Ahoy, ye sea-salted bilge rat! So it be a pirate jig yer after?
In this entry, I will be talking about the art and techniques of composing for pirate video games. Having completed three pirate-themed game projects and another setting sail shortly, I’ve learned a few tricks to scoring quality jigs. Pirate music may come in many styles to reinforce a range of thematic images. But at the core, what is it that makes pirate music so unique and interesting? Is it something in the melody, the choice of instruments, the pacing and percussion, or perhaps some underlying, common chord structure?
Iconic Pirate Songs
When someone thinks of pirate music in general, likely the soundtrack for Pirates of the Caribbean may come to mind. Bombastic fifes and fiddles, timpani, action and romance. The music uses period instruments (a classical orchestra, focusing on strings, winds, and heavy percussion), and captures the spirit and mood of adventure on the high seas. One may also think of gruff, barrel-chested crew, rummed-up and singing out of key. What are the important themes and moods of a pirate’s adventure, and how do we capture them in a musical setting for video games?
Tempos and Music
A quick and upbeat tempo in triplets (4/4 time), is a good way to start a pirate-jig. Accenting the melody’s first and third note of each triplet in a measure gives a forward-moving syncopation appropriate for an action piece, for perhaps navel combat or swashbuckling sword fights. Counterpoint this melody with a bass instrument striking proudly on every beat, 1, 2, 3, 4. Start the song in a minor key and play with a melody for four to eight measures. When ready to move on to the “B” section, try just transposing everything done so far into the relative major (for example moving from a-minor to C-major). Obviously, you’ll want to try some variations in your main melody line to avoid repetition. One trick is to pass on the melody line to various alternate instruments and bring the counter-melody to your main instruments. It makes for an interesting sound, especially during repeated sections.
A Treasure-trove of Instruments
You’re on your way to making a successful pirate song! But what makes these notes come to life? Pirate battle music tends to resonate best with fully orchestrated instruments. A strong string section striking marcato gives both an exciting sound but also a “classic” one, harking to the golden age of piracy (no not thepiratebay!). Fifes, flutes, and piccolo riffs are a must. Bass drums are an iconic nautical rhythm instrument (think slave ship) and help create a big, important sound. Other percussion you can employ would be cymbal crashes at dramatic moments and timpani to accompany the bass, as well as snare drums for a militaristic feel.
Bells and Whistles
Mixing in other ingredients to pirates makes for great games and great music opportunities. Skeleton or zombies at the rudder? Tremelo strings, xylophones, celestas and the occasional tambourine shake really adds an edge of undead. For a more jolly, boisterous sea-chantey, you can do little harm by adding in (gently!) some bagpipes. Be careful in its use, leaning more towards an embellishing background element. Trying to capture the lonely feel of the open seas? A rustic accordion in slow tempo evokes just the right mood, assuming you don’t romanticize it a bit too much and accidentally create a French or Italian love ballade.
Parting thoughts… as ye walk the plank
Given all the eclectic elements above that work to define pirate music, it’s best to take a large sample base and listen, listen, listen. Hear the commonalities for yourself and keep in a pile the types that may work for your game’s audio design. Remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources. As always, there’s no cookie cutter answer for crafting pirate music, but hopefully this message in a bottle helps as a first-steps guide to composing treasured pirate music!
Harry Mack is an audio designer with more than 10 years industry experience, composing video game music and sound effects for over thirty titles. Examples of his latest work and samples are available at www.harrymack.com.