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How Do People Make Video Game Music?

Not to wave money in front of your face, but Video Game Composers can make up to $75,000 a year.

That sounds great and all, but how do you even get into this market? How do you become a Composer of video game music?

In this guide, we’ll cover everything you’ll need to know to get started making music for video games, like:

  1. How Do Composers Make Music for Video Games?
  2. Video Game Music vs. Music for Film
  3. How to Create Video Game Music
  4. Ways to Practice
  5. Working as a Video Game Composer
  6. A Day in the Life of a Video Game Composer

How Do Composers Make Music for Video Games?

Where do you even start when making music for videos games? To answer that question, we’ll hear from Composers Brian Schmidt, Jesper Kyd, and Cris Velasco.

“I don’t think there is one specific way to score a game,” says Jesper Kyd, one of the Composers behind Borderlands 2. “It really depends on a lot of things. For example, during what stage of the development process the music production starts. If the game is still in early alpha I tend to use the concept art that the team is using as well.”

One of the other Composers of Borderlands 2, Cris Velasco, agrees with Kyd, saying sometimes a single image can spark inspiration for a song.

“…Sometimes all I needed to see was a picture of some mutant with a stunted baby head wielding a gun that shoots acid, and I’d think to myself, ‘I know just what this needs,’” he says. “The only time we’re really aligning music with a specific sequence is for cut scenes and cinematics. Those are no different than scoring a mini movie.”

But creating the music isn’t just making a couple minutes of music that the developers can then loop over and over. Some games can take 20-30 hours to beat, so the Composers have to create a huge soundtrack so the gamer doesn’t get sick of hearing the same music.

And, believe it or not, the Composers also need to (get to) play the video games. We’ll call it “research.”

In all seriousness, they do have to play video games in order to get a feel for what type of music to create. This is what Video Game Composer Brian Schmidt says.

“A Game Composer needs to be a good game ‘spotter,’” Schmidt says. “That is, someone who can play a game in development or look at a game spec and figure out what music should be where.

Game music isn’t like film music,” he goes on. “The music has to be properly integrated into the game, and things can and do go wrong. Your music may be playing in the wrong place. Or it may conflict with sound effects more than you thought because they added a lot of enemies to a certain section.”

As you can see, a lot goes into creating video game music. And we shouldn’t confuse this with composing music for TV or film. They’re two very different things.

Video Game Music vs. Music for Film

There is one main difference between video game music and music for film: one is adaptive, the other is static.

With video game music, the soundtrack affects how the gamer responds and vice versa. If you beat a level, the music is more triumphant. Whereas if you’re at the climax of a level and the enemy is close by, the music is much more intense and stressful.

Film Composers create music to images that will not change. Video Game Composers have to create music to match all possible scenarios that the gamer could experience.

Movie music isn’t interactive like that. You could say that the gamer is taking part in creating the soundtrack of their experience in the game.

If you’re trying to get your first gigs making music for video games and you want to go the extra mile, create a video of gameplay footage with your track over top of it. It’s probably best to record yourself playing a game so you can grab a section of gameplay that matches the track you’ve made.

How to Create Video Game Music

Now let’s break this down and look at the general structure of a song for a video game soundtrack.

You can split up your song into sections to make it easier to arrange. Each section has its own purpose as well.
The intro is the first impression the listener gets for the song. It also sets the mood for the rest of the song and sets up what’s about the come.

You want to hook the emotions of the gamer while they’re playing, but you also don’t want to give away every sonic surprise right out of the gate.

The loop is a short musical section that you can repeat throughout the whole song. It’s something that you can easily add layers on top of. The benefit of using a loop is that you can repeat it during one section of gameplay until the next scene or level.

The loop of a video game song is often called “the workhorse of the gaming industry.” And for good reason.

Transitions are crucial in making a song be a cohesive unit. Moving from one section to the next, especially with video game music, has to be seamless. It has to almost be unnoticeable. The point, after all, is the gameplay.

The music should only add to the game, not distract from it. A smooth transition helps add.

A stinger is basically a section of music that represents something important that happens in a game.

For example, if the gamer beats a boss or completes a very important task within a level, that’s when the stinger of a song would come in and would encourage emotion in the gamer that matches what’s happening in the game.

A tag is a short ending that signifies the ending of a level or a section of a level. (You could also think of this as a transition between levels).

Ways to Practice

Now let’s put it all together. What can you do right now to practice making music for video games?

Make a gameplay video with your music
Even if you don’t have a video game composing job yet, just start working on a song. As you put the song together, play it over footage of a video game, mute the video’s sound, and see how it matches up. (You can easily find gameplay footage on YouTube for testing).

If you’re trying to get your first gigs making music for video games and you want to go the extra mile, create a video of gameplay footage with your track over top of it. It’s probably best to record yourself playing a game so you can grab a section of gameplay that matches the track you’ve made.

Then you can use this video in your pitch to Video Game Developers looking for Composers.

Create a theme-specific track
Instead of creating a song based on a specific section or level of a game, try zooming out. Create a track specific to a genre of video games.

For example, make a song in the style of Super Mario. Or listen to the music from Halo and let it inspire you. Or you could think more generally and create a theme perfect for an epic battle scene.

Doing this will require research, so play some video games. Like we mentioned earlier, professional Video Game Composers play video games regularly. You won’t be able to make a certain type of music if you don’t hear it often.

Find other Video Game Developers in your area and start networking.

Working as a Video Game Composer

If you’re serious about becoming a Video Game Composer, here are some things you can do to get started.

  • Create music every single day.
  • Play video games with the type of music you want to make.
  • Listen to video game soundtracks as much as possible.
  • Find other Video Game Developers in your area and start networking.
  • Create a video of gameplay footage with your music playing on top of it.
  • Make a Soundcloud playlist of songs you’ve made so you can easily send a Developer a link to your work.
  • Create a website to make it even easier to show your work and look professional.
  • So what does a normal day look like for a Composer?

    A Day in the Life of a Video Game Composer

    Chris Rickwood is a professional Video Game Composer and his days are pretty straightforward. Here’s what he says it looks like: “Wake up, sync up computers with [the] latest game builds, eat breakfast, create music and sound until lunch, eat lunch, feel drowsy and haphazardly work, read and respond to email, make sure my team is doing what they are supposed to, repeat.”

    Even though it’s a cut-and-dry schedule for Rickwood, it’s a busy one. He says he’s “constantly working,” which could include “finding business, meeting people, sending invoices, and learning new techniques.”

    This is the type of work you’ll be doing, especially if you’re just starting out. You’ll probably need to be working a full-time job and compose music on the side for a while.

    So the key to becoming a Video Game Composer is to play games and to just start making music that you think would work for gameplay.

    Then just stick with it. Keep going. Eventually, something’s got to give.

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