Videogame Music (Part 4)

Composing Music for the Player as Performer

In light of the release of the 3DS version of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask this weekend, there couldn’t possibly be a better time to talk about games which make the player a part of the music-making experience. Music has always played a central role in Zelda titles, with Link commandeering a number of instruments throughout the series, starting from the very first game (1986), where he played a whistle which had various magical properties. Leading up to the release of Ocarina of Time (1998), Link plays an ocarina in every single game: In The Adventure of Link (1987), A Link To The Past (1991), and Link’s Awakening (1993). Up until Ocarina of Time, player input on the instrument was limited to simply activating it; pressing the button the item was assigned to would simply play the tune.

In Ocarina of Time, players were actually required to ‘play’ the instrument by using button input to play different notes. This of course affected the music that was composed for the game, as the player-involvement would bring cause to certain considerations. The music would have to be simple enough that it could be both ‘performed’ by a controller with a limited number of buttons, and easy enough to learn and memorize (because in the N64 release of OoT, the screen which displayed was the melodies was not visible while the ocarina was being used) for even non-musicians. This article will examine how these melodies behaved as thematic material for the soundtrack of the game, and how they were so effective in spite of the creative limitations Koji Kondo imposed on himself.

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Videogame Music (Part 3)

Music as an interactive experience

It’s easy to draw a comparison between music for film and music for games. In both cases, you’ve got music accompanying a visual presentation. However, when writing music for film, events are happening on screen at set times. For example, in a dramatic scene, the tension of the music rises before a big revelation is made by the characters on screen, and that big revelation occurs at a set time. Comparatively, videogames have to take a different approach because of the interactive nature of the medium. One player might finish a level in a couple of minutes, while another player may finish it in a matter of seconds. While the technology was more limiting, the simplest approach to composing for levels that could last an indefinite amount of time was to composer simple background music which was unobtrusive, based on simple melodies and themes that could be repeated indefinitely, as scene in part 1 of this series.

This article is going to explore the interactive ways sound and music was approached by composers.

Continue reading “Videogame Music (Part 3)”

Videogame Music (Part 2)

The 16-bit Era

As mentioned in part 1 of this series, technology was a limiting factor in the composition of videogame music in the early years of the home console market. While the home consoles such as the NES now housed powerful enough sound chips to be able to play polyphonic music during gameplay, composers were limited to few voices and restrictive ranges which also had to be shared with other game-related sounds such as the sound effects created by player interaction. The sound chip in the NES was capable of essentially four melodic voices (using two pulse wave channels, a triangle wave channel, and a sample channel), and a noise channel for percussive effects. This usually resulted in simple three-voice musical textures (a fourth channel left open for sound effects).

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Videogame Music (Part 1)

I don’t know if I’m so fascinated by music because I grew up playing videogames, or if I enjoyed videogames so much because of how much I enjoy music, which is such an integral part of the experience. Either way, videogame music is definitely a world of its own. Composers had to adapt to the technical limitations as technologies were developing, and they had to explore ways of appropriating music to a new, interactive medium, contrasting the linearity of cinema where sound could be affected by player interaction as well as points in time. In working within their limitations, they wound up developing strong and recognizable themes that create an instant association with the games and characters with which they are associated, which have been rearranged, re-utilized as material, and remixed countless times in newer and newer games. Continue reading “Videogame Music (Part 1)”

Further Experimenting With Inversional Relationships in Tonality

In my last article which explored the inversional relationships of scales and chords, I transposed every example to C, so that I could focus more on the resultant relationships between the pitches, and not be distracted by any implications that arose from the varying pitch centers. Today I wanted to explore what would happen if you inverted on different pitch axises, to see how that would affect the relationship of the pitch collections.

So what happens when you invert C major proper? Let’s look at an example that sort of clarifies what is happening when you invert pitches to understand what we’ll be doing.

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Inversional Relationships of Tonal Scales and Chords

An interesting thing happens when you apply post-tonal set theory to tonal vocabulary. Certain patterns emerge when inverting common tonal chords and scales (as well as the related modes) that actually make a lot of sense in either a tonal or modal context.

