Music-to-picture: writing music for games

An interview with Robert Cote, Jr.

Annual North American sales of game software and hardware is now $11 billion. That’s more than movie box office receipts. We wondered what it would be like to write music for video games, is there a career in it, how would you go about getting into it, etc?

We were very fortunate to get an interview with Robert Cote, Jr., who does this for a living. He answered all our questions and offered some valuable advice for anyone interested in breaking into the business. Check the Songwriters Tip Jar Forum for samples of his work.

Q: How do you get inspiration for your compositions? Is it from the theme of the game, or the feeling you get from the game, or what?

A. When I’m writing for a game or any music-to-picture application, I’m usually provided with some concept art, which are just freehand drawings of product assets like characters, environments, weapons, etc. I’m also given either a verbal or written plot synopsis, descriptions of environments and characters, etc.

With these materials, I can quickly get a visceral feel of what the tone of the game is and start imagining what sort of instruments will provide the appropriate textures. I might listen to game or movie soundtracks to get inspired. Sooner or later, melodies, rhythms, or different ‘hooks’ will start to surface in my mind. I’ll bang out several ideas on the keyboard and then sift through them to find the material that sounds the most promising.

2. How much of your composing involves incorporating instruments or effects that create the mood you’re going for?

Instrumentation is half the battle. Much of my time on a piece is spent putting together a toolbox of instruments and sound effects that will help achieve the right mood. I feel that there’s a growing trend toward using unique and rich sonic textures to make a piece interesting. Older-school composers (John Williams, for example) will stick to tried and true orchestral colors, but try to assemble them in inventive ways using very sophisticated melodic and harmonic structures. The newer generation of music-to-picture composers have vast resources at their fingertips because of ever-improving computer and digital sampling technology. Many of the newer-school composers will use much simpler melodies and harmonies, while incorporating a stunning array of fresh and unusual sound layers.

3. Do you think of a game’s sound effects as distinct and different than music, or another form of “music?”

It depends on the application. When I’m doing the ambient layers of an environment – an eerie cave or tomb, for instance – the line between sound effects and music tends to blur. There are components that could fall into either category, like a low, ominous drone or creaking metal in the distance. When I’m designing more tangible object-related sounds like a sarcophagus opening or a sword impacting a creature, I don’t think of that as music – although it’s still a very creative and artistic process. I’m sure one could argue that every sound we hear is a form of music, but to me, a certain level of rhythmic or melodic organization is required.

4. How constrained do you feel; that is, are you forced to write within strict parameters, or do you have free reign? How does that work?

It all depends on who you’re working with. I’ve had creative directors that have loved virtually everything I’ve thrown at them, and I’ve had some that have been very finicky and have tried to micro-manage the process. This is an important point, because it makes all the difference in the quality of your work experience.

There are definitely parameters that are dictated by the project you’re working on, but also a vast number of possibilities that will get the job done. Good creative directors will have a fairly clear idea of what they want and the ability to communicate that idea to a composer effectively, while being open to different approaches that may not have occurred to them.

5. How would someone interested in writing the music behind games get started?

Where do I start? There’s no easy answer. It’s a case of many qualified people competing for very few positions. Assuming that you already have fairly decent composition skills, the first thing to do is to make an impressive demo packet. Include as many styles as you can (and think instrumental movie soundtrack), such as dark orchestral,
action-techno, African jungle, etc. It’s OK to use 30 to 60 second snippets rather than entire songs if that will get you up and running faster.

You should be constantly updating your demo as your skills and experience increase. Have it ready to send out at any given time. I’ve never had any success just cold-selling my stuff to game developers. I sent dozens of packets out and never received a single response. Game companies are bombarded by demos and most are probably thrown away without even a glance. They tend to use composers that they know of, or that have been recommended by an agent or someone in the business. I was lucky enough to have a friend of a friend who owned a small software company. I got my foot in the door and learned my craft by doing, all the while building a network of contacts that would serve me years later.

If you don’t happen to be lucky enough to stumble into a position like I did, the next best thing is to get any job into the industry you can. Many times there a position available for game testers. You will be expected to be enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the gaming world. If you can afford to work for little or no money, try doing an internship. Get your foot into the door any way possible. This will give you an opportunity to meet some pros and shop your demo to the powers-that-be. It’s all about knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time.

6. Would you be willing to let us show off some of your MP3’s on STJ?

Absolutely! I’ll send some MP3s of my stuff. (Hear them at Songwriters Tip Jar Forum.)

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