How to Write Music for a Scene

[IDENTITY UNKOWN] asked:

When you go to make music, what do you call the parts you need and how do you connect those things to sound? A little abstract, I know, but imagine you sit down to make a boss battle or a first date or someone being murdered in a shower or senpai noticing you. Are some parts of a composition like physical sensations (e.g. a drum beat that changes rhythm suddenly like your heartbeat) or events (e.g. soft woodwinds imitating a breeze) or emotions (e.g. I think we all know what “sad” sounds are)?

I know a lot of us draw from experience. With video games people kind of associate certain things with certain scenarios, but if you were asked to create something you hadn’t encountered before (e.g. uh… you’re pretty eclectic so I’m hoping “underwater gardening octopi” isn’t something you considered setting to music before), how would you organize your thoughts about what you need and turn them into goals that eventually become music?

tl;dr – Go into the creative process you use and how you get from task to art. ;)

I’m actually the CEO of a large octopus landscaping company so I’m afraid you’ll have to try a little harder to come up wtih an example–

I’m not quite sure what you mean by “parts,” so I’m going to just approach this as a question on how to write music that fits a given prompt or scene, and offer a little advice on writing music for other people which essentially boils down to “wing it.”

Assuming you want to do music for games, the process is a lot less effortful than what you describe. With any given prompt I would use the tone and context of the scenario as a starting point, rather than the physical elements of the scene. The Peter and the Wolf approach applies more to instrument selection than the actual composition. Regardless of the project you’re writing music for, instrument selection is critical. Instruments have, either through their prior cultural usage or physical sound properties, connotations you can use to your advantage.

Most projects aren’t culturally groundbreaking, and given the tendency for our media to be story- rather than stimulus-focused (compared to… I don’t know, magic lanterns?), it’s unlikely you will want to draw casual attention to the way the work, and by extension its music, are constructed. Therefore you can get away with using instruments for their intended functions 99.999999% of the time. Waterphones make scary noises! Tremelo strings create tension! Idiophones sound silly and childish! Flutes are gentle! Diddley bows belong in Westerns!

You’ll find if you do music commissions a lot of people will ask for music that uses certain instruments, evokes a certain feeling, or fits into a specific genre (or — to be totally honest — sounds exactly like, but just different enough from, their favorite song(s) from xyz that they can avoid copyright infringement). If its not your project, you might not even know someone’s getting murdered in the shower or noticed by senpai — you were probably just asked to write a “scary” or “romantic” piece.

Music based on environmental cues from a scene is more fitting of film, where events have a fixed duration, than video games, where the length of events varies by player. Even then it’s rare to hear a soundtrack that is purely diegetic or even symbolic. Even when I’m writing something to match a fixed visual, I definitely do not prioritize situational accuracy over doing something I think sounds good. I favor a get-it-written-then-get-it-right approach, so if I don’t feel inspired by every single beat in the scene, I may just do whatever I want or repeat something from earlier because laziness xd within the genre and instrument guidelines.

Of course, the risk of this non-literal approach to writing character or place themes is that the end result might be something the client doesn’t like, but that’s what happens when you try to convey an exact idea using one of the most imprecise formats possible. If you’re a character artist, you might fail to capture the right pose or expression, but the client doesn’t get back their original Toy Story love interest drawing and say, “That’s not my Velvetina! This is clearly Charlie Brown!” If you’re a musician, there is a good chance you will hand them Charlie Brown…

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