Writing Music


How's everyone's May? It's been a bit quiet on my Zonelet, huh... well, I guess I've just been busy and tired. I've been catching myself tweeting threads on Twitter a bit, meaning I have things I should be working out in writing... so... let's start with something more fun and easy!

... But first, did you know I started uploading my music to Analgesic's YouTube? I don't know why I didn't do this earlier, it's a great way to get fans to find our YouTube... well, better late than never. I guess that means I might need to ask the other uploaders of my music to take it down...

Also... last year I uploaded some 'how the songs were made' about Anodyne 2's Center City Cenote and Pastel Horizon: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLk8kGXAr3dTutUbMzaKXM1SnIjlYBEl_I . That could be interesting!

Sephonie Music Update

For the past month or two, on Sephonie, I've been writing lots of music. I still have a ways to go but I'm past the halfway point! I pretty clearly see the finish line for Sephonie, wahoo.

(By the way, did you catch the Sephonie song I put on YouTube?)

(Oh wait, I'm realizing I haven't posted here since we announced Sephonie... well we did! Here's the TRAILER, here's my announcement tweet, and here's the Steam Page!).

Doing all this music made me think about my process a bit, so I wanted to write some thoughts on that. But first... I want to explain a bit about my general philosophy on game music:

Teaching Game Music

In 2017 and 2018, I taught courses at SAIC in Chicago on writing Game Music, but as I reflect on the curriculums I designed, two skills I tried to teach come into focus:

  1. Close Listening, or, the process of listening to a song, picking out its layers, reverse-engineering the sounds, figuring out how it creates emotions within the game, but also how it creates (or does not create) emotions on its own as a standalone piece of music. This can be done by playing lots of games, analyzing spaces in real life, or listening to game music on its own.
  2. Strengthening Sound-Adjective, Sound-Space and Sound-Emotion pairings. This is building a taste for what kinds of 'sounds' (Sounds could be; Ambient noise, musical instruments, synthesized sounds) pair well with adjectives (colors, physical textures, shapes), spaces (train stations, meadows), or emotions (sadness, anxiety, happiness). You do this by... well, by doing #1, but also being observant to your everyday surroundings, but also by playing lots of games and writing lots of music... There's probably other categories of pairings but those came to mind the quickest.

With those two skills, and taste (motivation to explore the wide world of music on one's own) and vision (desire to create music that no one else will, or, recognition of your unique capacity to self-express via music), you can learn to make great game music. I don't think taste and vision are something you're born with, it's really just a matter of finding stuff you like and digging deeper. Anyone can listen to music! Stuff like music theory and technical things you can learn as you go, they're more or less straightforward rules to play with. I think it's more important to foster a strong base of the above two skills.

Game music 'instagram filters' the game towards a particular tone/emotion/feeling, so while it is in some ways 'subservient' to the game (in that it's not as important as the game being good), it's still important.

A good game song has a lot to it... it completes the experience of the game, it works in the game's favor, it has some unique capacity of human experience or emotion, it has the fingerprint of the composer. It helps a player form a mental monument to a particular moment(s) of a game.


Okay, with that sort of music philosophy out of the way, let's talk about how I've been approaching music composition lately!

Step 1: Game Analysis

I think about where the song is playing in the game, and estimate how long it should be. I also like to think about what the place looks like or feels like to be in (it's easier if there's concept art or even better if the area is done art-wise, but that's not always the case). I'm a lot more likely to 'miss' if I don't have art to look at. Usually, cutscene events are more flexible/easier, while looping BGM of levels is less flexible.

From there I can internalize emotions, adjectives about the space... thinking about the lighting, colors, temperature, humidity, narrative context, type of gameplay, difficulty, space, shape...

Step 2: Sound Design

I like to go through my past instruments I've made, or presets, or sample libraries... finding general types of sounds that would work well with my list from Step 1. This is a step I can't offer much practical advice on (I think it's equivalent to trying to teach someone how to 'draw like me'), you just need to make your own sounds many times to build your style. Find a software synth you really like and use it a lot!

This is where the skills I mentioned come into play... if you have a lot of internal references for sounds that work well with X scenario, your experimentation in finding the perfect sound will go faster. Step 1, plus the skills I mentioned - their aim is to help you find a tiny pocket of the 'sound universe' in which to explore for ideas.

