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[Other Tutorial] Gamemaking Tutorial Series: How to Make Music

AenaonDusky

DeliveryBoy
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  • Seen Feb 23, 2024
Have you been reluctant to start learning how to make music, because it seems very complicated and it's not something you think you have a knack for?

Well, fear not!

Here's a music-making tutorial, for those who don't consider themselves musically inclined. This tutorial will focus on videogame music, and emphasize simplicity. It will not overwhelm you with theoretical concepts, however, you will be expected to start learning about theory once you've finished the tutorial.

Theory is REALLY important if you want to get your music to a standard of quality, especially if you don't have what is called a "musical ear". This isn't a music theory tutorial. There are far more competent people in this area than me, and Youtube is full of quality tutorials. You are also expected to have a very basic familiarity with the DAW you will be using (all free DAWs can do the job, some listed below).

Like with all things in life, music skills are also trainable. While there is definitely an overlap between musical skills and composition skills, those aren't necessarily the same. Neither are mastering or mixing skills. It is advised however, that you get your feet wet in those fields as well. After all, you will be composing digital music.

Keep in mind that it's practice and learning that will improve your music - it will never improve by its own if you don't exercise what you've learned. Being afraid to get your first pieces out there will also work against you – if you don't get feedback, especially from people in the field, you won't be able to level up.

Let's preface this tutorial by taking a look at a basic definition of videogame music. Videogame music usually fits the purpose of 1) assisting gameplay (audio hints, musical indications), 2) accompanying gameplay (giving you auditory feedback about what actions the player and the npcs, as well as other elements, are taking), 3) emotionally expressing scenes, situations, conditions, 4) telling a story.

A quintessential element of videogame music can be traced back to its history and the limitations around it. Earlier consoles couldn't produce more than a number of sounds, and of low quality at that. This drove the genre into 1) expressive and strong melodies, rather than ambiance, 2) limited concurrent instruments, and even notes.

Obviously those days are long gone now, but it was exactly limitations like these that helped produce those melodic masterpieces that moved millions of people. For that reason, and since simplicity is the best teacher when you first start out, I will focus on getting a strong melody going, and limiting the channels, or "instruments" we will be using to four.

Application and tool overview: I will be using FL-Studio, but any free DAW can do the job. Don't worry about the "right" tools when you are a novice. Once you have the basics down, and you start developing specific needs, you'll understand what tool better suits you. Don't spend money on things that sound cool believing your music will suddenly sound amazing. Start low, slow, and you'll get there.


Free DAWs: Cakewalk, Tracktion 7, various midi makers
Free VSTi: VSCO2 Community, OrionVST, Spitfire LABS, VST for DecentSampler, etc. Various Soundfonts are also an option.

Let us begin by breaking down the parts of a musical piece, and briefly going over scales.
PART A:
====================== THE BASICS ==================


1) Notes and Scales

A note is a representation of pitch (position of low and high), and duration (existence throughout a span of time), of a sound. Note demarcation goes by various names, under different systems. In the US it's like C,D,E... whereas in Europe it's Do, Re, Mi… in the Medieval Roman Empire it went like... Pa, Vou, Ga… here is a depiction of the two most frequently used naming systems today.

ceNHfkq.png


Each note is distinguished from the next, or the previous note by "distancing" itself at a particular interval. Assume you are in a company of 12 friends, you included. If you stand and line up, and distance yourselves from each other, so that each of you is standing at 1⁄12 distance of your total number, which is well… 12…. You have the standard and conventional mathematical relationship as the notes on your keyboard do!

1AfNGY0.png


As you can see, mr. 1 and ms. 2 are very close together. In fact, they are close enough to sound just distinct, but also not very much apart. This is the closest we get to go in conventional modern music. Cause otherwise… you know, it's getting kind awkward. Especially if you are an introvert.

These 12 pals comprise what is known as a twelve equal. These are of course twelve equally distanced notes. But what if we wanted to have a bigger distance among us, and ignore some of us altogether? (You know, cause we started fighting over steak again...) What if we wanted to, for reasons of making the sounds more distinct, and apply a particular mathematical relationship, skip every other guy and gal?

ROmnS3N.png


Then we'd have what we call an octave, a set of notes, where the interval between them has double the frequency. (or distance… you shy fellow.)

As you can see, the 1st and 8th notes are the same (of course, the higher you go, the higher the pitch, but its conventionally the same note.) In fact, the frequency between the 1st and 8th note on any octave is double.

Now you might ask… alright, so we are generally working with octaves right? But do all octaves begin from the same place? And the answer is no. Octaves (sometimes, fewer than 8 notes) that begin at a particular place, and end at another particular place, are called Scales.

A musical scale is akin to a "pathway", or a "road". In fact, in some ancient cultures, the word for scale, or what was interpreted as such, meant exactly that.

Have you ever wondered why your loved ones have been advising you not to stray from your path? It's not only because you've been really lazy lately, but because a defined path keeps a style consistent, and also helps you avoid false notes, or notes that sound weird when hanging out together.

Scales mostly fall under two categories. The happy doggo, and the sad doggo. Happy doggo can also be inspiring and adventurous doggo (when fed) and sad doggo can be mysterious and tense doggo (if not fed). These are known as major and minor scales, and have subcategories of their own. There are many traditional, folkloric, and stylish subcategories or different scales that might sound as if they are borrowing from both (which they are). For instance, blues scales are like doggo feeling both happy and sad at the same time, because despite the adversity, doggo keeps going out to have fun on walkies. There are pentatonic scales whose notes are almost always harmonious in relation to each other. There are weird musical nerd scales for jaded musicians. Generally, there's a style for everyone.

For the sake of this tutorial, we will follow a very simple Major and Minor scale.

A Major scale can be easily built by hitting your "Root" note (that one not where it all begins) and counting: W-W-H-W-W-W-H .

