On three separate occasions I’ve been asked to create music tracks that have a bit of Indian flair to it: the wonderfully artistic, classical music cultures of Northern and Southern India. I turned to my sister who studied the sitar in India for almost a decade, and learned all I could about ragas, the instruments of India, and the unique qualities in their melodies and chord structures.
In this entry, I will be talking about the art and techniques of composing for games with imagery and environments of India. While there is no substitute to the beautiful artistry that goes into playing a sitar or sarod and more, we can capture the essence and spirit of these performances of authentic instruments of India into our western compositions.
I suppose when someone approaches you and says, we need a song that sets the scene in India, what comes to mind is the most iconic (from a western viewpoint) instrument from the region: the sitar. It is a plucked stringed instrument, mostly used in Hindustani classical music, and has been around since at least the middle ages. A gourd is affixed to a long neck, boasting more than twenty strings. Some of which are called sympathetic strings, also known as resonance strings, which aren’t often played physically but sound by sheer resonance of the main strings. In short, it’s awesome and beautiful and worth listening to for hours. For backup, the tabla is an exceptional choice in really driving home the authentic India rhythmic feel. It’s actually a very common choice in ui rollovers and clicks, and once you start hearing it you’ll notice it in a lot of games. It comes in a few varieties of shapes and sizes, and can produce a magnitude of different sounds depending on how it’s played. Works great for music and sound effects of any Indian inspired game setting.
Beyond the sitar and tabla, we have a lot of great options. There’s plenty, so for basics let’s just try out a few. For strings, the sarod is a great choice for either accompanying the sitar or as a replacement in your composition. It has a deeper, more weighty sound. The santoor can be used to great effect as well, sounding a bit like a harp, guitar, and harpsichord all in one. To play backup to the sarod and sitar, use the tambura. It’s a drone instrument, meaning it doesn’t do much more than strike out harmonic note patterns of the tonic. The buzzing of these stringed instruments may sound a bit odd at first, but it is actually crafted to make these sounds and is encouraged! For winds, a bansuri is a beautiful transverse flute, which can create some haunting and marvellous melodies.
Tempo and Rhythm Tips
Since you’ll mostly be using the tabla, learning how to use it effectively is important. I don’t mean to boil it down easily, because it takes masters decades and more to learn how to play it effectively. If you were like me, you’ll likely only have a couple weeks at most to create a passable tabla percussion phrase. There’s a lot to creating very authentic rhythmic patterns, or theka, and it’s actually quite impressive how many short patterns repeat in sequence to create one large, overarching, well thought-out idea. If you’re looking to create a very authentic Indian piece, definitely do your research and learn all there is about classical Indian rhythmic concepts called theka. For most western listeners playing your video game, it may likely pass over their heads, but learning to use the tabla for quick patterns, alternating downbeat accents and swelling in speed and intensity towards these downbeats is essential. In short, youtube the tabla and listen to it in action.
A raga, basically boils down to “scale”. It’s what sets the tone and mood for your entire piece of composition. When I learned about ragas and how to compose the musicality of a classical Indian score, I was intrigued by how methodical and almost scientific it was. There are certain ragas for practice, holidays, and times of the day and year, such as a morning raga and sundown raga. I marvelled at how it was almost taboo to play a raga at the wrong time, and how dedicated the performer needed to be to adhere to all these rules of performance. In the end, the take away for a western composer trying to capture the essence of these melodic modes was that when you choose a key signature, stick to it. The trick is, rising melodies upwards may use a slightly different scale than when the melody goes down again, exactly like the melodic minor scale.
Parting thoughts… from one life to the next
There are a lot of very good resources available that touch on the music of India, a country full of beautiful instrument creations and melodies. The best way to learn is to listen, listen, listen. Play with some of the more common instruments and find out what makes them tick. Remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources. As always, there’s no one simple way to craft music for India-inspired themes, but hopefully this entry gives a good starting place to begin your journey.
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.