You don’t just want to learn how to make you own music for your game. You want your game’s soundtrack to be personable. You want it to be yours. You want your soundtrack to stick out and attract attention.
You want your own “sound” that separates you from the other developers who blindly put music in their game without thinking of OST Design. Even if you have no idea how to compose music, you want to communicate musical ideas with your composer to help keep the soundtrack consistent.
You want Musical Identity and OST Cohesion.
Having a little understanding of Original Sound Track Design can significantly benefit your game music. This guide offers experimental ideas to help you create the perfect soundtrack for your game.
Musical Identity and OST Cohesion?
Musical Identity and OST Cohesion consist of “musical attributes” embedded throughout your game’s music. This goes beyond just adding a few leit-motifs, and it’s how composers “copy” other composers’ work without plagiarizing. Take this Persona 5 inspired song for example.
You’ll build uniformity in your music by taming these attributes without sacrificing diversity.
Musical Identity leverages Production attributes such as Instrumentation, Genre, and the Mix. The player can hear this as it’s usually applied to 70% of the entire soundtrack.
OST Cohesion leverages Music Theory attributes. Leveraging one or more of these attributes can support Musical Identity as OST Cohesion is inaudible to the average player (musicians might notice). This means that you can use it as often as needed.
Though you can use one over the other and still get a great soundtrack, these elements cover each other’s weaknesses. Leveraging as many attributes (within the context of your game) will set your soundtrack apart.
Can’t talk about cohesion within games without mentioning Leit-motifs. If you’re new to the term, a leit-motif is a short phrase that represents an element or IP in game.
This is by far the most common and effective way to achieve OST Cohesion or Musical Identity. It addresses quite a few things at a productive and creative level.
On top of being easily recognizable to the players, it’s easy to convey between non-musicians in a project. A skilled composer can carefully weave it into any song or transform it to fit the needs of the project making it very flexible. It can also speed up workflow if you’re doing your own music.
To apply this, create a short melody (1-2 bars) and consistently “assign” it to some “element” in your game. That’s all! What you assign it to can vary from the main theme of the game to theatrical cues within the story. You can have multiple Leit-motifs as long as each references a different element of the game.
The topic of Leit-motifs warrens its own blog post so we’ll move on for now. Subscribe to the website below to get notified of when that post gets released.
Musical Identity’s Attributes
To reiterate, Musical Identity leverages one or more Production attributes such as Instrumentation, Genre, and Sonic Signature (Mix). These are all attributes that the player can hear. As such, you need to be conscious of monotonicity (static soundtrack).
This is where one instrument creates the entire soundtrack. It’s challenging but demands creativity. Square Enix’s “I am Setsuna” soundtrack is an excellent example as it only uses piano throughout its music.
This method works best if your soundtrack is small (5-15 tracks) as larger tracklists risk variety and diversity. However, there are various methods you can employ to prevent this.
Using the Piano as an example, can you tell the different between an Upright Piano and Grand Piano?
Most instruments have variations called “Families.” These families serve many different functions like extending the range and tone of an instrument. Some instrument families may sound similar, but each offers subtle differences to help players differentiate them.
Steel Pan Family and Saxophone Family
I encourage going down this rabbit hole if you’re taking this route. You’ll never know what weird instruments you’ll find that isn’t used much in games, such as an Electric Violin:
Unique Instrument = Unique Music.
For those into sample libraries, different microphone positions and sample libraries of the same instrument can also help since they’re processed differently, giving a slightly different sound. The same idea applies to soundfonts and VSTs too.
Instrument’s Articulations and Effects
Some instruments have unique articulations and effects that aren’t used often used in game music. Ever heard of a Prepared Piano?
There’s all sorts of weird musical stuff out there for various instruments. Muted flutes, upside down bowing on violins, bowing a vibraphone or bowing an amp’ed guitar to name a few.
