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Music for Video Games: The Plan

This article is about the elements to consider when planning the composition of music for a video game. Elements that I believe are fundamental when starting to work on a project. All seen from a purely compositional point of view.

Ricardo Cuello, Blogger

July 29, 2019

9 Min Read

* The introduction was made taking into account the lack of material about audio for games available in Spanish. It seems right to leave it in the translation because it is one of the original reasons that led to the writing of this article.



Despite the popularity of the media and the video game industry today, the lack of material on composition, and audio in general for video games in our Spanish language is very striking. In the English language there is already a variety of books, articles and studies on sound design, dynamic systems, and musical composition (of the latter much less). However, in our language much of the information is scattered in different communities and / or forums.

For this reason I decided to write a series of small articles on these topics. In this case, laying out some bases of what seems fundamental to me when composing music for this particular medium. All this information is brought to you a little by reading books, another bit by my own academic studies on music; and a little more due my experience composing this music.

Thus, this first article is going to be purely dedicated to the musical composition, mostly, the planning prior to the composition itself. What things to consider before sitting down to write a single note. I will leave for another time the sound design and the musical design (or the dynamic audio design by layers).

I will take 3 characteristics that seem pillars when it comes to addressing the composition of music for a video game and, at the end, are strongly linked to the form and character that the soundtrack of the project will have. These 3 characteristics are: unity, variety and function.



With unity I mean that the different parts are related to each other and together they form only one thing. Now, why do we want it to be just one thing? I believe we want that for several reasons: I think it is part of any artistic project, when things complement each other they are enhanced and the result is of a higher quality than of their elements presented separately (A wild synergy appears!); In addition, also for a matter of simplicity: we perceptually generate connections faster and associate elements more easily (which in a video game is very useful because things usually happen dynamically and fairly quickly). Another reason may be because it is what comes most naturally to us, we tend to unite, group, categorize, rather than divide. And one last reason is because it is what is styled in the industry.

Normally, the musical unity is given by the way in which its internal elements are related, the greater the degree of similarity between elements, the greater the general unity. However, when you join music with another medium, you have to look for a way in which both work as one.

For that, you have to start reviewing the other constitutive elements of the game, which ones can help you to provide greater unity and which not. Having already composed several soundtracks and themes for games, I have concluded that there are several simple ways to contribute to the whole effectively. I present to you 3 of the most immediate and easy to work with. Recommended if you just start with musical composition. Also, these are generally present in most games:

-Narrative: The story, the characters and where the game is set should be important indicators when thinking about music. The history can provide a dramatic curve; the characters the musical character of a passage; and the setting different ways to orchestrate.

-Graphic art: Another very effective way is to relate music to art. The color palette, the basic shapes, the style of the brush, the artistic vein. All these elements can be related to musical parameters.

-Pace: This feature I think is very important and rarely mentioned. We can say that it is the rate at which things happen. The speed at which events unfold. Music can reflect this aspect by modifying the tempo, or the speed at which the new material to be developed is presented.


To end this point: The parameters set out in the previous points are examples. If you think about it, any musical parameter can be related to an extra musical element and function complemented to achieve cohesion. Some will generate more abstract connections, and others more literal. Some are easier to work (for example: Melodic or timbral leitmotiv); and others more difficult (harmonic leitmotiv, or formal thematic work).



One of the most important differences between a video game and other entertainment / dramatic media, for example a movie, is that the "scenes" are not fixed; there is no script (unless naturally, it is a cinematic). The players are the ones who choose when and how much to advance. As it is practically impossible to predict what each player will do, the music must continue playing even if the player stands 30 minutes watching a wall because he liked the texture.

Repetition bores. And in music that becomes evident VERY fast. If we repeat the same 8 measures for 30 minutes, the player will silence the music and start listening his own playlist. This is when you have to make a decision: what kind of music system is going to be used. This is a very important decision that has to be made early in the project because it greatly affects the way of composing the musical pieces.

In principle, there are 2 systems to use: the linear system and the dynamic system.

Linear system: what is commonly known as Loop, or looped music. When the piece ends it is repeated from the beginning. This procedure was widely used in the oldest games (mostly for a technical issue). You can get tired very quickly if the loop is poorly composed and if it is very short. Generally, a loop should last no less than 3 minutes to be tolerable for a greater amount of time. The trick with the loop is the balance in the variety of material: it has to be enough so that it does not bore but not so much that it passes to be foreground. (In addition to having cohesion with the rest of the things) Easy job.

Dynamic system: there are several types, but let's say they are those that compose or assemble music in real time, or under an established parameter. With a series of pre-composed musical fragments that can be rearranged in different ways, these systems provide more variety at the expense of losing control of the composition.

With these systems you can lose some unity too. Depending on the randomness of the system, the fragments can be joined in unexpected ways and create very crazy compositions. These types of systems are those normally used by modern games.

It goes without saying that these systems can be combined to form very interesting hybrids. And they can also work adaptively, that is, they react, evolve and change with the actions in the game systems.



Don’t forget something very important: Music has a function (I am not referring to tonal functions or anything like that), it has a job that it must fulfill, it is to serve, and therefore music plays a role of reinforcement of experience; and not a main role where, normally, it is the musical material that has to be developed to maintain interest.

Does this mean that music cannot play a leading role in a game? No, of course it can be done, if not rhythmic games wouldn’t exist (See any Guitar Hero, Crypt of the NecroDancer, Dance Dance Revolution, Metronomicon, etc). I’m referring to the common denominator.

Of course there are games where the line begins to blur, hybrids begin to appear (I can think of Patapon). In addition you can always experiment, and it is a good practice to look for titles and graduating as on an imaginary scale: how many steps in the foreground is the audio? How engaged is the music in this game?

So I can't do a more complex development of musical material? Again, of course it can be done, but the question that should immediately arise would be: The thing I’m doing, add something to the experience, to the whole, to the immersion?

Something has to be clarified, there are many times when artists, composers and designers go outside these networks of relationships on purpose, but this is usually done to generate contrast or to emphasize an important point in the narrative, in the actions or in the mechanics.

The problem is when it brings absolutely nothing to the experience and those weird monsters begin to form where nothing has to do with anything (and I don't mean just audio, this can happen with art, with mechanics, etc.) Has it ever happened to you of playing a game and suddenly noticing that something doesn’t fit? Art has nothing to do with the story being told, or music has nothing to do with the setting.

Imagine you are going to fight Nemesis in Resident Evil 3, final transformation; and instead of the great music it has, the Super Mario Sunshine Menu theme start to sound. Really cool, right?

Since we are talking about Resident Evil, for a real reference, let's take the first title of the franchise as an example, but one of the later editions: the Resident Evil Director's Cut: DualShock, where you can clearly see how the music does not fit with what the game proposes. The music has less force than in the original soundtrack. Culminating with the track The Mansion Basement. Nothing more to say, hear it for yourself.


To close, let's agree that nothing is prohibited here, considering these things, music can take many forms, and that is one of the most beautiful things in music for video games. What I want to say is that, as a composer for this medium, they are questions that one must ask when facing any project, this gives a more critical look, and with a systematic prior planning, these steps help to discard what it doesn’t work before and advance in the good stuff faster.

I think that all these elements help immersion and elevate that set of rules that the player must follow, a simple game, in something else, a unit, a fiction that helps us express something, to create art.




Link to the Spanish version of the article:



Reference bibliography:

A Composer's Guide to Game Music.
Winifred Phillips.
Composing Music For Games: The art, technology and Business of Video Game Scoring:
Chance Thomas.
Game Sound. An Introduction to the History, Theory, and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design.
Karen Collins.

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