When talking with musicians and composers who want’s to get into making video game music, they often have a oversimplified way of looking at it. I’ve heard people say that it should be less work to write game music compared to film music because it is mainly loop based, therefore the workload must be smaller, you don’t have to match the music to picture right?

Actually things were much different back in the classical Hollywood era.

They often underestimate what actually goes into a video game soundtrack because maybe the first thing that jumps into their heads are the old nintendo soundtracks like the NES classic, Super Mario Bros (1985) which, to be fair, mainly does consist of looped melodies. What people and newcomers often miss though, is the whole dynamic side of it. When I say dynamic, I am referring Karen Collins’ use of the term in her book Game Sound (2008). The term covers the different non static types of music used in video games, both adaptive and interactive. The need for adapting to gameplay and interacting with the players’ input and choices is often overlooked by people who have yet to become familiar with the production of videogame music, even though it has been an integrated part as long back as the primitive rhythms heard in Space Invaders (1978).

Eric Gabella

So, the big difference between writing for games instead of films is in reality not as much the writing of loops, but much more the need to write music that can dynamically change and work in an ocean of different situations. Also, the sheer amount of music that might be needed for a game that can last over 100 hours might be a lot bigger than what you can cramp into a film. Without going into too much detail, depending on exactly how dynamic the soundtrack is, all the different parts, layers and transitions can quickly add up. You never know exactly when things are going to happen in a videogame while you do in film.

Well, that is in reality only half a truth. Actually things were much different back in the classical Hollywood era when the conventions for what a film score should sound like was still being formed in the first half of the twentieth century. Back then the struggle of not knowing when things happened could be just as real as it is for dynamic music composers today. The reason for this was that the composers were often hired to finish writing the soundtrack before the cutting of the film was done.

Exactly how dynamic the soundtrack is, all the different parts, layers and transitions can quickly add up.

This meant that they, much like videogame composers, had to be smart about how they wrote the music, it had to be flexible. The russian writer and composer Leonid Sabaneev expressed in his book Music for the Films (1935) a need for the music to elastic. You should be able to stretch or shorten it as needed. In his book he set up some guidelines for making this possible, and while it is clear that he does see music from a conservative point of view, which makes sense for the time of writing, he brings a lot of tools to the table that could as well have been a guide for dynamic music written 70 years later.

Among different suggestions for utilizing time, tempo and tonality he stresses that a theme or musical phrase needs to be short and simple. This is important as the melodie has to play to completion to keep its musicality and flow, which renders longer phrases and themes unpractical. He also encourages using sequences as they can be repeated ad libitum and can be cut short. They can also be modulated by a semitone, a tone or a third, the last one which is especially practical as it is easy to return to the original key. Another advice he gives is utilizing non tonality where the background is neutral and dynamic, as the use of chromatic and non tonality can be lengthened and shorten as needed as there is no real resolve anyways.

Techniques to Score a Hybrid Orchestra for Live Players

These are all advice from an old hollywood composer, and obviously a lot have changed since then musically. The demand might be for completely different types of music, and the act of carrying out some of these suggestions will be very different when working sampled and electronic instead of conducting an actual orchestra. Non the less, it might be possible to find inspiration and usable tools when looking at the early Hollywood film music. Nothing in game music is quite as easy as it might seem from the outside, but isn’t that the beauty of it?

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Peter Wollesen

MA in Musicology and Film and Media studies, Composer, Musician and synth geek. Doing ambient synth music, playing black metal guitar and composing for the game Voyage of the Cloudbourne.