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Video game active ambient music and figurative silence

In this article, Pieter Smal analyses five tracks in pursuit of compositional balance: the usage of breaks and figurative silence in active ambient tracks.

Pieter Smal, Blogger

February 15, 2016

15 Min Read

1. Introduction
January 2016 marked my foray into the world of video game composition. Although the compositional aspects of the soundtrack were well balanced, I had concerns as to its effectiveness during playtesting. One specific track was pleasant at first, but became monotonous when looped. The soundtrack reminded me of Count Orsini-Rosenberg (from Peter Shaffer's Amadeus), humorously saying: “A young man trying to impress beyond his abilities; too much spice, too many notes.” Although I am not questioning my abilities, this composition (a moto perpetuo for guitar, flute, piano, and drumkit) did not have any silence or stops. So as to improve my own composition skills, I will analyse five active ambient tracks composed for AAA video game soundtracks.

Film and video game music are divided into two categories: diegetic and non-diegetic music. Whilst diegetic music supports the narrative on-screen (in a linear timeline), non-diegetic music is usually associated with “background” (ambient) music. Brian Eno (in Cox & Warner 2006: 96, 97) first created 'ambient music' as environmental music that could reflect a variety of emotions and atmospheres: “we were making music to swim in, to float in, to get lost inside”. As it reflects imaginative qualities, ambient music is a good accompaniment to the surreal and fantastical settings in video games.

Sweet (2015: 156) deconstructs video game ambient music into three layers: drone [pedal point], percussion, and string ostinatos[1][2]. Brugnoli (2014: 280) links music with mental manipulation, writing: "Repetition of a sound, rhythm, [...] or metrical pattern is a basic unifying device in hypnosis." Therefore, repeating musical figures are a powerful device in video game music composition, as it subconsciously enters the player's mind without diverting attention from the gameplay.

Video games contain a third category of music that is neither ambient nor narrative; I call this “active ambient music”. Agitated diegetic music follows a particular story in a specific timeline, especially in film music where an element of threat or suspense is involved. In video games, the music for action sequences usually do not follow timelines but respond according to the player's interaction with the game. Where ambient music is usually reflective and meditative (passive), fast-paced active ambient music excites the player emotionally whilst reflecting the game world[3].

Aural silence in video games manifests in two ways: literal silence or subdued sound. I use the word "silence" as a figurative key word to a larger interpretation of synonyms: to be supressed, hushed, tone down, or abstain from musical ideas that demands attention. Since music (sound) cannot litterally be silent (absence of sound), I seek to determine where and how music demands the attention of the player [4]. In active ambient music, uninterrupted percussion could interrupt gameplay and irritate the player. Musical “breaks” provides the listener with rhythmical rest and musical variation, preventing annoyance or boredom created by repetition. My analysis will discuss the usage of silence and breaks in five selected track from AAA games. After each analysis I will illustrate the discussed track as a sound wave image (with supplementary notes), summarising my research with a visual representation. The sound wave images may be enlarged through right-clicking on the image and selecting "Open image in new tab"


2. Analysis
2.1. Fable III - Brightwall
Composer: Russel Shaw

Brightwall opens with tremolo violins that osciliates over a three octave span. The tremolo violins act as a pedal point and establishes the tonic: A minor. A glockenspiel solo (00:05 – 00:09) acts as an embellishment and masks the entry of cello pizzicato. A flute solo alludes to the Fable III theme (00:11 – 00:16), followed by a woodwind thickening (second flute, oboes) (00:16 – 0021:). Whilst the flutes played, the upper string section began playing pizzicato, thereby establishing a 3/4 waltz rhythm. A fuller woodwind ensemble (including clarinet and bassoon) plays the Fable III theme (figure 1) (00:39) doubled by choir (00:53 – 01:08); this full statement of the Fable III theme features the first harmonic deviation away from the tonic, including a notable circle of thirds that retains the A pedal point (A minor, F major, D minor). Melodic silence returns as pizzicato strings suspend the harmony until the violins are played arco (doubled by woodwinds) (01:21 – 01:34) and the choir echoes the Fable III theme (01:35 – 01:49). After returning to the gravitating tonic pedal, a snare drum joins the ensemble whilst a flute and an oboe (01:53 – 02:05) plays embellishments. Violin tremolo (02:14) retains the pedal point (tremolo on A – C) whilst woodwinds (02:28 – 02:50) brings the composition to an end, alla codetta.

