6 Skills You Need to Compose Video Game Soundtracks, According to the Pros

What's more awesome than playing video games? Making music. And what's more awesome than making music? Making music for video games, naturally.

But composing for games isn't quite as simple as making some cool tracks and handing them off to a game developer. Making music for games takes a unique approach and a specific set of skills that may not be obvious to the aspiring composer. Creating a successful game soundtrack requires thinking about music in a fundamentally different way, working closely with a team, and potentially learning some new systems and software.

Don't let the learning curve dissuade you, though—making music for games can be one of the most fulfilling creative outlets (and one of the coolest careers on the planet, if you choose to pursue it). We talked to professional composers working at every level—from hobby to indie to big-time studios—to get their perspectives on what it takes to succeed in the industry.

So if you've ever dreamt of being a video game composer but you're not sure where to start, stick around for some expert advice. From the basic concepts behind game audio to the nitty-gritty of implementing interactive music systems, this article will get you started on the right path to making the next great soundtrack.

Think Non-Linearly

With the exception of a main theme played at the title screen or during the end credits, game soundtracks rarely play straight through like an album. Instead, they're made up of many smaller bits of music which can be heard in completely different arrangements every time the game is played. This represents a fundamentally different paradigm for making music, which requires a totally different approach to composition.

"Games are magical because of the agency they offer," says Jeremy Lim, a prolific composer whose clients include Bandai Namco Studios (makers of Tekken, Soulcaliber) and Power Up Audio. "In linear mediums like music albums or films, you're swept along the narrative. But in games, the players guide the story—and everyone's story is different, so game music must be malleable. Since the player dictates the pace, songs must be broken down into segments that can repeat indefinitely, as well as climax or attenuate at a moment's notice. This is done by adding or removing layers or transitioning into new segments on the fly."

Jeremy's last point brings us to the concepts of horizontal and vertical sequencing. Horizontal sequencing means having different sections of music play at different times, such as peaceful music to accompany the player exploring the world, which changes to an intense, frantic theme when the player is in danger. Vertical sequencing involves using multiple layers within each horizontal section, which can be turned on and off randomly for more variation or used to convey information to the player (such as a double-time percussion part that is only heard when the player is low on health).

Jeremy Lim - "I Worked Away (Action Version)"

Be an Excellent Communicator

Any team effort requires communication, and doubly so when dealing with a project as complex as a video game. Depending on the size of the project, you might be working with a one- or two-person team, a small studio of 10 to 20 people, or a larger company with a dedicated audio department. To start off on the right foot, start talking about the game's music as early as possible. Game developers are often preoccupied with building the game itself, so music isn't always on their mind until later in the process. However, if you set up a meeting to talk about the game's musical direction early on, you can start working on the score as soon as possible.

"Ultimately, music itself is the best language to communicate in. Referencing playlists and creating musical sketches will do more to move the project forward than any number of email chats."

"Every developer has a different level of musical knowledge, a different way of discussing musical concepts, and a different level of interest in talking about music in the first place," says Troupe Gammage of the band SPEAK, who is currently working with Disasterpeace on the upcoming game Solar Ash Kingdom. "Ultimately, music itself is the best language to communicate in. Referencing playlists and creating musical sketches will do more to move the project forward than any number of email chats. Don't be afraid to throw away work, but make sure you're compensated for the process of musical discovery! There's no faster way to find out what you want than to find out very clearly what you don't."

Once you've gotten started, it's important to stay in communication regularly. If you just retreat into your studio and compose an epic score without talking to anyone, you may end up going completely off track and having to start over from scratch. Instead, send the team regular updates, send them music demos to get feedback, and ask lots of questions. They'll love you for it, and it will increase your chances of getting invited back next time.

Be Open to Learning New Systems

At this point, you're probably wondering how to get all this music into the game and how to make it play the right tracks at the right times. If you're fortunate enough to be working with an experienced game developer who knows how to program audio, you may only need to send them tracks to be incorporated into the game. However, if you're working with people who don't know their way around the audio side of things—or if you just want more control—you may need to dig in and do it yourself.

Luckily, there's a tool called audio middleware, which refers to programs like WWise and FMOD that 'talk' to the game engine and tell it what to play, when to play, and for how long.

Middleware has multiple benefits: For one thing, it's fairly easy to use and doesn't require advanced coding knowledge. If you can learn a DAW, you can learn a middleware program. In addition to giving you more control over the game's soundtrack, using middleware takes a lot of work off the programmers' hands, which will make them happy and make you look like a pro.

Spencer KR, a technical audio designer with composition experience, explains what good audio implementation can bring to a project.