The heck is this? It's:

Whole – Whole – Half, Whole – Whole -Whole – Half .

Remember the part about distances? This is basically a shortcut to the Major distances between notes. This is the same for every note we start on. But for now, we'll start with everyone's standard: C.

RZ8kUxY.png

image from vitapiano.com

Here is the "C Major" scale

Put your finger (or foot if you are weird) on C. Since this is an Octave, a step is defined as a "half-step". Two steps are defined as a "whole-step". So if we go up 1 step (so a half-step) we end up in that weird note between C and D. This is called a "sharp" or "flat" depending on where you come from. Don't worry about that for now.

Since we care about W-W-H-W-W-W-H , we won't stay on that note. We need another half step. We take it. 2 half steps are a whole-step. So now we have just traversed the first W in the sequence. Which is… D! From D, we'll take a Whole Step again. So… the next whole step leads us to E. But now, the sequence asks for an H which is a Half-Step. So now we just land on the next note right away, which is F (if the next one was one of the black keys, we would stop there).

Similarly, we get a whole "G" another whole "A", yet another whole "B", and finally a half, "C". And we have completed the sequence.

If you were to start from, let's say, E, this is what your scale would look like:

WfIq67s.png


Don't be intimidated! W-W-H-W-W-W-H applies here as well. Starting from our root, E, we count whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. And end up at E again.

Give me minor cause it sounds cooler!

Alright, here's an easy minor scale:

zmYWaEi.png


Now, standard Minor scales can be a bit trickier. The sequence below doesn't always apply, so take it with a grain of salt, but for now let's stick with it:

W-H-W-W-H-W-W

If you want to compose a song for a particular environment of flavor, say, a desert, you might want to use traditional musical scales that have their own sequences. These are very easy to find if you search for midi scales online.

I'll show you a nifty trick you can employ to always stay on scale when using your favorite DAW, a bit further down below.

Finally, there's the key. A key spans all the available notes you can use throughout most of the duration of a piece, but it can change. The difference between a chord and a key, is that the key is like the "big" plan and encompasses all the available notes you will be using (unless you change the key midway, where the entire group of available notes changes for that part), while the scale just denotes the specific path within an octave. So in a sense, a scale is a mini-version of the key, or how *all* the small paths you'll take will look like, while the key is the big boy road and general direction. When you hear that a piece has been composed in, lets say, the key of C Major, then the piece will most likely stick to that range of notes throughout most of its span.

Unless you know what you are doing, going off-key will make your piece sound weird.


2) Harmony and Chords All relationships aren't the same…

In this segment I will almost completely paraphrase Wikipedia, because there's actually something useful in it for once. Source 1, Source 2

"Harmony is the process by which individual sounds are joined together or composed into whole units or compositions "

These harmonic relationships between individual notes can be either consonant, or dissonant.

"Consonant pitch relationships are described as sounding more pleasant, euphonious, and beautiful than dissonant relationships which sound unpleasant, discordant, or rough".

Obviously, you could say that consonance sounds more harmonious, but harmony isn't necessarily about the feeling of the relationship, but the more evenly and strictly defined space of said relationship.

"A chord, in music, is any harmonic set of pitches/frequencies consisting of multiple notes (also called "pitches") that are heard as if sounding simultaneously "

A chord is typically the combination of three notes. The complicated part is the intervals between the notes. It's an enormous topic in music theory, and we won't delve into the finer details about types of intervals and the such.

For the sake of this tutorial, we could say that chords may fall under "properties" (what they are made of) and "placement" (positioning). A chord that has a certain property will typically have that property next to its Root note, name, and symbol. A chord that is expected to be placed somewhere in relation to another chord, will use another symbol to denote that relation.

The usual written form for a chord is root note – property. For instance, C Minor is symbolized as Cm. If the C Minor we want has some extra properties, like a 7th note in the chord, it will be symbolized as Cm7. There's different types of symbols, even for the same chords. But for the sake of simplicity, let's just keep in mind that Major chords sometimes don't have a symbol right next to the Root note. For instance, C Major is symbolized as C, most commonly. Whereas CM (with a capital M) is also used in some notations.

Let's briefly see what the difference between your standard Major chord and your standard Minor chord is.

A chord on a Major scale contains the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the scale. A chord on a Minor scale contains the 1st, LOWERED 3rd (called flattened), and the 5th again, of the Major scale it's named after.

So, let's say your scale is standard C-Major.

You'd want C + E + G (remember, all scales count octave notes, so 1st, 3rd, 5th count whole steps).

gCTTev8.png

What if you wanted a chord in C-Minor? You lower the 3rd.

So it'd be: C + Eb + E.

BSI3Uh7.png


Essentially, you take your middle note which is the 3rd note, and go back a half-step, to E. It's called E+ when we move from the right side to the left, hence it's a "flat" and not a "sharp". If we moved the other way, we'd call it a "sharp" + # (this is not always correct, or applicable, but let's not dwindle on this right now. For instance, the right-side note next to E is F, it's not really E#).

Now, onto placement: one of the standard measurements for chord placement, progression, and patterns are Roman Numerals (I, II, III, IV, V etc). For certain types of chords, some modifications to those numerals are made. Typically, capitalized numerals (II) denote Major chords, whereas lowercase (ii) Minor chords. There are also extra symbols that may accompany these numerals, to denote a certain property, in conjunction with the placement. But don't let that confuse you right now. We will only apply the capitalized placements to chord progressions in a way that will produce either minor or major chords, and you are expected to watch some good tutorials on these topics once you've gotten the basics down.

The two big easy to use and most common chord patterns are primary, and secondary chords. They can fit into Major and Minor keys alike.

