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  • 02/22/14 06:13 PM
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    Composing Music For Video Games - Tempo

    Music and Sound FX

    Ocular Audio
    The first part of this composing music for video games series focused mainly on musical key and only slightly touched upon tempo. All of the articles in this series are adapted from blog posts about composing for film, however the same musical principles apply to games. This article covers tempo and whilst not going into masses of detail it does provide an overview of why it is important to pay attention to tempo.

    Syncing Up

    In order for the music to fit the visuals it is intended for, careful consideration needs to be shown to the tempo. A piece that is too fast or slow for the visual will not help tell the story correctly. It is vital to keep in mind that the feel or 'groove' of the piece has to flow; too fast and the composition could feel clumsy and undefined as to what is happening, too slow and it will feel sluggish and drag on. You should be thinking about how you want the consumer to feel when listening to the piece of music. For instance in a cut scene if the music is rushing along but the visual isn't, you are confusing the gamer, sending them different signals. When composing for video games it's important to note the pace of what is happening not just in game play, but also in cut scenes. During game play the pace of the game may shift quickly and the audio can adjust to accentuate this. For instance if you were playing a FPS, walking through the jungle and all seems calm, the music could become slow, withdrawn and almost non-existent - allowing the sound effects of the environment to take centre stage. But as the character approaches a key point, say an enemy stronghold, the music could start to build. The tempo could shift up, note durations could get shorter, all adding to the tension. As the player moves quicker extra instrumentation could join to further reflect the excitement and anticipation of what is happening on screen. So paying attention to what happens visually can have a bearing of what tempo/s your music needs to be composed at.

    Stay On Target!

    If you didn't get the message in the last article that we love Star Wars, you might get it this time! Looking at a scene from 'Star Wars, A New Hope' where Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance go on a suicide mission to blow up the Death Star, we can see the visuals changing and flowing together and that the music matches up with it perfectly. For example, take a look at the short shots in and out of the cockpit, the abrasive maneuvers of the fighter ships and masses of explosions. We can see that it's all very visually choppy, yet it is all glued together with the high energy music that draws us into the scene and maintains the 'on the edge of our seat' atmosphere. It is due to John Williams' choice of tempo and time signatures that allows this to happen. The music slots into what is happening visually and reinforces it. All of the special effects take on life with the integration of the superb sound effects, whilst the music joins each visual clip together seamlessly. Right at the very end when we see the Death Star explode, the resolve is reinforced by a decrease in tempo. This gives a feeling where we can finally release tension and breathe normally. What's really amazing about this is that you probably didn't even think about this until now... amazing stuff right?! This is the joy of when music and sound design are composed and produced in such an expert manner. Many individuals may not realise the effect of audio on the visual experience, but it is the combination of music, sound design and the visuals which gives us the intense emotions we can experience when watching a film, watching TV or playing a video game.

    Creating Suspense and Tension

    When composing music for film, or any sort of visual media for that matter, increasing the tempo of a piece can be a great way to create suspense and tempo in a composition. If you listen to this Suspense Scene Cue you will note how towards the end of the composition the piece becomes more uneasy. This is due to the rise in tempo which tells the mind to expect something to happen. If you picture this cue being part of a cutscene this point can be further illustrated. Set the scene in your mind of a dark corridor, no light at all, and you're following the character's movements from the first person perspective. As you listen to the piece and picture this notice how at the end of the piece the composition makes you increasingly uneasy, to the point where you expect something to happen. By increasing the BPM, the tension is enhanced, making the viewer anticipate that something is going to happen soon. This can also make the viewer's heart rate go up, releasing more adrenaline which triggers a 'fight or flight' response - a survival instinct that is hardwired into our subconscious that gives us 2 choices, to fight or to flee. By this point the consumer is captured in the moment and we can call that mission accomplished.

    It's Not All About Speed

    Before we get all carried away with BPM, let's take a look at another element linked to time: the time signature. Time signatures are wondrous tools which often get overlooked. Nowadays in the charts it is hard to find songs that are not in 4/4 (which means 4 crochet beats to a bar). Maybe on the odd occasion you will come across a song in 6/8, or what we like to call the other 4/4. However using different time signatures within a piece can open up your compositional palette. Shorter or longer bars can allow for an easy transition into different sections. And changing the feel of a piece completely, if required, for instance to a 3/4 waltz can introduce a different flavour. One great way to create tension with time signatures is to make the listener unsure where beat 1 lies. It can lead people into a false sense of security or make them feel that they are no longer in control. Time signatures like 5/4 and 7/4, which are commonly known as irregular time signatures, can sometimes make it difficult to determine where beat 1 is. Take a listen to the Michael Myers theme in 'Halloween' - even though the ostinato piano part that continues throughout the piece makes it very easy to find the first beat, without it, finding beat 1 might be more of a challenge.


    In conclusion, tempo is a key fundamental that makes up a firm foundation on which a song is built on. This element, if not given enough attention, can lead to the whole piece feeling rushed or lethargic; used effectively, you'll have your audience hook, line and sinker! Dan Harris and Joe Gilliver www.ocularaudio.com Contact: joe@ocularaudio.com

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yes of course tempo and time signatures play a role, but then so does melody, harmony, countermelody, layering, leitmotif and a whole bunch of other techniques, all of which should happen automatically as part of a scoring talent, and shouldn't have to be consciously planned.  All should flow from screen to head and back again, seamlessly.

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Hi Matmilne,


Thanks for your response and I completely agree. However this singular post is part of a series. The first of which is already on here and the next of which I am currently writing/doing the video for. These tutorials as stated at the start are an overview of areas composers need to be aware of when working with visual media. And they aren't specifically aimed at us composers who already have experience, but people looking to get into the field. 

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Looking forward to the next article. I've done a few small game soundtracks in the past couple years and yeah, it's different... most of the "usual rules" don't apply. I noticed a lot of "interesting" things, even chord changes, tend to sound goofy or become annoying after a few repeats. It's gotta be engaging yet steady, trancelike, pleasant, understated, leaving space for sound effects... i.e. the kind of music that's underappreciated by 99% of musicians, heh.

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Thanks tnovelli. It certainly is a challenge and I find plenty of prior planning the best way to help with composition. I find it's not the sort of composing where you can simply starts playing away and piece it together. Like you can with a popular song. In some ways it can kind of kill the creativity. But I like the challenge of composing and producing with certain restrictions. It challenges you more and makes you adapt. Rather than just putting a nice chord progression together with a melody.

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