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  • Writer's pictureandreahywong

Game Music Basics - Ch. 1 Notes

I started reading this book in October and thought I’d aim for a blog post per chapter! Let’s go! #Kellman_GMH #GMH_PartI_GameScoringFundamentals Here are my notes from Chapter 1 - Game Music Basics - Creating Emotional Arcs for Nonlinear Experiences.

Nov/Dec edit: I believe I started this chapter late October and a few crazy weeks/months have passed. It’s been difficult trying to continue self-driven skill-development in my own time and balancing that with a healthy life and work, but I’m glad I’m getting back to it! I used to just look at the slow and/or lack of progress but my outlook has really changed in the recent months where being able to do anything (outside regular work and activities) that I can learn from is really 100% bonus. Some is so much better than none so I’m going to take my progress as it comes… slowly but hopefully steadily.

I’ve noticed there are a good amount of audio descriptor words that I’ve always struggled with thinking of on the spot to describe audio differently (an emotion/feeling, atmosphere?). So I’ve decided to jot these down and perhaps some examples in an #ongoing #living Google document here! Now onto more learning!


- Game Music Core elements: dynamic, reactionary, interactive

  • variable, fluctuating, nonlinear

- Players have action and choice (story-based or not)

  • For Film: must be privy not just to what is occurring on-screen, but the intended sentiment of each scene, movement, facial expression – music should strengthen these goals without overpowering the narrative

  • For Games: scoring emotion = creating a music system to intelligently react to each player’s actions (vs. linear composition), collaborates with players to piece together in real time

  • resulting compositions become representations not just of the composer and game devs, but also of the players

- This chapter: fundamental approaches for composing game music

  • composing for nonlinear timelines

  • exploring how game composers create emotional arcs for unpredictable storylines and gameplay without foreknowledge of their length and order

Creating a Music Design

- compose for possibilities (vs. absolutes)

- musical form is dependent on gameplay

  • must construct systems that determine how music will function and interact w/ player

- music design: “a comprehensive plan which outlines the purposes, tools and logistics for all uses of music within a video game” (p. 4); both creative and technical/technological

  • purpose: “most features and problems can be thought through and resolved well in advance”

- Questions to ask to create a music design:

  • what does the music need to achieve?

  • how will the player interact with it?

  • what is the relationship b/t the music and the sound design (SFX and ambience)?

  • what are the technical limitations of the game and its audio system?

  • how much music is needed?


- diegetic: exists in the game world (e.g. footsteps)

- nondiegetic: exists outside the game world (e.g. music heard by player but not other characters)

  • I’ve come across this term before and always mixed up which was which. One way I’ve thought of it is that nondiegetic sounds are narrative (the narrator isn’t in the world they’re narrating!)

- there will be decisions surrounding which game sounds are diegetic, and whether these will be musical or not

  • recently at work (Nov 2020), I’ve been adding mostly diegetic sounds to simulation environments outside of nondiegetic UI/feedback sounds like scoreboards and step-completed/success/failure indications. I think I’ve worked mostly with implementing SFX, so I’m very curious to see how these can be musical and fit with music!

Creating Emotional Arcs for Nonlinear Timelines

- arc could be of the entire game’s story, or 5-minutes

- music provides emotional context for player

  • can remind player of why certain place/character/moment is important

  • can create new meanings in specific instances

  • can reinforce a player’s connection to a person/place/time

Nonlinear Composition, Technique #1: Locational Scoring

- the technique or writing musical cues depending where the player is

  • general reflect no only the visual characteristics of each place in the game, but also the emotional/contextual meaning of the player character being present in that location at any given moment

- determine the function each location serves

  • what does it mean to the player?

  • what does it mean to the player character?

  • e.g. is it safe? Can you save the game/store items here? e.g. is it dangerous? Will enemies attack you here?

- determine where it is geographically in the game world

  • e.g. is it familiar? is it in the player’s home? e.g. is it novel? an alien planet?

  • what does it look like? does it reflect a culture or group?

  • what is the location’s significance in the greater storyline?

  • e.g. does it appear early in-game? can the player enter easily or does it require overcoming a substantial challenge?

  • e.g. does the player ever return here? one-time entry only? if return, does it change the second time? what does this mean? Returned locations have potentially interesting possibilities to have a story/emotional arc.

(November Addition/Edit:)

“Scoring location is an effective method for establishing an emotional connection between the player and the place. Each location in a game is meaningful for its own reasons, and creating the right association early on grants us the power to use thematic development, changing the meaning of our musical themes depending on how each individual story progresses, regardless of the order in which events occur.” (p. 6)

Kellman continues with a (linear narrative) example of his own that I felt was great in specifying some examples of where the music can changes. His example of a home-location, first comfortable with the outdoors unknown, and later a return with feelings of triumph and pride; musical elements that changed in the return included key, timbre, tempo, rhythm, and harmony.

