Writing Game Music : Part IV
by John Licato

Can you believe it? Here's part IV! I was looking around the internet and was shocked at how little information they have on this stuff! So I decided to keep on writing these things until I run out of things to talk about. (Well, this broken leg of mine might be a reason I've got so much free time...don't ask. Okay, since you asked, I got it while skating...so now I can't skate for about two months...DOH!)

Once again, this series of articles is designed to turn you into a game music composer. If you know absolutely nothing about music, then you don't have to worry, just read parts I, II, and III before reading this part.

Now, what we gonna do in this part, John? Well, articles I, II and III turned you into an amateur music composer. Hopefully by now, you've read them and written a few songs. This addition to the series is going to be about how to write better songs. For example, how to write an opening of a song, how to build up to the ending, how to end a song, etc.

But before that, you have to learn about something which I haven't taught you earlier. This is actually something that beginning-level musicians learn, and you'll need to know it in order to make songs more exciting. What is it? Controlling the volume.

Part I: Controlling Volume with Music Notation

A) Volume Levels

There are basically two different kinds of music levels: Piano, and Forte. Piano means soft, and Forte means loud. Yes, Piano is also what we call the instrument you can play, but try not to confuse the two. So if your music teacher tells you to "Play piano," you'll have to find out whether she means to play a piano, or to play the song soft. So that you don't get confused, I'll explain why the Piano has the same name as a volume level.

When the piano was invented, it was a revolutionary keyboard where you could control the volume just by pressing soft or pressing hard. Since it could be both soft (piano) and loud (forte), it was called the pianoforte. Eventually it was shortened to piano.

Okay, that's the story. Anyway, remember these four things and you'll be fine:

Piano Soft
Forte Loud
Mezzo Medium
Issi A word that pretty much means "very." The more "issi"s there are, the more "very"s there are.

I might as well explain the word "issi". Okay, Forte means loud, right? So then what does fortissimo mean? It means "very loud." Then, what does fortississimo mean? Very very loud. Get it now? Same thing applies to piano, pianissimo, pianississimo, etc.

Now I'll explain the word mezzo. It basically means medium. So if I want you to play a song at the volume level "mezzo-forte", then that means "medium-loud." That's a volume level in between mezzo-piano (medium soft) and forte. So then here's a basic succession of volume levels, from softest to loudest:


Of course, you can have more volume levels than that, like fortississississississimo, but these are basically all the levels you'll need for now.

It's hard to let you know exactly how loud the volume levels are since you're just reading an article, it's the kind of thing I have to describe in person.

The volume level "piano" is represented by the letter p. Pianissimo is represented by pp. So that means pianississimo is represented by ppp, etc. The volume level "forte" is represented by an F. The word "mezzo" is represented by an m. So if you wanted to write the volume mezzo-forte, you would write MF. Here's a sample pic:

Let's take a look at it. The first measure is at the volume level "piano". The second measure is changed to "mezzo forte", and then the last measure all of a sudden becomes loud at the level "fortississimo", sometimes called "triple forte" by lazy people like me.

B) The Crescendo, Decrescendo, and other tricks

In the picture above, measure one is played piano. (Not the instrument, the volume level.) All four notes in each staff are played at the same volume level. Then, all of a sudden, when you reach the second measure, it becomes louder, at the volume level mezzo forte. What if you want to make it a gradual change? For example, instead of having piano the first measure, mf the second measure, and fff the third measure, what if you just wanted it to start at piano, and gradually change to fff until the third measure? Then you use a crescendo. A crescendo sort of looks like a "less than" sign in math. ( < ) The only difference is that it is a lot wider. Here is the same picture as above, except this time there is a crescendo:

So now you see that instead of playing each measure at a certain level, this one sounds better. You start at piano, and with every note, you get louder. You gradually get louder, until you reach triple forte in the beginning of the last measure.

The opposite can also be done. You can gradually get softer, by drawing a decrescendo:

In this example, you start loud, at fff. You gradually get softer, until you play piano at the last measure.

