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Don’t just compose, listen!

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Being the New Year I’m going to try and be more active with my blog. But with most NY resolutions (looks at ununsed dumbbells on studio floor) we’ll see how long I keep this up. 🙂 My approach is going to be somewhat concise, easy-to-read thoughts on game audio and what it is like to work in such an industry. I hope you find it useful and if not that, at least entertaining! 

My first topic is something quite important: listening. As composers we pour over our pieces for hours or sometimes even days and weeks, stressing over how to best convey what we feel and hear inside our heads. (No, not the voices you hear in your head…) Sometimes the music flows out at a fast pace of inspiration and sometimes it’s a true chore. But one thing we must never, ever forget is to be a listener of our own work! After taking the time to really solidify a chunk of a piece, sometimes we cheat our listeners by jumping to the next *new* idea instead of really sitting on a theme. A melody or chord progression may appear tired and stale to a composer’s ears but not to a new listener’s! This means we’re missing a chance to let a piece really stew in the listener’s ears! (Hmmm… stew.)

This is something I’ve struggled with at times as well as a trap I’ve seen many young(er) composers fall into. You have a 4 or 8 bar intro then launch into a theme then to something else right away. Go back and listen to some of the older film scores – the ones where melody (instead of a mood bed) was really effectively crafted. Take note of how often you’ll hear the theme(s) that help propel the story forward. It’s pretty striking! Even more modern scores can really take their time and let the music unfold around the listener. The Che Valiers De Sangreal by Hans Zimmer in Da Vinci Code comes to mind as a good example of this. We’ve all read reviews of how games, books and movies can not talk down to it’s audience. It doesn’t cheapen the experience. We as composers can (and should) strive to do the same.

I read David Morgan’s book Knowing the Score (it’s cheap – go pick it up here:…) and many of the giants in film scoring talk about stating a theme, then repeating it over and over. Of course these are not strict repeats. Changes in instrumentation, harmony, orchestration, etc are highly effective. I’m not advocating lazy, copy-n-paste musical writing. In fact to be able to repeat a theme over and over in an interesting way is very hard to do.

The best way to act as a listener instead of a composer-trying-to-listen, I’ve found, is with fresh ears. A fresh mindset. Not right after a long drafting session. Go out for a jog. Eat a burger and fries at a local hang out. Sleep. Come back and take a moment to listen to your work like a new listener would. Listen to your music in various contexts and places. Even better – test your music on a few friends and family members. As you become stronger in your compositional chops, this becomes an easier problem to avoid.

Don’t cheapen your music and your listeners by forgetting to play the part of the listener yourself.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. Hope you enjoyed it and have a good one!