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Music & Entertainment

How to Compose Music for Video Games

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jul 20, 2020 • 3 min read

If you're seeking a career writing music and orchestration, there are many opportunities in the realm of video game music. A video game composer works in collaboration with game developers to create video game soundtracks, comprised of thematic and incidental music that is audible throughout gameplay.



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How to Become a Video Game Composer

If you have a background in music composition, solid music production skills, and a knack for storytelling through music, you have what it takes to be a video game music composer. Many video game composers start off as film composers and migrate toward the video game industry due to availability of jobs or an affinity for game design. There are four steps you can take to prime yourself for a career as a video game composer.

  1. Know your music theory. While you won't necessarily be dealing with other musicians on a video game design team, you will still be asked to write a lot of music in a short period of time. This means that you truly need to grasp how music functions. If you haven't studied harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration, get serious about that now. As an aspiring video game composer, you'll need an ample toolkit to keep up with the demands of the job.
  2. Be comfortable on a digital audio workstation. Video game composers almost always produce their own music in-house. You should not count on the massive production budgets that go into the creation of film music. Instead, you will be asked to make music using your own computer software. Be highly facile on a digital audio workstation (DAW) such as Logic, Pro Tools, Cubase, or Digital Performer. Which DAW you use is up to you. Since you will likely only be sending bounced WAV files, you don't need to compose on the game developer’s in-house brand of software.
  3. Expand your professional network. As is true for most industries, video game composers often get work via personal connections and professional networks. It even helps if you're a gamer yourself. When possible, attend industry conferences and conventions.
  4. Set realistic goals. As with any profession, video game composers have to start small and grow steadily. The first time you score a game, it's unlikely to be a blockbuster release. You'll probably start off composing for indie games, perhaps teamed with a sound designer or even asked to provide sound effects in addition to your music. If your work is impressive, you'll receive consideration for bigger, more lucrative gigs.

4 Tips for Composing Great Video Game Music

Video game music composition has come a long way since 8-bit games. Early video game composers wrote chiptune music for the programmable sound generator (PSG) sound chips in classic arcade machines, home video game consoles, and personal computers. Today's processor-intensive games—many of which are streamed over the internet—can accommodate considerable sonic complexity. As a video game composer, you have four key ways to maximize that creative potential:

  1. Treat the game like an interactive film. Many of today's video games tell epic stories, and even the simpler games function as narrative vignettes. So, like film composers, modern video game composers hold spotting sessions with the game designers. Together, they sit in a room, go through the game together, talk about where music should go and what it should evoke. Some video games have directors who will make the final decisions about what fits with the game.
  2. Play the game yourself. Unlike in traditional film scoring, you'll be making interactive music. As such, you'll want to experience the range of emotions a user faces as they navigate through the game. If you're lucky, you'll get a demo version of the game with sound effects already added. This can help you make note of where music is needed and where it might clash with another audio element.
  3. Write each piece of music as a cue, not a composition. Film composers break their scores into individual cues, and the same technique applies to video game composing. Each piece of music serves the larger experience of the game and must share space with visual effects, sound effects, storytelling, tactile sensations from controllers, and more. Make sure each cue you compose serves the overall vision of the game. Remember, it's a game, not a concert.
  4. Study the greats. An important part of music composing is understanding the potential of your medium. If you're serious about making a career as a video game composer, you owe it to yourself to study the greats, like Nobuo Uematsu, Koji Kondo, and Yuzo Koshiro. Even film composers like Hans Zimmer have scored video games.
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