Melodies are what drive a song, especially in the case of classic video game songs. When you only have 3-4 channels, each note has to count. However, coming up with melodies that are unique and interesting is probably one of the hardest parts of composing. This article talks about some tricks for finding melody that don’t involve classical training or worrying too much about scales and things like that. These methods work great (especially for orchestral music) but since not everyone has that training and we’re focusing on video game music here, these are a few methods I’ve found handy for squeezing the best melody out of an idea.
Repeating Theme With Changing Bass Line
This is pretty much what most pop songs are and it works great for getting started in a video game song too. Come up with a simple melody that’s only a measure or two long. Set your DAWs to just loop it over and over. Then with a keyboard, try different bass notes along with the sample. You’ll quickly notice how the combination of bass note and melody change the feeling of the same notes playing repeatedly. Once you settle on a pattern you like, record (or put down MIDI notes) the bass part and then start modifying your lead to highlight the differences in the bass.
The highlighted section just repeats over and over again while the changing bass line modifies the feeling.
Here’s an example that started with just 13 little notes played over the course of 2 bars. The last two bars feature changes to break up the repetition and highlight the difference in the bass but at the beginning the highlighted notes played over and over with the entire bass line.
What Comes Next In Your Brain?
This is probably my favorite little technique. We listen to so much music that sometimes we sort of subconsciously know what “should” come next. It’s not always the most original thing, but if you are stuck, this trick can help you get back on track. If you have a song done up to a point but can’t seem to decide what should come next, set your DAWs to play it and then go into some empty space. At that moment, think what you expect to hear next. Don’t try to play it on a keyboard or a guitar, just let your brain tell you what comes next.
Arpeggios Lead To Ideas
Remember those 80s keyboards Radio Shack always had(has?) on display that has all those cheesy bosa nova presets where you press one key and it starts making a whole song? Well, this isn’t a bad way to stumble onto interesting chord progressions. I like to use arpeggio setups for this technique. Set up a arpeggio with lots of notes and just move around your keyboard and see where it takes you. Here’s a scratch track from an upcoming game where I built an arpeggio and started moving around the keyboard before settling on this progression that had chord changes I’d never have come up with just playing my keyboard.
The most elusive of them all; sometimes you just get hit with a whole song all at once. This happens to me only about once every 3 projects, but its usually the best song in the whole project. Be ready to record ideas at any time. Most modern smart phones have voice memos. My wife gets a kick out of going through mine and hearing me going ‘duh duh da –daaaaaah’ when you can hear cars or a restaurant in the background, but you have to record when inspiration strikes. Often times, its when you aren’t doing anything that ideas appear. I was going to post one of my ‘da da daa’ tracks and a final version of it to show the difference but its just too embarrassing. I have heard more than one professional, respected songwriter/musician say that they have lost great song ideas because they didn’t have a pen or thought they could remember it later.
I am not one of these people, but I know at least three who say they’re subconscious writes better songs than they do. They literally DREAM songs or have ideas in the moments before they drift off to sleep. Again, being ready to record and forcing yourself awake in these moments is the key. I can’t say this has ever happened to me and it seems like it’d require the most self control not to just fall back to sleep, but whatever works!
Work With Others
Nothing helps you get inspired more than working with other musicians. Have a friend write the melody or a rhythm track. Know someone who plays a rare instrument? Have them record a part. When I used to play in a band when I was younger, a combination of my friend’s ideas plus the “What Comes Next In Your Brain?” method applied by someone else to the same song lead to our group’s most dynamic and interesting songs. Two heads are better than one.
Got any techniques of your own? Any questions? Please share them.
Beatscribe is a full time indie composer, musician and writer. By day he creates soundtracks and sfx for various mobile gaming companies, by night creates megaman-inspired chiptunes, in the afternoons he drinks tea. Check out his latest releases, tutorials and retro ruminations at www.beatscribe.com