Figure 1: Fable III theme

Figure 2: Sound wave representation of Brightwall

A. Glockenspiel and pizzicato cellos.

B. Flute entry

C. Woodwinds statement of the Fable III theme

D. Pizzicato strings and gradual buildup of woodwinds, arco strings later

E. Woodwind embellishments with snare drum

F. Tremolo strings

G. Woodwinds outtro


2.2. SimCity - Population
Composer: Chris Tilton

Whilst an acoustic guitar strums (open strings double pedal points on E and B), a banjo plays the Population theme (figure 3) (00:16 – 01:05). A synthesizer softly plays high-pitched sounds (reminiscent of overtones), until the synthesizer plays chords (01:06). These chords breaks away from the tonic, retaining the E pedal as the harmony moves down from E major to C major. A minimalistic piano enters at 01:09, echoing the Population theme. Likewise, a flute enters at 01:22, only playing notes that belong to the harmony. Violas play single arco strokes (02:10), joined by a bassoon (02:26) that bubbles staccato notes. Cellos and Double Bass join the ensemble supporting the bass (02:142), followed by the entry of high pitched violin pizzicato (02:58). Bassoons fall out (03:14) and the strings uniformly bows arco (03:30) before a solo flute joins, playing the Population theme (03:46). The flute is doubled by strings (04:02) whereafter the cellos answers the Population theme (04:18). The E pedal points shifts to A as the entire composition modulates to A major (04:33). Here, a piano plays a thematic transformation of the Population theme (figure 4), accompanied by arco strings, oboe, and percussion. The solo flute rejoins the ensemble (04:58) whilst the bassoon doubles the piano (05:10). Towards the end of the composition, strings bows chords (05:22 – 06:11) centered around the pedal point: A major, F major... and finally D major in the last chord.

Figure 3: Population theme

Figure 4: Population thematic transformation

Figure 5: Sound wave representation of Population

A. Banjo Entry

B. Synthesizer chords

C. Strings arco chords

D. Modulation to A major

E. String arco chords


2.3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Ancient Stones
Composer: Jeremy Soule

A short string and synthesizer introduction (00:00 – 00:22) introduces two pedal points that pivots the following harmonies: Ab (Ab min) and Gb (Gb major, Eb minor). A zither plays the first statement of the Ancient theme (figure 6) (00:22 – 00:37) accompanied by synthesizer. The second statement of the Ancient theme is played by zither accompanied by flute (00:37 – 00:51). The Ancient theme is extended in the third- and fourth period (00:52 – 01:23), played by violins and doubled with woodwinds and horns. In the fifth period the zither plays the Ancient theme whilst a violin plays a counter-melody (01:24 – 01:29), whereafter the zither is doubled by a flute in the sixth period (01:39 – 01:53). A thematic intermezzo features horn calls accompanied by strings (01:54 – 02:09) followed by a trumpet solo (02:09 – 02:40) accompanied by strings and timpani. The Ancient theme is repeated on flute (doubled by harp) (02:47 – 03:01) followed by the last thematic statement on a zither (03:02 – 03:17). A horn call is heard (03:17 – 03:40) before the closing coda that features choirs, sordini violins, and percussion (03:40 – 04:35).

