We all know that amazing melodies make or break any video game music, yet proper understanding of developing such wonderful melodies has alluded you. No matter what you try, following the abstract tutorials on creating video game melodies gets you sub-pair results.
Some however, eventually discovered some core concepts of crafting memorable game melodies. In fact, they’ve gotten so good at using these concepts they create unforgettable melodies automatically, never to struggle with melodic writing again.
That next someone will be you as you’ll learn the foundations of crafting memorable melodies (even without music theory). Constructing ear-catchy melodies that entice your players will be second nature to you.
Let’s dive straight into step #1 (deeply important).
Identifying/Creating a Motif
Many echo that a good melody balances Repetition and Variety. This guide dissects this statement along with another common claim to “take a melodic phrase and change/repeat it slightly.” That brings us to Motifs.
I cannot stress enough how conscience this needs to be in your head when writing melodies. If you haven’t been utilizing motif, this IS your issue! Motifs allow you to:
- Surpass writer’s block
- Copy existing melodies (safely)
- Extend songs
Professional game composers use a handful of motifs strung together to make music. A common mistake novice composers make (most unknowingly) is using too many motifs. 3-5 motifs are enough to get you a melody, and less than that helps you write songs.
What is a Motif?
A Motif is a small musical fragment that composers manipulate to create ANY musical element (not just a melody). It’s defined by a fragmented phrase containing at least 2 different note lengths and 2 different pitches.
There is a such thing as Rhythmic Motifs to build rifts and hooks, but that’s a story for another post.
You also may have heard of a Leit-Motif among game music. A Leit-motif is a motif (or phrase) “assigned” to a game element such as a theme, a character, or even an IP. Its common for developers to learn Leit-Motifs first, thinking they’re motifs.
This is a huge oversight if you’re making your own music. As stated on my Twitter,
Leit-Motifs are melodies that represent something in a game. A motif however, is a fragment of a musical idea. It’s designed to be manipulated to create more music.— Panman Music | VGM Developer (@panman_music) February 28, 2022
One helps you write. The other references something. Know the difference.#rpgmaker #gamemaker #gamedevs
Finding a Motif?
The first step in developing and writing melodies is looking for motif, but where can you look for them? How do you create them? Below are three helpful ways to find a motif to play with.
Reference Existing Music
You can reference music from anywhere. Anime music, cooperate jingles, and even your old work! It can also come from any element like a catchy baseline or awesome hook. Reference anything, as long as you pick out a short phrase with at least 2 different lengths and pitches.
To get even more creative, you can pick an instrumental song from your YouTube / Spotify playlist and sing overtop of it to find a motif that way. Combine this with traditional shower singing, and you’ll never run out of ideas.
In the case of instrumental music, chord progressions will already be mapped out for you. To some, this helps visualize possible melodic ideas leading to motifs.
Sketching/mockup tools like my free Video Game MIDI Chord Pack can help.
Like singing overtop of chords, you can record yourself humming, singing, or whistling a random melody. Again, the goal is finding a motif to play with by any means possible.
Another idea is writing down random words in relation to the mood or theme you’re trying to capture and singing these words over your track. I referred to this as “Pseudo Lyrics” in my practical guide to creating video game music.
You’re not creating “lyrics” to sing in-game (or show to anyone). In singing these lyrics, your brain will create natural phrasing and rhythms into a musical context. In other words, you’ll be digging into your subconscious to help you find a motif.
This works due to Internal Referencing. Whenever you randomly hum or sing something, your brain references old songs and mix them together in your head. This is why professionals encourage novices to listen to many genres to build a backlog of internal references. This is also how a listener can tell if a musician has gone stale in their work.
Out of all the methods here, I recommend this for novices for a simple reason:
If it’s hard to sing, it’s hard to memorize!
Singing acts as a check, making sure your melody is memorable. Maybe you should have used “A” motif instead of “C” or maybe you have too much distance in-between two notes. Singing a melody helps you catch minor issues that make a big difference in your melody.
Bang It Out!
Set aside some time to just play around on your instrument or the piano roll in your DAW. Do this with the expectation that you may not get a song here. The goal is to just play around and have fun until you strike a motif.
Another tip here is to pick a sound/sample bank and just play through all the patches. Again, you don’t have to record anything here; just looking for a motif. This is also a good productivity hack once you’re solid with manipulating motifs and transforming them into songs.
Now that you’ve picked a motif or two, it’s time to get to the crux of this guide, which explores specific techniques you can leverage if you get stuck with writer’s block. Pick a method and try it out on your motif.
Repeating the Motif
As simple as repeating the motif sounds, it’s half of the “repetition and variety” framework for a reason. To prevent being too static here, you can cut off (truncation) or expand your motif by splitting your motif in half and repeating one of the halves.
