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Getting/Making Game Music that Fits - World Tour Series - Tribal 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 Tribal music.

Harry Mack, Blogger

February 13, 2014

3 Min Read


Ah, a simpler time for simpler music, where rhythm was king, and anything that made a noise was welcome to join the music circle around the fire. Lots of video games hope to draw the player back to a time where technology went as far as you could shoot a bow. So what sort of music helps reinforce these images and themes? In this entry, I will be talking about the art and techniques of composing for jungle themes, tiki tribal tunes, caveman compositions, African animal safari games and similar styles.

Iconic Themes

Whether your game makes use of a rainforest, jungle, bone-through-the-nose village, or cave full of Neanderthals, you’re likely thinking of fairly similar music. Low-tech instruments haven’t changed much over the thousands of years! Donkey Kong Country does a great job of keeping things rhythmic-centric, with flourishes of winds and mallets. I'm not sure if anyone remembers Bonk's Adventure, but I loved the melodic bone xylophones and rhythmic skin drums.

Tribal Tempo Tips

In a word, it all boils down to “percussion.” The rhythms and beats for this genre of music vary from complex and layered, to simplistic. What you may want to do is start with a simple 4/4 time signature, accenting every beat. Then from there, add another percussion instrument that accents the first and third beat. Layer on more and more complex rhythms while still keeping that initial down beat strong, such as a beat comprised of a sixteenth note, eighth note, and sixteenth note. Follow that by two eighth notes. What you get is the ability to go from simple to complex, satisfying whatever is necessary to fit your game's design.

Instruments of the tribe

For percussion, African wooden shakers, frame drums, sticks, tambourines, log and bass drums, timpani, and kettle drums are all great choices. The goal is to connote low-tech. Think drums made of skin hit by bones. Stay away from modern drum kits and anything techy, unless that's really part of the art design somehow. Feel free to accent with an African rainstick or other ear-grabbing instruments.

For more musical instruments, a recorder or ocarina can be used if you need a melody. As well, go for hunting horns and pitched mallet percussions. You may want to consider using these more as accents and embellishments rather than being in the forefront. Wind instruments that have a lot of breath to them, such as pan flutes or cedar flutes will help reinforce the low-tech theme.

Musically Speaking

  • If you’re looking for more of a tiki tribal feel, marimbas, steel drums, and vibraphones/xylophones are solid choices.

  • Flutter-tongue samples and flute falls make great accents.

  • Wind instruments should make liberal use of pitch bends.

  • Falloffs and overblown winds will reinforce your tribal themes.

Parting thoughts… before the head-hunters come calling

Remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources. As always, there’s no quick recipe for crafting genre music, but hopefully this entry takes you on your first steps to terrific tribal tunes.

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.

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