My first composition professor in college asked one day what I wanted to compose next. I mentioned some pieces I’d be interested in writing, including a big blues piece with horn section and maybe some strings. I was listening to a lot of BB King and other blues artists at the time and wanted to create something big, not just guitar, bass and drums. My professor said I should do that, but as a side project on my own time since that really just involves “laying down tracks.” I didn’t know quite what to make of that comment, as composition can take many forms. I decided to just let the comment simmer in my mind awhile and figure out its deeper meaning as I continued on my path towards compositional Enlightenment (which I have yet to reach).
Now I’ve come to understand several things about this “laying down tracks” comment. This gets to the heart of what it means to compose. Composition, as I now define it, is the process of working various sounds together in a meaningful construction of varying complexity. Technically, laying down tracks is composition. But it puts greater limits on the complexity aspect of the music. While doing a new track, you are at the mercy of the track that came before it. You can go back later and change any track you want of course, but this soon becomes a practice simply of trial and error.
That’s not to say it’s not fun. It can be. And great pieces of music can result from the process. But it’s like building a house one wall at a time with no architectural house plan. You will build something, but opportunities to make something really interesting will more likely than not be lost. To take full advantage of the sounds available to you, it’s important to start with an overall vision and work in the details. Your sounds will all fit together just like you want and this will give your music a depth that will be appreciated by the listener, either consciously or subconsciously. But it will be appreciated. And you will also enjoy the side benefit of more often avoiding the plague that is writer’s block.
What does this mean for game music? It means getting a copy of Garageband or Acid or some other looping software and using it to create pieces will result in only the shallowest, most cliched type of music. This should not be good enough for today’s games with their ever-increasing production values. Of course, game soundtracks do not need to have the complexity of Schoenberg or Bach but they do need to have their own spark. That spark is often only created when the piece is first lighted in your mind.