay. The rhythm in the song above was one where the harmony plays quarter notes, straight. Now let’s change the rhythm into a different one. To do that, let’s make some broken chords. These are chords which have been broken up and played as separate notes. For example, instead of playing one dotted quarter note I triad in the key of C, I could play C, E, and G, each one of them eighth notes. Here’s the song above again. Except this time, the bottom staff (the harmony) has been changed into a bunch of broken chords.

Attached Image: Image5.gif

And if you want to listen to it, just check out midi3.mid.

Now try looking at all the broken chords and finding out which chords those are. Extra credit!

So far, you’ve only learned two patterns. There are many different patterns you can use, you can even make up your own. Here is the theme we’ve been playing above, but with three different patterns.

Attached Image: Image6.gif

My, I do believe that’s the biggest picture I’ve used so far.

If you’re lazy and want me to do everything for you, then listen to midi4.mid. this plays the three rhythms you see above.

Let’s look at those three rhythms. The first one is usually used when the song is played fast, when you need a fast, exciting song. (Like a battle song, a chasing scene, etc.) The second rhythm, I usually use it when I want to make a town music. Like, if you enter a town, that rhythm matches the background because it sounds peaceful. If the time signature is 3/4 and you use a rhythm like that, it would sound like a kind of waltz or dance. The third rhythm could be used for some kind of melody. I’ve usually used that pattern when I’ve had a theme with a drum set playing in the background. With a drum set playing a beat, and the bass playing that rhythm, it usually sounds pretty cool. Like I said earlier though, try these rhythms for different things and use whatever you think matches.

Now let’s go on to writing variations. Actually, you know most of the things you need to know to write variations, so the next section might be kind of short...


III: Writing Variations---When Creativity Fails

A) Darnit John, what the heckaroony is a variation?

A variation of a song is basically a song based on that song. Back in my yesteryears, I bought a book called "Complete Variations for Solo Piano." It was by the man himself, Ludwig Van Beethoven. There were only 21 songs in the book, but each one had at least nine different variations, some had 20 variations or more. And each variation sounded like a completely different song. I could barely tell that they were all based on the same theme. So in fact, Beethoven could have written a few variations on one of those songs, and then sold them as his own songs.

Many composers do this. They take a good song, and write a variation on it. Sometimes the variation on the song sounds very similar to the song, because the composer wants the listener to recognize what it is a variation of. Sometimes, the composer makes it sound so different that it is a completely different song.

And that my friends, is what you can do. When you just can’t get your creativity to work, just write a variation on a song. Be warned, however: make sure it sounds different! If your variation is very similar to the song it is a variation of, and you make money off of the song, you could get sued by the original composers!

Now here’s a sample. You all know the song "Mary had a little lamb", right? Here’s a variation I threw together, by just adding some broken chords. Listen to it in midi5.mid.

That’s a sample of a variation. From that variation, I could actually just take that and make it into a song that I could call my own. How can you tell if a song is a good enough variation? Well, tell a friend to listen to it. If your friend can name the song that it’s a variation of it, then it’s not good enough. (Unless your friend is one of those people who have that super memory.)

Then comes the next question. How do you write a variation?

B) Writing a Variation

A variation, although you might not like it, requires creativity. Just think of a song that you think sounds good. Play it over and over in your mind. Find out the notes to it on the piano. Play it over and over. Now, think of what you want to change it to. If you want to change it into a sad, slow song, then think of adding long, minor chords. Maybe, if the song is in a minor key, change it into a major key. If it’s in a major key, try the opposite. If there’s a part of the song where you play notes going up, try changing it by playing those notes going down instead. Add some sharps and flats just to make it sound different. Change the speed of the song.

Remember, composition is freedom. You should be able to keep what parts of a song you like, and discard what you don’t like.

After you’ve changed it, sit back and play back what you’ve got so far. While you’re listening to it, try to forget everything and clear your mind. If the song sounds very different from the theme you started with but it still sounds good, you’ve just hit gold.

The basic secret to writing variations is to change the harmony and rythym. You can make a song sound completely different by just changing the harmony (all the broken chords and rythym, etc.) and leaving the main theme alone. I’ve seen it done before, heck, I’ve done it before. You just have to remember the importance of patience. After reading this entire series, you can’t expect to just sit on the piano and then compose an award-winning symphony. After reading this entire series, you should sit on the piano and then just do what you’ve learned. You wait, and over time you’ll develop talent. You’ll be able to recognize it. Really. No kidding. Really.

Some people consider writing a variation of a song and then calling it your own to be cheating. Sometimes even I don’t like to do it, because it feels like cheating. But subconsciously, that’s what we’re doing anyway. I don’t want to get into the subject, but....okay. I don’t know if I’ve already talked about this, but when we think of a new song, our mind creates the new song from parts of some old songs that are in our memory. So really, our mind is creating a variation of a song for us. Sometimes our mind changes it so well we can’t even recognize what song it came from. Sometimes not. Well, whether or not you want to use the variation method to come up with songs, just make sure you’re able to defend your reasons for doing it.

That section was shorter than you probably thought it would be, eh? Es cool o no?


IV: Leftovers

Here’s some stuff that I either left out in the last section, or couldn’t find a proper place in which to put it.

From Alexander Dobrinevski:

A good program to use is Microsoft's Direct Music Producer. It is free (Well, comes with the 128MB DirectX7 SDK, so you will have to pay the phone bill for downloading :-)), but has really a lot of great functionality. It can be used to write MIDI or WAV files - very good sound quality - using notation, you can use styles and patterns freely - just excellent. It also can write sound parts - that patterns, motifs and styles - in a format easy to read from you DirectX app.

From me:

I really recommend learning how to play the piano if you want to get into this hobby. If you want to use a different instrument to play your music it's fine, but I'd say that the piano will give you the most experience you need to start composing.

Everybody please visit my friend's site, www.hktechno.com, it's got MP3s, rave pics, lots of stuff.

Oh yeah, and I've been working on a small game (not by myself, I've just been the producer and business guy for this one) called Galaxy Pirates (I'm not sure if that name's taken already, but oh well.) and it's probably going to be distributed by XTreme Games, buy it please, I'll repay you with a hug! (All you have to do is fly all the way over here to Hawaii and if you do find me, I'll give it.)


V: Conclusion

And there it is! The finale of my three part series! I’m really thinking about writing a part IV and V, where I can talk about advanced music notation, maybe even professional-level music notation. Also, I could talk about more styles of music and how to use them. (so if you want to learn how to write sad songs or fast songs, you’ll definetely know how. There’s a lot of stuff like that I wanted to fit in this article, but didn’t have enough room.) And maybe I could talk about how to program music into your game using DirectMusic and DirectSound. And still yet, I'm also thinking about writing about how to get started as a musician in the game industry. After all, I did say that I was going to make this the most complete guide any future game music composer could want! Just tell me you want to see it, and I just might do it, I'm crazy!!

Wow, it was fun writing this series. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did, and I hope everybody, professionals and beginners alike, learned something from this series. I also enjoyed all the email you guys sent, the comments keep me going like a coffee!

I’ve taught you how to write music in my style. If you keep on writing music and spending long hours at the piano or at whatever instrument you use, then soon you will gradually develop your own style, and your music will have that unique touch that only you would be able to recreate. Email me just to say hi, or just to let me listen to one of your masterpieces, or to ask any questions. I’ll do my best to reply to every single one that I get. If I don’t respond, then I apologize in advance, but like I said, I’ll try my best to!





About the Author(s)


John Licato is the CEO of Pitech Games and can be reached at [email="Pitech@hawaii.rr.com"]Pitech@hawaii.rr.com[/email].




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