What if you want to play one note exceptionally loud and then after that, return to the normal volume level? Use an accent. This looks like a "greater than" sign. (>). However, don't confuse an accent with a descrescendo. Just remember, if it stretches over two or more notes, it's probably a decrescendo; if it is above or below only one note, it's probably an accent. Just one of the many tricks of the trade that us musicians know.

A beat such as this is usually used for action songs. To listen to it play twice, download midi1.mid by clicking here.

Of course, there is more than one kind of accent, but maybe we'll get into that in a later article.

Part II: Opening, building up, and ending a song

A) Opening a song: How to introduce the theme

Hold on. Before I go on to this, I want you to make sure you know what you're learning right now. Right now I'm going to talk about how to write a basic song. However, if you want to know how to write a song that can be played on the radio (popular music, etc.) then email me. Those songs use a bit of a different format. So just email me telling me the kind of format you want and if I get enough requests for it, I'll most likely write it. My email, again, is Pitech@hawaii.rr.com.

The format that I'll be teaching you in this article is the format you most likely will use if you want to write the background music to a game. Okay, now that that's been cleared up, why don't I get started?

Remember how I taught you in previous articles that a long song is basically a theme played over and over? When you want to write a song, usually the first thing you should come up with is the theme. Once you've got the theme, then you should get started on the beginning. (Some people, including me (sometimes), write a beginning first and just wait until a theme comes to them. It doesn't really matter, different people do different things. Once again, I want to stress how writing music is almost absolute freedom, unless the type of music you can write is restricted by the people you are writing the music for. Anyway...) The beginning is usually one of these five things: (these aren't the real names for them. I couldn't remember the real names for them, so I'll make these ones up.)

  1. Building up: This type of beginning is one where you start with something simple, say a drum solo, and then slowly the background to the theme comes in, and then more background, and then eventually the theme itself comes in. Sometimes the background (the music that would be playing in the background while the theme would be playing) is just playing by itself, then comes the bass and/or drums, then comes the main theme. Here is midi1.mid, an example of one of those songs. Click here to download it. Don't worry if it sounds crappy, I only put it together in about five minutes.
  2. Introducing an alternate theme: Here, you start with a different theme and slowly introduce the other theme. For example, you play another theme, and then play a part of the theme, and then play the other theme, and then play the main theme, and then the other theme, and then again, and each time you play the main theme you play it louder and place more emphasis on the main theme and less on the alternate theme. Eventually the alternate theme stops and you play the main theme all the time. These intros are usually pretty long.
  3. No playing around: In here, you don't do any stuff in the beginning, instead you just play the theme, with all of the background and everything, starting from the beginning. This isn't really an intro, but for some themes, it works better than any of the others. This is what you will probably use if there is no ending to your song; if it will repeat over and over.
  4. With a cool intro: Here, you just play a cool intro that is really short, (maybe about four measures or so) and then it builds up, and then your theme plays in full force. Ever heard the Kurt Angle theme? That's pretty much a song that's like this.
  5. Combinations of the Above: Combinations of the above introductions can be done. For example, you could have number 4, then number 1. I do that a lot, especially for action songs, songs for battles.

If you study all of these types of beginnings, you'll realize that they all serve the same purpose. This is the purpose of the beginning of the song, to introduce the theme.

Heh, this is cool. The reason I wrote this article series was because I wanted to share all this stuff I learned about how to write music. Wanna know something? Starting in part II of this article, I'm teaching you things that I didn't learn in any school. This stuff from now on is from my personal experience. (Unless I tell you otherwise.) So you won't find this information in any other article or anything, it's unique to this article. Yeah yeah, you're welcome, you're welcome. (By the way, if you find some article or something that teaches this same thing, please let me know, so I can go check it out.)

B) The middle of the song: Making people love the theme

Uh...yeah, that's basically what the middle of the song does. This is the "meat" of the song, the place in the manapua where all the red meat is. (You don't know what manapua is? Ah, I guess you have to live in Hawaii to know.)

