Writing great music isn't hard — it just takes some understanding of the anatomy of quality music. For me, I forgot how to read music the moment I quit piano lessons in fourth grade. Now, I just guess and check my way to what I feel sounds right for my project Pinstripe, which is surprisingly over-funded on Kickstarter. From what I can gather, great games have great music. And great soundtracks, like those of The Legend of Zelda franchise, all share four common traits: unobtrusive soundscapes, gentle percussion, distinct melodies, and a symbiosis between visuals and music. If you pay attention to these four things while recording or outsourcing your game's music, you may find yourself with a beautiful soundtrack, and a game that is 50% more memorable.
Dissecting the "Edge Wood" Theme Song
Below is the theme song for "Edge Wood" spliced into 3 general parts. It's a song for a moody, snowy forest in the early morning. Feel free to grab the soundtrack by supporting the Kickstarter!
Part 1: Unobtrusive Soundscapes
I use Logic Pro and a midi keyboard to write the music for Pinstripe. Logic makes you sound way better at music than you actually are, and it also has some pretty sweet soundscape pads you can use. To start a song, I typically take a synth or string pad, mess around with it a bit, and add some subtle classical overtones, like piano and hang drums. For Edge Wood, I started with a gentle piano loop, a soft boys choir with heavy reverb, and tiny, glittering hang drums.
Part 2: Gentle Percussion
Be very afraid of percussion that is too intense. Unless you are making an action adventure game like Megaman or Halo with explosive action sequences, I'd recommend keeping percussion simple. For Edge Wood, the medieval drum kit worked wonders. An eclectic drum kit like this one really gave the forest an other-worldly, fantasy feel. I'm not going to pretend to know what the instruments are called, but they are all within a European classical family.
Part 3: Distinct Melody
Have you ever caught yourself humming the Ocarina of Time shop theme while buying groceries? If so, then Nintendo knew what they were doing. A melody is something that brings a song together, gives the world a voice, and echoes through your head for days. If you don't catch yourself singing your game's music, something might be wrong (although this is not true in all cases, like in Resident Evil). For the melodies in Pinstripe, I kept it simple, using a harp with heavy reverb that transitions to an English Horn strengthened by a glockenspiel.
Part 4: Symbiosis with Visuals
This is the most important part of your game's sountrack! A symbiotic relationship between the visuals and the music is the heart of a song, and it pumps blood throughout your project. Without symbiosis between your music and visuals, your game will not connect with the players. My only advice is to wait for chills. If you aren't getting chills, there is a good chance your music and visuals are not working properly together, and ultimately your game is not even connecting with you. If the game's mood and feeling does not connect with you, it will not connect with the player.
Disconnecting yourself from your art-form is potentially the best thing you can do when trying to see if your music and visuals are connecting. Don't listen to your music over and over to feel better about it. If it doesn't work on first listen, then it probably won't work for players either. Remember, they are only going to listen to a song over and over if they like the game, and in order to get them to like a game you have make a good game with good music.
As I am writing this, the Pinstripe Kickstarter campaign has just 8 days left! If you haven't had a chance to support it, head on over to the campaign and get yourself a copy of the soundtrack and your name in the credits! If you can't support feel free to share!
Feel free to reach out if you need advice or just want to say hello!