Writing Game Music : Part II
by John Licato

Welcome! Hopefully youíve read part one of this article, which deals with basic music notation, and how to write it. If you already have had music education, (or if you had just read part I,) and you just want to learn how to get the creativity to come up with songs, then this is what this article will discuss.

Letís see....hereís the basic agenda for this article. Part one will talk about techniques to expand your creativity. Part IIís gonna talk about ways to change a song idea into a computer file with sequencers and synthesizers, and how to choose a file format. Finally, Part III will enlighten you with a brief example of writing down a basic theme and changing it into a song. So get a little notepad to take down some notes, and letís get started!

I: Expanding your creativity--Open up your mind, man!

Now that you know how to write down the basic music, you can sit at the piano or something, and just keep a piece of paper with pre-drawn staffs on it, so whenever you come up with a song, you can find out the notes by playing it on the piano and then writing it down. You have to remember this one thing: No matter how stupid it sounds, write it down. Creativity is like that. If you do something creative, it usually sounds different, because it IS different. Thatís what you want. You donít want to get sued by somebody else because you made money off a song that was already copyrighted.

I canít tell you how much times Iíve thought of the stupidest songs in the world. I wrote them down anyway, and then when my friends heard them, they loved them! In fact, one of them was so good, it was chosen to be the main theme for one of our games! Anyway, just goes to show that the person who creates something usually things that his creation is stupid, but others think itís pure gold. Abraham Lincon had doubts about his famous speech, but it turned out to be one of the greatest speeches weíve ever heard. Anyway, enough with the history lesson, Iíll go on.

When you canít think of a good song, have no worries. If you can only come up with songs that sound terrible, itís probably just a block...sort of a writerís block for musicians. Just write down the songs you come up with anyway, and take a look at them a few days later, then play them. Make some changes, then come back a few days later again and make more changes. In time, youíll probably have a theme that youíll like.

Also remember that the way a composer thinks of a theme is usually different than how the audience thinks of it. If you think of a theme, youíll probably think that it sucks big time, but when you show it to somebody else, they might like it. Just try it out, and ask a friend to give you an honest opinion on it.

Or, you can write down a song, then come back to it in about a day or two. By then, you probably will have forgotten how it sounds. (If you still remember, thatís a good sign that itís a good song!) Listen to it now, and then if you still like it, itís a keeper. If you donít like it still, then that probably means itís not a good one. Keep it anyway, itís not good to waste songs. Youíll probably find a use for it in the future. Iíve got some songs that Iíve written years ago, but I still havenít found uses for them.

Itís almost mandatory for it to be completely quiet when you are trying to think of songs. Use your eyes to think of new songs, just look around. If you want to think of a sad, emotional song, look at something that reminds you of something sad that happened to you, usually one that wasnít resolved. If you broke up with your girlfriend and then you got back together, you usually wonít get into the "sad" mood when you think about her. If you really loved your girlfriend, and then she broke up with you because she wanted to date your best friend, then thatís a tragedy. Now, looking at a picture of her will probably bring you a sad song, or an angry song. Thatís one of the ways that musicians solve problems in their lives--if they are sad about something, they write a song about it, and they feel a bit better. They express themselves through music. So events in your life can inspire you to write better music. Take my favorite composer Beethoven, for example. He lived a life that was very sad. He was going deaf during his 30s, and became completely deaf. He was insulted at the kids at school because he was "dirty," and "different." He wrote Fur Elise for a woman named Elise. (Get it? Fur = For? Ah, forget it. I donít speak german either.) He proposed, and she said no. He wrote the moonlight sonata, one of the most beautiful piano pieces ever written, for a Countess named Giulietta Guicciardi. He proposed, but she was married off to a count. The point of that little history lesson was, experience makes you stronger. Use experiences youíve had to get you into the mood.

Of course, Iím not saying that you should cause yourself to experience emotional pain just so you can get the songs. If you are one of the lucky people who havenít had a sad experience before, then watch a sad movie or something.

Like I was saying, look around for inspiration. Watch movies to get you into the mood. If you want an exciting theme, like a battle theme, turn the sound off and watch a fighting movie, or read an exciting comic book. (I suggest the X-Men issues where Onslaught is finally destroyed...I loved those issues!)