A primary chord in any key, includes these combinations: I, IV, V
A secondary chord in any key, includes these combinations: II, III, VI

Here is how to build any of these:

mDVBkbT.png


The I – IV – V primary chords, on C Major.

The layout above indicates positioning of a three-note chord in relation to your root note.

Since C- Major has …. well C as its root, we have our Major C chord ( C, E, G, in the Major model of 1,3,5 as was mentioned a few paragraphs above) ready. Since it's right on the root note, it's called I.

Counting from
our first chord's Root Note, which is C, (I), we use whole steps to go to the Fourth (IV) note in the key, which is F.

Now that we landed on F, we build our Major chord the same way.

Now that we've done that, we go back at our Root Note, which is of course C, and now jump to the Fifth (V) note, which is G. Similarly, we build our chords, and now have (G, B, D).

E6vhZ6e.png


Here is the secondary chord pattern. Notice the fact that although we are on C Major, we have now moved one whole step up from our Root C, and began on the second note, II, which is D.

We build the chord as always (since we are on C Major, again, we follow the 1,3,5 model). Then we move on to the third note, III starting from our Root C, and similarly build our chord. Then, we move onto the sixth note, VI, starting from our Root C, and do the same.

Also notice, that although we are using our typical 1-3-5 Major chords model on each note we have landed… the secondary chords are now in Minor!

Why does that happen? Because we aren't starting at our Root note, but from one whole step (octave note) up, which transposes our otherwise major chords a whole step up. In this area, we are kind of operating in A minor rather than C Major. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. For now, keep in mind that secondary chords have a different sound.


3. Chord Progressions:


When we move between chords, that's called a "chord progression".

As the legendary academic source, Wikipedia, puts it:

"A chord progression or harmonic progression (informally chord changes, used as a plural) is a succession of chords. Chord progressions are the foundation of harmony… Chord progressions, such as the common chord progression vi–ii–V–I, are usually expressed by Roman numerals in Classical music theory… The complexity of a chord progression varies from genre to genre and over different historical periods "

At this point I must emphasize once again that there's all types of chords and progressions, and they go by various names which usually denote their function. This is a tremendously big topic, and I am not qualified to give you any more details. But for now, you should note that you can use the primary and secondary chord patterns I showed you above, like this:

1) Start and end your music at your I chord (typically)
2) Start building your progression with the "primary" chords first, then mix in some "secondary" chords
3) employ common and circle progressions, like these:

Common:

I – V – VI – IV

I – IV – I – V – I

I – VI – II – V

I – IV – V


Circle:

I – IV – VII – III – VI – II – V – I

I – IV – V – I


You will notice that all these are capitalized. This is just for the sake of easiness, as I mentioned above, and it can work for any major and minor keys alike.

Of course, these aren't the only chord progressions...

You can always look up chord tables with chord progressions, for a quick reference that will get you started easily.


4. Miscellaneous information

We generally want to move up and down chords, and also end on satisfying, resolved chords whenever we "finish" telling chapters of our musical story, or leave them hanging with a "sus(sustainted)" chord, no it's not from that game, when we don't want a resolution. There are all sorts of techniques and progressions that sometimes are bound to certain styles, sometimes are more free-form.

So what is a wrong chord then, or a false note?

While some people may say "there's no wrong" in music, sometimes you have crafted a certain style or path, and once something in your compositions falls out of place, but without a smaller path leading to that place first, the dissonance is so strong it flat-out feels weird, and wrong.

Imagine, like, seeing a fridge protruding from someone's sock while also being part of the body of a tortoise in a wall of sea that is a literal vertical wall of sea with the waves even rolling upwards, and it's also raining 8-bit, oversized Luigis, over a Windows 98 background but inside 90 degree rotated volcano. What? Yes, technically none of those are wrong or unnatural, by themselves… but when put together under a harmonic, or stylistic path of some sort, with a predefined context from the composer… something instinctively feels wrong.

In game development, it would be similar to different pixel densities. While you could get away with mixing different pixel styles, you can't really get away with mixing different pixel densities, the result is so jarring and breaks the general instinctive consistency that something feels wrong in a wrong way. When you become proficient, however, you can make something feel wrong the right way.

There are two ways to deal with this. If you don't have a musical ear at all, or the ability to distinguish pitch, and you don't have the means or time to train in that area, you can consider studying the basic relationships that chords have with the root note in a more mathematical way. We will cover the usual problems with hobbyist music-making later.


==================
Takeaway:
==================

- A note is a duration and pitch of a sound.

- The distance between a note and another is called an interval.

- Harmony is the joining together of various sounds, usually within mathematically defined intervals.

- Our standard format likes to demarcate between a single and double interval.

- So when we move a double interval up or down, we take a whole-step.

- But when we move a single interval up or down, we take a half-step.

- This double interval space between notes gives us 8 notes (out of the available 12), in what we call an octave.

- An octave, then, is a set of 8 double interval notes.

- When we move up or down within an octave, we always imply taking a whole step.

- Unless we specify otherwise.

- A scale is a particular path of an octave.

- A key contains all of our available octave notes throughout the entirety of our pitch range, usually doesn't change, and applies for most of the piece.

- To build a basic Major chord, we take the root note, which we deem as 1st, and then move on to the 3rd, and 5th note.

- To build a basic Minor chord, we take the root note, which we deem as 1st then move on to the lowered (flattened) 3rd,and 5th note.

- A series of chords and the relationship between them is called a chord progression.

- There's various chords and progressions.

- We use certain symbols to denote what exactly that chord is composed of.

- Latin numbers are used to describe a particular chord's placement, and to denote if its major or minor, at the same time.

- Uppercase for major and lowercase for minor.

- But to make things easier for starting out, we'll call certain combinations primary, and others secondary, and use only uppercase to mark our progressions. I, IV, V = primary, II, III, VI = secondary.

- These types can fit into any major or minor key.

