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Getting/Making Game Music that Fits - World Tour Series - Medieval Music

Tips for new audio designers composing video game music out of their comfort zone. Useful for producers as well, looking to put together design directions for their audio designers. This entry focuses on Medieval music.

A very fun genre to compose in is the pre-classical, baroque, renaissance, “olde english” style. There’s a great combination of metallic-sounding instruments and key structures that over the centuries has evolved, but thankfully is not lost. As well, chants and madrigals work out nicely for a large range of video games – typically for roleplaying games and adventure games set to medieval times. Churches, thronerooms, taverns; there’s a large variety of settings where learning a bit of music history can do great service for your game compositions.

In this entry, I will be talking about the art and techniques of composing Medieval and Baroque-style music for video games.

History in brief

When one hears Gregorian chants, renaissance madrigals and baroque music, we are transported back in time when music was just finding its foothold in music notation. Before paper, music was handed down via oral tradition, but by the advent of the Roman Catholic Church, music began to get written down. Alongside this, experiments in music instrument construction begins to take fruit. Lutes, lyres, zithers, dulcimers, stringed violins, violas and cellos, clavichords, harpsichords, and simple horns and percussion emerged. Melodies and chord sequences are basic during these periods, with polyphony just beginning to rear its ugly head. In fact, for a large amount of time, any tritone intervals, seconds, and sevenths were considered downright evil.

Tempo Tips

Madrigals and bard songs benefit from a nimble tempo. Try a tambourine alternating between triplets and dotted eighth, sixteeth notes. Baroque songs for a court or throneroom can be a bit more languid. A harpsichord dawdling away in arpeggios will sound appropriate at a slow or uneven tempo. An old-style, final fantasy-esque waltz dance sequence should obviously be in 3/4 or 6/8, in a moderate tempo gigue. Accents on the downbeat should be avoided in favour of syncopation to the first eighth note, and the more varied you can get with dotted eighth notes and accents on off beats the better.

Instruments of antiquity

The most important part in creating pre-seventeenth century music is the choice of instruments. Starting from earliest to latest, we begin with the Gregorian chant. Take male voices, word-build in latin, and add a lot of reverb. Depending on if you want to add a bit of magic to it (for example for a healing temple), mix in sustained synth strings, chimes, and deep doublebass. Next for bard music and madrigals, used for tavern, markets, and townsquares, an old fashioned plucked instrument such as lute or lyre is useful, along with, tambourines and simple hand drums, and recorders or small pipes. For thronerooms, courthouses, and stately affairs, we can move into more of the Baroque instruments. Use solo violins, oboes, simple horns, but most importantly, the harpsichord. The metallic clangy sound of this proto-piano will instantly transport the listener back several centuries.

Medieval musicality

To make music sound antiquated, we need to look at how we use our notes. Our ears nowadays have been programmed to be used to the simple I-IV-V-I pattern of chords. Looking back 500 years, chords had a bit more freedom and often end up far from their beginning orientation. Try starting out in your favourite major key, playing with a I-V-I for a few measures, then head to IV. Imagine this is now your new key signature. A I-V-I from this new source sounds a bit off to us, especially if it goes on but that’s fine for the period. The trick here is to bounce from the I to another key and back again in the same measure, emphasising on the one. For minor songs, a great tool is to end phrases in the major of your key. This is called the Picardy third, and it’s a dead giveaway!

Parting thoughts…

There’s a lot of different ways to throw your music back in time. The choice of instruments, the composition of chord sequences, where to accent the beats. The best advice is to find which style is going to work best for the game and listen to a bunch of different tracks 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. 

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.

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