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How to make video game music as an independent artist?

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Video Game Music - iMusician

Video games are, without a doubt, a powerful entertainment medium. Experts are seeing a continuous increase in people playing video games, with the total number reaching an incredible 3.38 billion people worldwide in 2023. The value of the global gaming industry is also rising, with experts having anticipated that worldwide revenue would reach $187.7 billion at the end of last year.

Music is an inevitable part of video games, intensifying the ambiance of a game and thus making it more exciting and engaging. If you’re interested in becoming a video game music composer, this article is exactly what you may be looking for! Let’s look at some key tips that can help you start your career as a video game music composer!

1. Focus on learning music theory

Being able to produce a significant amount of music within a short time period is often expected in video game music projects. That is also why it’s essential that you have a good grasp of music theory and how music composition actually works.

While music theory is theoretical, having a comprehensive understanding of basic music elements (such as structure and texture, harmony, expression, and orchestration) will not only enhance your skills as a composer but also help you manage the substantial workload and demands that come with the job.

If you get overwhelmed by the great deal of information included in music theory or feel that learning rather theoretical things has not been your strongest suit, don’t worry; you don’t have to learn it all by yourself. There are numerous online courses that are both affordable and effective, providing you with all you need to know to master music theory. You can check out this Masterclass course with Alicia Keys, one or more music theory classes on Skillshare, or the ‘Music Theory Comprehensive Complete!’ class on Udemy.

2. Study the kind of music you want to make

While learning music theory is fundamental to your career, it’s not the only thing you should study. The video game world is perhaps more versatile than any other entertainment area, with games spanning countless genres, from racing through action-adventure to logical and action games.

It is, therefore, crucial that you have more or less an idea of what genre you find the most appealing and study the music of the games within that genre. It might also be helpful to import reference tracks from some of your favorite games into a DAW of your choice and dive into elements such as arrangement, instrumentation, commonalities between the tracks you like, etc.

Additionally, some experts recommend transcribing music and learning on the go — some consider this technique as one of the best ways to improve as a video game music composer!

3. Make a creative brief (with or without a client)

You might be thinking: "I’m just starting out; why do I need a creative brief?" The truth is that even if you’re not working with clients at the moment, a creative brief holds some value for you as a composer, too.

As a 2-3-page-long document, it guides you through your composition process and thus outlines aspects and components that you should pay particular attention to when composing your music. The brief doesn’t need to be in any way comprehensive or well-written. It just needs to list out information that will help you and your potential future clients understand what purpose your music serves with relevance to the game. These are some questions that you might want to ask yourself in your creative brief:

  • What, if any, are the goals for the composition?

  • How should the composition make your listeners feel?

  • How does the composition contribute to the ambiance of a particular scene or the game as a whole?

  • What would be the ideal length of the composition?

  • What is instrumentation like in the composition?

Additionally, once you get to work with clients, you may also include your client’s requirements and wishes in the brief. This will help you better determine whether the music you’re composing will correspond to the desired final outcome.

4. Write your music as a cue, not a composition

Similarly to film music, video game music is better composed as a collection of individual sound pieces or cues rather than one whole composition. While each cue mirrors a particular scene or type of scene in the game, depicting a narrative development or a plot twist, they should also serve the overall experience and contribute to the game’s vision.

Let’s also not forget that when a sound fraction is played in a game, it’s never about the music only. Instead, the cues intertwine with all other elements, such as visual effects, sound effects, storytelling, timing, tactile sensations from controllers, and more. You can think of video game music as puzzle pieces that, together with other elements, create the perfect picture that is the final game.

5. Focus on creating loops

Creating seamless music loops for video games is vital as your music will be played again and again several times through the particular game. While being played repeatedly, however, your loops shouldn’t sound repetitive, which is where the challenge lies.

This doesn’t mean that one music loop is all that a game will feature. You will likely have to add different sounds, thus creating a series of loops that will change or develop with the game’s storyline. Generally, however, you will like to maintain a particular music scheme and beat throughout the entirety of the game.

