There I was, sitting at the piano. I was embarking on a new piece of music for a new game. This piece was to be the main theme of the game. The pressure was on. This is always the most critical part of doing a game soundtrack: the beginning. Everything springs from what I do here.
I had come up with three or four different ideas. They were all good and I enjoyed developing and playing them, but none of them really fit the game. Do I try and work one of these ideas into something that fits better? It just wasn’t happening. I was going to have to start on a new idea. After playing the piano for another five minutes or so, I briefly paused and sat back.
Right then, during the new silence, a melody entered my head. It came from out of nowhere. And it was a good melody… and perfect for the game. I started playing it on the piano and developing it. This was it! And it seriously just entered my brain from who knows where.
I think, as my wife pointed out later, this is the type of phenomenon that gave birth to that mythical idea of the Muse. The artist is just a mouthpiece for whatever the Muse wants to bestow upon humanity. Well, I wouldn’t go that far. But I can certainly see how such a concept could arise. Seriously, the melody came out of left field. I had been playing something completely different and this melody just sprang into my head. It was… freaky.
I’m aware that sometimes I’m feeling more “inspired” than other times when I’m writing music. But seldom does something just present itself this way to me. I like it. I hope I can get to know my Muse a little better. Anyone else out there experience a visit from the Muse?
And about the game: this is a game that I’m not quite free to discuss yet but the soundtrack will be over 50 minutes and will be available to buy along with the game. The main theme is a 7+ minute suite and (I’m very happy to say) I think it’s the best work I’ve done yet in game music. Haha… take that, 1- minute main menu music loops! You’ll hear a lot more about it later as the marketing machine revs up.
When working day after day on a contract, or multiple contracts, eventually the time will come when you just feel tapped out. It seems all the musical ideas that ever were in your head have finally been used up. You’re empty.
But you said the music would be done in three days. (Cue Keanu) What do you do?
When that happens to me, I don’t force it. I take a break. Nothing recharges the creativity bank like a little time off. Go walk the dog. Clip your toenails. Read a book, play a video game. Do anything that doesn’t require you pulling magical melodies and heart-wrenching harmonies out of thin air. Music is the most abstract of the arts. To create something good requires constant concentration and an eternal ear for details. It is extremely draining.
So, knowing this, plan ahead. To be creative all day long just isn’t realistic. Break your work day into 2-4 hour-long bits with plenty of rest time in between. Picture yourself with a little Sims-like bar above your head which measures creativity. That bar’s going to drain so get ready to fill it back up with those breaks. You’ll end up saving time in the long run because you won’t have to deal with writer’s block and an increasingly tense, stressed-out mindset. You’ll have a better attitude overall as you don’t get down on yourself for (seemingly) failing at your job. You’ll find new approaches to creating music as you avoid getting into a production rut.
Take those breaks!
Also, find some time at least a few days a week to get some exercise. Nothing clears the mind like a good run around the neighborhood or a friendly tennis game. Endorphins are real. Use them to keep a good attitude and to find a new kind of creative spark.
One final tip, as composers you probably already listen to a lot of other people’s music. Well, keep doing that. But listen to it more critically. Listen to how other people orchestrate, how they structure their pieces, how they construct their melodies. Nothing wrong with recharging your batteries with other people’s creativity. That’s not to say go steal other people’s music… just listen to their music with an ear on how you can apply their processes to your own.
All that being said, sometimes you just have to battle through those inspiration-less periods. You said you’d get that insane amount of music done in an insanely short amount of time. When you have no time to rest, you’ll just have to dig into your bag of tricks. You have one, right? The distillation of your creative method into easy-to-follow steps? Well, if you don’t have one… get one straightaway! Every composer should analyze their creative process and be able to whip something up whenever they’re needed to. That’s why we’re professionals.
But of course, this shouldn’t be standard operating procedure. To always work this way will result in formulaic music, ultimately uninspired. I think that’s a common problem in movies and games of today. Composers aren’t stretching themselves, but rather relying on the currently fashionable orchestrations or rhythms. Yawn.
All of these tips also apply to graphic artists, and even programmers and designers. Most of this is common sense, but it’s easy to get bogged down and ignore that common sense when deadlines and producers are breathing down your neck. Just take a step back every once in awhile. Everyone will benefit from it.
I’m sitting here at 1:53am watching my wife dominate at Guitar Hero. I love just sitting back and watching her breeze through Cliffs of Dover on expert. This is her unwinding time, after we got back a little bit ago from our friends’ house where we played a few hours of Rock Band. Those friends had a baby a few months ago and (now to the point of this post) I couldn’t help but wonder if that baby is going to grow up and maybe someday play a Guitar Hero type of game and be inspired to pick up a real instrument because of it.
I’m not wondering about their baby in particular, actually. I’m sure he will be exposed to much more music than simply the music coming out of their Wii. But I’m sure there are thousands of other kids out there who are going to play hours upon hours of GH/RB and I wonder how many of them are going to try out a real guitar or drum set. I have no opinion one way or the other right now if they really need to after playing a video game simulation. I’m sure playing the games do help educate people at least a little bit about the inner workings of music, such as rhythm and pitch. And that’s great, but there’s nothing wrong with just having a little fun playing a video game. Rock Band especially is an awesome way for families to play cooperatively. Cooperative games in general are extremely rare, and one that’s based on music seems natural and timeless.
Will music games take on a greater cultural role than simply being video game pastimes? With school budgets always being cut and music programs continually being reduced or eliminated, music games will probably take on at least a little greater role in exposing kids to music and inspiring them to pursue music on their own. It won’t be limited to rock and roll either. With Wii Music, due out sometime this year, apparently there will be a conducting game. That will grab quite a few kids’ imaginations. And mine.
I foresee a game in the future where you hook up real instruments to your console via MIDI interface and play tunes using real instruments with people around the world. I do get a little uneasy seeing how much time people can put into practicing their Guitar Hero guitar when they could make progress learning the real versions of the instruments in the same amount of time. Hooking up real instruments will eliminate the fake-instrument time sink and encourage new and exciting ways to practice their instruments, via gaming.
There is the risk with the GH/RB games that kids beg for a real guitar, get one, and then very quickly get discouraged because, well, playing a real guitar is… hard! They want to play Weezer or Beastie Boys, and they want to play it NOW! The games make music creation instantaneous. When just starting out on an instrument, music making takes some time and lots of practice. With today’s shrinking attention spans, that can be a problem. Then again, maybe at least a few really talented kids out there will unleash their undiscovered real-instrument talent after being inspired by a music game. And that’s good enough for me.