An Interview With Video Game Composer Matthew Harnage
Matthew Harnage is an American composer of video game soundtracks. He has a background playing guitar and started writing music as a teenager. He's scored 25 different video games as well as commercials and a few jingles. I talked to him about his roots as a composer, his creative process and where he finds inspiration.
Karl Magi: Talk about some of your formative musical experiences.
Matthew Harnage: I started playing music when I was around 12 years old. I focused mainly on guitar and some piano. I attended music college for a little while before starting my own music composition business and left. Since then I've been mainly doing freelance game music! I've been interested in video games for as long as I can remember. One particular memory I have as a child is running into my older brother's bedroom when I was six years old as our kitchen caught on fire. I vividly remember him playing Final Fantasy VII mid-battle with smoke filling up our home. Looking back on it now, it's actually kinda humorous how attached we were to games. The battle theme for VII has held a special place in my heart since then!
KM: What do you find compelling about composing for video games?
MH: One of my favorite things is the creative freedom that I get from developers and game companies! Especially on the indie side, I feel very fortunate to work with open minded creators. In my opinion, video games are the ultimate artistic medium right now. For one we mostly have a TON of freedom with indie projects, we get paid, and there are deadlines from keeping us composers from going insane. It's also of my opinion that since games are so widespread, and are as interactive as they are, that they provide us with the most efficient avenue for expressing ourselves and telling stories. Games directly involve the player, sometimes more, sometimes less but it's always more interactive than,say, a movie.
KM: Where does video game music fit into the realm of contemporary composition in your view?
MH: I think given the amount of freedom given to game composer over other media composers will and does give life to new ideas and ways of writing music. For instance with Jason Graves, Austin Wintory, or Gareth Coker. Can you imagine hearing that type of music anywhere else!? Interesting, odd, stimulating new music with melodies and functions that are only improved upon by being put into a game. That's definitely something rare and important, a wide spread medium for new music to be shared and enjoyed.
KM: How do you approach the process of composition?
MH: Mostly I start with melodies. If I can think of a melody then I put my brain in "writing mode" and see if anything interesting pops in or conjures itself up. Usually when I write in my head the ideas are fully formed, but short in length. So that's where craft and development come to help. Very very rarely I'll just think of general ideas, like "5/4", "riffs", "arpeggios", and go from there by putting stuff in my DAW that fits those things. Those are the days when nothing comes to me, but I need to write. Mostly though, I write from my head to avoid any muscle memory input on my composition.
KM: Who are some of the different composers who’ve had a strong influence on you?
MH: Without a doubt, Nobuo Uematsu is my favorite composer. His quirkiness, uniqueness, and sense of melody just appeal to something inside of me that I can't put into words. My earliest memories of loving video game music include Nobuo, as well as Hitoshi Sakimoto, Koji Kondo, Yasunori Mitsuda, Takeharu Ishimoto, and Jeremy Soule. Outside of game audio, I love listening to Joe Hisiashi, Casiopea, classic rock, prog rock from all eras (ELP, Yes, Rush, Dream Theater), Elton John is a favorite as well. I can even be found jamming to some current artists such as John Mayer, Jason Mraz, and other pop/rock artists. I really don't have too much of a genre preference! Current listening is a ton of Yasunori Nishiki from Octopath Traveler, and Dale North's soundtrack to Wizard of Legend.
KM: What are some of your goals as a composer going forward?
MH: One of my biggest goals is to write a fully fledged, beautiful, grandiose soundtrack to a JRPG. I'm talking multiple genres, vocal songs, orchestral passages, electronic elements... everything! Also with a ton of narrative based scoring approaches. Things like motifs and recurring themes, stuff like that really interest me and I try and do that with all my scores.
THE goal is to write music that changes people for the better and allows them to grow through the stories I'll tell and help tell. It's cliche I know, but I want my music to change the world in any way possible, small or large. If in a few years from now someone messaged me about how the score to "fill in the blank" allowed them solace in an otherwise tough circumstance. I'd be profoundly humbled and glad to know it helped someone in another way than just entertainment... another reason I think game audio is so special and unique.
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
MH:Well since I just moved to a new city (Raleigh, NC) I'm gonna be spending a lot of time exploring the city. Currently I exercise daily, play video games (lots of Octopath and Xenoblade 2!), hangout with my girlfriend and friends, go on walks when it's not hot out, play with my adorable pup Roxanne and things like that. Sometimes just talking to other people who are as passionate about the stuff you are can really get the juices flowing as well! I find talking with my current clients about our project really gets me excited and motivated!