- We can alternate between primary and secondary progressions to make a standard track.

- We want to resolve our chords, and typically begin with I and end on I.

- We want to avoid going off-key, or off-scale, unless we have enough experience to move about in a good manner.


Now that we know how to pick a scale, and set up a chord and its progressions, we'll go over our track parts.



PART B:
================ THE PIECE ==================


A) The Overall Piece


1. The structure of a piece

What is there really into making a piece? The answer would most likely be: telling a story. You start somewhere… then you go somewhere else… then you introduce certain characters… it all culminates into something. But it's all one big story.

Your standard game music lines pretty much with pop and rock song formats.
Most modern songs (and in our case, pieces) employ a six-part structure.

In this section, I will paraphrase from this article, whose song-specific structure examples apply to videogame tracks too:
[url]https://www.masterclass.com/articles/songwriting-101-learn-common-song-structures#what-is-song-structure[/URL]


"1. Intro. Like the beginning of a film or novel, a song introduction should catch the listener's attention. However, it should do this without overwhelming them. For this reason, song intros are typically slower and more low-key. The goal is to establish the rhythm, tempo, and melody of the song, and introduce the singer or singers' voices. "

2. Verse. The verse of a song is a chance to tell a story. Lyrically speaking, this is where the story actually develops and advances. In most songs, the chorus and pre-chorus generally use the same lyrics each time, so the verse is your chance to get your message across. It might be helpful to split the story you want to tell in two and think about how the second verse can build on the first. Some songwriters use the second verse as an opportunity to change or subvert the meaning of the chorus, or even the entire song with different lyrics. It's a chance to be creative and explore the different emotions you're trying to bring out in your listener.

3.
Pre-chorus. Although optional, a pre-chorus helps to heighten the impact of the chorus. A pre-chorus usually contains a chord progression from either the verse or the chorus, building upon that familiarity. It's another chance to experiment—a pre-chorus can utilize different harmonies, for example, or break the pattern of the song.

4.
Chorus. The chorus is the culmination of all the big ideas in your song. This is often why the title of the song also appears in the chorus. It's a summary of what the entire song is about. The chorus typically also contains the hook—the catchiest part of the song. Choruses should serve as the climax to the song. The verses and pre-chorus both serve to build up to this one moment; therefore the chorus should reflect that release of tension.

5.
Bridge. The bridge typically happens only once towards the end of a song, usually between the second and third chorus. It's a change of pace in the song—it stands out both lyrically and musically. The point is to jolt the listener out of her reverie and remind her that there's more to this song than just repetition. This can be achieved through something like switching to a relative key in the same key signature (for example, from A-Minor to C-Major) or through something like a guitar solo.

6.
Outro. This is the end of the song. An outro should signal clearly to the listener that the song is coming to an end. This can be done in a number of ways, but typically is achieved by doing the reverse of the intro—in other words, slowing down. More often than not, the outro is usually a repeat of the chorus with a slow fade-out.

Note: When it comes to videogame music, your outro should prepare to loop back into either your intro, or your first verse.


There are, of course, multiple ways to use the above, or even disregard some of them. Here's a couple of examples from the same article:

"1. Verse-chorus form. Used in pop songs, rock music, and the blues. The verse-chorus structure since it differs substantially in both rhythm and melody from the rest of the song."

"2. ABABCB. Or: Verse / Chorus / Verse / Chorus / Bridge / Chorus. This is a variation on the verse-chorus structure, with the addition of a bridge. A is the verse, B is the chorus and C is the bridge."


Most of the time, videogame pieces have a simpler than usual song structure. For our own example, we won't use the above structure, we will just examine a "chorus" part (it can also qualify as a verse). Small steps, always.


2. The Elements of a Piece

Before we delve into the finer details, let's look at a brief overview of the general attributes of a piece.

Beat: like your heartbeat pulse, a beat is the most basic time unit, under, and above which, multiple larger or smaller units of time revolve. Note that the term "pulses" doesn't always refer to the beat, but sometimes the two are used interchangeably. Use "pulses" to get a metaphorical picture of the beat only.

BPM (beats per minute) is what its name suggests.

A Bar or measure is a segment of time that corresponds to a certain number of beats. We divide this segment of time in an equal manner, in most cases.

Time Signature: "The time signature (also known as meter signature, metre signature, or measure signature) is a notational convention that specifies how many beats (pulses) are contained in each measure (bar), and which note value is equivalent to a beat. "

Most pop and modern songs use the 4/4 time signature. What exactly is that? It's 4 beats, in 4 bars.

So it goes like: "BEAT, BEAT, BEAT, BEAT", and this for four times. This four times repetition of the "BEAT, BEAT, BEAT, BEAT", gives us a complete phrase. It's like writing the first chapter in our story.

The second most popular time signature is ¾ (and in some sense, all other weird variations derive from either 4/4 or ¾). As the name suggests, it goes like: "BEAT, BEAT, BEAT" x 4 times. This is ubiquitous in the "waltz" style of music. Its apparent "imperfection" makes the music sound a bit more "ambiguous" to grasp the time of, which sometimes ends up producing more interesting pieces. Though this is by no means something objective.

With the basics out of the way, let's get going.


3. The channels, and instruments of a piece

To set up our piece we'll need four channels. First channel is our "melody" channel. Second our "accompaniment/chords" channel. Third, our "bass" channel. Fourth, our "percussion" channel.

This is how it should look like:

ocB0VoI.png


This is from FL-Studio, but is applicable to all DAWs. We generally want a different channel for every instrument, or for elements of the same instrument we might want to edit separately. But for now ,we'll only need four channels.

Please not that in this tutorial, we will be editing MIDI. We won't be arranging pre-made samples. That is a different style of making music. For some people, arranging samples or pre-made loops helps them get into music making easier. Because those pieces are almost always compatible with each other, one can exercise their ear and musical feeling without needing to mess around with notes. However, this will greatly limit your scope and skillset.

