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Writing Music for the iPhone

By Spencer Sternberg | Published Dec 23 2009 07:16 PM in Music and Sound

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When writing music, especially music that is required to support visuals, it is important to know who the audience is and how they will perceive the music. What kind of music are they familiar with?
Which instruments will they recognize as suggesting the feel and mood of the visuals? How can a composer safely branch out from the norm, to satisfy ones creativity, yet ensure that the music will be
received well by the audience?

In the case of writing the music for Plushed, the iPhone creation by Blacksmith Games, the question that was immediately apparent was; how can a short
looping composition catch the attention of an audience and also remain instilled in their memory?


This article explores the process of writing video game music, based on the compositional process for one of the ten levels of music from the iPhone game Plushed.


Step One: Choose your instruments

After receiving the brief of a game, and in particular the brief of a level, a composer has a fairly clear idea about what the requirements and aims of the music should be. This is at least in
reference to the characters, the setting and the mood. With these key elements in mind, choosing the instrumentation for video game music is simply a matter of answering the question; what instrument
creates what mood?

How important is instrumentation?

The instrumentation in a game is one of the most powerful methods of eliciting setting and mood. Listeners can, at least subconsciously, associate sounds of instruments with particular places or
feelings. Take for example pizzicato strings, which immediately conjure up images of tiptoeing and sneakiness.

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The point is not if a listener is consciously listening to the pizzicato strings, though a composer would prefer at times they did not, the point is that a composer needs to be knowledgeable about
which instruments create which effect.


Why choose orchestral instruments for Plushed?

The instruments across the orchestra are exotic, unique and incredibly varied. Using orchestral instruments makes for easy sharing of melodies and motifs across instruments, which allows for both an
increase in suitable repetition and an increase in variation. Repetition is incredibly important in thematic music as it is used to impress a theme onto an audience. However, too much repetition can
disempower the effect of a theme and therefore variation is needed to give thematic music space.

Step Two: Create your motifs

Motifs are where music derives its character, and when writing music for video games is where the characters derive their place in a game. From a high, fluttering flute line, to a deep, dark string
run. Without this important compositional technique video game music would be unrelated and disconnected from the essence of the game.

Motifs are the melodic and rhythmic material that is at the core of a theme. It is what will be used and modified when developing a theme and is the basis for reminding an audience of a theme.


What are the second level motifs in Plushed?

The second level game music in Plushed is rich with motifs; the pizzicato strings and flute being very prominent in the opening sequence.

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While the oboe has several small motifs also. Such as at bar ten,


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and also at bar nineteen.


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Then there is the clarinet and bassoon counterpoint at bar fourteen,


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and the rising flute run at bar sixteen.


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Motifs can be very short, even just several notes. As long as a motif achieves its goal of contributing to a theme, then duration is of lesser importance.


Step Three: Build your structure

What would a series of motifs be without structure? Structure determines the impact of thematic music by deciding how motifs can be developed and shared across instruments. It controls when and for
how long main motifs will be played. It is also the key factor for creating variation.

Structure and compositional technique

The game music for the second level of Plushed is a one minute looping track, consisting of twenty-three bars of flute, oboe, bassoon, clarinet, pizzicato strings, legato strings, marimba and light
percussion. The track is dominated by the flute and the oboe, which play the main motifs. The track structure is as follows;
  1. (Bar one) – Light percussion introduced
  2. (Bar two) – Pizzicato string motif
  3. (Bar three) – Ascending marimba run
  4. (Bar four) – Flute motif call
  5. (Bar five) – Pizzicato string and marimba response
  6. (Bar seven) – Flute motif extension
  7. (Bar eight) – Pizzicato string and marimba variation
  8. (Bar ten) – Oboe motif
  9. (Bar twelve) – Pizzicato string and marimba repeat
  10. (Bar fourteen) – Bassoon and clarinet counterpoint motif
  11. (Bar sixteen) – Flute ending motif
  12. (Bar eighteen) – Ascending marimba run
  13. (Bar nineteen) – Oboe ending motif with pizzicato strings
The track opens with light percussion, running at ninety-two beats per minute, which sets a relaxing, yet playful tempo for level two. Being only the second game level out of ten levels, the
percussion consists only of pitched finger drums and shakers, as the later levels have more percussion.