"My favorite moments are seeing composers' eyes light up when I suggest an implementation technique and hearing 'wait, we can do that?'," he says. "With middleware, a musician or sound designer can make highly sophisticated, dynamic systems fast, without bothering a programmer. The more practiced you are in the technical side—working with middleware, game engines, and writing code—the easier it will be to bring your ideas to life, giving you more creative freedom."

Get Your Tracks Organized

Cat Arthur, a composer and sound designer who's worked with many teams on everything from mobile games to immersive horror games, explains why organizational skills are so important for composers: "This isn't just your project," they say.

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"This is the whole team's project, and the rest of the team isn't in your head. Programmers, implementers, sound designers, game developers—they're all going to need to work with your files. If they get frustrated working with your files, they're getting frustrated working with you. And if they're frustrated working with you, they aren't going to hire you again."

Especially when you use both horizontal and vertical sequencing, your music tracks can start to pile up fast. If you're not careful, you'll be up to your ears in a mess of tracks labelled "Combat Music Miniboss2 Extra Heavy" or "Secret Area Flute Frack+Reverb" before you know it.

One of the best strategies for keeping your tracks organized is to use sensible file naming conventions. Since tracks can pile up awfully quickly, a standardized system for naming files can help everyone stay on the same page (and make you look like a pro).

Take this name for example:


It may look strange and sound clunky, but this name contains all the vital information you and your team need to implement it in the game. The first part of the name tells you this is a percussion track for the B section of the combat music in the desert area of the game. The end tells you it's an 8-measure section in 4/4 time at 140 beats per minute with one extra measure of post-roll time to let the final notes ring out, which is vital information for programming a seamless interactive music system.

Study the Masters

One of the best things you can do to further your skills as a game composer is to simply play games. But not just any games—seek out the ones with critically acclaimed soundtracks and try to figure out what makes them work so well. Many game developers hold certain games in high regard, and use these as reference points for their own projects. If you've done your homework, when a developer says "I want it to sound like Dark Souls meets Ocarina of Time," you'll know exactly what to do.

For example, what is it that ties the music together in The Elder Scrolls series, and how did composer Jeremy Soule manage to reinvent the epic main theme for Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim while keeping it recognizable? What makes the music in Final Fantasy VI so memorable, even though the samples triggered by MIDI in the game are actually pretty crummy-sounding on their own? What role does music play in making Candy Crush so addictive?

Main Theme of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Troupe Gammage holds up the score for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (composed by Hijime Wakai, Manaka Kataoka, Yasuaki Iwata, and Soshi Abe) as a shining example of well-executed game music: "The music is generally sparse in both instrumentation and implementation, which captures the naturalistic, meditative vibe of the game," says Gammage. "The moments where the game leans into music heavily, like in towns or cutscenes, are so rare that they feel like mini-concerts, and being rewarded with a sweeping rendition of a theme after beating a boss is more rewarding than any power-up or new gear. It's really a masterclass in restraint, which is something all composers—this one included—struggle with."

Some games give the player even more control over their musical experience. Polish composer Michał Korniewicz, tells us about a unique mechanic in one of his favorite games: "Borislav Slavov took a big step forward in tying soundtrack to player's experience and enhancing the role playing element in games," says Korniewicz. "In Divinity: Original Sin 2, the player is able to choose between oud, cello, bansuri, and tambura, as a special 'character instrument' that will lead the music during combat and important narrative events."

Always Put the Game First

The last—and, arguably, the most important—thing to keep in mind when composing for games is that the game itself should always be the number one priority. As important as the soundtrack is, it's still just one element that makes a game great. The best soundtracks are those that not only sound good, but enhance gameplay by bringing the world to life, conveying information to the player, and emphasizing the narrative.

"How the music will affect players is typically one of the first things I think about before writing," says Julie Buchanan, composer of The Other Half, a story-driven top-down action game. "In The Other Half, there's a scene where a main character recounts assaulting another character (before he understands what he did was assault). To make it clear that the game is not condoning this, I wrote music that sounds euphoric but constantly feels warped and off. I also incorporated the survivor's main theme throughout that track to keep their voice present during that scene."

A popular mantra among music producers is "always serve the song" (or some variation of that), which means that everything you do should make the song better. In other words, just because you've come up with an awesome melody or a cool effect doesn't mean it's what the song needs. And the same applies to games—with every note you write, every instrument you add, and every mixing decision you make, you should be thinking about how it will add to the player's experience.

Your First Quest

Now that you're properly equipped, it's time to take your first steps into the magical world of composing for games. A great way to level up your skills is to build up a demo reel or re-score cinematics from your favorite games. This will allow you to freely experiment in different genres like chiptune, orchestral music, or creepy horror scores until you find your voice. When the call to adventure comes, you'll be ready for your first quest.

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