How Do I Work With A Composer For My Game?

You are a game developer making a game and understand the power of high-quality custom music. You are well on your way to crafting the game of your dreams. Maybe you already have a story, visuals, and gameplay mechanics, but there is a part in your mind that is wondering about what kind of music and sound design you might need.

What are the next steps? How do you work with a composer to make it sound and feel right?

First, you need to find the composer.

Once you have found someone you trust, you need to discuss your game with them. Every composer works differently, and every process is a little different. Still, in general, there are a few main points to hit:

How Should I Begin My Discussion With My Composer?

What is your game expressing?
What is the emotional arc of your game?
What is the setting?
What is the world we want the player to get wrapped up in, both the literal world and a more thematic one?

We often ask our clients about the technology of their game. We also ask them about the time period and what are the major villains or challenges to overcome. All of these factor into the perfect music for the game.

Should I Show Them Visuals or Other Inspiration?

Example Concept Art

If you have any artwork or concept art, you should show it to your composer. You should have a discussion with them and encourage them to ask any questions about the game or world that they might have.

When we discuss these points, especially with emotion, the composer and the game developer begin to sync up concerning a vision for the game.

If you have any musical inspiration, you should share it with the composer. Popular music is excellent to share as an inspiration source. Still, you should remember that music in a game works differently than music you listen to for fun.

OK, When Should The Composer Start Writing Music?

From here, the composer should have enough to start going.
At this point, we usually begin a process of sketching and refining. If possible, we try to have about 1-3 weeks to work on refining a sound.

We like to create a sketch or a small suite of music. Sometimes we call this an early “theme.” It could have a primary melody and a primary harmony. It might also have shades of other moments: Fun, happy moments, magical and mysterious, energetic and action-filled. We are trying to identify and express all of the game’s main points.

This piece of music should explore both the emotions of the game as well as the basic instrumentation ideas.

This sketch becomes a significant touchstone for the rest of the scoring process. If the composer comes back with a sketch or a suite, try to listen critically and ask yourself if it feels like the game you are making.

Early Game Footage

If you have footage, sometimes it can be helpful to put the music up against the footage to see if it feels right with the world of the game. If something doesn’t feel right, trust your gut. Try to identify what isn’t working or why and communicate it to the composer.

Even if you are a musician, you don’t need to use technical musical terms here. It is best to speak in terms of emotion and story elements as much as possible.

Practice saying something like, ‘It feels a little too happy and energetic here.” Or “I want more of a sense of danger here.” The composer will know what to do if you tell them sentences like this.

Should We Put The Music in The Game Now?

Once you have settled on a sketch or suite of music, the composer should begin adapting this music to the rest of the game.

The composer will rely upon this sketch or suite heavily throughout the process. Think of it like a color palette. If we limit ourselves to a reasonably strict palette, the whole project will have much more cohesion. This sketch or suite or theme will be in the back of the composer’s mind as a guide as they write the rest of the music.

From here, we go about the nitty-gritty of crafting custom music for the game.

We usually identify cinematics or pre-rendered elements first. Are there any story moments where the game takes over the timeline? We keep those separate from gameplay moments.

How Much Music Do I Need For My Game?

Each game is different, and the use of music will be different for every game. But you should first identify the moments of most emotional significance in your game/story. Those will be the tentpoles that the composer will craft their music around.

What if the Music Just Isn’t What I Was Expecting?

Your composer will then begin sending you music to fit into the various moments of the game.

It is usually a good idea to limit yourself to a smaller section of the game during these earlier stages so that everyone can get comfortable working together. We often try to spend the most time, early in the process, refining just the beginning of the game or another central section.
We will keep working and rewriting this moment until it just feels perfect.

Once we pass that stage, the rest of the game usually goes quicker because you and the composer are on a similar page for how the game should sound/feel.

Don’t worry if progress feels slow at first. The beginning stages should take time. Things will probably speed up once everyone is comfortable together. Of course, deadlines can often get in the way of the natural process of learning to work together. Do your best, and your composer will do theirs.

Working with a composer on a game can be a wonderfully rewarding experience. You get to hear music before anyone else, you get to join in the process and witness how your ideas are expressed musically.