Composing Music For Video Games - Tempo

Following on from the last blog post regarding key and tempo when composing. This post looks at tempo a bit more in-depth and uses examples to illustrate how certain techniques help to create suspense. As well as why it is key to get the feel right.

Taken and adapted from the Ocular Audio website.


The first part of this composing music for video games series focused mainly on musical key and only slightly touched upon tempo. This second installment will go into more depth on tempo and its importance when composing.

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 song could feel clumsy and undefined as to what is happening, too slow and it will feel sluggish and drag on.

It is also vital that the audio and the visuals sync up correctly. Some directors that we have come into contact with ask that visual angles change on the beat so that the transition between takes are in time and seamless. Again, talking about things flowing, it reduces fatigue on the eyes and ears.

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 William's 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 thing 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 & Tension

When composing music for video games, or any sort of visual media for that matter, increasing the tempo of a piece can be a great way to create suspense 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 cut scene from a game 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 characters 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 viewers 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 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 composition 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!

Joe Gilliver & Dan Harris

Ocular Audio

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