It’s essential that your loops always have a clear beginning and end, and if the music fraction follows some kind of action, a gradation with a distinct melodic climax. This will allow your music to transition smoothly throughout the game journey and prevent it from sounding jarring or distracting to the players.

6. Grow your portfolio

Just like in any other creative field, a portfolio of your work is considered highly important for your clients — in this case, game developers and other relevant figures in these matters. "But I don’t have any professional work that I can add to my portfolio," you might be opposing. Well, a professional portfolio doesn’t necessarily have to include the works of art that you’ve created for real-time clients. If you aren’t currently working for any client or have never done so so far, you can simply become your own client.

You can choose any game you like and compose your own music according to a creative brief you’ve made (that’s why briefs are so important!). Your creative process doesn’t start only when you’re on an official gig. Quite the contrary! Whenever you can, write, compose, and simply create music for any and every game you come across. This will not only result in a rich portfolio. It will also show your potential clients that you have substantial experience composing video game music and are indeed passionate about it.

7. Start with an idea and keep an idea file

This one is important regardless of what music you aim to compose. Writing music is often hard — that’s a fact! Especially at the beginning of the composing process, you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed, sitting for hours in front of a blank canvas or your digital audio workstation (DAW), and thinking of ways to write a song that’s better than anything you’ve created before.

While everyone has a different approach to composing, something that might help you in these situations is to simply start small. Keep in mind that not every composing session will be as productive and yield as much material as you’d hope for. Therefore, you can go into every session aiming to achieve something small while focusing on a specific area, such as rhythm, chord progression, scale, or overall mood. This might take some pressure off of you and give you space actually to dive into your creativity and craft.

Additionally, while it would be ideal for a splash of inspiration to strike you any time you purposefully devote yourself to composing music, it doesn’t always work that way. An idea can hit you whenever and wherever, and you must be prepared for it.

An idea file will allow you to both capture and store all ideas you randomly get and revisit them during your writing process — this will be helpful, particularly when a composing session seems fruitless. And even when an idea eventually comes to nothing (this can happen, too), it may lead you to another idea or creative solution that will work out instead.

8. Play the games

Last but not least, it’s important to always try playing the games you’re composing the music for. Why? Firstly, it might be great fun, and secondly, more importantly, it will give you the overall taste, sense, and vision of the game. Composing video game soundtracks for games you’ve never played before is not only tough but might also be quite inefficient. Even if you end up reading and learning a lot about a game, its story development, and the ending, you will not know the true composition of the game and experience it as a real player.

What are the visual effects? What are the key moments in the game’s story? What feelings does the game strive to evoke in the players? This and much more information you will only get by playing the game yourself.

How do you actually get into video game music composing?

The tips we’ve provided might be nice and all, but the important question is: how does one really get into composing music for video games? The competition is quite high, as is in every other field of the music industry, and building up your portfolio while looking for potential clients may not always be enough.

There are other ways to get into the industry than starting completely blind! First, you can find a relevant university program to enroll in, including music production, music performance, music composition, or creative music production programs. Such programs may provide you with critical knowledge and introduce you to experienced and acknowledged professionals from your field. If you’re unsure whether a university program is right for you, you can read our article about the advantages and disadvantages of music schools on our blog!

If a university program is a no-go, another way to get into the professional world of composing and production is to get an internship in a music production company. While such an internship is usually not well-paid and may not be directly connected to video game music composition, it will likely give you the experience you need to enhance your composing and production skills. Additionally, there’s also the possibility that the company will want to hire you for a full-time position in the area you wish after your internship is over. Feel free to check out the websites of both minor and major production companies (and often labels), such as Sony Entertainment or Universal Music Group. If you don’t come across any open positions, don’t hesitate to contact them anyway! You never know what might happen.

Overall, becoming a video game music composer might be challenging, but if you’re an artist fascinated by the gaming world, it might be a beautiful and rewarding journey!

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