It also helps when working on an OST to keep a library of good sounds you've made.

One thing I like to do a lot is duplicating an okay-sound to try modifying it a different way. So maybe I'll have a cool bell sound, I might duplicate and edit it in order to have two slightly different bell sounds, which may be useful in the future, or in the current song.

I usually take a break or two in this step but I like to try and get this out of the way within a day.

It's good to try out combining your sounds as very bare melody/rhythm/textures/etc. I like to do this while also looking at the game.

Step 3: Melody/Rhythm/Chord Sketches

This doesn't 100% have to come after Step 2, but here is where you would start writing melodies, blocking out chords and rhythm to establish the song's emotional base and general tone. I often throw a lot of ideas away here, but if I've written a few seconds of slightly-viable material, I'll stash it at the far end of my project's timeline rather than delete it. Always good to listen to later!

Again there's not much way to give advice on how to do this well.. you just have to practice and build your own taste and vision for good melodies, effective rhythms, etc. I often will duplicate a track and slightly edit the instrument so that it sounds different in a different section (rather than apply automation many of its values).

I also like to do this in the same day as Step 2, but usually this step carries over into another day to get some distance from everything. Also my ears get tired after a few hours.

Like in Step 2, I like to have in-progress music play while I'm playing the game to see if things are meshing well.

Step 4: Step back from the draft

Usually around here I set the song aside for at least a day, or maybe even months. The earlier I am in a game's development, the longer the song is likely to be set aside (usually because it's not 100% clear at that point where it'd be going or if it's working in the context of the game)

This is fine though, because maintaining a large folder of neatly-labeled draft .mp3s is good to listen back to throughout the game's development. I did this with Sephonie and in some cases, drafts intended for one purpose, can be modified to fit another context! Or, their instruments can be used.

Drafts can also be a concrete 'reference point' for you to think about what does and doesn't work with the draft. For example, if I'm writing music for a green cave, and I have a draft - even if it's bad and I won't use it, I can still listen to my draft and think about what elements of it do and don't work with the 'green cave', and that's useful for when I go to write the actual song for the green cave.

Step 5: Arrangement

When I feel like I have enough material, I'll think about how the song should progress, aiming for a particular length of time. I like to not have too much repetition in my songs: while I'll often copy and paste entire sections of songs, I like to add on alternate layers to help the song reach a certain emotional point or work towards another section.

Usually I have some decent 15-30 second 'ideas' from steps 2 and 3. so I think about how to combine these, how I can make variations on them, etc.

Very often I have to write 1 or two new ideas and weave them into the whole song. Often I have to write the outro/part of the song that will loop (since it's game music). There's a lot of kind of tedious 'connection' work here: making transitions between sections sound okay, finalizing more placeholder sounds or melodies... thinking about if each musical idea has enough time to breathe in the song, thinking about the song not being tiring to hear for a few repeats.

Step 5 feels 'scary' because it's finalizing the song, but in my experience if you have decent sounding 'ideas' then finishing the song is almost a guarantee. And most of what the song will sound like is finalized in Step 2 or 3. There's a lot of fun serendipitous events that happen here, usually adding a nice little melodic layer, extending something, etc.

Step 6: Mixing

This is seeing if any parts aren't coming out enough, balancing the mix. I usually work this into the previous steps, but it's worth doing a quick one-over on the song to see if I missed things. I also like to make the song louder here by turning up the volume, which I then go and reduce stuff that's too loud. I like to cut out low frequencies of instruments that are not supposed to be contributing low frequencies. Sometimes I'll pan layers in a very crowded mix to let all the complexity still 'work'.

Step 7: Finalizing

I like to take a break after finishing 6, then come back, listen one more time for any issues before rendering out the song and putting it in the game.

Well, that's roughly how I see my process of writing game music! It's possible to get more detailed, but the more detailed stuff is more technical and also varies more from song to song, and is more based on my personal style and the game. Even despite my experience making game music, there's plenty of game music genres I wouldn't be well suited for - orchestral scores, high-energy dance music, etc. While most of what I've said here applies to more adventure-focused games (like the ones I make), I think the advice may still be helpful