Modulations and Filters
This relates to special audio processing effects such as bit-crushers, tape machines, pitch modulation, etc. We’re in music production territory, but this is simple to implement. Occasionally apply desired processing effects on your instrument.
Common elements of music composition include Basslines, arpeggios and flourishes. Using an Instrument’s Articulation and Effects (combined with different instrumental families) can give you the components to fill in composition gaps.
Let’s go back to “I am Setsuna.” You can clearly hear the piano at the forefront of the battle music, “No Turning Back.” Listen closer however, and you’ll hear little piano arpeggios and flourishes in the background even though its the same instrument. This is a separate recording treated as a different instrument.
You can layer the same instrument over and over again as long as each serves a different compositional purpose (like countermelodies).
A fail-safe if you want to branch out of a single instrument. You can utilize thicker ensembles as long as your primary instrument stays prominent within the ensemble.
Again, “No Turning Back” from I Am Setsuna does this which breaks apart the piano-focused OST while still focusing on the piano. I did this as well with a few tracks from my Fantasy RPG Piano Pack.
You may think using other instruments contrasts the purpose of Limited Instrumentation. Technically you’re correct, but this might be necessary depending on the project. Remember that Musical Identity applies to 70% of the entire soundtrack. Not 100%. The other 30% contrasts the concept to allow special music that enhances your game. That’s important as good content creators understand the importance of balancing repetition with variety. The same applies here.
As you might guess, working with a single instrument throughout a whole soundtrack doesn’t leave much room for diverse music. You can tell that I Am Setsuna’s soundtrack suffered for this as it’s either a hit or miss with fans.
The issue isn’t that it used only one instrument but that it did a poor job innovating from that same instrument between a 70+ tracklist. My point is that leveraging the concepts of Limited Instrumentation works best when combined with other attributes and favors a small track list.
Probably the easiest between OST Design’s attributes to implement. Most developers have this in mind as they think about their game’s sound. Here are a few topics to poke at to make your soundtrack more unique.
First, if you’re going this route, make sure you’ve picked a versatile genre to cover various moods such as Positive, Negative, Activating, and Deactivating.
Orchestral Rock, Electronic Jazz, Violin Dubstep, and Electro Swing. You know it and love it. If you want to get creative, the components of Genre Mixing are pretty simple. All that’s needed is to pick elements (instruments or effects) from a primary or secondary genre and assign it to various compositional components (percussion, chords, melody, etc.).
The music from Splatoon 2’s Bottom Feeders is a great example of unique genre mixing. It combines a few elements of Celtic, Rock and Country. It also includes Splatoon’s specialized instrument known as Squid Language.
This is another way to approach genre mixing. When you think of a French Horn, you automatically associate its genre with classical orchestra or western-based cinema. Break that mental expectation by placing the instrument in a genre it doesn’t usually play in.
For example, a classical piano with chiptune backing:
Think leit-motifs but with genre. You can assign a particular genre (or a close variant of that genre) to a specific element in the game. Some commonly used cases are locations, character themes, and final/special bosses. If you’re going to do this, it’s essential to have some form of OST Cohesion or leit-motif to help glue this genre back to OST Design.
For example, I attempted my first game in RPG Maker. I wanted the battle music to change depending on the landmass, but I didn’t want to sacrifice uniformity in my music. I created three battle tracks in slightly different genres but playing the same melody.
In this case, the battle music had its own theme but the genre however, would shift styles with the landmass.
Remember the balance of repetition and variety. Breaking Genre should be considered, especially when thinking about a special boss or level.
Time can play a big factor in your genre selection. For example, CupHead’s music isn’t innovative, but it was the first game to revitalize that classic big-band style. Taking something old and re-introducing it into the modern age is a great content strategy. Combine this with Genre Mixing and you’ve just brought back a classic in a fresh new light.
This is a custom instrument. A sound that is new and has arguable never been heard before. Understanding sound design (or hiring someone who does) is essential here.
As mentioned, the Splatoon series Specialized Instrument is “Squid Language.” It’s used in the game’s world as an actual language that all characters speak. What makes this an instrument is this same language is used in all vocalized music in the series.
