Composing music for video games

  • Learn about different elements of video game music.
  • Explore the music of games like Angry Birds, Final Fantasy and Tomb Raider.
  • Start making your own video game music.
Listen to Ninichi describe how she creates music for video games.

The video game industry is huge. Many composers make a living as full-time film and video game composers.

There are countless genres of video games and, as a result, many different styles of music to accompany them.

A game can include classical music, pop and rock songs and original compositions and sound effects.

An effective score can often turn a good game into a great one.

Composing music for film and composing music for video games are closely related and share many features:

Themes and leitmotifs

Leitmotifs, or themes, can be used to describe or represent a character through music in a video game.

A theme will often be heard as soon as a game is loaded, and return at key points in the game's story.

Individual characters may have leitmotifs, just like characters in a film.

The characters in the game Undertale, as well as many characters in the Zelda series have very distinct leitmotifs.

Listen to the theme from Bitesize's game, Guardians: Defenders of Mathmatica. What sort of atmosphere do you think it creates?

Incidental music

Incidental music is used to create atmosphere. It can be used to create tension, or add excitement to what is going on on-screen.

Repetition

Imagine a player enters a cave or a spooky house. The composer might write some music especially for this location. It is difficult for the composer to know how long the player will stay in the area. The music will need to loop until the player moves on.

Adaptive music

Adaptive music is unique to video games, and involves creating multiple layers that fade in/out as players move around in a game.

Imagine a player is in a quiet location. The music might just be a simple, repeating melody. As a player moves towards danger, a layer of repeating drums could be added to create tension. When the player encounters enemies, loud brass and string patterns could be added. Technology allows composers to create music that adapts to what is happening in the game.

In this clip, composer Eimear Noone talks about how she creates music for video games.

Listen to these themes from well known video games

Listen to the theme from the game Angry Birds, played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Listen to the main theme from the game Final Fantasy. It has a triumphant melody.
Listen to the theme from the game Tomb Raider. It uses gentle harps and strings to give a sense of exploration.

Write your own video game music

Imagine that you have been asked to write for a game in which a character explores a dark cave. As the character enters the cave, a repeated ostinato is heard.

As the character nears danger, the tension increases. Make a list of musical things that could reflect this increase in tension, such as adding drums or getting louder. Think about the effect that these additions would have.

Listen to this repeated ostinato played on A

Take it further

  • Can you recreate this ostinato on an instrument or on music software?
  • Can you add another part with some high notes? White notes (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) should work well.
  • Can you build the drama by adding notes, playing chords instead of single notes?

Keywords

KeywordDefinition
leitmotifA melody used to represent a character or a theme, often found in video game music.
ostinatoA repeated musical pattern.
chordA group of notes that sound together.
adaptive musicMusic unique to video games, with multiple layers that fade in/out as players move around in a game.
incidental musicThe music played underneath action or dialogue, helping to create atmosphere.

Next steps

Composing music for film
How to become a composer
Write your own Doctor Who theme