In this entry, I will be talking about the art and techniques of composing for games set to Asian imagery and environments. This is not to start a debate on the styles of games that are produced from different parts of the world, rather, to help start a conversation on some introductory methods in composing songs in a particular cultural style. While there is no substitute to the beautiful artistry that goes into playing a live koto or erhu, we can capture the essence and spirit of these performances of authentic Asian instruments into our western compositions.
Iconic Asian Themes
Cultures of the Asia-Pacific region such as Japanese and Chinese have a rich history of beautiful music and unique melodies. While stereotypical instruments and compositions can be useful as parody pieces, it is important to respect the cultures and musics of a people before jumping into composing only what Hollywood and pop culture have driven into our heads. That said, soundtracks for popular movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and video games such as Ninja Gaiden are a good place to start hearing Asian instruments composed into a modern orchestra.
Tempo and Rhythm Tips
Keeping a rigid tempo for an Asian-inspired piece may be a mistake. Slowing down and speeding up based on the melody direction is a good way to start getting into composing in this style. Try alternating between triplets and duplets in the same measure. On the fourth beat of your measure, escalate the velocity of a triplet leading into a strong downbeat on the next measure. This is a good place for a pause, again, avoiding a rigid tempo. If your song is in straight 4/4, mix in a 2/4 measure once in a while to help deviate your beat.
Wise with Instruments
It may be helpful to note your target audience. If you are making a western game based on eastern imagery and environments, listeners to your soundtrack may not know the differences of instrument choices and are only looking to hear any instrument at all that sounds ethnic. A modern orchestra’s string section provides a good base in which to pepper a variety of Asian instruments. For the plucked and bowed, start with ruans, kotos, biwas, shamisens, and erhus. For reeds, try shakuhachi, hichiriki, and dizi. Gamelan percussion and other detuned percussion work great, and for more exciting soundtracks, add taiko drums as well.
The Mysteries of Music
When composing for Asian-themed music, keep in mind that the traditional pentatonic scale has a strong historical foothold in the cultures’ music. Composing in both major and minor scales is welcomed, as long as at the core you keep five notes primary in your music. You are welcome of course to ornament around these notes as you please, with trills and flourishes and dipping out of the set 5-notes. With plucked and bowed instruments, frequently bend the pitch of a note mid-sound or bending the note from below into its proper position.
Parting thoughts… as you are forbidden from entering this city
There are a lot of very good resources available that touch on the music of Asian cultures. From movies to cartoons to video games, strong influences are seen throughout. The best way to learn is to listen, listen, listen. Pick out re-occurring instruments and themes to analyze and compose with, but remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources. As always, there’s no one way to crafting music for Asian-inspired themes, but hopefully this entry gives a good starting place to begin.
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.