Composition is not just one thing, but a process that encompasses several aspects. When I think of composing and I want to develop an idea, I think of several well-differentiated sections:
General plan of the work: I refer to everything macro: Establishing the general structure of the work, under which parameters or musical dimensions will be developed. What will be its constituent elements. What kind of form is it going to have? Is it going to be tonal music? Is it going to be thematic music? Is it going to have both, or is not going to have any of those? Definition of the harmonic language. Points of attraction or gravity. Definition of the spectrum.
Those fundamental stones that allow the development of the musical material on a fixed base, or that move very little.
Generation of material: The most interesting and fun part of the process (and also the most laborious). It is the place where inventiveness and creativity are usually most evident.
Having the general plan, we begin to write the different parts or fragments of the work taking into account the limitations and freedoms imposed by our own plan. Rhythm, harmony, melody, texture, modulation, mass, tension and rest, dynamics, etc. All the musical dimensions that we handle come into play here and we will be applying them to our initial idea, transforming it and making it acquire new meanings. The greater the degree of variety, the greater the degree of distance from the initial idea.
This is a laboratory, all these small experiments or separate expressions are going to give us a lot of musical fragments, each one with its own characteristics. The variety and sophistication of these fragments will also be given by our own previous experience in the trade.
Composition: Now comes the time to compose, that is, to put things in their place. Since we now have a good number of musical fragments, it is time to start organizing them. This is not a pure puzzle process; surely we will have to correct something here, make some transition there. Time for trial and error. Listen and move the parts around until you get the expression and unity you are looking for.
There are times when one composes in a consecutive way, I mean, one places one fragment after another until the work is assembled, which is perfect. Both, assembly in succession, or from the end to the beginning, are valid options. In my case, for example, principles are usually one of the last things I compose.
Editing: The output format. It can be the score, it can be an audio (here we would consider mastering as well). The final way in which all your work will be presented. The way the work is going to be catalogued. The metadata also enters this section.
The way you keep track of your work is very important, either for future reference, in case you make adaptations; and more importantly, to know how much you have advanced. Having your first works in order and comparing them is a good way to measure your progress as a composer.
I think this aspect is very important but it is rarely mentioned.
But what if the composition is for a medium? Well, in this case we can add 2 more aspects:
Musical design: It is to prepare and structure all the audio according to each one of the moments of the game. Normally, a game consists of a significant amount of musical pieces, we must organize them according to the structure of the game, which involves: know the dramatic arc of the game, the different sections of the game, what type of audio system will be used, if the music is going to be adaptive or linear, the aesthetics to which it is pointing.
Normally this would be previous to the general plan. It can be done in a graphic or written way: where would the different musical pieces go, what elements are the ones that have to be reinforced, in what way is it going to be achieved musically, and how long does each piece need to last.
Although when I talked about the other aspects I was referring to a single piece of music, this aspect, music design, generally deals with several pieces of music. When working with compositions from a larger project that has many parts, (as is the case with video games, (or theater, or opera)), it is very useful to have a more global vision of the whole work before starting. And what good is that? It mainly helps to create a sense of unity, where the elements refer to each other, not only musically but also in relation to the graphic presentantion (or scene), the plot, and the main game mechanics.
On the other hand, it helps to organize the work. The fact of knowing where each piece of music goes (even if it is approximate, because we know that we are going to have to modify something) generates tranquility and when working gives space to focus on the details of each piece. The organization also helps a lot to compose faster, a very precious resource when composing for media.
In a way, music design is linked to the principle of incidental music. However, we are not talking about the name given to it, but rather a part of the process.
In this article I talk about a little more of what elements are important when composing music for videogames.
Implementation: The way all the music is going to be integrated into the game. This is a collaborative work between programmers, the composer and the sound designer.
At this time the different pieces are tested to see if they work properly: The zones where it is activated, if the tracks are trigger correctly, if the SFXs don't interfere with the music and vice versa, if the live effects don't interfere or accumulate, if the music doesn't interfere with the dialogs, general volumes. At this stage you will see all the material working together.
It also falls into this category how the files will be named. The nomenclature to use should be available in the project's GDD. The more audios, the more care and attention should be given to the way the files are identified. So that it is easier and faster to integrate.
So, in summary:
Aspects or sections of the composition process:
Also, if it is for media or works that contemplate other arts:
Everything together and in ideal order would be:
How to work with the aspects
Depending on the work, these different aspects can be given in a consecutive or discontinuous way: go through each aspect in an orderly manner, or jump from one to another.
And also these aspects can be taken in a complete or fractioned way: completing each aspect and not returning to it; or completing each one little by little and finishing them gradually. (The latter is much more common than the former, because art)
The important thing with these divisions is to generate the mental space to focus on one task at a time. In this way you work more concentrated, with less mistakes and therefore faster; aaaand... more motivated, because you see how the work grows. In other words, the reward of all your time and effort expended.
In conclusion, composition is a living process, each musical work has its own way: perhaps one aspect is longer than another, perhaps in a certain work one aspect is more bearable than another. The variations are as wide as the unique characteristics of each project, and the creativity, experience and sensitivity of the composer. Does all this mean that there is no method? Well, there are no absolute rules, but there are generalities that allow us to make an scheme, in order to facilitate learning and to order the work. Everything written here so far is taken from my own experience as a composer. I have used this scheme and variants of it in the search to face different compositional processes.
The fact of having a general structure to hold on to is very valuable, especially in learning and teaching. I emphasize this because to a great extent composition is still seen as a mystical area, where only a few have access and which is very difficult to learn. However, I do not believe that it is divine inspiration that comes down to the composer's mind and then the work comes out. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is dedication to the craft, it is a bit of method (which in the end, is particular to each one), it is sitting down to write every day, it is trial and error. Just observing the notes and drafts of the great masters is enough to get an idea of the amount of work involved.
Don't get me wrong, the whole process and result is magical, but to do magic you have to practice the spell many times.
Spanish Version of the article
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Here I will write articles and everything that has to do with game audio. From my experiences to reviews of games with interesting audio systems.