In the Mind of a Game Musician
Marcus Knudsen

Ever played a game with bad music? Maybe you liked the game anyway, but it could have been a lot better if the music had been good. I'm going to start this article by giving you a short example of how big an influence music can have on your imagination.

Imagine a cute, smiling doll sitting on a white, wooden chair matching the doll size. The music you hear is very happy and cute. You can almost imagine the sun shining in... isn't it lovely?

Now, stop that score and replace it with music that sounds twisted. Perhaps it sounds like a frightened choir is singing in a basement, with reverberating dripping-sounds and strings constantly playing at a very high pitch and the bass instruments playing at a very, very low level. Now, the doll isn't smiling because it's happy, it's smiling because it's thinking how fun it would be to kill you! Just waiting for you to fall asleep!

But it's still the same picture! It isn't the music itself that creates this scary feeling, since you didn't hear any. The music starts to play with your imagination. The primary purpose of game music -like it or not- isn't to be hit-music (well...maybe sometimes it is anyway...). Sometimes, if the music works correct, it's hardly noticed! That's the difference between "ordinary" musicians and game musicians -the game musician must be able to compose a much bigger perspective of styles, while the "ordinary" musicians manages OK with just one or two styles.

New Project

When the first contact between developer and musician is made, the musician should get as much info as possible about the project. This allows the musician to evaluate how much he/she wants to be paid for the total amount of music the project will require, and to plan how he/she will do it. The payment/payment-ways varies a lot depending on many different factors, these factors can be:

  • How much time the musician have to compose. Short time = higher charge.
  • How much music the developer requires.
  • Complexity of making the music required.
  • Method of publication (shareware, full-scale game etc)
  • Estimated number of copies sold

If the amount of music required could be composed by one person alone within the deadline, it's wise not to contact a whole company. (That is if there is more than one person working in the company. :] ) Since the company has many mouths to feed, it will charge you much more than a single game musician will!

The worst thing is when game developers, after completing 95% of their game, suddenly says, "Hmm ... Maybe we should start thinking about what music we need". This should be planned from the beginning so that the musician has plenty of time to get to know the game and it's theme. The musician could even read through some of the design document, maybe see some graphics, discuss some stuff with the development team etc. etc. In the design document there should be a list of all the music tracks required in the game! The game music shouldn't be seen, as something just thrown together or as an after thought. In fact, the music is a very important part of a game!

Getting Started

Alright, the negotiations between developer and musician are finished and it's time for the musician to start composing. I'm now facing an empty screen...

"OK ... Where do I begin?"

First, I get some samples, instruments or whatever I choose to use, matching the style of the music I plan to compose. Now, I usually start composing the thing that is most characteristic of the piece I have in mind. For example, if the score is going to be used to accompany marching soldiers, I do the drums first. If this doesn't work, I sometimes play around with the sounds that I have chosen until something comes up and gets my creativity flowing. Once it does, I just go with the flow and compose as much as I can until I get too tired. If this "flow" doesn't occur in about half an hour or so, it's useless "wasting" energy on not getting anything done, so I take a short break and try later.

Another way to get inspired is from a feeling or a picture created in your mind or from the atmosphere or events in the game, which the music is composed for. This is a very effective way, at least from my experience!

Sometimes I wake up in the morning feeling creative and the rest of the day is spent composing. But if I don't, this is my best advice to get one of those "creative days" :

First, get at least 8 hours of sleep. Then have a good breakfast. That will give you and your brain energy. Next, get some fresh air. Maybe take a walk. (Meditation also has an outstanding effect). Usually when I have done this I'm in perfect condition to start composing!

One common thing among people working with music and/or sound engineering is their bad health.

Better health = better music!

The Two "C"s

Creativity, and Concentration.

If possible, before I begin, I try to "isolate" myself from all other forms of music other than the music I'm going to compose. The length of time for the "isolation" varies from person to person. Some think a few days is enough, other game musicians about 2weeks. And then there are people who don't do it at all. I'm sure the result is great anyway, but from my experience, "isolation" improves the result, but isn't necessary for all people. The "isolation" also helps you to avoid unconscious use of stuff you have heard in other music. Nowadays, you can get sued if something in your music reminds someone of a score done by someone else, like, maybe even 5 years ago. It's almost impossible to compose music which doesn't sound like a song composed by someone else, and people can almost always say like: "Hey, that sounds just like that song played on the radio last week".

Almost getting out of track here...let's go back to the importance of concentration. It is very important to keep 100% focused while composing. Not being disturbed or distracted by anything around you helps a lot! This gets easier if you:

  • Get the equipment in order.
  • Clean up the room.
  • Turn off all electric equipment except the equipment used (of course).
  • Take phone off the hook and make sure that you don't get interrupted by any sudden noise (That is, if you're not waiting any calls)
  • I usually fade the light down just enough to see what I'm doing.
  • Make sure you have all the things you need around you, so that your concentration wont be disturbed by having to go and get something in another room.
  • Wear comfortable clothes!