Another example was of Disasterpiece’s scoring in the indie game FEZ where the home is similarly safe, secure, stable and pleasant (specifically with resolving major 9ths to roots). Rather than just locational scoring, this location when returned to, has no music at all, after it has been left (where a “home-leaving” cue is heard only once in the entire game) – a story-informing approach to the cue.

The locational cue of the same place can stay the same. It can also change. And for different reasons including changes in the character (returning a changed person! – or a different point in the character’s development), or the actual location itself (something’s off/different! – the time its visited at, its inhabitants, it’s political power/group…). The character and location can affect each other mutually, especially when taking in consideration: expectations.

Nonlinear Composition, Technique #2: Character Scoring

The first paragraph in this section displays the difference between the Player and the player’s Character (in first-person narrative games where the player is the protagonist). An important note is that while the player may be unpredictable, the character’s traits and choices are limited, predictable, and consistent to its designed personality, and thus reliable as an emotional compass. Kellman suggests to “follow the character’s emotional development by writing and developing character themes. The first statement of a character theme occurs when the character first appears on screen, providing a musical snapshot of a personality in its current contextual state and providing a foundation for musical foreshadowing. As characters build experience and evolve in various situations, their themes sympathetically develop, offering a complimentary musical evolution.” (p. 9)

Not only can a musical theme be associated with a specific character, but it can be tied to a relationship (e.g. father-daughter relationship), or develop into something different when used differently/for different associations.

(December Addition/Edit:)

Nonlinear Composition, Technique #3: Gameplay Scoring

- gameplay scoring: non-narrative scoring that reacts to the gameplay regardless of any narrative

  • a.k.a. situational or event-based scoring: “musical cues designed specifically for combat, stealth, exploration, boss battles, and mini games… [and] many other types of events” (p. 11)

  • o e.g. Pokemon battle music intros all similar (descending chromatic sequences), but vary by battle themes depending on type of battle

  • o e.g. open-world RPGs have exploration music when… exploring!

- non-narrative events still need their own emotional arcs to maintain immersion; arcs are unpredictable so we create reactive forms – where the music is reactive to gameplay (e.g. intensity)

- scores must either:

  • ignore details, use locational scoring for atmosphere and feeling for gameplay

  • highly detailed, account for multiple possibilities to accurately conform to gameplay

- competitive/multi-player games: often closer to sports than stories, can be repetitive with matches being replayed, music evolves with speed and intensity (changes based on different players’ strategies and playing techs) to be imperceptible (unnoticed) and stays out of gameplay’s way

  • things to avoid: overly recognizable themes; frequencies of sound effects

- Brawl/fighting games: unlike the previous subtle underscores, epic thematic music can work well here because realism is not strived towards; noticeable music is acceptable and even fun

  • these recurring themes create associating with gameplay; can be enjoyed outside of games


Regardless if scoring for location, character, or gameplay/events, “the entire score should follow a unified aesthetic” (p.12)

- locational scoring: creates ambience and atmosphere when story/arc is uncertain

  • change happening in these places can be foreshadowed with different theme variations

  • locational scoring can be a great way to tie together different narrative developments through a nonlinear timeline

- non-player game characters have character personalities/designs and calculable reactions

  • scoring these characters’ reactions to game events bypasses needing to score unpredictable players’ decisions

- gameplay scoring requires creating emotional arcs as required in the situation

I learned at this point that every(?) chapter has exercises! I’ve decided to break that off into a separate post here!


Kellman has this section of footnotes that consists of mostly references but I found there were some really great terms, definitions, and further explanation here! Here are some I’ve noted down below:

Note #1 (p. 13)

  • adaptive audio: reacts to changes in game state and game parameters

  • interactive audio: directly interactive with the player (e.g. a sound occurs at a button-press)

  • dynamic audio: encompasses both of the above

Note #2 (p. 13)

  • not story based games refer to those with little to no narrative and/or narratives that are inconsequential to the game development/gameplay

  • some examples of games that are reactive/interactive but not story based include: action, puzzle, real time strategy (RTS), simulations, shooters, educational

  • Note #8 (p. 14)

  • “Musical codes are predetermined associations… player has with specific music elements, such as melodies, instrumental timbres, harmonies, or certain musical structures”

Note #22 (p. 14)

  • RPG - role-playing game: players assume a role of a character and makes decisions that affects many aspects of their character development including: strength, skills, political associations, personality

Additional Notes

There were a few additional resources mentioned in this chapter (p. 4) to check out:

  1. Composing Music for Games (2016) book by composer Chance Thomas

  2. Peggle 2 (2013) by PopCap Games, video game music composed by Guy Whitmore

  3. The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (2015) soundtrack by Marcin Przybylowicz

End of Chapter Reflection:

This chapter definitely took me a long time to get through not because of how it’s written or any content-related reason but just my prioritization of getting through the first chapter. I’m hoping I can become if not more regular, at least a bit more frequency than 1-2x/month reading this book because I think it has some valuable points! This first chapter gave a great foundation of 3 main different types of scoring (location, character, event) and many many examples. I’m looking forward to the Chapter 2: Fundamental Scoring Techniques. Onwards!


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