Composing Music For Video Games: Chords
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Major and Minor Chords
Chords come in all shapes, sizes and flavours. The most common though is the major or minor triad. A major triad consists of the root note, the major 3rd and the perfect 5th intervals with relation to the root note. To keep it simple, if we are in C major then the C major triad is C, E and G. The minor triad is exactly the same except that the third is flattened and therefore a semitone lower. So a C minor triad will contain an Eb rather than an E. If you have a positive, happy scene on screen and the story needs positive reinforcement then a major chord is going to help this. A minor chord, with its ‘sad’ tones will not suit it. Going further than the minor chord we can then flatten the fifth interval and arrive at a diminished chord. The diminished chord isn’t a pleasant construction at all. Take a listen to the three examples:
C - Cm - Cdim
The dissonance created of the diminished chord leaves us feeling very uneasy. Although these diminished chords don’t have much use in today’s chart music, they can be used in certain settings. For example creating tense music for a suspense scene. It is that flattened 5th interval that causes so much tension. The diminished chord also always appears more intense when played on instruments with a lot of harmonic content, such as brass and bowed string instruments. Listen to the examples of the following instruments playing a C diminished;
Compared to the xylophone the brass and strings portray greater power, emphasising the diminished chord. The less complex harmonic content of the xylophone is not as brash, and therefore less aggressive. We won’t go into too much detail here regarding instrumentation when composing, as that will be covered in a later article. But this is a good example of how using different instruments for different chord sections can help emphasise the feeling of a chord.
In the first tutorial key words were discussed to help plan out the emotional and tonal feel of a scene. These reference words are key when thinking of chord choice and chord progressions. A happy, uplifting, romantic environment will benefit more from major chords than minor chords. As long as the storyline calls for it. Sometimes juxtaposing what is happening visually with the music can help lead the consumer to feel differently towards the visuals. For instance introducing and uneasy and uncertain tone to a scene where two people appear happy. Therefore providing an undertone to some other area of the overall storyline. As just mentioned, this can be useful when undertones to the storyline need to be portrayed.
This is always good for themes where things are ‘too good to be true’. Composing music that creates uneasiness and suspense will encourage consumers to listen to their ‘gut feeling’ that something isn’t right, and not just rely on the visuals for how they feel. It is when composing such cues that suspended chords can be very useful.
A suspended chord is a chord whereby one interval in the chord, we’ll use a triad to keep it simple, is replaced by another interval. For instance a C major chord will become a Csus4 if the third (E) is removed and replaced with the fourth interval (F). Likewise a Csus2 is created by removing the third and playing a D in its place. Take a listen to both of them in the examples.
Csus4 - Csus2
As you can hear from these two chord examples they both have different feels to them. The Sus 4 chord reinforces a more major tone. This is due to the fact that the suspended 4th interval is closer to the major 3rd than it is the minor 3rd. And if in root position this chord contains both perfect 4th and perfect 5th intervals relative to the root note. The only chord this doesn’t correspond to is the diminished chord, as there is no perfect 5th interval in a diminished chord. The Sus 2 chord however leans towards a more minor feel, as the suspended 2nd interval is closer to the minor 3rd than the major 3rd.
Now you can hopefully see how these chord constructions can be useful. By utilising suspensions you can help guide emotions by not overly emphasising the happy or sad tones of the chord. Another example (just to reinforce some more) in the key of C we have the chord A minor, by changing the third © to a suspended fourth (D), it softens the blow of the minor chord, or maybe opens up an avenue to modulate. Modulation will however will be covered in another article.
Suspended chords are great to end with as they give a great cliff hanger. In other words, the composition does not feel like it has fully resolved because of no reference to a major or minor key. As referenced in the video this is perfect when composing for video games. It is common in video games for sections of music to loop seamlessly. If using the same two or three chords over and over the music could get boring and repetitive very quickly. However, utilising a suspended chord at the end of a progression, or at various points throughout, can help make the transition of a repeat better. It also helps add interest as the chord tones give a different flavour.
Chord Extensions & Compounds
This is a subject which is very extensive within itself. Extensions and compounds are additions to chords beyond the basic triads. For example, a Major 7th is an extension on a major triad. As different genres of music utilise different extensions for different flavours, it is too large of a subject to cover in simplicity. However, they are worth reading into further if you have the time as they can help add lots of character to existing progressions.
Movement & Inversions
One very important aspect of composition is how chords work and progress together. Chord progressions are staple part of songwriting and composition. It is vital to be able to piece together chords in coherent progressions in order to create an overall piece of music. Before discussing chord progressions though it is useful to mention inversions.
An inverted chord is made when a note from the chord tones other than the root is played in the root position. For example, a C major chord in root position is played C-E-G. 1st inversion would be E-G-C. And 2nd inversion would be G-C-E. Third inversions do exist but only for chords that contain more than three notes (extensions & compounds). For example, having a CMaj7 chord and putting the B (major 7th interval) in the bass. We will keep it simple for the purpose of not getting overly complicated at this point. If you would like to read more, there is plenty of material elsewhere on the internet.
How can inversions be used when composing you ask? Well let’s consider a very simple chord progression, the good old I - IV - V (1 - 4 - 5). If this progression was to be played with all of the chords in root position the movement would be disjointed and not flow particularly well. Yes it would still work, but if playing on the piano your hand would be all over the shop. This is because the root is always at the bottom of the chord. So you will be moving from C up to F, then to G and then down to C again. Take a listen to the following example so you can hear for yourself.
Root Position Movement
How can this be played in a manner whereby the hand moves less and therefore the chords flow better? Let’s try the two options below.
OPTION 1 - C in root position (C - E - G), followed by F in 2nd inversion (C - F - A,) and finally G in 2nd inversion (D - G - B). Let’s hear what that sounds like...
OPTION 2 - C in 2nd inversion (G - C - E), followed by F in 1st inversion (A - C - F), and finally G in 1st inversion (B - D - G)
As you can hear in both cases you are minimising the movement between not only the bass notes of the chords, but also of the other intervals. Take a look at some of the midi from these and this will be even clearer.
The above examples give testament to how utilising inversions can help make the movement of chords easier. This knowledge I (Joe) have found to be very useful when composing pieces for a string section for example. The string parts flow better when the chords are closer together.
- Joe Gilliver & Dan Harris (Ocular Audio)