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Quartal Chords and Chromatics (The Game Music of Jurassic World Primal Ops: GDC 2023)
This article explores the use of quartal chords and chromaticism in game music (from Winifred Phillips’ highly-rated GDC 2023 lecture, “Chaos Theory in Game Music.”)
August 16, 2023
9 Min Read
Glad you’re here! I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and this is the second article in my series based on my Game Developers Conference 2023 presentation, “Chaos Theory: The Music of Jurassic World Primal Ops.” In the lecture I gave last March at GDC, I shared my creative process composing music for a project in the famous Jurassic Park / Jurassic World franchise. During this article series, I’ll be sharing the substance of that GDC 2023 presentation, supplemented by the audio and video examples I used, along with some of the best illustrations I included during my conference lecture.
In the first article of this series, we took a look at the Jurassic World Primal Ops video game, in which players capture and train awesome dinosaurs to fight alongside them against evil poachers and mercenaries. Jurassic World Primal Ops was released in concert with the theatrical run of Jurassic World Dominion, the latest movie in the popular Jurassic franchise. As a top-down action game featuring an assortment of history’s most famous and dangerous dinosaur predators, Jurassic World Primal Ops needed a musical score that would emphasize the power and danger of these enormous prehistoric lizards.
Turning to an examination of music theory as it relates to such an intense and chaotic musical score, we discussed how traditional cadences could be subverted into unpredictable progressions that we dubbed Tonic Pivot. You’ll find all these ideas discussed in detail in part one of this article series.
Continuing our discussion of harmonic devices, let’s move to the second chaotic technique on our list.
As we previously discussed, we can use tonic pivot to introduce chaos into the way chords move. So let’s talk about how we can use unusual harmonies to feed chaos into the way chords are built.
Fun fact: the word ‘chord’ was originally a shortened form of the word ‘accord’ – meaning ‘perfect agreement.’ And that’s just what a traditional chord does: it perfectly agrees. Traditional chords are built on triadic intervals that sound like this:
Winifred Phillips · The Root Winifred Phillips · The Third Winifred Phillips · The Fifth
The three tones work together to reinforce the tonal center, which gives us an awareness of the key signature:
Winifred Phillips · The Triad Chord
Triads are stable, they’re organized, they’re reassuring – and this is exactly what we don’t want.
For Jurassic World Primal Ops, I frequently opted to build my chord structures not with thirds, but with fourths. This produces quartal harmonies that sound like this:
Winifred Phillips · The Root
Winifred Phillips · The Fourth
Winifred Phillips · The Seventh
These quartal chords work together to obscure the tonal center, which produces harmonic confusion:
Winifred Phillips · The Quartal Chord
What key are we in? Where’s the tonic? Frequently, you just can’t tell, and that’s the beauty of quartal chords. They’re immensely useful for introducing chaos into our compositions.
As an example, let’s check out some music that accompanies players while they play their roles as expert dinosaur trackers, following wild dinosaurs across the American southwest. The style direction for this part of the score included guitars and a southwestern vibe, so that shifted the music towards a traditional sound. I countered that with quartal harmonies to keep things feeling uncertain:
Here’s another example – it’s an excerpt of a combat track. This excerpt starts out with a progression including quartal chords that feel chaotic and uprooted. Then the music drops a strong bass tone that gives us a tonal center again. Let’s check that out:
Using quartal chords can make the harmonic structure feel disconcerting, even when there’s a strong bassline giving us a general indication of the key signature we’re in. Because quartal chords create uncertainty about the tonal center, they’re harmonically unbalanced, lacking a sense of major or minor orientation. That’s useful when we’re trying to maintain a level of ambiguity in our music. Quartal harmonies (such as the ones we just heard) go a long way towards making music feel unsettled and anxious… but there’s more we can do.
For instance, introducing chromatics is a powerful tool at our disposal. Here, we’re letting the music whirl through all the available half steps, without regard for key or mode:
Employing chromaticism is great for laying waste to our tonal center, leaving behind turmoil and distress – which is just what we want!
Here’s an example – during this action track, the music moves through an atonal chord progression and then rushes into a purely chromatic sequence. Hear how this technique conveys pure chaos:
You’ll notice that example used unison chromatic lines to drive the nervous excitement of the piece. But what if we want to employ some harmonic structure, while still taking advantage of the unsettled nature of chromaticism? Let’s check out another example that employs parallel triads, while still maintaining the unsettled nature of the chromatic structure:
As we just heard in those examples, chromaticism is really effective at reinforcing anxiety during long action sequences. But there are other ways for us to obscure that tonic and make our music feel more tumultuous. At this point, our discussion will be moving into a more detailed exploration of modes and scales – and since this can be a fairly complex subject, we’ll dive into that discussion in our next article. In the meantime, you can read more about game music composition in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music. Thanks for reading!
Winifred Phillips is a BAFTA-nominated video game composer. The music she composed for her latest video game project Jurassic World Primal Ops won both the Global Music Award and the NYX Award, and was nominated for a Society of Composers & Lyricists Award for Outstanding Score for Interactive Media, and a Game Audio Network Guild Award in the category of Music of the Year. Other recent releases include the hit PlayStation 5 launch title Sackboy: A Big Adventure (soundtrack album now available). Popular music from Phillips’ award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score was featured in the performance repertoire of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which made its Paris debut with an 80-piece orchestra and choir. As an accomplished video game composer, Phillips is best known for composing music for games in many of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: the list includes Assassin’s Creed, God of War, Total War, The Sims, and Sackboy / LittleBigPlanet. Phillips’ has received numerous awards, including an Interactive Achievement Award / D.I.C.E. Award from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, six Game Audio Network Guild Awards (including Music of the Year), and four Hollywood Music in Media Awards. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the MIT Press. As one of the foremost authorities on music for interactive entertainment, Winifred Phillips has given lectures at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, the Game Developers Conference, the Audio Engineering Society, and many more. Phillips’ enthusiastic fans showered her with questions during a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything session that went viral, hit the Reddit front page, received 14.9 thousand upvotes, and became one of the most popular gaming AMAs ever hosted on Reddit. An interview with her has been published as a part of the Routledge text, Women’s Music for the Screen: Diverse Narratives in Sound, which collects the viewpoints of the most esteemed female composers in film, television, and games. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram.
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