The Beat Goes On

The Beat Goes On
Play On: The Composers Behind Today's Game Music

Russ Pitts | 16 Jan 2007 11:00
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"My dad was a drummer and my mom played piano and clarinet," says Jason Graves, composer for Lineage II, Blazing Angels and Star Trek: Legacy. "That's how I got started in music, first with piano lessons and eventually drums. Growing up, I thought I'd have to get a 'real' job eventually. So far, that hasn't happened! I'm still writing music for a living, and am happy to be doing it. I've worked on more than 40 games; before that, I was composing for television and film in Los Angeles. I must say it's a lot more satisfying working on games. You have a lot more creative freedom."

Exposition
But creative freedom to do what, exactly? Music may be the food of love, to quote Shakespeare, but what does love have to do with games?

A musician composing a song to feed his love or out of some creative impulse born of a heroin high may have only himself to please, but a game is a complex interweaving of many disparate elements, all of which must work together as a whole. The music is but one part, and must play nice with the others. To what muse, then, does the game musician owe his allegiance? Whose appetite does it feed?

"Before sitting down to write music," says Tom Salta, "the first thing I do is figure out what the client is looking for. If they provide me with detailed documents and music references, it's very important that I sit down for a day or two and fully digest everything."

Ian Dorsch agrees: "If the client dislikes the end result, you've wasted your time and theirs."

"I prefer projects where the client understands clearly what they want," says Salta. "It removes all the guesswork so I can focus on making music rather than experimenting. That's not to say I don't like bringing new ideas to the table, but I like it when the client has a clear vision of what they want as well as being open minded to new ideas that I can bring to the table."

"It's always great to have a collaborative effort with the score," says Jason Graves, "so the producer knows what he wants but also is very interested in your ideas and also flexible to changes and input from the composer."

Knowing what the producer wants is one thing, but giving it to him is another. In a game lasting several hours, with varying musical needs and styles, how does one fill that blank page? What's the key? According to the composers, this is where a background in music helps out; specifically, drawing on works for other collaborative media. Namely, movies.

"[I] try to figure out the main theme," says Jason Graves. "That's the heart and soul of the score. Once the theme is worked out, everything else kind of falls into place. The main theme will dictate the tension, drama and energy that the rest of the score will have."

"The main theme melody [for Red Steel] (which I call the Katana theme)," says Tom Salta, "shows up throughout the game in various guises, sometimes very discretely, but it's there. I love hiding melodies and themes, sometimes almost subliminally, in music. It helps the score gel and sometimes people don't even realize why. Even though the musical styles are so diverse, the entire score has a distinct personality."

Which raises the question of how successful the back and forth really is between producers and musicians. After all, on the one hand you've got a highly-motivated, gifted individual who's been studying and playing music since childhood. On the other: a game producer who probably doesn't even read music or know the difference between Classical and Neoclassical.

"Let me first say that I love feedback from so-called 'non-musicians,'" says Salta. "It's always real and pure. People always say to me after a compliment (or criticism), 'Well, I'm no expert.' And I always say, music isn't for 'experts,' music is for everyone. It's the only true universal language. I always love to hear how 'real people' react to my music ... without the distraction of musical training."

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