Making music part 3: anyway heres wonderwall
2 March 2020

It’s the final installment if learning to write music (for now)! If you missed the first two, you can read Part 1 and Part 2 there.

Missing from my previous post is another key ingredient in writing music: the song needs to be about something; to have a focus or a message to convey (seems so obvious now). The song that I’ve developed here is the theme tune to the main antagonist of my game, Winter Solace.

The character is referred to for now as the dark man. His whole deal is being charismatic and ambiguous in motive, while appearing quite easy-going and supportive. To reflect this, I wanted his theme to be a bit shady, but upbeat, maybe a bit casino-like and jaunty, with a flexible melody to use as a motif in other songs in the game. Motifs are something that Pixar does particularly well. Think about the main melody in Up or Toy Story, they’re first used in happy moments to associate the tunes with a happy relationship. Later when they’re played in a sad moment, it’s the juxtaposition of what the melody is telling you and what’s being shown which is really hard-hitting.

I wanted to write this piece in minor while including some notes from out of the key. I found this gives tunes a curious tone. What came next was lots of humming to myself until I eventually discovered a musical idea to use as a starting point.

Therein lies a beat, bass and melody, basically a song already. When I tried to write it up properly I got this monstrosity:

Hold on, lets take out that bass and replace it with some chords.

I spent a little while humming the melody and playing ukulele at the same time, trying to match chords to how each part of the melody felt. I can’t really explain how I did this, I just sort of kept going until it felt right. Figuring out it was in the key of A minor helped, once again I did this by going through each minor chord in search of a chord that sounded the most “resolved”.

With that in mind, here’s a midi sample with new bass, and bloopier instruments:

Next comes instruments.

I wanted the melody to have a sound somewhere between an organ and overdriven guitar, like a kind of warm fuzzy gravel sound. I put the midi together in ableton using the Portasound keyboard samples from last time and noise drum samples from a Famicon. It’s good that Ableton makes sampling super easy, even for drum racks. The Portasound’s harpsichord had the perfect quality. I threw on a few plugins, making the bass like more warm and fuzzy and the melody higher and sharper.

Having a balance of heavy/light or hard/soft or fast/slow, can make songs sound fuller and add drama. If the bass is heavy like a dense cake, the melody can be light like lemon icing, creating something that feels balanced. One of my favorite musical combinations is a long slow sound accompanied by a very quick stabby sound. A great example of this is on the climax in Pioneer To The Falls. As it ramps up, the difference in tempo between the instruments gets larger. Super dramatic.

The plugins here which are key are the Overdrive and the EQ Three: Overdrive gives more of that warm fuzziness and the EQ Three lets you filter out high med and low sounds, letting me keep the low tones in the bass, and the high tones in the melody.

Ableton Settings

Fun fact about 8bit music! The sound chips in most 8bit consoles could only ever output 4 sounds at a time. Usually this was divided into three tracks for notes and one white noise track which was usually used as the drum. That’s why 8bit music has so few chords and so many arpeggios. If you want your music to sound genuinely 8bit, try restricting the amount of notes played to at most 4 at once.

So here it is, I’ve hit my limit on how to make a good tune, but I’m pretty happy with this one for now.

If you’d like the instruments used you can download them here.

If you have any advice on how I could improve the tune, let me know, I would really appreciate some feedback.

Anyhow, this concludes this brief exploration into writing music, thanks for coming on the journey!

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