We can take from this to record sounds from our environment (similar to creating sound effects), or record sounds through our voice. You could even use a “homemade / custom” instrument. From here, we can transform these sounds into a musical instrument by using samplers and a few audio processing effects.
Again, Sound Design is the gatekeeper to execute this properly. Recording sounds then processing them is one side of Sound Design, and the other is building instruments from scratch using Oscillators.
I plan to create a more in-depth beginner’s guide to Sound Design for Games in the future so subscribe below to be notified when released. For those eager to explore, here’s a great video to get you started into Sound Design using oscillators:
All you need for this section is to understand the concept of creating a unique instrument and using it consistently throughout your game. A specialized instrument can mix with either Limited Instrumentation or Selective Instrumentation.
That said, “Selective Instrumentation” offers a beginner-friendly way of executing Specialized Instrumentation.
A Sonic Signature is a combination of distinct tonal qualities that impact the sound of the entire soundtrack. In other words, it’s a special mix that’s replicated across all tracks in the game.
Special Effects & Filters
Recall Modulations and Filters from Limited Instrument. Instead of putting a tape machine, bit-crusher, or stereo processing on one instrument, you put them on each track wit similar settings.
Master Bus Processing
This takes a special EQ, Compression, or Reverb setting and consistently applies it to all tracks.
MIDI, Sound Fonts, Live Instruments, Sample Libraries, or 8-bit. There have been amazing soundtracks from all of these mediums.
You can leverage any of these attributes separately or combine them depending on the project. A personal example of mine is “BROKEN” from Jison Labs. BROKEN is a Fantasy RPG inspired by UnderTale and the Mario & Luigi RPG series.
Since the game uses sprites, I intentionally decreased the sound quality favoring Sound Fonts. However, each track has the same EQ setting with a convolution (realistic) reverb. This gives the tracks a slightly uniformed sound.
Sonic Signature is something you’ll get naturally from using one composer or mixing engineer for the whole project. This is why I offer composition and mixing services separately.
Selective Instrumentation is a broader version of Limited Instrumentation. Instead of 1 instrument or instrument family, you create an entire soundtrack using only 3-5 instruments.
As with Limited Instrumentation, you can run into monotonicity among the soundtrack. Though you can utilize similar methods from Limited Instrumentation to combat this, a few new approaches are available to you.
These are groups of selected instruments. Group 1 could be Electric Guitar, Piano, Violin, and Bells. Group 2 could be Square Lead, Saxophone, Cello, and Acoustic Guitar.
The idea is to assign conditions to these groups to determine when they’re used. Genshin Impact is a great example as it switches instrumental pallets naturally depending on the region.
Mondstadt Instrument Highlights (Lute, Guitar, Recorder)
Liyue Instrument Highlights (Traditional Chinese Instruments)
Inazuma Instrument Highlights (Traditional Japanese Instruments)
Locations, Nations, Towns, Battles/Bosses, Dungeons, and Groups of People are common conditions you can set between different pallets. Creating instrumental pallets increases workflow since it decreases the planning phase of production. Select groups that complement or counter the leading instrument group to get a good contrast.
Instead of multiple instrument groups assigned to different game elements, you could split one group’s instruments among game elements. Again, this approach works best with smaller soundtracks.
This is simply playing two or more instruments simultaneously (some call this Layering/Doubling). This seems simple, but this isn’t done too much outside of orchestral game music. Persona 5 has a few tracks that showcase how subtle but effective unisons can be.
This can also be combined with Instrument Association where multiple unison combinations can be assigned to a game elements. Unisons are also a good beginners way to obtain Specialized Instrumentation.
You could assign different instruments from one group, whole instrument groups, or unison combinations to specific moods throughout the game.