For this example, I have used

1) VSCOs Upright Piano, for Melody (we can modify instruments later)
2) VSCOs Piano for Chords
3) BooBass (just a default Bass from FL-Studio)
4) VSCOs Percussion

It's generally easier for a beginner to start with piano-only tracks (and you could even make the bass AND the percussion… pianos, but that might not be ideal if your pitch isn't good.) As it pertains to the bass, you can set it to a piano for this tutorial if you like.

Let's talk a bit about part placement when it comes to notes.

D6c2fjs.png


Your melody is flexible and usually fluctuates between high pitches and low pitches. Depending on the instruments you use (which don't really have this flexibility if they are real instruments – digital instruments can sometimes get away with it) you generally want their notes positioned in the mid- to high range of pitches. Let's say, for instance, that you are using C Major as your choice of scale.

You'd want to use a mid/high C octave for your melody. In the above example, the RED octaves (denoted by the C6 and C7 positions) are around that "height" of pitch. Note: this isn't set in stone. Generally, the mid is defined around C5-C6.

Your chords are typically placed mid/lower. Some prefer to place them an entire octave apart, others one octave lower, others at the same octave. Any instrument that has a wide range and can be played by both hands, typically does this. This is an oversimplification, so please make sure you read up on it for further details. In the above example, the BLUE octaves, and to a degree the RED octaves, can be typically used for that.

Your bass generally uses the BLUE octaves area and lower. Of course this isn't a limitation, but it's called a bass for a reason. Once you are familiar with it enough, you can use it in all sorts of interesting ways. We will use a higher and a lower bass in later examples.

Finally, your percussion is a bit weirder. Since it doesn't really have a pitch as far as its soundbase is concerned (because a digital percussion module has various percussion instruments mapped to notes) some percussion sounds might be placed lower, some higher – it's simply a database of sounds at that point. Of course, there's also "melodic" percussion (easily distinguishable evenly placed pitch between percussion sounds) that actually follows your usual pitch placement. That depends on your VST or soundfont.

Certain instruments have a natural pitch range that should be taken into account when using them.

And before we get to the hardest part, let's pick a scale.

For this example, I will use an easy C Major scale, the one I provided above.

RZ8kUxY.png


There's generally two basic approaches to writing music.

The Melody-first Pupppers and the Chords-first Kittens. I am in the Pupper club, since following a Doggo just clicks with me, and seems more intuitive than "setting up" a bunch of Kittens and trying to make sense out of them. (also how the heck can one discipline kittens…)

But generally, it's much better when you first start out, to begin composing by getting your chords right, and then put a melody on top. Double that as true, in case you don't have an instinctive music hearing sense.

Though, if you can make a catchy main melody from the get-go, you are in luck my good fellow. Even if your musical ability and knowledge is sub-par, you will be able to gradually build a memorable piece, despite its flaws. On the other side, if you are a chord-aficionado, a good progression will always yield a good piece, in more ways than one.

If both of these are hard for you, fret not. You will have to employ a more structured, mathematical way to making music, and there's hundreds of good tutorials about that. So, if you follow the rules on scales, chords, and eventually, progressions, it will be just like piecing together a puzzle. Musical ability is very rare. But it is trainable. Even if (you think) it isn't exactly for you... by understanding the relationships among notes, you will be able to go really far.

And now, enough talking let's actually compose!


B) Making a piece

1) Chords

We are in the key of C Major, so the image a few paragraphs above applies.
We will use our standard 1-3-5 model to produce a chord, then, since it's a Major key.
And, we'll use the simplest common progression, I – IV – V

EWksJH4.png


Link to Audio (you can stream it or DL it)

The I – IV – V progression, in action, finally.

You will notice that I just repeated the I – IV – V pattern (resting on I). Two times. Nothing special, really.

We have covered 8 beats, over 2 bars. The stronger black lines separate each beat, while the first 4 greyed out beats (the first bar) are separated by the 4 next darkened beats (the second bar). I'll provide a more detailed image on our second piece attempt, later.

I have used the default 130bpm (beats per minute), on a default 4/4 time template.
Nothing fancy here.

Make sure your metronome is on! (location of metronome button varies by software)
Now, let's add a melody on top!


2) Melody

Melodies are like rivers, only they can move wherever they want. They take the flow towards certain places, then go climb up a mountain, then go grab some toxin-filled coffee from Barstucks while backflipping, and make the entire thing make sense, culminating into bringing everything to a satisfying end.

The melody has to move. Staying in one place for too long, or repeating itself too many times, gets stale. Exactly like your weird neighbor gawking all over your personal life details. Or your day job. But if it starts flying around all sorts of places with reckless abandon, it just won't do.

Let's come up with a happy melody.

5M0Qqx7.png


Link to Audio

Notice that I made the notes variable in duration.

Smaller notes interact with bigger notes.
The notes go up and down, and don't stay in one place for long.
I have placed the melody quite high, because I want it to sound high pitched.

I have reduced the volume of the very high pitch notes, near the end.

In order to be safe, I made sure all my melody notes corresponded to the three notes defined in the chords below it - they are just placed a couple octaves higher.

So if the chords cover the notes C, E, G, I'll move my melody in there.

This is a beginner's approach, to avoid making your melody sound off. With time and experience, and more knowledge of chords and progressions, you won't need to do this. In fact, we'll attempt going off bounds later on.

Protip: You generally don't need to fill the whole place with notes - this is a big digital composer mistake. The absence of sound, or notes, is also part of the music. The master craftsman knows when (or where) to stay silent and when to talk. Nobody likes an overly talkative friend, but nobody likes a friend who never says anything either.