Usually, when developing a game, the team makes a sample of the game, and then gives it to the musician, so that he can have an easier time thinking of a song. If time is not a problem, I think this is a good thing to do. That way the musician can just look at the game, or screenshots of the game, and think, "what would sound perfect in this situation?" While doing this, make sure to keep a piano or another musical instrument next to you, so once you think of a theme, it can be written down and not forgotten or changed. You want to try to avoid having too much changes made to an original game idea, because usually that change is made so that it can sound more like a song that was already written. Earlier I said that it would be good to make changes to a song a bit, and with a time interval of a few days in between each time you make a change to the song. This is different, because each time you make your changes, there will be a different song in your head, and therefore a different song you are trying to change it to. Yes, I know that youíre thinking, "heís not right. When I make changes to my songs, Iím not trying to make it into a song I already know." But...subconsciously you are. Donít ask me exactly how, psychology is only one of my interests, not my career. :-)

So, what Iíve basically been saying so far is, get yourself in the right mood. If youíre not in the right mood, donít force yourself, do what you feel like. To try to get into the "musical" mood, do what I said above, or go to a musical environment. Turn on the radio and listen to the kind of music you want to write--remember this! Donít listen to music that youíre not planning to write, itís going to make it ten times harder. If you want to write a sad, instrumental song that plays when a character dies, donít listen to rap. If you want to write rap, donít turn on a classical music station.

Also remember that creativity improves with practice. If you first start and you canít even think of one song, just keep trying. As time passes by, youíll think of songs, and if you work dilligently, they will get much better. If you tried once and then gave up, and then tried again a month later and gave up, and then tried again a year later and gave up, you probably wonít be able to come up with good songs. At that rate, it would take years for you to get better.

Instrumental music (music without human voices talking or singing) is the kind of music most commonly used in games. If you plan to use human voices (a chorus singing, or somebody rapping or singing, etc.) then keep in mind that youíll actually have to have somebody perform if you want others to hear the music. Youíll actually have to pay somebody, or youíll actually have to teach somebody your music. (Unless of course, you plan to sing yourself.) If you only use instrumental music, then all you have to do is have a good synthesizer.

I donít know what creativity is exactly. All I can say is that somewhere deep in your mind, you remember a song or a part of a song, and then depending on what musical mood your mind is set to, it is changed or distorted. Other factors affect how it is affected, like what other songs you are thinking of, what other songs are remembered, etc. Remember, this happens subconsciously, you have no control over it.

Writing a song is different for different people. Some people have a very good short-term memory, and so whenever they think of a song, they hear all of the instruments playing in their head, and they write down the part for each instrument. But others, including me, only write down the basic theme and then add to it later. Most people write the basic theme. (How to do this is described in section III of this article.) From there, they add harmony and other instruments, and other musical effects. When I write music, I sit down for about an hour at the piano, and think of one theme. Just one basic theme, once I have it, I write it down, and write down any other themes that I may have gotten. Then I go to the computer, and add more instruments, and let the computer play back my composition to me. Whether I like it or not, I save it, and then I make my changes, like adding other parts. You shouldnít be composing for more than four hours in a row, non-stop. If youíre on a roll, and canít stop thinking of more themes, keep going, but you almost always have to take a break. Take a walk, take a bath, anything to get the creative portion of your mind rested.

If you absolutely cannot think of themes, there is the last-minute resort, which is writing a variation of another song. This is described in part three of this article series, which Iíll finish writing in a few weeks or so.

II: Changing an idea into reality

A) Picking a music format

When writing music for a game, you want to make sure that the game players hear exactly what you heard when you wrote the music. For example, say you wrote a sad song where the violins play the main theme and the drums accompany it. It might be possible that the computer will play it wrong, making the drums too loud, the violins too soft, making the song too fast, etc. That would definetely ruin the mood.