Figure 6: Ancient theme

Figure 7: Sound wave representation of Ancient Stones

A. Synthesizer introduction

B. First period

C. Second period

D. Third period

E. Fourth period

F. Fifth period

G. Sixth period

H. Brass intermezzo

I. Seventh period

J. Eigth period

K. Horn coda

L. Choir and strings coda


2.4 Rayman: Origins - Jibberish Jungles (Darktoon Chase)
Composers: Christophe Héral, Billy Martin

The Darktoon Chase opens with a bass clarinet solo (G minor) accompanied by a hi-hat (figure 8). Jew's harp and first violins join the ensemble (00:15), thickening the texture and adding tention. The ominous atmosphere is later supported by col legno second violins (senza hi-hat) whilst the first violins tremolo a G pedal point (00:48 - 01:04). The tention is lifted at 01:04 with upbeat hi-hat accompanying chromatic violin figures whilst the bass clarinet plays a new melody (figure 9) (01:12). Electric guitar, strumming accoustic guitar, and congas brightens the ensemble (01:20) with saxophones following pursuit (01:36). Violins plays a melody in the upper register (01:44), thickening to texture until the piece modulates to C minor (01:59). The violins plays a new melody (figure 10) repeated in a low and high register (01:59 - 02:30) until all pitched instruments end. After a percussive section (congas, drumkit, Jew's harp) (02:32 - 02:47), the violin melody is repeated twice and the composition comes to a close (02:48 - 03:04).

Figure 8: Darktoon Chase bass clarinet opening

Figure 9: Darktoon Chase second bass clarinet melody

Figure 10: Darktoon Chase violin melody

Figure 9: Sound wave representation of Darktoon Chase

A. Bass clarinet and hi-hat

B. Jew's harp and violins

C. Col legno and tremolo violins

D. Chromatic violins

E. Second bass clarinet melody

F. Electric guitar, acoustic guitar, congas

G. Modulation to C minor

H. Percussive solo

I. Violin melody repeat and ending


2.5. Tomb Raider: Underworld - Panters vs Poachers
Composers: Troels Folmann, Colin O'Malley

Panthers Vs. Poachers features an interesting form: an extended binary form with repeats inside and outside. A traditional binary composition would look like this:

||: A :||: B :||


O'Malley included a bridge that modulates from A to B, repeating both A and B with slight changes, and finally repeating the entire cycle again. His extended binary form is illustrated thus:

||: A1 - Bridge - B1 - A2 - B2 :||


Whilst all the sections are scored similarly (brass, strings, percussion), the tonicizations between the A- (D minor) and B (F minor) sections is of interest. Instead of a common note (F as pivot between D minor and F minor), the tonic note of each section is the pedal point. A1 (00:00 - 00:29) oscillates between D and Eb, whilst a D (played on trombones) strengthen the tonic function every second bar. Every bar in A1 also fluctuates hemiolas, between a 6/8 and 3/4 time. Scale-like violin writing thickens the texture from 00:09 towards the end of the section. After brass swells (00:24 - 00:29), the bridge section starts at 00:29 (- 00:49), featuring a melody in the cellos and basses. Violins joins the ensemble at 00:39, modulating towards the B1 section. B1 in F minor (00:49 - 01:09) consists of tremolo arpeggiating violins, ending in a tonic repetition doubled with swelling choir (01:04 - 01:09). A2 (01:09 - 01:29) recapitulates A1 (in D minor) with an added cello/double bass melody, reminiscent of the bridge. B2 (01:29 - 01:44) repeats B1 (F minor), but without the tonic repetition of 01:04 - 01:09, directly moving back to D minor. This cycle is repeated (01:44 - 03:28), and the composition ends with the tonic repetition of B1 (03:28 - 03:48), closing with a codetta.

Figure 11: Sound wave representation of Panthers vs Poachers

||: A1 - Bridge - B1 - A2 - B2 :||

C. Codetta


3. Conclusion
Brighwall (Fable III) is scored for orchestra and moulded in a binary form: a soft introduction (figure 2: sections pre-A - C), two woodwind/orchestra swells (C - D, D - E), another quiet section (E - G), ending with two woodwind/orchestral swells (figure 2: G - end). Metaphorical silence manifests through thin textures and the lack of thematic/melodic material.