Overall, your melody (and other parts too), needs periods of slow tension, buildup, big tension, relaxation, and change. If you take a good look around you, especially in nature, you'll notice that even the wind is musical in a sense – sometimes it's sudden and strong, but then calms down, other times it's repetitive but consistent, other times it slowly starts to build up until hits you, then fades away.

Music needs varied movement, and moments of varied intensity.

Some tricks you can employ in regards to a melody, is varying between:

a) length
b) back-and-forth
c) frequency of appearance
d) horizontal and vertical movement

Now, let's move onto the next channel.



3) Bass

Let's add some bass. Bass is generally a very important part of any composition. It drives and maintains the momentum of the piece, makes a great contrast that expresses depth, and keeps your attention down to earth while the melody flies around everywhere.

The bass isn't, most of the times, an expressive melodic fluctuation, but it usually does two jobs (sometimes both at once) it maintains or supports a beat, it gives movement and flavor, especially in parts where there's long or silent melodic notes.

As Wikipedia puts it "When bass notes are played in a musical ensemble such an orchestra, they are frequently used to provide a counterpoint or counter-melody, in a harmonic context either to outline or juxtapose the progression of the chords, or with percussion to underline the rhythm. "

In plain English, the bass sometimes "argues" with the melody. Remember when I told you that music is telling a story? Well, sometimes the instruments are like different characters expressing themselves differently, arguing, or agreeing with each other.

(The technical terms "counter-point" and "counter-melody" however, don't necessarily really refer to that. But they do revolve around a sort of deviation from the main melody. Juxtaposition is simply the contrast between the one and the other, and "underline" refers to supporting the rhythm introduced by the percussion, but also implied by your chords and melody).

iylAbSw.png


Link to Audio

You will notice that the bass is both playful and supportive here. There are various bass techniques on which I don't have much knowledge, but you should be able to supplement what you've learned here with other tutorials.


4) Percussion

Now, let's move onto percussion.

mlkZlSV.png


Link to Audio

Nothing majestic here. Depending on your DAW, or your VST, the keyboard on the left might have disappeared and instead shown the NAMES of the percussive instruments used. This makes your job easier. In this case my VST was like "meh, work harder for it" and I had to adjust it on the fly. The F6 and D7 you see are just castanets and chimes, they don't correspond to "real" F6 and D7 notes.

Percussion is responsible for the rhythm, the sense of tempo and time, and the intensity of a piece. It truly is an art of its own. While not always needed, it's much appreciated.

There's a humongous list of free drum MIDI patterns online. If you are having a lot of trouble with drums, you can always import them into your DAW, study them, and mess around with them. Some styles use very similar patterns.

Even good composers might have problems with drums, and amazing drummers might not have a knack for composing. Don't dwell on problems like these when they happen. Focus on your strengths, and supplement your weaknesses with what people provide for free, until you are ready to fully implement stuff on your own.


5) What? There's more?

SURPRISE CHANNEL! OH YES!

I told you we'd be using 4 channels. I LIED.

We will now introduce a 5th channel, which we will use to supplement, (or even argue a bit) with our main melody channel!

This is a sort of "second voice". Usually, this follows the harmonic progression of the melody + chords. It's not mandatory, but as you'll see (and hear) it adds much flavor and color to the composition.

TfhlFIo.png

Link to Audio

And with that, we have made a very small, simple piece.

Try making your own following the steps above! Remember don't start big. Small steps. A little melody here, a little bit of chords there.

Now, let's change some instruments from Piano to other ones, just for fun.
I'm gonna change the melody Piano to Violin, and the second voice Piano to Oboe.


I will adjust the two side-by-side G notes to have just a small difference, because otherwise the violin would sound weird with no small pause between the same notes. Like this:

PQKesjo.png


And, here's the end result:

Link to Audio

But… let's not stop here.

This is a pretty happy, and consonant piece. There's not much dissonance. Let's try a more dissonant piece, and have it flow in multiple major and minor chords. We'll also try using the other composing style, starting from the Melody!


C. Ramping up the difficulty – Making a melody-first, dissonant piece

Let's come up with a slightly sad, nostalgic, and mysterious melody.

We will use the A minor key, a simple place to start, here's our octave:

zmYWaEi.png


Alright, inputting melody...

xKxsoyL.png

Link to Audio

You will notice similar things as you did in the previous piece. This melody looks a bit more "active" though, and is a bit wavy. Obviously, it's more somber as well.

Also, here is a better showcase of the beat/bar relationship. This is of course, your standard 4/4!

VtimPma.png

FL studio demarcates bars next to each other by separating them into brighter grey and darker black, for visual clarity, as mentioned in the first piece. Similar demarcations are used by other programs.



2) Chords

Now let's look at our primary and secondary chord sheet, and our progressions, and start building them. To adjust our chords to match our melody, we might use some more "advanced" placements, but let's go by ear for now, and see how we can first and foremost, compliment the melody.

Oj19J2q.png


Link to Audio

Once I got my chords down, I messed with them a bit. I wanted to go for an "inconclusive" feeling throughout. I combined Major and Minor chords (and in some places, didn't really use a chord since there were no three notes being pressed at the same time) to give off an emptier feeling. Many of these chords have various names – indeed, the study of chord progression can fill an entire library. Make sure to search for good tutorials on chord progression.

Note that depending the VST, some octaves might be placed higher or lower, since some VSTs have their own ranges.


3) Bass

Bass time.

3yxUYYb.png


Link to Audio

Nothing fancy here. A bit more playful bass for a somber theme. At least it is a bit more slower (in some places). Notice that both the bass and the melody play it a bit unsafe with their fluctuations.


4) Percussion

Percussion is next!
Very basic stuff here – simply giving some rhythm to the piece.

iHn5Kjk.png


and

8HCn3Nt.png


Link to Audio

These are from the same channel - it's just that some of the sounds are reeeaaallly high on the mapping key. As I said before, this is just how the percussive instruments have been mapped, and they don't reflect the notes they are placed on.

