When I was very young, I drifted off to sleep each night serenaded by all manner of excellent music, piped into my room via a speaker my father had installed behind the head of my crib. Each evening, my audiophile dad curated a program of classical and film scores, along with the occasional Beatles tune, all of which guided me off to sleep and, eventually, into a lifelong romance with the pursuit of expressing my heart via music and sound. 

We have probably all heard music described as communication.

I recall the first time I heard Disney and Stokowski’s soundtrack to Fantasia—specifically the moment Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain” transitions into Shubert’s “Ave Maria”—I realized that I was involuntarily weeping as the score seamlessly glided from the Profane to the Sacred. It was not just the bookending compositions themselves which moved me; I began to discover that it was the contrast between them which made the emotional stakes feel so high. I was feeling what those animated drawings were ‘feeling.’

Russell Brower

This moment so enraptured me that I made a promise to my nine-year-old self that somehow I would pursue, create or be involved in something that would bring about a similar emotional and rapturous experience for others. It’s been nearly half a century since then and I’ve learned a lot, however this goal remains just as compelling as ever. I have come to believe that every composer has a unique and personal voice within themselves, and finding mine involved musically embracing communication, contrasts and emotional connections. And becoming an Empath, of a sort.

A difficult decade for game music

We have probably all heard music described as communication. This is absolutely true, and I hasten to add that music is specifically a conversation between Composer and Listener. And while one can write the most intricate Gordian knot of musical tension and pounding action to keep an audience’s pulses racing, or subtly blend sonic colors that convey emotional gravitas, how can this be sustained through a long scene or a playable level, especially within the context of a game where so many things vie for the player’s attention? For me, I found a partial solution in not just acknowledging that music is communication, but in actually ‘having the conversation.’

Try asking your imagined Listener or Player how they arrived at their current situation, and what is at stake. Imagine a detailed answer. It might actually exist in the script of the game or film, but you also might have to infer it for yourself, at least until it is revealed later in the story, much like the Listener must do. Some Empathic skills would be helpful here, and while not everyone possesses them, you as a composer most likely do. I don’t mean mind-reading. I’m referring to your ability to empathize with a story, character or situation, even before much is revealed about them, to the point that you can actually identify and feel the requisite emotions. Have the conversation as a thought experiment. Explore the cares, fears, joys and motivations you perceive. (Note also if you feel these things physically. It can be helpful if you do, but please use caution as these somatic feelings can be stressful.)

Where do contrasts exist that can be exploited and, if needed, amplified?

Having had this bit of offline conversation— proceed to score it. I don’t mean adding accents to downbeats or looking for moments to add a tutti run up to a big melodic statement just because they sound epic—I mean for you to allow that conversation to run through your very soul and let it tear you up a bit (if that’s the story beat) and then write down your musical interpretation of what you feel. Your audience does not need to know specifically what you were imagining, but only to have the fruits of your experience wash over them via the music. They will grok that there is more at work here than just notes on a page and sounds in the air. They will remember your cue and not even necessarily realize it or understand why. They may feel a somatic or physical body response to your score, especially if you did while you wrote or conceived it. You might also note that you are discovering your unique, personal voice in the process.

Now that you are dialed into a musical dialogue with your audience, consider what surrounds each conversation. Where do contrasts exist that can be exploited and, if needed, amplified? Just as Stokowski provided a roadmap from the profane rituals and dances that define the terrors ofBald Mountain” to the safe, sacred harbor, faith, reassurance and hope of “Ave Maria,” you can leverage the contrasts between your cues and the contrasts between the stories behind them to help ensure you have grabbed your audience’s attention and that they are in the right mindset to receive what you share.

How did Stokowski do it? To my ears, he chose a secondary melody which had surrounded, but not eclipsed the iconic ‘Chernobog spreading his wings’ bombast…a little recurring phrase which he could slow down over successive quotes, thinning the orchestration over the repeats, making it more introspective…Stokowski used this recurring phrase which sounds like once-terrible-now-terrified souls ducking for cover in their rapidly evolving landscape and eventually spying the procession of monks carrying candles through a cathedral-like forest towards a brighter place…and it’s at that moment when the first strains of choir can be heard and terror begins to morph into hope. Listen to it. It’s all there and it’s not complicated at all; it’s successful because it is the deliberate unfolding of a story and not simply a bit of musical calisthenics.

Even in silence, the emotions, stakes and contexts remain present, especially when the silence is a creative choice.

Running throughout all of these ideas and musical conversations are emotional connections. Being in touch with what’s at stake for the players or the characters in the story, game or film and tapping into the contextualized emotions and reinterpreting them musically, even somatically is what brings relevance to your audience. If you can truly feel in your gut what you wish others to feel, you can rest assured they will feel…something. It will likely have the same ‘shape’ as your original intent, however the specifics can and will be uniquely their own. This is not only an acceptable outcome, I submit it is the best one. Embracing and learning from how your emotional responses differ from others’ in a given story situation is a key opportunity for your growth as an artist.

Where are the boundaries of sharing and streaming game music legally?

Of course some, if not most, of these transition moments in a score may be to and from silence rather than another cue. In these situations, one can still provide a transitional device of sorts. Even in silence, the emotions, stakes and contexts remain present, especially when the silence is a creative choice. Silence is the most stark and unforgiving contrast available to the composer and others who shape a game or film’s storytelling dynamic. Wield silence as deliberately as you would a 90-piece orchestra, and then choose the manner of a surrounding music cue’s entrance or exit to best suit that moment; there can be stark, sudden entrances and misty ethereal ones. Busy action cues can melt away into the void and plaintive woodwind intervals can be cut off by an unceremonious dumpster-fire of a musical stinger. There are no rules; there are only emotional pathways down which you can lead your gamer-audience-listeners.

Remember, if you’re a composer you’re probably also a bit of an Empath. Use your inherent skills to dig deeper into your stories and provide the sort of emotional connection which will engage your audience on a level that the written or spoken word cannot reach. Look for opportunities to leverage contrasting story moments to achieve a most glorious musical emphasis where desired and to help develop an effective and timeless musical approach, vocabulary and voice that are uniquely your own.

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Russell Brower

Composer for Theme Parks, TV, and several Famous Video Games.