How to Make Video Game Music: Your First Steps

In the first part of this series, I give you the very basics of what it takes to compose video game music.
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With the rise in popularity of indie games, it seems that many gamers these days are stepping away from the controller and trying their hand at the development side of gaming. This is a guide for those who want to compose video game music but have no clue where to start.

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What This Guide Is:

This guide will direct you on where to start with video game music composition. This first part will deal with the guide and make a few suggestions on how to get started, the second part will deal with what programs to use, the third part will deal with chiptunes, and the fourth part will deal with inspiration for composition. An additional page may be written to talk about thematic elements of composition pieces and/or to give additional tips, but that information may be incorporated into the other pages.

What This Guide Isn’t:

This guide is not a music theory class. It is (most likely) not going to help you become a better musician. It will not give you illegal links to pirate programs. It will not cure the common cold.

Author’s Background in Music:

I am not a great musician by any means and none of the games that I have worked on as a composer have ever seen the light of day, but I am someone who has a basic understanding of music theory and has gone down the road of trying his hand at video game music composition.

I was in choir throughout high school, I have been playing guitar on and off for about 10 years, and I am somewhat competent at the ukulele and bass guitar. I also had a very short and unfulfilling affair with trumpet in a community college beginning orchestra class.

For about a year, some other folks and I worked on a game we called the PokeJRPG Project. Our goal was to take the Pokemon games and turn them into more traditional JRPGs. Instead of capturing and fighting with Pokemon, you fight against them in a medieval setting and use their souls to create weapons and armor.

Unfortunately for our group, a dedicated programmer is harder to find than a first generation Mew without a Game Genie. In order to make sure my work does not just sit on my computer and gather any more virtual dust, I will be using songs I created for this game to show you what someone with little formal musical training is capable of.

Music Theory:

If you are reading this, I assume you have at least an elementary understanding of music theory. If you do not, I suggest closing this page and learning how to read music. You do not need to know how to sight read to make video game music, but for some of the programs I am going to suggest later on, you will need to know how to read sheet music and understand terms like pizzicato, fortissimo, etc.

When it comes to composition, the more music theory you know, the better. Whilst you may not necessarily need to be able to explain counterpoint to write good video game music, you should at least know a little bit about chord progressions, scales, etc.

If you need a reference for scales when composing, I find this piano chords and scales page to be very helpful.

Getting Started

Nothing says video game music quite like midi files. That is why I am charging you with this task: create a song using a midi program (if you do not have one, check out Anvil Studio.) It doesn’t matter if the song sounds terrible, just try and be creative.

Although this is not in midi form, a few years back I did make a remixed version of one of my first midis/songs I ever wrote. Listen to it and laugh at its unintentional similarity to the Electric Light Orchestra Parade song. My lack of skill should shake any sort of fears you have when it comes to creating your first song because it’s hard to do worse than I did.

Next Page: Music Programs

On the next page, I will briefly tell you about the various composition programs that exist. I will go into detail about Anvil Studio (the previously linked midi program), Fruity Loops, Finale, and Audacity. That page of the guide will help you choose which program you want to use for your attempt at video game music composition.

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Joseph Rowe
World traveling English teacher, writer, and aspiring front-end developer.