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Thoughts on Video Game Music, Part II: Knowing Your History

Welcome back! This time, we talk about history, reference material and clichés.

Moritz Katz, Blogger

July 15, 2011

10 Min Read

I got a lot of constructive feedback on the last article, in particular by Nathan Madsen, who some of you may know as the Music and Sound moderator over at Gamedev.net. I asked him if I may quote some of his points throughout this series and he agreed.

Most of you, Nathan included, wished for a more detailed take on things. I will do my best to make the contents of the following articles more informative while keeping it intelligible to aspiring musicians and developers.

Part II: Knowing Your History – Clichés and References 

Writing yet another recap of how VGM developed would be redundant, as you can indeed find a lot of articles about that. Wikipedia rounds it up pretty well. 

So what is this article about? Mainly, I want to talk about how you can deal with established clichés and references.

References are an invaluable tool for both producers and composers as they provide means of communication. Most producers or audio directors will keep a steady flow of reference material of their own accord, but should the composer or the client have doubts whether the general direction of the musical piece in question is right, swapping tracks that catch the mood of the desired track is generally a better way than just rhetoric dialogues. Everyone has heard terms like epic, spooky,action-packed or my personal „favorite“: fat. While these words can provide a first pointer, an actual musical piece comparable to what the producer has in mind is far more conclusive.

And it's of course better for a composer to know what to do before he spends several hours in his studio doing guesswork.

Some producers may give the musician free rein, some may desire sound-alikes. In my experience, the in-between is the most productive.


So how do we deal with reference material? Often, especially when multiple reference tracks are provided, things become really complex and it's reasonable to distinguish the following four categories:

  1. Rhythm

    - Tempo of the piece (e.g. 92 BPM; adagio)

    - Meter (e.g. 4/4; 5/8)

    - Length/duration/value of notes

    - Critical rhythmic motives (e.g. 3-2 clave; off-beat emphasis)

    - Rhythmic subdivision (the smallest determining note value, e.g. 16th; 8th)

    - Changes to any of the above mentioned items (e.g. tempo change; half-time feel)

  2. Harmony and Arrangement

    - General tonality (e.g. minor; lydian; atonal)

    - Harmonic changes (e.g. II-V-I; just one harmony throughout)

    - Chord structure and voicings (e.g. triads; block chords; drop 2)

    - Consonance and Dissonance

    - Critical harmonic motives (e.g. mediant chords; quartal chords)

    - Changes to any of the above mentioned items (e.g. modulation; change of voicing)

  3. Melody

    - General tonality (may differ from harmonic tonality, e.g. pentatonic; whole-note scale)

    - Melodic range (e.g. C2-E3)

    - Monophony/Polyphony

    - Critical melodic motives (e.g. call-and-response; hookphrases)

    - Presence (e.g. subtle; very present)

    - Changes to any of the above mentioned items (e.g. drastic change of range; change of tonality)

  4. Instrumentation and Sound

    - Instruments and Sounds used (e.g. synthesized drums; orchestral strings)

    - Frequency range and response of either overall track or individual instruments (e.g. muffled/low-filtered; boxy/resonance in low mids; thin/high-passed)

    - Dynamic response (e.g. compressed; highly dynamic)

    - Placement in the perceived room (L/R panorama/surround, reverb)

    - Changes to any of the above mentioned items (e.g. drastic change of instrumentation; drastic increase in volume)


This, combined with quite some practice in analytical hearing, gives you some unmistakable points to compare your music with the reference material. It also provides you with unambiguous terms to communicate. Of course, not every single point is covered in every musical piece. For example, an atmo consisting only of a high synthesizer pad may not have any rhytmical or melodical features other than „non-existant“ at all.

By the way, you're welcome to write me if you think I've missed something vital!


Of course, all of these points also have to be reviewed coherently – 99,5% of consumers will not give the music a second or even a third thought when playing the game.


So what happens when you put rhythm, harmony, melody and sound together?

Easy - you get a musical piece that conveys a certain mood that is determined by those single factors.


In the last article, I wrote the following about moods in video game music:

„VGM has different moods. Do you know a movie with a soundtrack similar to Tetris? ...didn't think so! Also, ''moods'' (a communication design term, more on that later!) might change quite a bit during the course of a game, especially in the Adventure / RPG genre.“

Here's what Nathan Madsen wrote in response:

"The music used in original Tetris wasn't written for the game - it was music that was public domain (therefore could be used freely) in the game so this point conflicts with your statement that VGM has different moods. This music, for example the Russian tune "Kalinka" was used in a theatrical performance in 1860 then later became a traditional folk tune. Likewise the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from the Nutcracker was part of a ballet and written well before Tetris came out. So I disagree with your point - VGM doesn't have different moods. Many of the core moods found in video games easily translate to other media including books, films, plays and TV shows. Moods, to me, include anger, tension, joy, mysterious, etc. Just look at home many books, graphic novels and films have been made from video games. The moods easily transfer over - so video game music doesn't have different moods."