5) Surprise Channel!

UMErbWZ.png


Man that's quite a lot of notes for a surprise second voice channel. But just look how much more awesome the finished piece sounds:

Link to Audio

You will notice that (and especially with the addition of the second voice) the piece has quite a bit of dissonance, in this case, due to the combination of chords and melody notes. A consonant piece sounds more satisfying and perfect, but a dissonant piece brings an air of unexplorable depth and mystery to the piece.

In this case, I have also deviated from the safety of chord guidance. The positioning of the instruments is also a bit weird. You can feel something is wrong, yet can't quite put it into words (unless you have been trained to do so, or have a tin ear).

I would advise you start with consonance first.


D) Editing the Sound Itself

1) A few "notes" (hihi) on note velocity, and panning

Your DAW will provide your channel with volume, note velocity and panning settings. Volume is the overall volume of the entire channel. Note velocity is the volume of each individual note. Panning is where the channel sound comes from (left ear, right ear, or both).

Very high pitch notes should generally have their volume lowered a bit. But understanding where and when your piece should have fluctuations in volume is by no means a simple thing. The most basic rule of thumb is: does it sound jarring, too loud, or too muffled at certain parts? Start by adjusting the individual notes first, assuming all your general volume and channel volume settings are set to a default, or the same value.

Tip: When you reduce the volume of an individual note (the velocity), the sound might change a lot, instead of only having its volume lowered. That is because your VST is providing you with sounds approximating the real usage of the instrument. If you "lost" the sound you were going for by doing that, simply reduce the channel volume instead.

Once you have produced a satisfying sound, you will enter the forbidden land of mastering and mixing. Achieving totality of acoustic coherence and volume relations that bring together parts of the track, is a an entire job of its own.


2) VSTs and Soundfonts


You might have noticed that some sounds come in the VST, and others in Sf2 or other soundfont format. Soundfonts are an older format that was used with soundcards (back then, the soundfonts used to be stored in the ram of the card). Soundfonts might utilize transposed wavs (imagine one sound mapped with variable pitch), instead of a different wav for every mapped note. That means you might not be getting the desired quality out of the box. On the plus side, some soundfont packs include almost every instrument, and since they're all-in-one, their instruments might sound great when played together out of the box. ( That is highly dependent on the soundfont pack.) Different dedicated VSTs, whose samples haven't been packaged together, might clash with one another, demanding a bit more audio work on your part.

Search for a good soundfont, and don't fret if your track doesn't sound amazing out of the box. Don't be afraid of the "my piece doesn't sound like Hans Zimmer's" syndrome. Everybody knows that a MIDI Soundfont that emulates a GBA game will never sound like a real orchestra. That's perfectly fine. It can still sound "full" under the right conditions. And if composed right, it will still tuck your heartstrings. DAWs provide you with enough tools to make a purely soundfont track sound really great.

Generally, you don't want bass and percussion to be too loud, especially if you aren't familiar with mastering yet.

Also, the texture and mixing of different instruments should be such, that the whole piece doesn't have "clashing" volumes, and doesn't feel like the sounds aren't cooperating with each other.

In the second example track, I've lowered some of the strongest chord or 2nd voice notes, to make it sound better. I've also lowered the very high-pitched ones.

Remember, make sure to look up mixing and mastering.


3) Reverb and other effects

Reverb, delay, you name it. There's all sorts of effects that can and must be applied in digital music. These are beyond the scope of the tutorial, but your DAW should pretty much have a setting for them by default, and it's worth mentioning here for further studying. There's also two very important effects called limiter and compressor. You should definitely look those up in the future, as their role on the editing of the sound is very important.

=========
Takeaway:
=========

- A piece of music tells a story

- A piece is typically comprised of Intro, Verse, Pre-Chorus, Chorus, Bridge, Outro

- Videogame music doesn't always follow the above format

- Videogame music must prepare to loop around, either back to the intro, or to the verse.

- Beat is the most basic time unit, under, and above which, multiple larger or smaller units of time revolve.

- BPM are the beats per minute

- Bar is a segment of time that corresponds to a certain number of beats.

- Time signature specifies how many beats are contained in each bar. Also which note is equivalent to a beat.

- 3/4 and 4/4 are the most common time signatures. That's three beats per bar, for four bars. And four beats per bar, for four bars.

- For easiness' sake, we'll only use four channels, Melody, Chords, Bass, Percussion. Anything extra you want you can add later.

- Melody should move around, be varied in length and pitch, and be expressive

- Chords are usually placed the nearest lower octave, but that depends

- Bass drives our piece forward and keeps our attention, usually in lower pitch range

- Percussion gives rhythm to our piece

- We can change the individual volume of notes, the channel volume, and the volume of the entire piece, in that order preferably.

- There are various important effects that are part of mastering and mixing, and which you should definitely study



PART 3

==============Tips and Tricks===========

With the basic structure and composition details out of the way, let's take a look at some useful tips and tricks.


1. Phantom Notes

It sounds as cool as it is. To avoid going off-key, or off-scale, you can simply look up the key or scale you want to use, and download its MIDI form. Search for a free MIDI scales pack.

If you don't know what scale to use in the first place, think: What song do I want to make? Do I want it to sound like X piece? Then look X piece's scale up. Or you can search for "aquatic area music scales" or whatever it is you want to make.

You then import the scale you want as a MIDI, in one of your DAW channels. Here is the awesome part:

Start copying and pasting the scale throughout your ENTIRE piano roll. (Of course, make sure it's in the same position relative to its pitch, all the time. So it should always start and end at the same note throughout the entirety of the piano roll pitch).