You can also repeat your motif under different chord structures. Here’s an example from a fanmade Title Theme I did for Little Nemo (along with the idea of truncating the motif at the end).
Even though the motif repeats, it “feels” different on the chord change. This works because the note’s relationship with the chords has shifted. Listen to how a single note changes its context depending on the chord.
The second pass of the Little Nemo melody showcases another common approach to motif development. Keeping your motif the same but changing one note. Genshin Impact’s Overlord of the Thunderstorm is another excellent example. It also leverages repeating a motif on different chord changes.
If all else fails, Intervallic Parallel can help. This is when you duplicate the melody but shift it 3-4 notes up or down, then layer it with the main melody (a major/minor 3rd for those that know theory). I introduced this technique in my countermelody guide.
My Galactic Venture track, demonstrates this concept.
This second melody (countermelody) introduces harmony and new context to what was played initially. After hearing this second melody, you’ll interpret the previous melody as a supporting element instead of the main element. In other words, it shifts the perception of the melody they’re hearing, creating interest.
This works best when adding the countermelody above the main melody. Our brains tend to interpret higher pitches as superior.
Shifting the Motif
I’ve introduced another common tactic to shift the motif around (aka, transposing). Yoshi’s Wooly World Title Theme demonstrates this simple method by shifting the same motif down then back up.
This is an example of shifting by pitch (shifting vertically). You can also shift by rhythm (shifting horizontally, aka off beat). This is where you start the melody later (or earlier) in the bar. March of Monarchs from my JRPG Battle Pack does this with the Strings and later in the Trumpets.
When used as a countermelody tactic, you can even create an echoing effect, which is a good way to extend a melodic idea. The Flute, Piccolo, and Oboe in Molten Gate does this by passing the motif between them.
Changing Start or End Notes
This expands on the idea of changing one note in your motif. Specifically, your ending note. By changing your ending note, you’ll be tempted to adjust the preceding notes. Remember that if it’s hard to sing, it’s hard to memorize. In hearing it back, you’ll pick up that it doesn’t sound right.
Expanding / Compressing the Motif
We’ve touched on this, but here are a few different ways of expanding and compressing your motif. Again, you can expand your motif by spiting it in half and repeating one of the halves. This works well with shifting.
A more direct way is increasing/decreasing the rhythm of your note duration. If you’re playing a half note (2 beats) for example, try playing a whole note (4 beats) or playing a quarter note (1 beat).
Expanding motifs can give you a 2nd voice to play underneath your melody to pad out your music through Rhythmic Contrast (another method from my countermelody guide).
Shrinking/compressing your motif can turn it into a stab (its like a drum fill but for melodies), an arpeggio or a rift/lick.
You can also expand it by delaying the end note. If you’re solid with chord structures, temporarily offsetting the relationship between the melody and chords is a good strategy. This becomes memorable because it breaks expectations of the chord they’re hearing. Here’s an example:
As in the example (and with changing your ending note), sometimes you’ll naturally want to fill in (or remove) the notes in-between (same with compressing your motif as well).
Ornaments are a perfect aid here because they provide easy ways of filling space. As like a Christmas tree, musical ornaments decorate your melody. Here are some common Ornaments you can try:
- Grace Notes
- Pickup Notes
Pickup Notes in particular, fill in gaps when motifs are too far apart in pitch. They’re also used to expand melodies or introduce motifs when used outside of this context. Here’s an example of normal use:
What makes Pickup notes useful (along with the other ornaments) is the ability to supplement them with motifs. Here are the same motifs with ornaments attached to them. The last two example shows Pickup Notes as a connector, then as a supplement:
We covered changing one note in the motif. Anchoring is the opposite, where other notes move (or shift) while one note (or pitch) stays static (like an anchor). I highlight Persona 4 in this example:
If you know music theory, anchoring works best when using one of the stable tones (which we’ll touch on later). Personally, I’ve found the 1st and 5th work well as an anchoring note.
If your motif travels down, do the opposite. You’ll naturally adjust notes to fit together in trying to execute this. “All Together!” from my JRPG Battle Pack demonstrates this. It also showcases increasing the motif’s rhythm duration towards the end.
Again, this is changing directions vertically. Flipping the note durations while keeping pitches is an example of changing directions horizontally.
Reversing the motif (playing it backward) is also an example. Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword is a famous example as the main theme is Zelda’s Lullaby played backward. Export your motif into an audio file and drop it into Audacity to hear this quickly. Highlight the audio, select “Effects,” then “Reverse.” If you like it, recreate it in the project.
Some motifs have a “center” to them which is how often a single note plays within a motif. You can consider this a variation of anchoring. You’ll “anchor” a note within the motif while shifting the notes around it.