When I'm in a period of composing (which I usually am), sometimes when I'm sleeping or just falling asleep, I hear great music. Maybe you're thinking, "yea, that's exactly what happens to me too!" ... and I would like to explain why this occurs. When you concentrate strongly on something in your daily life and you are brainstorming for some good ideas, you might have many good ideas, but somewhere you might encounter a creative block. Later, when you are falling asleep or when you are sleeping, this block seems to disappear. When you are asleep, your brain works at lower frequency. This grants you better access to your memory and thereby increases the possibilities for creativity and imagination. The brain works in four known wavelengths, which correspond to different states of awareness:

  1. Beta frequency,(14.0-28.0 Hz) characteristic for activity, concentration, awareness. Human's day-to-day consciousness. Stress also occurs here.
  2. Alpha frequency, ( 7.0-14.0 Hz) Relaxed state with emotional balance. Remembering things is much easier here than in the day-to-day consciousness.
  3. Theta frequency, (3.5-7.0 Hz) Deep relaxation. The access to our subconscious "databank" is big. This state gives us better access to your memory and thereby increases the possibilities for creativity and genius. This is also called a hypnotic state. This is also the state were we can get aware of our dreams and so-called paranormal experiences. We are in this state just before we fall asleep. This can explain why we, when we are falling asleep, suddenly come up with a brilliant idea or maybe we hear some music in our head.
  4. Delta frequency, (0.3-3.5 Hz) A state of unconsciousness or sleep. Unconsciousness state.

As we can see from above, our most creative state is reached when our brain works in theta frequency. A little trick is to keep a block and a pen or a tape recorder, near the place you sleep. As soon as you get music in your head, you just record or write it down. Usually, after an hour or so, this music you have in your head is lost, if you didn't write it down or record it!

These deeper states of relaxation aren't just reachable when falling asleep. Meditation and brainwave stimulators can help you reach these states.

Composing Steps

When I compose music, I (almost) always do it in the following "steps":

Step one: I compose all the basics in the music, just like a sketch. I don't do anything in detail. I usually just make a simple rhythm, simple chords etc. I make the "skeleton".

Step two: I go into the finest little detail, such as making the drums more complex (if needed), vary the chords a bit more, adjust panning, Volume and effects. Adjusting small details in the lead, making intro and outro or looping-point. Maybe adding some more instruments/samples/ and even sound effects to the music. At this step I work pretty much with the stereo-impression.

Step three: Polishing the song. Changing very small details. I might let other people listen to get some feedback. I do small things like naming the song etc, etc.

Step four: I don't listen to the music for a period of time. That time can be from one day to two weeks depending on how much time I have (During this time I start to compose other music, if there is any.) When that time has passed, I listen again, with a "new ear" and then I might hear things I didn't notice before.

The song is finished =)

Test Your Music

What the listener hears isn't always what the composer heard while he/she composed the music! Most of the listeners use ordinary PC-speakers while the composer usually uses speakers with a much wider frequency-range.

Frequencies used in song: 30Hz-18Khz

The musician's speakers handle 20Hz-20Khz
He/she heard all sounds

The listeners PC-speakers handle 50Hz-15Khz
Some sounds comes outside the frequency-range of the speakers and the listener doesn't hear everything.

To make sure it sounds correct with ordinary PC-speakers is very important since it's what 8 out of 10 listeners use! It's impossible to make the music sound right on all speakers, but the listener has no idea of how the music is supposed to sound so the only one who really can tell the difference is the composer. ;)

Music Formats

I just feel like mentioning my preferred music formats.

Besides .wav format, which is good when the music is going to be played from an ordinary audio-CD, one of my favorite formats is the .MP3 format. The best feature about it is that it uses full CD-quality (16bit, 44.1Khz, stereo) and that the size is very small for the resulting high quality sound.

Another format which is very useful is all the different module formats (.IT .XM etc). The quality is no longer any problem, like it was in the old AMIGA-days when the .mod format was used. Then, the quality was only 8 bit, and used only 4 channels, but still, the music back then sometimes sounded too good to be true compared to what the format handled.

Nowadays, the .mod formats have been replaced by the .IT and .XM format which handles full CD quality, and up to 32 channels (.IT handles 64, but most soundcard have a maximum of 32) but the biggest advantage of this format is that it sounds exactly the same on ALL computers!

Final Words

Never underestimate the power of music in your game/production. The game music shouldn't be viewed as something just thrown in to the game. In fact, the music is a very big part of the game!

Thats all folks!

If you are interested in contacting Marcus Knudsen for his services or want to comment on his article, send a mail to

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Date this article was posted to 1/18/2000
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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