Then take the huge vertical slice of notes, and expand it all the way horizontally until the end of your soon to be track.

0HO6ff0.png


Here is the E-minor scale in action. I LOVE this and its related scales. Professor Layton and Motoi gang where are you?

Then, disable the sound coming from the channel.

You will end up with greyed-out (or some sort of similar thing depending on your DAW) notes that will serve as guidelines on where to put (and not put) all of your notes from now on, without moving off from your scale.

QWJq1eO.png



2. Are you a tinkerer?

Many game developers, artists, engineers, etc. started out by modifying existing things, rather than creating things of their own. This is twice as important for a hobbyist. No matter how much talent you think you have, it is a huge shame to let the knowledge and artistry of those who have come before you, go to waste. Instead, take one of your favorite tracks from one of your favorite composers, find a MIDI, import it, and study it, feel it, change it. All art stems from existing art. Even the brightest of minds have had influences. Find yours, take it apart, understand it, and let it speak to you. Then, make it your own. Gradually, you will develop your own style, and you won't have the need for help anymore. But it is very important that you both take the step, and then leave it behind once you are ready. Reverse engineering is a learning process in itself - it's not only about the thing you are reverse engineering. Obviously, do not plagiarize. But even if you hadn't studied a piece, you'd still inherently mimic it. You'll reach the point of originality very soon, so don't worry.


3. Repetition is the mother of all learning

Tied to number 2, you'll have to listen to a track you like over, and over, and over. Then try to make something of your own over, and over, and over. But the most important part in this cycle of repetitions is to do so correctly. Repeating mistakes will only lead to more mistakes. But repeating something a good music teacher can teach you, or a technique a composer has used will lead to gradual improvement. You learn by example. Listen to your favorite tracks over and over, with emphasis on different parts each time. You will be able to hear them (or even better, see them if its in MIDI).


4. Don't feel discouraged by the intrinsically musically talented

Like with the mathematically-inclined, the musically-inclined are a rare breed. Humans are mostly visual beings, so it's much easier for us to develop our visual skills. The same goes for using our limbs to do physical activities. But some of the nerds have started out with unique traits. This is how it is. The thing is to acknowledge your limits, so you can grow. If you don't, you won't have the psychology necessary to keep pushing. You are only racing against your own self. Do not measure your capability in relation to other people's. This brings us to the most important point in this entire tutorial, no 5.


5. Art is all about emotion, and not the technicalities.

You can make art that isn't really up to anyone's standards, even objectively speaking. But it becomes a thing when it's backed up and driven by emotion. You could say that Lizst's pieces weren't the technical marvels Bach could pull of. (although I'd argue that all day). And dang, sure Bach put some big feels out there. But the amount of heart, regardless of virtuosity, in the works of the first – as with Chopin's minimalism, wouldn't need overcomplicated technicality and superior harmony, or acoustic coloration, to be what they are.

The point here is that art is all about emotion – and nowhere is this more apparent than in music. When you want to feel something and put that in some form, after pressing hard, and having enough patience over the years, you will make good music. It doesn't have to be a masterpiece. But if you drive it with emotion, it will eventually become bigger than the sum of its parts. And if that resonates with others, you have indeed made something great, despite its mistakes. However...


6. Don't be that guy

Don't be the digital music maker that shuns theory. You are overestimating yourself, and you are in danger of losing the technical and artistic knowledge and emotional output from hundreds of thousands of people before you, who have prepared these for your own improvement. Take it, embrace it, make it your own.

Technical skill can get you very far, extremely safely. And will save you thousands of hours of trial and error. But mostly error. Also, learn how to play an instrument. Even if it's just for fun.


7. It's all about how it comes together

What makes a style, or a genre, or someone's signature on a piece, is not all the different parts by themselves, but how they are tied together. The interaction among everything produces the end result. Sometimes your music might not make sense, but give it some years and your body and mind will pick it up.


8. Tin ear vs the hard way

This is kind of a reiteration of many previous points in this tutorial, but I think it needs to be emphasized again. You might not be able to hear the details or parts of a musical piece. That will definitely be true at first. But some people may not have the ability to develop that at all. That is fine. As stated previously, give your emotions a whirl, do the math, use your tricks, etc. Learn from the patterns and discernible chord progressions others have used. And you'll get very far.


9. Break everything into smaller, manageable parts

This is self-explanatory. You want to have it as compartmentalized as possible. Small steps, small scope, and when it's all added up, it's massive. But you need to have a lot of things separate, and organized!


10. Love

And in the end, it all comes down to this – how much do you love making music? Are you driven by your ego, to prove yourself that you can do it? In that case, you will most likely fail. In order to let your emotions flow, and therefore make good music, you need to open your heart up, and love what you are doing. If you are motivated by antagonism or self-centrism, your work won't reflect anything deeper. It will just be another side job, and consume itself from within. The desire to mimic your favorite music, is a good place to start, however.


========
Takeaway:
========

- The Phantom Notes trick can help you always stay on scale

- Start by modifying existing musical pieces and playing around

- Repetition is the only way to learn

- Only compare your progress in relation to your self

- Emotion will make your music great even if its wrong from a technical standpoint

- Learn Theory, even if you have natural music talent (and especially if you don't). Also learn how to play an instrument.

- The end piece is the result of the various parts coming together

- When talent doesn't help, smart approach will. When your senses don't work, use your brain

- Break everything into smaller, manageable parts

- Love what you do, don't let your ego drive you forward


DEFINITELY look up:

Chord Progressions

Different types of chords and where to put them (and when)

Style/ Genre templates

Circle of Fifths

Arrangement

Mixing

Mastering

Anything Bach has composed, listen to his works over and over


And that'd be it. If you have any corrections to make or want to add something (or want to notify me about an ambiguous section or regarding something that wasn't well explained) feel free to chime in.
 
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