Of course Nate is right, and I could have picked a better example than Tetris. But even if I had picked a game whose most recognizable soundtrack wasn't written by Tchaikovsky or the likes, I should have ended up with the same realization: the only reason video game music used to sound like video game music is because of the technical limitations. Kōji Kondō, for example, wanted the lead melody of the classic NES Super Mario tune to sound like steel drums – and ended up with the familiar bleepy sounds everyone can identify with VGM. Apart from that, you could describe the mood of that piece like you could describe the mood of a cartoon or movie soundtrack: lively, jolly, maybe even carribean.

But is the sound really the only factor making a difference? Is the whole differenciation of VG music and film music just a vain retro/nostalgic thing of the past?

To answer these questions, I've performed a little experiment where I played some movie tracks and some game tracks to people I know, people who are neither musicians nor avid gamers, I might add. Some of the music was soundtracks of current games and movies, some of it was what I'm currently working on for a TV documentation or for my current game project. I'd always ask the same question: „Video game music or film music?“

Roughly in 9 out of 10 cases, people were able to tell the VG music from the film music, even in the cases where the VG soundtrack has quasi-blockbuster quality. (e.g. Valkyria Chronicles III, Dead Space 2)

Granted, you can hardly call this little home experiment academic, but it made me rethink the matter. The explanation I came up with is simple. The reason for this is not that video games have different moods.

VG music has some distinct clichés.

Let me elaborate. First, what exactly are clichés? Dictionary.org tells us the following:

cli·ché, [kleeshey, kli-]:

(in art, literature, drama, etc.) a trite or hackneyed plot, character development, use of color, musical expression, etc.)

In other words, a cliché is something recognizable and frequently used, in our case a musical phrase or expression everyone can identify, even unknowingly.

Clichés and moods are closely linked, but not one and the same thing - I like to think of clichés as a simple way to convey a mood. That said, a cliché can be any feature. It can be a certain rhythm, a certain kind of harmonic structure, a familiar sounding melody or a genre-typical sound. We'll deal with some particular examples in the next part of this series.

Of course clichés have some negative connotations. Using the right amount of stereotype arrangement and instrumentation can be a tightrope walk – indeed, you have to be careful not to make your musical piece „trite“ or „hackneyed“ or just plain uninteresting if you have the aspiration to create something truly individual. On the other side, your music might become all too abstract if you don't answer any expectations the player might have from a certain game scenario.

Here are some ideas on dealing with clichés:

Avoiding clichés

  • Always be on the look-out for new sounds and ways of arrangement. There are some great sounds out there, and teams like Soniccouture , Tonehammer  or Sample Logic, just to name a few, deserve your attention. But you can build your own sample (instrument) library just as well. I always carry a Zoom handy recorder with me for that purpose. I've recorded all sorts of subway train noise, bird songs, marketplace atmospheres, kitchen noise, etc. with it and put it to good use. This experimental approach also goes for arrangement ideas. Try something new every day. Joke around with weird scales or use just one single melody note and come up with ways to arrange that note with different harmonies. (like Tom Jobim did in the A-part of „Samba de Uma Nota Só“)

  • Do the exact opposite of the cliché. Almost a cliché in itself, this is often used for anticlimactic purposes. Imagine an FPS scene where the player is running along an obstacle course of tanks and soldiers, avoiding bullets and mine fields, blowing everything and everyone standing in his way to kingdom come with his trusty bazooka – and in the background, the choir theme of Mr. Bean is playing: „Ecce homo qui est faba“

  • Work in close relation to the game art and gameplay. Get inspired by what's happening on-screen. If art and gameplay are unique, so should your music be. Look for distinct features and novelties and try to emphasize them with your music. We'll cover this one in more detail when we talk about interactive music.

  • Be open to all kinds of music and combine. There's no border between score music and electronica in VGM. Find your own crossover genres. A lot of people seem to be using templates with their favorite instruments pre-loaded, personally I'm not a fan of those as they tend to restrict my personal creativity. Sure, I have my go-to samples and synths, but there are a million and one ways to achieve your goal, and more than one is the right way.

  • Jam. Improvise. I can't stress this enough. Personally, I don't know a single successful composer who doesn't like to just open a sample instrument or grab a guitar and just play what his mind tells him to, once in a while. In our case, it can help to open up some concept art images and look at them while playing. That's what they're for. Try to find rhythms/harmonies/melodies/sounds that fit the colors and the lines and you're bound to come up with something individual and coherent.

Using clichés

  • References, references, references. And here the circle closes. The only way to learn clichés is to hear them and use them. Frank Sikora, a London-born jazz composer, arranger and author of the German standard work on advanced harmony theory, „Neue Jazz-Harmonielehre“, described the process of learning this way: „You can only learn what you have discovered yourself.“ Meaning you have to replicate a cliché in order to make it your own and combine it with individual ideas. And there's another truth to that: you can only avoid clichés if you can spot them. That's why it's important to know your history and learn from past compositions as much as you can.

...as mentioned above, our next chapter will take a closer look at some examples. We'll take some well-known VGM tracks apart together and try to spot what exactly makes them fit so well with the game.

The next chapter will be called Knowing Genres: Examples from Past and Present.

Be sure to check out my website.

Thanks for reading, take care!

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