My Mario Kart fanmade track “Blooper Bay” highlights this:
Learning this well will set you apart and propel your writing to a professional level. You’ll be able to build chords out of melodic centers (which you can argue is how most 8-bit music was constructed via trackers). This is a bit different from a stationary contour, which we’ll discuss next.
Now that you have ways of developing a motif, it’s time to string them together to flush out the song with the help of Phrasing. Phrasing gives you clues on which motif development technique to use and in what way.
This is just a fancy word for how your melody travels. For the math nerds, consider it the acoustic version of the Vertical Line Test. It’s simple, but there is a lot you can take from this. There are 5 basic shapes your melody can take:
These five shapes are often combined in various ways to help provide structures to melodies. For example, you can change the types of contour (or combination of contours) you’re using depending on what section of the music you’re in. Drawing inspiration from real-life elements or the mood you’re trying to capture can help develop a pleasing contour.
Let’s say you’re making a mountain theme. You can design a contour based off the literal shape of the mountain. Or you can create a contour based on a tree with its concept of growing.
Stationery contours work well again ambient, ominous, or dungeon styled music. They’re also great against chord progressions that move around a lot because they lead towards displacement between chords and melody (spoken on above).
Roadmapping (better known as Song Form) applies rhyme scheme to create phrases (like poetry). Some common forms are AABB, ABAB, and ABAC. Combing roadmapping with motif development helps develop strings of melody.
Let’s say your first motif is “A” and the second is “B.” Every time you repeat a motif in sequence, you use a different motif development technique.
Break it Up
If it’s hard to sing, it’s hard to memorize right? We can’t sing forever as we need breath. Breaking up your melody prevents it from droning, which is another common mistake I hear in novice composers.
The obvious way is to use “rests” (silence) in your melody. Another is to do the opposite. Holding down a note longer than the durations before it implies “weight” or “stability” to the phrase.
If you’re familiar with scale degrees, ending your phrase on either the 1st or 5th can break up droning as well. This works through utilizing stable/unstable tones. This is how you can build memorable melodies by bypassing rhythm, like the guitar in Clash of Titans.
Stable/Unstable Tones are “safe” notes you can start/end any motif or melody without sounding bad. They’re usually made up of the first chord pitches in the key (E, G, B of the E minor key in our case).
The guitar in Clash of Titans sounds random but that “E” note (the 1st) suggests a breaking point within the melody. Listen to this slowed-down mockup and how that “E” note breaks apart the melody.
As before, Roadmapping utilizes rhyme schemes to create phrases. On a macro level, It’s used to create song structures such the typical intro, verse, chorus, framework.
Roadmapping is a very under-utilized form of expanding and developing musical ideas. It is not stressed enough that roadmapping techniques can “nest” into each other. Take this image for example:
This is just a generic visual but we can use this to indicate when to try out new motif development techniques or when to double down on previous ones. Let’s look back on two cases for an example:
As stated, Melodic Centers is how often a note is being played within a motif or melodic phrase. In the case of Roadmapping, you can change up your melodic center depending on which section of the music you’re in.
Like Melodic Centers, you can contrast different contours between sections of your roadmap. You can even add to or subtract contours within a section as a means of distinguishing your previous one.
A common trick in many chorus sections in music is to use a peak note in their contours. A peak note is the highest note played within the whole song. The violin in Blinded by Light is a good example towards the end of the B section.
Conclusion (Closing Tips)
We’ve covered finding Motifs, developing motifs, how to string motifs together to create phrases and how to use those phrases in our music. Here are some closing tips when writing your own melody.
A Note to Music Theorist
Most of the methods covered can be split between musical attributes such as Intervals & Rhythms. Some examples are:
- Shifting the Pitch while keeping the rhythm static
- Creating contour with pitch while anchoring intervals
- Anchoring pitch while stretching rhythms
Delaying Motif Development
Fairly simple when trying not to overdo motif development. This method is very flexible and meshes well with countermelody methods and development techniques. I’ve done this with Frigid Pillar from my Dungeon Music Pack. Listen to how the motif develops.
If you’re working with a solo instrument, large gaps can imply different voices among your melody. “A New Friend” is a good example. Listen to the leaps in the melody:
This is why many of the piano tracks in my Fantasy RPG Pack sound so flushed out and full even though I’m using one instrument. You’ll also find this method explored in big band jazz styles such as CupHead.
Combining this with Countermelody and Stable/Unstable Tones, is how professionals build full orchestrations from one piano.
Hard to get writer’s block with methods in your toolkit. These tips combined with your imagination guarantees that perfect melody for your game. I’m always talking about video game music, so give me a follow on Twitter for more game music tips or subscribe to the site below to get notified of new guides. Be sure to share this guide with your friends if it’s helped take your melody writing to the next level.