Such is usually not the case, but with midi files (*.mid) that case is very common. Midi files are just files that tell the computer to play certain notes at certain frequencies, for certain amounts of time. It does this and makes it sound like music. Problem is, that you usually have to be a professional midi programmer to make the midi files sound exactly how you want. Even if you do use a program that makes notes into midi files, you would have to be very experienced in the program if you want the midi file to sound exactly how you want. If youíre not too worried about perfection, or if you are worried about disk space, then go ahead and use a midi for your game. However, if you want perfect music, then continue reading.

Come then, and join me, for a healthy new fresh alternative to the tiring artificial sounds of midi files. The alternatives to midi are: Wave files, and MP3 files. There are others, but these two are the most commonly used. For music, MP3 files are used more, Wave files are usually sound effects. Still, your choice.

Alrighty, now. MP3 and WAV(wave) files are very space-consuming, so if youíre not worried about that, then you can use these formats. What these are, are usually recordings of actual instruments playing your music. If you have lots of money, then hereís what you can do. Write down the music, then hire an orchestra. (or a band. If youíre only looking to spend under $5000, then try asking the local highschool or college band or orchestra.) Theyíll play it, and then you record it, and then it is changed into the file you want. Of course, youíll need high-quality recorders in order to capture the music.

To record the orchestra/bandís performance, you would either need it to be professionally recorded at a recording studio, or attatch a microphone to the back of your sound card, open your "Sound" program, and record. You could also look for other sound programs that would help you manipulate the file after it is recorded. This usually changes the file into a wav file. There are programs that can also change them into MP3s, if you want.

If you donít want to go through the trouble of hiring a group to play your music, then you can try to do it yourself. Youíll need to get yourself a good synthesizer, or a Wave Table. These are things that play midi files. However, they have pre-recorded sounds installed. So if you play a midi file with these synthesizers, and the midi file says for a trombone to play, you would hear an actual trombone sound playing that midi file. It seems like magic, but itís really just common sense. Synthesizers are usually expensive. All you have to do now, is record your synthesizer playing the midi file, and then change that into a WAV or MP3. If youíre a programmer, Iíve heard that DirectMusic has a built-in wave table, so if you can program, learn DirectX and DirectMusic.

If your computer already has a built in synthesizer that sounds like an actual recording, then donít assume that all other computers do. My two computers both donít have a good synthesizer, they just have the same, lame old synthesizer that has obviously artificial sounds. My friends do...why donít I?

B) Using the right program

Sorry, I know that this section should have been here earlier, but itís too late to change it now. Actually it isnít, but Iím just too lazy. ;-P

Okay, Iíll split this sub-section into two sub-sub-sections: Programs for making midi files, and programs for making sound files.

Programs for Midi files:

Since midi files are sometimes called "sequences", midi file creators are sometimes called "sequencers." A Hardware sequencer is a sequencer that, well...uses hardware. For example, some electronic midi keyboards can be connected to the computer and then if you have the right program with the right keyboard, you can play and then the program will record what youíre playing into a midi file.

A software sequencer usually doesnít use that. A software sequencer is a program that just allows you to create midi files using the program. It is slower, but Iíd say that itís better.

The program that I use is Musictime Deluxe, a software and hardware sequencer. However, the keyboard I have isnít compatible with this program (the program expects a different type of keyboard,) so I donít use that feature. The version of it Iím using was actually made for Windows 3.11, and Iím running it on windows 98, but who cares? It works, thatís what matters. The good thing about midi files is they usually donít require big, expensive programs to create. They just need a musically educated person with a song in his/her head.

Iím also pretty lazy, too lazy to update the version that Iím using. Either that or Iím just reluctant to spend the money. It just doesnít matter which one of those it is, thatís not important. What is important is that Iím not going to change it, and I donít need to. Music and the way it is written down has stayed the same for hundreds of years, I doubt itís gonna change now. I donít even know if they have a new version of Musictime Deluxe anymore.

Midi creators like Musictime Deluxe usually have pre-drawn staffs. All you have to do is draw notes, clefs, accidentals, whatever you need, to make music. You usually select what you want to draw (a rest, a note, etc.) from a toolbar or something. They also usually have some way of playing the music that you have written, so that you are able to listen to what youíre creating. Make sure that the program you want to buy has most of these features or more, because they are important.

Actually, I donít even think they make Musictime anymore, because Iíve searched for the program on the internet, and couldnít find it. So letís look at other programs we can use!