This article is going to explore how a chord that would normally have tonal implications (such as major, minor, diminished or augmented chords) behave when treated as post-tonal pitch sets. While the use of tonal chords in a post-tonal piece can create problems (when someone hears a major or minor chord, they expect the music to move in a certain way), interesting things can be accomplished in a tonal context if the material is treated as if it’s post-tonal.

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Harmonizing chromatic melodies

So far on this blog, I’ve been talking about developing chord progressions in chromatic harmony in a strictly harmonic context. We’ve been developing chord progressions, and any melody that came out of it just happened to be incidental – a byproduct of the chord progressions I’ve been explaining.

This post is going to be looking at harmony in reverse, starting with a melody, and developing a chord progression that would fit it. This post is a culmination of the topics discussed in the series of articles about harmony I’ve been writing for the past month or so, and it’s definitely worth reading through those if you haven’t already. This article, like the others, is directed more towards song-writers or producers who might want to expand their harmonic palette, without getting bogged down by the technical voice-leading rules that are behind these progressions (but hopefully instills some curiosity to explore it further). That being said, having a working knowledge of how chords are constructed and which chords contain which notes is requisite to harmonizing a melody.

Previous articles:

At this point, we have almost limitless options for major and minor chords, as well as dominant and diminished chords at our disposal. No-longer constrained to the notes in any one specific scale, we’re still able to establish a tonal key-center despite having all twelve chromatic pitches at our disposal. To illustrate this point, we’re going to harmonize a melody which does contain all twelve chromatic pitches.

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Neopolitan Chords and Augmented Sixth Chords (or tritone substitutions)

In the classical period, composers began using harmonic vocabulary that wasn’t necessarily derived from any sort of key or modal relationship (although today, it certainly could be analyzed as such). These chords basically just came about as a result of chromatic alteration, and were used commonly enough to be codified specifically. Neopolitan chords, and augmented sixth chords developed from these approaches. This post won’t go into a whole lot of detail about how they’re constructed because the wikipedia articles explain them so well (here and here), but will talk about where they fit in a harmonic progression as well as how you can view them in a modern context.

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Why music theory is important to a bassist: Understanding how bass fits in a texture

I’m sure most young bassists who are playing in – or who have played in a rock or pop band can sympathize with this situation. You’ve shown up to jam, and the rhythm guitarist is pretty adamant about you just following the roots of his chords. If you’re a creative person, this is a pretty frustrating scenario because you feel like you’re not contributing a whole lot to the musical “conversation”. This article hopes to discuss a couple of the roles a bass player tends to have in a rock/pop band (at the novice level), and explain why those roles exist. Specifically, I’m going to be comparing the approach of “following the roots”, versus actually harmonizing. Hopefully this article will also serve to make an argument as to why music theory is so important for a bassist to learn, or at least why it’s practical.

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Chromatic Harmony (Modal Mixing)


It’s been a while since I’ve posted any articles on here just because of how busy things get with school wrapping up for the semester, but before I get into an explanation of modal mixing I just want to explain my approach to theory with this blog because I’ve gotten a few comments on it. A few people have commented that my way of explaining things is “too classical”, or that I don’t give enough examples of music in a modern context, which might be less applicable to song-writers.

The way I’ve been presenting it is sort of the way it’s taught in school, in order of historical context. The reason for this is that musical concepts develop over time, with new ideas building off of the present; composers innovating from what they already know. It’s worth knowing (to me anyway) how things came to be. With that being said, more modern approaches to tonality are coming up, I just feel it’s important to have the background information first.

It’s a bit like having the teacher explain how a formula is constructed in a math class. It’s not necessary to know how the formula is constructed to use the formula, but understanding how it’s thrown together makes its use much more flexible. If you wanted to skip all that to jump right into more modern approaches to tonality, then admittedly, this probably isn’t the right blog. I personally still think it’s important to learn everything in order because these are conventions (along with modern approaches) that are still used in tonal music today.

Once again, these articles are geared to those who might want to write songs with a little bit more tools at their disposal.

So without further ado: modal mixing. Continue reading “Chromatic Harmony (Modal Mixing)”