A crash of cymbal, the pounding of wardrums -an ancient horn sounds an alarm: To arms! Or at least, to composing!
Games, as they have been for the last decade, increasingly aspire for the bombastic, epic sound of a full orchestra. A lot of times, composers are asked to emulate a full orchestra making as dramatic and exciting musical moments as possible, and for particular settings such as medieval war-scenes, this can be a bit tricky. In this entry, I will be talking about some tips and techniques of composing epic music for epic settings.
The Long Red Beard of Melody
Vikings, Norsemen, conquerors, battle-hardened warriors. Epic music for an epic setting. Whether it’s fighting trolls with sledgehammers or storming a beach from dragon-headed longships, an exhilarating backdrop deserves an equally exhilarating composition. Even without the commotion of battle, somehow a barrel-chested warrior bustling at his daily task of chopping lumber and drinking ale calls for a full-bellied, bulky soundtrack.
For songs that want to accentuate more the flavor and mood of a moment, focus more on a solid chord progression rather than catchy melodies. Start with the bass, usually in a minor key, playing by steps for four measures. C-D-Eb-F, or C-Bb-Ab-G, or C-Eb-F-G; something simple usually works out well over something overly complex.
Play these bass notes strong with lots of doubled instruments. From there you can fill out the chords with strings and brass. Only after this strong foundation should you consider a simple melody with flutes, strings, or a heroic trumpet.
Most war and battle sequences call for a typical rhythm and tempo; that is, fast and chaotic. That doesn’t necessarily mean high beats per minute. Start with a moderate 4/4 tempo, accenting every downbeat. Compose a higher-pitched percussion (cymbal rim, triangle, cowbell, etc) hitting every eighth-note in a measure, but remove two or three of these eighth-notes at leisure. Each measure, change where these eighth-notes are removed, and what is left is something a bit frantic and chaotic, exactly what is needed for an epic battle. When composing for non-battle scenes while still looking for the epic edge, reduce the tempo a fair bit but keep the downbeats heavy, accenting the core 1-2-3-4, accompanied with the same eighth-note technique as above but with a lower-pitched percussion drum.
Instruments of heroes
Larger than life moments require the biggest and most satisfying instruments of the classic orchestra, and then some. Heavy brass, heavy percussion and full sounding orchestras are a must. To get an authentic seasoning of the epoch, Wagner tubas or other slightly detuned horns will add a lot of flavour to the composition. A long-sounding blowing horn (think Horn of Gondor) can add a lot at the right dramatic moment. Bone whistles, wooden pipes, and frame drums are all in character here.
Parting thoughts… before Valkyries ride off to Valhalla
Movies and video games often do one thing very well, and that’s to create a heroic and epic moment to remember. Take a listen to the soundtrack of Conan the Barbarian (the Swarchenegger version!) and you’re basically set! Remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources… except I personally wouldn’t mind hearing any adaptation of Basil Poledouris’ marvellous compositions.
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.