Making Video Game Music by Request

Updated on July 20, 2018
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Noah is a young composer for indie games. He's studying as a Computer Science major and Music minor at the University of Delaware.

Where to Start?

So, someone's asked you to make a track. Great! For the sake of this article, let's pretend it's a fully-fleshed out piece of music that you have to make.

Now what? You have the task, but you might not know how to get started. Here's a couple of good ideas. In order to show you how effective each strategy is, I'll be participating as well.

Method 1: Melody First!

You're electing to make the melody first! So if you don't have an idea already, let's see what we can't do to get one.

If you've got a keyboard and/or music notation software, pick a key signature and start to improvise, melody only. See if you like something that you played!

Here's what I came up with in the key of A!
Here's what I came up with in the key of A!

So we have our melody now. Let's analyze it a bit!

We have a consistent melodic motif in bars 1 and 3. That's our main melody. Bars 2 and 4 serve as paths to different parts of the song. Our main melody is pretty versatile, since it includes the 6th, 3rd, and 2nd scale degree. These can allow for some pretty expressive chords.

As well, there seems to be a lively 6/8 + 1 or just {dotted quarter, dotted quarter, quarter} pulse to the melody, since as you can see beat 4 is most often occupied by a quarter note. Bar 2 demonstrates a variation on this, where we keep moving on beat 4 to lead into bar 3. That's another idea we can repeat.

Well now what?

We can move on to the bassline if we want one, or the harmony. I'm going to go onto the harmony now.

Method 1: Harmony Second!

If a song is a meal, chords are most certainly the flavor of the food. They can express the homeliness of oatmeal, the exotic vibrance of pineapple, and the fervor in the taste of peppers and spices. Did I lose you? I'm sorry, I like food.

In any case, we've got to make the chords now! Depending on the feel of the song you were asked to make, your chords may differ. Here's what I came up with.

For a nostalgic feel.
For a nostalgic feel.

This melody now has a more nostalgic sound in my opinion, due to the chords I've added with it. It sounds a bit like this song from Pokemon I think.

Why? It's because of that iim7b5 chord. It's what happens when you take the minor IV chord (iv) and raise the root a wholestep, giving it the pathos behind the iv chord, and the sting of a diminished chord, hence the m7b5. As well, it stings a little more at the end with the final bvi+ chord, consisting of the notes F natural,C#, and A, where F acts as a suspension to fall to E, making our I chord again. Because of the D in the melody with that chord, it can also be interpreted as a Vminmaj7 chord, making an inverted authentic cadence. Interesting!

So now you see how we can make an entire song's idea based on the melody. Now let's try making one with harmony.

Method 2: Harmony First!

Now we'll try and make a song from the harmony first. So we'll have to determine the chords and harmonic rhythm from the start, and from it build a melody that works.

I choose the key of Db, a jazzy feel, and here's what I came up with.

For a jazzy feel.
For a jazzy feel.

Alrighty, this has a more cool, fun, jazzy feel to it. Most of that sound has to do with the progression. We have a LOT of tensions (or scale degrees that aren't 1,3, or 5), specifically 7ths. A big contributor to the jazzy sound is the second chord in the progression, that 7sus4 structure. Very fun!

Method 2: Melody Second!

Now it's time to make a melody for this! In a jazzy setting, I'd recommend being a performer and looping the progression so you can improvise over it. Another strategy for making a melody is to take the involved pitches in the chords and simply link them together in a melody.

Oh yeah!
Oh yeah!

The melody I made just dances around safely with the harmony. It doesn't try to lead to any different chords than in the progression, and it stays with the harmonic rhythm closely. It makes for an easy jam if you were to add a bass and some drums.

So what?

What does any of this complicated analysis mean for our composition?

Basically, this all shows you that it's not terribly difficult to make a little song by request. How do you make a song by request? You take your request, your knowledge of theory, and your own ideas, and then you combine them. Here, I just used my knowledge of scalar triads to be able to make a progression in any key, and I highlighted specific scale degrees I wanted to target with the melody to emphasize a certain sound.

If you're not sure about your knowledge of music theory, you should absolutely check out musictheory.net. I'm self-taught, and I learned very quickly thanks to this site and the plentiful practice opportunities it has offered me. As well, I would recommend the textbook "Tonal Harmony" by Stefan Kostka. I studied with this and it only strengthened my music theory skill.

Conclusion

Overall, writing a song based on a request depends on your knowledge of mood, and the selection of chords based on that mood of the song in question. If you've got any questions, feel free to ask them here!

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