Basically in the middle of the theme (middle being defined as any part of the song that is not the beginning or end, obviously) you must make the people love the theme. Another very important purpose of the middle of the song is to build up to the ending. (Unless you don't have an ending to the song, if it keeps on repeating.) There are several ways to do that. Sure, I'll tell them to you.

Repeating: This is when you keep on repeating the theme over and over, louder and with more background each time. With this method, however, people might get sick of it. This method would be used more if you want to play a song that is just going to play over and over in the background.

Using Dual Themes: In this way, you just use the theme, play it in the beginning, and then play a different theme. Eventually you play the next theme and then you play the original theme again, and then go back to the other theme. Each time you do this, you make each theme sound better by adding more background to it. Each time you change from one theme to another theme, you have to make sure to make the transition smoother and smoother each time. To make the audience have a feel for the theme, play one of the themes as background to another of the themes once in a while. It makes it sound cool. Ever heard "Dual of the Fates" from the Star Wars: Episode I cd? That has three different themes, you should practice by identifying them.

Yeah, there are more. But I can't think of them now. Maybe I'll talk about them in my next article when I remember them.

C) Making a good ending

Most songs for games don't have endings, because they repeat over and over. But if you want to make a song that you would be able to put on a soundtrack, most likely you would want to have one with an ending. (You know those songs that just repeat over and over and fade out? For some reason, I just hate that. Don't ask me why, I have no idea.)

The ending to a song has different purposes. One of them is to leave the audience thinking "Wow, that was great! I want to hear that again!". Another one is to make the audience love the theme even further. Another one is to satisfy the audience. What I mean by that is, the middle of the song had a big purpose: To build up to the ending. You don't want the song to build up and get louder and louder and more exciting and then...poof, just end with a quiet theme. Well...the volume of the final theme depends on what kind of song it is, as you'll see later.

Another thing, which my highschool band teacher taught us, was that "when the audience hears a song for the first time, the only parts they remember are the beginning and the end." So you must make sure to make a spectacular ending. (I'm not sure if that rule applies to popular music nowadays, but who cares. Well...you might...if you do, email me!)

Now there are not many different types of endings, so I'll just talk about them normally. The first type is the type which I've been talking about so far, which is the one where you play the theme very loud, very exciting, and maybe play the other themes as background to it. (if it matches.) This is the kind that you want for a movie, or a game that tells stories, or something. This is the part that's supposed to be super emotional, the kind where if somebody is conducting an orchestra playing this song, the kind where the conductor starts to tear up while conducting. This is the part where you are supposed to hear the people in the cinema saying "And that was the story of how one man gave his life to save his family from the evil of ewilaodon". When you write this, remember to listen to it. If it doesn't make you want to show the world, try again.

The next ending is one that you would use for a dark, evil, scary song. In this type of ending, the main theme is usually played, but even softer and lower than before, to make it sound like an evil ending. In other words, this is the exact opposite of the above method.

Another type of ending only matches certain songs. Anybody ever heard the first movement of the "moonlight" sonata by Beethoven? The ending is a combination of the above two. In the ending, the main theme is played louder and better than before, and then a loud alternate theme is played, and then it ends by getting quiet and evil.

Part III: Summary of this Article and Conclusion

In this article, we learned how to:

  • Write volume changes
  • Gradually change volume
  • Write the beginnings of songs
  • Write the middles of songs
  • Write the endings of songs

If you want to know how to write the beginnings, middles, and endings of other types of songs, like jazz, popular music, etc, then email me. My next article should probably talk about how to write a basic theme that will make the audiences go crazy. (By common sense that article should have been sent before this one...sorry!) Hasta lavista, estudiantes!

John is a game music composer and has a website at www.pitechgames.com (very very unfinished...any html or flash pros wanna lend a hand? ;) ) His email is Pitech@hawaii.rr.com.

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Date this article was posted to GameDev.net: 1/2/2001
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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