A little sci-fi, a little fantasy, with just a splash of impossible ingenuity, composing for the steampunk aficionados can leave one’s cogs a-spinning!
In this entry, I will highlight some of the sounds and styles that come to mind when one starts to fiddle and tinker with anachronistic technology. Keep your goggles on tight!
Steampunk is the epitome of grit and grime, rusty brass and dusty glass, sparks, and pseudo-technology. By nature its music is a bit dreary and downtroden, a bit soleful and yearning. The balance is the optimism of technology with a touch of magic. A careful mix of these elements is key to capturing a great steampunk track.
Accents on every beat, especially with heavy, metallic percussion, connote a grinding, drudge march appropriate for a gizmotic ganderhouse. For a faster, more upbeat song, syncopation can connote the quirkiness of steampunk.
We’re looking for old, grindy, worn, with a slight futuristic vibe. Victorian and oldschool orchestral instruments such as violins, harpsichords, and doublebass make a good backdrop. Workshop percussion such as prepared piano, metal hits and crashes – used judiciously – combine to create an excellent steampunk track. For once, the hurdy-gurdy can actually aid a composition!
A steampunk universe is dark and gritty. Minor keys are the obvious choice here, and to drive it home, minor scales with the second note flat (for example, c-minor scale but with a d-flat instead of d-natural). A steampunk universe is also quirky and exotic. It is at times marvellous and stunning. We can capture this feeling by juxtaposing wondrous flourishes appropriate for the scene at hand: a floating airship, or an extravagant machine. Try composing around the whole-tone scale for these circumstances. Use runs, trills, glissandos, and jaunts into the enharmonic major of the composition.
While it may be hard to find large samples of Steampunk music to listen to, it’s definitely out there. Listen to what people have done and see what works for your game. Remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources. As always, there’s no quick-cog solution for crafting exciting music for steampunk environments, but hopefully this entry gives you a spark of inspiration for creating your own ingenious audio design.
Check out my new Steampunk inspired cd "Gaslight" on iTunes! - https://itunes.apple.com/ca/album/gaslight/id498051337
Harry Mack is an audio designer with more than 10 years industry experience, composing video game music and sound effects for over thirty titles. Examples of his latest work and samples are available at www.harrymack.com.