Music in games is often relegated to the background, little more than filling the silence, pasted on as an afterthought. Recently I’ve contribute to the open source match-3 puzzle game FreeBlocks, and the surprising quality of the music reminded me of the value of music, that it can not only enhance but elevate the game to new heights.

Good music

But first let me show an example of music done right: the main theme of Enter the Dragon. I love music but there’s so much bad and badly-used music out there, and most people don’t care. I have a depressing anecdote where a jazz musician played a gig for a large dinner party, and received the following feedback from the client:

You guys were perfect! We hardly noticed you were playing.

People didn’t care about what they played, let alone how they played it. They only cared that there was something to fill the silence. Most people, from games to movies, treat music the same way. All it had to do was fit and stay unobtrusive; who cares whether it was “memorable” or “moving”? E.g. scoring a desert level? Just find some vaguely-Arabic music and call it a day!

Well Enter the Dragon cared. The main theme tells you exactly what this movie is about, with not a hint of subtlety, and all in the first minute no less. All you have to do is pay attention. Try for yourself: see if you can figure out what the movie is about, by listening to the music alone:

Kiais and Asian instruments? Kung fu. Blending into electric bass? Possibly set in some East-meets-West locale. Funky wah-wah guitar? Blaxploitation. Diminished chord? Something sinister, possibly involving spies and conspiracies. Yes, everything in the music tells you something about the movie, in no uncertain terms. It gets better if you watch and listen, as the music changes right on cue to what’s happening on screen - the stars’ names, their first appearances, changes in the scene. If you were to guess that this is the work of a master composer, you’d be right.

To take a gaming example, one of my favourite video game soundtracks is Sonic 3, due in no small part to collaboration with world-class musicians. For example, stage 1 of the game, Angel Island Zone, takes place in a tropical jungle environment, so the music is suitably cheery and Carribean with steel drums and xylophones. At the end of Act 1 however, the jungle is set on fire, with the level palette changed to an omnious orange and brown, an excellent signal for the ramp-up in difficulty. What’s really clever though is the music: Act 2 has a different track, but listen and compare the two tracks:

Notice anything? The two are versions of the same piece, one in a major key and one in minor! They have essentially the same structure too. The music is saying, “Act 2 is like Act 1 only darker and harder”, which is also what the graphics are saying. The same compositional technique is used in stage 2, where the sleeker and faster Act 2 (with its jets and speed wheels) is reflected in its music.

Match 3 harmony

Moving back to FreeBlocks; I was looking for additional music for the game and found this excellent piece by pixelsphere, and by sheer coincidence the music happened to be in the same scale and tune to the sound effects, which gives the game a very calming, musical quality. Listen and judge for yourself:

Although music theory - and sound design in general - is often overlooked in games, it can be used to give an extra amount of polish that makes a game stand out. Candy Crush Saga is a notable example, where all its sound effects are in the same scale.

Listen to the xylophone play an arpeggio as consecutive matches are made.

Prolific sound designer Aaron Marks puts his musical background to use:

I definitely have some techniques where I ‘tune’ sound elements to be either pleasant or something a little more harsh. I also tend to pay attention to the music that is accompanying a scene or game level and often tune the sound effect to a note which blends well or I’ll go the opposite direction and detune it, especially for evil characters and their weapons, for example. source

All this really goes to show that, yes music is overlooked, but all it takes is a little extra effort to craft something that’s special and above the norm. For me personally, this was proven in our game for Global Game Jam 2015, where I worked with the talented sound and music designer Matthew Chin. In addition to creating a killer music track, we decided to have two layers of the track, one calm and one frenetic, and fade dynamically between the two based on the action on-screen. The effort paid off in the form of taking the best audio prize; listen for yourself:

So next time, hit up your sound designer and make some killer music!