Episode 2: Music Composition for Video Games – Intro to Battle Music!

composing music for video games

Battle music is a huge and varied term, so for this intro, I’d like to focus on two popular genres: Sci-Fi/Modern action and fantasy/RPG action. If you’re unsure of where a certain game falls, in regards to these categories, just ask yourself, “Are they using guns or swords?”

Fantasy games usually use swords, bows and arrows, and ride horses, as opposed to a sci fi game, where they’re more likely to use guns, and drive motorized vehicles or ships. Therefor, fantasy games should have a strong orchestral sound, with a lot of brass, woodwinds, and choirs. Sci-Fi games usually rely much more heavily on synths, processed sounds, and sound design.

We’ll start with a simple, 30 second battle loop which was originally created for a very simple, military themes RTS (real-time strategy) game. For battle tracks, there are certain elements that are going to be useful no matter the genre: epic percussion and string ostinatos. Short strings (spiccato or staccato) will be your best friend in creating a fast paced, rhythmic action melody.

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For simple battle tracks, you do NOT want to distract from the gameplay! As with any form of music for media, we want to compliment and enhance the gameplay, not distract from it. Most people should not be able to notice the music at all, it should simply flow together as a small part of the whole. It’s best to keep a steady, driving sense of rhythm. Too many pauses and music that is too dynamic will be out of place for a simple, fast paced action game. Usually 4/4 time signatures work best, I often build tracks with a steady sense of progression and forward movement. That being said, we want a noticeable structure with the track, so it can help to build tracks in sections: as you continue to add layers and introduce new elements into the track, eventually you want to bring that tension to a head, and in the next section, strip things back, ultimately removing layers while re-focusing on the core and primal elements. This section we may introduce much heavier percussion, keeping the same sense of rhythm, but intensifying the core elements. If you have too many layers going on constantly, it can become overwhelming and distracting. We want to focus on intensity and while it is important to build by adding layers, it’s just as important to be able to say “okay, we have enough going on: time to re-focus” and strip the track down to those core layers, only intensified.

I start with building a foundation with the basics: rhythm, chords, and structure, writing with ensemble patches (strings, brass, etc) first. Then I add in the melodies and write for individual sections (create harmonies, write my lead melodies with violins, horns, etc.), and lastly I add in “ear candy”, such as textures, sound design, risers and transitions, etc. This last step is absolutely vital in selling the track as a whole, and one of the most common reasons clients often feel tracks aren’t good enough: they don’t have enough polish and high enough production values.

The first track in the video is super simple, and the rate I was paid reflects that. The amount of complexity and detail in your track will determine your asking rate, which is always calculated per-minute of finished music. Make sure you outline how many instrument layers your track will have, as well as how many revisions you are willing to offer for the included rate, and if they want more layers or revisions, determine up front how much that will cost them. You want to take care of this business before you begin, to avoid misunderstandings and frustration on either end.

In addition to the simple battle track structure, I give some tips on how to make seamless loops with your music, and I also go over a much more complex fantasy track, breaking down the different elements and describing the process and techniques used.

We will continue with more Battle Music in Episode 3, as well as featuring the Q&A section, answering your questions you left in the comments on both videos.

-Brian Freeland, APD

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2 years ago

This was a very nice article and video. There are a few things I’d like to point out in general. As a beginner, you need to listen to a lot of music that you are going to compose. Even if you don’t ever plan to be the next Hans Zimmer, or Harry Gregson Williams, this is crucial. There are several reasons why: besides the fact that it allows you to pick up used and accepted orchestration techniques, it is one of the ways you can compare how good your compositions are. Think of it as a gauge. The more familiar… Read more »

2 years ago
Reply to  robjoy88

Great info! Some of it we’ve actually covered in this or other episodes/live-streams 🙂 As for proving yourself, I just know if I hadn’t have taken chances in the beginning, I would not have a single gig or credit right now, no exaggeration. I’d still be waiting for a shot. I took chances and it paid off for me, I proved myself, and went from absolutely zero orchestral experience (as an EDM producer) to landing consistent gigs and starting my own business. Sometimes you need to bend the traditional rules and follow your gut. Composing is outsourced now to freelance… Read more »

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