While few games call for actual Polka pieces to be composed, there have been a few places in my career where a bit of polka music background has actually helped me in a crunch. The play between tubas, accordions, guitars, trumpets, all to a driving and energetic beat works great for taverns, dance scenes, and other light hearted or comedic moments.
Polka is almost primarily in 2/4. This is traditional, but for video games we need not be as strict. A waltz in 3/4 connotes dancing and movement. Nonetheless, accent each beat with a strong bass hit, and the offbeats with a higher pitched cymbal or drum hit. Melody lines can interplay between two sixteenth notes, one eighth note patterns, and straight eight notes. Spice this with dotted eighth notes and sixteenth note patterns and a playful and energetic rhythm comes to life.
Traditional polka music makes good use of the mighty Tuba, often overlooked these days for more powerful English horns and trombones. In short blurts it has a comedic, light-hearted effect that other brass can’t quite capture. Consider doubling it with an electric or acoustic bass. Other instruments necessary to complete the ensemble are accordions of course, trumpets or clarinets, a guitar or zither, and a modern drumkit. This smaller ensemble of instruments lends itself to cozy settings such as taverns and small performance scenes (replacing drums to match time period as needed).
What makes a good, light-hearted dance or upbeat song is its use of accidentals in a major key signature. In the melody, play between the natural and minor third in quick succession, as well as leaning heavily on the major seventh. The bass line is easy. Tuba and/or bass play out 1-5-1-5 or 1-4-1-4. You don’t need much more than the core I-IV-V progression to start out with. The creativity mostly comes from the melody line. Keep it moving quick and jauntily!
Parting thoughts…before the ooms turn to pahs
While no client of mine has specifically requested a polka tune, I’ve found that learning and listening has been of great help to my career. I’ve taken the small ensemble, instrument choice, and musicality of a polka and transformed them into game environments to great success. As always, the best way to learn is to listen, but remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources. Hopefully after this entry, you too will find the combination of tuba, guitar, trumpet, and accordion can really liven up some of your scores.
Harry Mack is an audio designer with more than 10 years industry experience, composing video game music and sound effects for over thirty titles. For examples of his latest work and samples, visit www.harrymack.com.