Using Music to Describe Story
I do not have a strict step-by-step procedure on how I come up with music. Sometimes, I sketch out ideas on piano, other times I play around with various instruments, and other times I jump in blind and see what happens. All the theory, tools, software, technical prowess I acquire are just tools that I may or may not depend on. The advantage of teaching myself composition instead of having it taught is that I am free to define on my own terms what "good instrumental music" should sound like.
First of all, in a heavy story and character-driven game, I think everything should have motifs and leitmotifs. Call this the Nobuo Uematsu school of composition. I come up with melodies and short phrases to describe all the characters, geography, and plot elements. With these at my disposal, the soundtrack itself comes relatively easier.
My observation of the use of music used in modern games is that most of the time it's there just to complement the visuals and set the mood. The mood itself is extremely static and hardly changes. If you removed the main theme from most fantasy RPGS, I would not be able to tell the soundtracks apart. My most important rule for myself is "always tell a story." It does not matter if the music is for a custscene, a battle, or just used as background in a forest. Creativity extends far beyond picking out the appropriate instrumentation and playing harmonies at the right volume level. There is always so much opportunity to enhance the emotions the player could be having. Using the motifs I've come up with, I can subtly weave them in the music piece to "Incept" the thoughts I want to be in the player's head. If an important charcter died earlier in the game, I can use pieces of that character's theme in appropriate places later to make the player's sense of loss that much greater. Or let's say you're navigating through an oh so familiar fire level. Instead of the usual male choir voices and aggressive brass just playing out long notes, I can instead use the music to describe the enemies in that area, or reiterate the music used in previous story scenes, or tease the theme of the boss to make the player feel he could be crushed at any moment.
When orchestrating songs, I keep myself 90% respectful of the source, and 10% rebellious. It was through arranging The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening that I developed most of my principles for pure composition. Especially when evaluating how to update music that was played on primitive hardware, I ask myself how would the composers have done it differently when given an unlimited budget and high-end equipment instead? And then, the 10% rebellious side of me will sometimes ignore that answer too, because I have even higher aspirations for what I want the music to accomplish.
With all that I've shared, you may still be wondering specifically how I determine what my music sounds like. I enjoy thunderous swells, soaring melodies, fast ostinatos, playful countermelodies, frequent use of motifs, and lots of other stuff I can't describe well. Here are some of the masters that influence my work.
NOBUO UEMATSU — I admire his frequent use of leitmotifs and classical style in his earlier Final Fantasy soundtracks, VI beind my absolute favorite
HIROYUKI SAWANO — The Attack on Titan composer is the most recent on this list and quickly becoming my favorite. His XenobladeX Chronicles soundtrack defies any sort of convention. I admire how he is able to mash EDM, rock and orchestral instruments together to create something that is exciting and unique to the ears.
HANS ZIMMER — He has sound itself figured out to a science. His epic instrumentations are wondrous to behold and widely ripped off by others. But I also enjoy his riskier approaches, such as Sherlock Holmes and his recent Interstellar soundtrack.
JOHN WILLIAMS — Though I don't listen to him as much, his music has such iconic themes, and his orchestrations are very exciting with each orchestral section having interesting things to do besides "play in unison."
BLAKE ROBINSON — A big shout out to Blake Robinson and his fantastic Chrono Trigger Symphony, an epic orchestration of the entire Chrono Trigger Soundtrack. This was what inspired me to follow the same template for Link's Awakening and as a result improve my skills ten fold.
ROMANTIC/CONTEMPORARY ERA COMPOSERS — Mostly due to my piano background. I am always impressed by the intricate articulations from composers such as Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff. They can sound complicated, but do not sacrifice musicality.
Great Soundtracks to Study
These are the soundtracks I listen to extensively, and I think are great for anyone wanting examples of great use of supporting music. If you've actually watched the movie/played the game, you'll appreciate it even more. This list is not a definitive list, just showcasing the ones that resonated with me the most.