OST Cohesion’s Attributes
While Musical Identity focuses on sounds the player can hear, OST Cohesion leverages a few music theory attributes average players can “hear” but won’t notice. OST Cohesion is also a good fallback if Musical Identity is too restrictive or inaccessible as it acts like “glue” between your tracks.
The best way to leverage these attributes is to use “banks” of different music theory components. In this case, a “bank” is a collection of specific music theory attributes that can be recalled and swapped with each other (similar to instrumental Pallets).
Another thing to note is that key signatures, scales, and time signatures, force these attributes to adjust dynamically. This means you won’t get the exact tone from them as they’re played, making it harder for the player to notice.
Like a Motif (not Leit-motif), chart out 2-3 short chord phrases. You don’t have to associate these with a game element (although possible), as the intent here is to create something that you can recycle for multiple tracks. Since you’ll naturally be utilizing other components of music theory to make your tracks, you can fall back on these banks as much as needed and still get cohesion without risking monotonicity.
One chord phrase should be at least two different chords. If applicable, it should also have a set rhythm. I wouldn’t go higher than three chords as more than that will become a noticeable chord progression (hence, Anime Chords).
A good example comes from Persona 5’s soundtrack. The most notable is the “flatted 6th major 7th” to “4th minor 7.” In the key of D minor (natural), this would be “Abmaj7” to “Gm7”. Throughout the soundtrack, you’ll find similar progressions that following this format of “Descending 7ths.”
Though you don’t have to link chord phrases to a game element, I want to mention Chord Association here. The creator of the Pixar movie UP once talked about a chord (Major 7th) to help reference the relationship of Carl and Ellie.
You could save time here with my free Video Game MIDI Chord Pack if you’re going down this road. Just audition 200+ chords blocks and set aside the ones you like for your chord bank. Check it out here if you’re interested.
Intervals & Rhythm Banks
Interval Banks and/or Rhythms Banks offer the same concept as Chord Banks. These two attributes in particular, can be separate entities or combined depending on the key signature, time signature, or scale. An “Interval” is simply the distance between two notes.
Genshin Impact’s battle motif provides an excellent example of how intervals/rhythms dynamically adjust depending on context. Here’s the leit-motif they use:
It starts on the 1st to a perfect 5th, then down a major 2nd. It then falls down the scale in 3rds, outlining a minor 7th chord.
Monstadt’s theme puts this motif in a 6/8 time signature. A Time Signature is the feel or pulse within a piece of music. Put another way, if you can count “1, 2, 3, 4” along with the music, that’s a 4/4 time signature. In Mondstadt’s battle theme, we must count to 6 making this 6/8 time signature. Because of this, the timing (rhythm) of the battle motif needs to be shortened to fit within one measure (one set of counting 1-6).
Liyue puts the motif in the standard (4/4) time signature. Again, this naturally forces the Intervals to adjust rhythmically to fit in one measure (in this case, one set of counting 1-4).
Inzauma keeps the motif in 4/4 time signature but puts the motif in a Japanese scale called “In Sen.” Scales are ranges of notes (and by extension, chords) that can be used together. Depending on what scale you’re using, scales range from 7 notes, to 9, to 5 (which is how many this Japanese scale uses).
This now influences our intervals from the battle theme. The fourth note played from the motif takes us out of the Japanese scale. To keep this in the Japanese scale, we have to shift the note downwards which is exactly what Yu-Peng does for Inazuma.
Blue notes: Japanese scale. Gray notes: outline of the Japanese scale. Red notes: original motif. Yellow notes: notes outside of the Japanese scale.
To help separate this more from Liyue’s battle theme, he slightly alters the motif.
We’ve laid the foundation for building your unique game music! With these ideas, you can see how it’s possible to create an entire soundtrack based on one song. Some games/composers tackle these concepts naturally and generally don’t put much thought into OST Design as a study. You, however, are a step above and inspired to apply these concepts!
When ready, chart down your ideas through creating an OST Design Document, which acts as an Idea Sheet to pass along to various composers if needed. If you could also implement these ideas into a current Game Design Document (GDD).
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