Population (Simcity) is scored for members of the guitar family (accoustic guitar, banjo), orchestra, synthesizers, and percussion. After a calm introduction (guitar strumming, banjo, and synthesizer), the composition ebbs in little swells (figure 5: secions B - end). Where thematic material is not present all instruments remain within the harmony, repeating notes that belongs to the immediate chords. Between the swells short piano moments of peace persists.

In Ancient Stones (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim), zither, orchestra, choir, and synthesizers shape the orchestration of the composition. A calm introduction consisting of strings and synthesizers open the composition, followed by various statements of the Ancient theme. After a crescending climax (figure 7: sections C - F), three smaller swells (sections F - end) states thematic material. Ancient Stones is mostly thematic, save for the horn intermezzo and closing coda. The simple zither melody (with a thin texture) provides figurative silence.

Jibberish Jungles (Darktoon Chase) from Rayman: Origins opens in silence: between the bass clarinet and hi-hat there are moments where sound is literally absent - true silence. After a buildup with tremolo and col legno violins, the composition spins out into loudness. In this forte section (figure 9: sections F - end), the only section that really draws attention is the violin melody (figure 10) that repeats several times. Continual rhythmic support from percussion instruments keeps the composition in motion without distracting the player with tempi changes.

Panthers vs. Poachers (Tomb Raider: Underworld) is the only composition in this study that has perpetual percussive progress, maintaining the same pulse throughout. It is also the only composition in this study that retains the same dynamic level, save for minute swells here and there. Looking at the sound wave image, this is the only composition where form with clear sections can be seen. Although silence is not a word associated with this up-tempo track, there are sections devoid of melodic material - to the extend that thematic material is completely discarded in this composition.

The only composition trait common to these pieces is pedal points. Surrounding a central note in prolonged harmony or a circle of thirds, pedal points retain harmonic unity in one note that acts as an aural sedative. Avoiding the functional harmony of primary chords, pedal points binds harmonic and melodic ideas together without interruption. Pedal points are also a common denominator between active- and passive ambient music. The circle of thirds could be regarded as extended harmonies on top of a tonic, resembling an appearance of overtones. Whilst literal silence is scarce in active ambient music, the use of pedal points suggest figurative silence. A single tone repeated with harmonic deviations could insinuate a hypnotic effect: music of theoretical significance masked in the background of the game. The five examples that I analysed are possible models for video game active ambient music composition. Whilst further analysis could provide a host of other examples, synthesis and practise are the only ways to become an experienced, quality composer.

1. An ostinato is a repeating rhythm or melodic idea.
2. Ostinato patterns are also heard on other instruments; for the 2014 game Ichi, composer Bart Dellisen scored ostinato patterns on a piano and a guitar (Create, Puzzle, Action https://soundcloud.com/bartdelissen/create-puzzle-action).
3. All soundtracks from theMonkey Island video game series include steel drums as part of the orchestration. Also used in Calypso, steel drums evokes the Caribbean, reflecting the title of the game series (Monkey Island). This video game series is a prime example of active ambient music that reflects the environment.ideo game series is a prime example of active ambient music that reflects the environment.
4. Unless your name is John Cage (4'33").

Brugnoli, M.P. 2014. CLINICAL HYPNOSIS IN PAIN THERAPY AND PALLIATIVE CARE: A Handbook of Techniques for Improving the Patient's Physical and Psychological Well-Being. Springfield: Charles C Thomas.

Cox, C; Warner, D. 2006 [2004]. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. New York: Continuum.

Sweet, M. 2015. Writing Interactive Music for Video Games: A Composer's Guide. Upper Saddle River: Addison-Wesley.

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