Midisoft Studio 4.0 is a sequencer which I hear is pretty good. Its website is at http://www.midisoft.com. Here are some links which contain sequencers or links to sequencers:

http://www.jazzware.com/cgi-bin/Zope.cgi/jazzware/ - they make Jazz++, a midi sequencer.

http://www.mooremusic.com.au/software/sequence.htm - links to several software sequencers.

http://mp3.about.com/entertainment/mp3/library/weekly/aa082498.htm?iam=ask&terms=midi+sequencers - (long address, eh?) links to more sequencers

Programs for WAV files:

Wave files and MP3 files are both very common, and so most sound programs support both types. However, since Wave files are more commonly used, Iíll only discuss wave file manipulation programs here. If I get enough requests for it, I guess Iíll discuss MP3 manipulation in another article.

A moderately good program that comes with Windows is the "Sound" program. (usually named "sndrec32.exe") It doesnít support the .mp3 format, but it does let you manipulate wave files. Like I was saying earlier, if your computer doesnít have a built in microphone, then as long as you have a sound card, there still is a way to record things. Just buy a high-quality connector. Then look on the back of your computer, where the sound card should be. Usually, by the place where the speakers are connected, are places you can plug a microphone in. Simply put, itís in the back of your sound card. If your microphone is the wrong size and doesnít fit, then find an adapter that will make it fit.

Some sound cards come with the computer and donít allow this stuff, if so, then find out how you can connect a microphone to your computer.

Anyway, connect it, and then run your Sound program. Now turn on the microphone, click the record button, and then check if it records. If it does, youíve got the right plug. If not, try again.

Okay, so that sound program is a pretty good sound manipulation program, and it comes free with most computers. If you like to spend money, you can go ahead and get some programs that arenít free. Actually, if you plan to make the game sound professional, I would suggest doing that: buy a sound program. The programs which you have to pay for usually are the best, and that is especially true in this case. Other programs let you do so much things that the free program doesnít.

An example of these is "Sound Forge XP." This program is very good for SFX, but can be used for music, too. Iíve never tried this before, though.

III: Writing the basic theme of a song

Letís continue, shall we? Now Iím going to talk about how to write a basic theme and then how to change it into a song.

When you want to write a song, rarely does the opporitunity come when you have an entire song, completed, in your head. (with all instruments, notes, etc.) So what most of us do is, write down the basic theme of a song first. Download the file mid1.mid by clicking here. This is a midi file Iíve made with musictime. As you can see, itís just a basic theme, itís VERY basic. This is the kind of thing that you should write down. Anyway, to get an idea of how basic it is, letís look at the notes:

Man, thatís basic. The basicness of it is so basic, that it basically is basic. Anyway, the next step, after you have decided the theme, is to change it into what you want. In the next article of this series, I will talk about how to write chords to harmonize and make things sound how you want. For now, weíll try to change this theme without all that stuff. Okay, letís say that I wanted to change this into a fast, exciting battle song. I would first add a snare drum to play in the background, because that makes it seem like a battle. Then, I would make the theme play a lot faster. Finally, I would add other instruments to harmonize it and make it sound how I want. (More on this in the next article.) Click here to download mid2.mid. This file is the basic theme, changed into a more exciting, faster song.

Now, letís say you wanted to change it into a sad, slow song instead. Well, you can do that too. Click here to take a listeniní to the file mid3.mid. This is the basic theme we came up with above, except changed into a sad song. Of course, this isnít a complete song, but it should give you an idea.

Anyway, that was just to show you how to write a basic theme. Time for me to take a break. In a few weeks, Iíll finish part III of this series, which will talk about how to write variations on songs, and how to harmonize notes. So if you want to know how I changed that basic theme into some songs, youíll understand after reading part III. Will there be a part IV...maybe even a part V? Because Iíve already got ideas on what to write for those, like how to use DirectX to play music, or advanced musical notation. Will they be written? Email me if you want it!

John Licato is a pianist and a percussionist, and can be contacted at Pitech@hawaii.rr.com. Feel free to send any comments, questions, or suggestions.

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Date this article was posted to GameDev.net: 6/21/2000
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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