The wide open country, sun shining brightly; the screech of a hawk, the tumble of a… tumbleweed. These images are used often in video games, be it for cowboys, frontiers, large open zoos, or adventure games through an Australian-inspired bush.
In this entry, I will be talking about the art and techniques of composing for Cowboy, Southern, Frontier/Bush music. The net is cast wide, but there are a lot of common instruments and themes throughout.
Instruments under the setting sun
Instruments play a very important part in setting the scene for genre music. If you’re looking for a bit of an old western vibe, steel/nylon guitars, a driving acoustic or electric bass, strings, and trumpets will be your foundation. For extra flavour, add a full-fledged bullwhip crack or a raucous holler at appropriately dramatic moments in the soundtrack. Mixing in a didgeridoo to this mix really changes the feel, giving an authentic Australian outback tone. For more of a country, bayou, and southern atmosphere, instruments can be scaled back in size and number. Use a solo banjo, acoustic guitar, and for a bit of fun, a large jug. Depending on how far you want to hit the hammer on the head, a jawharp will push it over the edge. In both cases, a harmonica really helps set the scene!
In a 2/4 or 4/4 time signature, accent every downbeat. The overall impression we’re going for is almost a 1/4 feeling. An eighth note, two sixteenth notes pattern repeating without much variation is fine enough for this genre. The melody can be a bit less mundane and more adventurous, but the bass and percussion, striking a strong eighth note and less so on the sixteenth notes works great.
Alternatively if you're looking for more twang, laze, and saunter, try a syncopated rhythm of a dotted eighth and sixteenth in repeat. This helps evoke a slow canter of horse hooves and is a staple of cowboy music.
We have a lot of different soundtrack ideas going on here, but there’s a fair amount of crossover which is important to recognize. In all cases, a great place to start thinking about this style is to begin in a minor key and stay there for a bit. Repeat the bass line in a thrumming pattern and let it sit. When it feels right, ramp up the music by adding sustained strings, percussion, and instruments of choice. At some point, switch to the major V of the key signature. Repeating the i-V pattern and creating melodies around this is a great way to get acclimated. Bounce around i-V-i-iv-i-V, with the bass line strumming an arpeggio.
For a more typical cowboy campfire song or backyard bayou, in the major key accent the base note, then raise or lower by half steps until you feel like dancing to the V or returning to the tonic. This is especially effective with the raised 1 going to 2 (e.g., start with C, go to C#, then D, then either a G or back to your C).
Parting thoughts… as you ride off into the sunset
There’s a lot of different ways to create music for these genres, from instrument choices to tempo. How it fits in your game’s audio design will be up to you, but for ideas, cast a wide net on movies and video games to listen to. The best way to learn is to analyze and hear the commonalities for yourself and keep in a pile the types that may work for your game’s audio design. Remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources. While there’s no right or wrong way of creating a frontier tune, hopefully this entry helps as a first-steps guide to whipping up your soundtrack!
Harry Mack is an audio designer with more than 10 years industry experience, composing video game music and sound effects for over thirty titles. For examples of his latest work and samples, visit www.harrymack.com.