Mood is created almost immediately by the introduction of the pizzicato strings which are based around the aeolian scale. Since Plushed is a side scrolling action game, the pizzicato strings give
the track a light, playful feel and work well together with the movement of the main character.


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The aeolian scale is essentially a harmonic minor scale with a lowered seventh. It has a dark, mystical feel, and harmonies based on the aeolian scale resonant well with visuals that are seeking
to be engaged by the audience.


Following shortly after is a medium paced, ascending marimba motif, based also around the aeolian scale. This was added to bridge the pizzicato strings to the flute and oboe and accentuates the
playful nature of the track. By basing the marimba on the aeolian scale, it creates a light tension that is also supported by the dissonant sounding legato strings.


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At bar four the flute is introduced, playing a short motif, the first of a two part sequence. The pizzicato strings and marimba then repeat, and the second part of the flute motif follows in bar
seven. This is an example of a call and response between the strings and the flute, with the marimba acting as a bridge. This kind of call and response gives variation and also helps in the build up
towards later sections in the music.


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At bar eight and nine the pizzicato strings and marimba double together to play a new motif. This is a development from the first cello motif and helps lead into the oboe motif.


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By bar ten the call and response between the cellos and the flute has been well established. By bar ten in a twenty-three bar composition, the time is right to vary the flute motif, and so the
oboe motif in introduced, giving instrumental variation.


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There is then a movement to a bassoon and clarinet motif. By having the bassoon and clarinet play in counterpoint allows for more harmonic interest and relieves the flute and oboe from the task of
lead motifs. With the flute and oboe sitting in the higher register, the bassoon and clarinet balance the melodic range of the track.


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By bar sixteen it is time to return to the flute, which has been the main motif instrument, and so a small climax is reached by the introduction of a new rising flute motif.


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The track comes to an end with a new oboe motif, supported by the original pizzicato strings motif.


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The decisions about structure come from a balance between the lead motifs and their supporting instruments. Variation of instrumentation, together with repetition of the main motifs, is the key to
creating a memorable composition.


Step Four: The recording process

At this point in the compositional process it comes time to record. Ideally, the score will be printed off and given to the players that are required. Though not every situation is ideal and the
budget for many games will not be high enough to pay for the performance and recording of quality orchestral players. If that is the case, then it is best to create the best sound quality possible
with the equipment at hand.

With the production of the video game music for Plushed, high quality orchestral samples were used and were triggered by a midi score. There are advantages to this style of composition, primarily
the time required to create a fully produced score, and the soundtrack of a video game can be composed in very short amount of time.


An important point to make is that a lot can be achieved by remixing the samples used in midi compositions. By utilizing effects and mixing techniques, the scale and perception of a score can be
greatly enhanced. Through the use of layering, delays and high quality reverbs, an already sweet sounding score can move into a whole new realm.


Step Five: Listen and listen again

Compositions need to be checked and listened to, repeatedly, before they are completed, and in the case of video game music, submitted. It is a good idea to try out methods that prove whether a track
can be repeatedly listened to. For video game music, which is going to be heard over and over again, the last thing a composer wants is the listener muting the audio because it is too repetitive and
boring.

The best way to limit the chances of repetition is to make full use of variation in instrumentation and thematic devices. By having several key motifs that are balanced across varying instruments,
the chance of the music sounding repetitive and boring will be greatly reduced.


Testing the music in different situations can help a lot too. Using a game music track as a ring tone for example, is an interesting way to see how well the track will be received. How long will a
person keep that ring tone? They will certainly change it if they find the music too obtrusive or too repetitive.


Final Thoughts

This article has explored techniques for making video game music through the explanation of how one level of a ten level iPhone game was produced. It needs to be strongly emphasized that the balance
between well thought out instrumentation and varied, engaging motifs, will produce video game music that is powerful and memorable.

To see the final version of the second level game music of Plushed, an ingame video has been included for reference. Note: At 45seconds the game play video changes to a higher game level music
track.


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