Games Business

Video Game Composer Guide: How To Become A Video Game Composer

Photograph of the blog post author, Laura Murphy

Laura Murphy

24.5.2021

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Chances are you stumbled upon us here at Music Gateway due to your love of music. Lo and behold, to your amazement you discover that we also cover aspects of the gaming industry. The two industries work simultaneously to produce unforgettable experiences for gamers, viewers and listeners alike. Much of this is due to a game’s soundtrack or score, and therefore the role of video game composer is essential.

game controller on piano video game music composer

Games can feature soundtracks compiled of pre-released songs, such as the Fallout franchise, commissioned tracks. Or perhaps even entire scores composed specifically for a game’s release. The latter is the responsibility and honour of a video game composer. 

This is the role we will be delving into in this article. What is a video game composer, how to find a video game composer career and what you need to do in order to strive as a video game composer. Stay tuned until the very end so you don’t miss out on any key information!

Let’s begin with discussing what a video game composer really is.

What Is A Video Game Composer?

video game music composer recording music

Music composers compose music. Simple. But what is a video game composer specifically?

A video game composer is the person (or people) behind the music of a game. They are responsible for perfectly matching melody and sound with on-screen visuals

It is arguably one of the most crucial roles in the game design process due to the significance of aural communication for gamers while playing. Have you ever sat up late playing something with the volume on low? Or perhaps had the television muted for some reason? It’s just not the same. No noise, no sound effects, no music. No emotional satisfaction.

Game composers cultivate and generate the appropriate emotions to ensure gamers experience the game as intended by the designers and storytellers.

They compose melodies for specific characters, locations, battles, trials and rewards, often with a motif running through the entire soundtrack. Specific sounds we come to learn and love indicate particular moments in the story.

Whether you’re listening subconsciously or you’re downloading the score on Spotify to listen offline, the music of a game augments your overall experience. Some games have prospered due to a single track, like the main theme for Fallout 4 by Inon Zur. As a fellow gamer, you can’t tell us you’ve never heard that masterpiece. 

What Does A Video Game Composer Do?

Just like no one can predict what a game designer will cook up when conceiving an idea for a video game, no one can tell what a video game music composer is feeling when attempting to express the emotions of a game. It’s more than just composing happy or sad melodies.

Let’s explore some of what’s involved in in-game music composition. We’ll take look at the responsibilities that come with the role by placing you in their shoes.

Understand The Assignment 

As a video game composer, it is of the utmost importance that you understand the assignment correctly. In order to do so, you must play the game you have been assigned to.

Skipping this step would be like writing a book report without reading the book. You would be taking a stab in the dark and it would most likely be an unsuccessful endeavor; as well as a waste of time. 

But we don’t suppose playing the game first should be a problem for any of you gamers out there. If anything, it is an interesting and honourable experience. Playing a game in its early stages and having to come up with the sounds and atmosphere that you personally feel would fit the bill. 

Research

headphones on a stand with a computer

Furthermore, to capture the essence of a game’s atmosphere you must do your research. Take into account the in-game locations and their cultural associations, ethnicities, traditions and musical style. By this we mean understanding the difference between music suited to a game set in Ancient Greece.

Like Assassins Creed Odyssey for example, or one set in outer space, like No Man’s Sky. We have a few examples coming up so have YouTube open and ready while reading this next section. Trust us, they will be worth the listen.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

The score to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, brilliantly composed by duo The Flight, takes on a daring, mischievous tone.  They utilized lyres, harps, bouzoukis, and other specifically Greek instruments akin to those used in Ancient Greece. They also featured vocalizing, the practice of singing without words. 

The Flight understood intonation and allowed the soundtrack to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey stand out from its predecessors. Although let’s face it, every Assassin’s Creed score so far has featured an incredible score.

This one in particular features an historical and almost regal undertone that permeates the game throughout, from battles to discoveries, upgrading and even the pause menu. Take a listen to the main theme ‘Legend of The Eagle Bearer’ and you’ll know exactly what we mean. 

No Man’s Sky

In comparison to The Flight, 65daysofstatic allows gamers to experience the magical and mystifying nature of outer space through the No Man’s Sky score simply through sound. As an example, the beginning of the track ‘Outlier’ embodies the intensity of the Big Bang.

It includes shocking clangs and crashes using a synthesizer and a mixture of high and low notes on a piano. With headphones on this track can be quite overwhelming. In the best possible way.

The second half of the track develops into what we imagine to be the sound of a meteor shower up close. Artistically, 65daysofstatic managed to show the contrast between the Big Bang and the beginning of life in the galaxy. High notes in quick succession delicately played encapsulates the sounds of shooting stars.

Close your eyes and listen, we promise you it will feel like you’re standing in the blackness of space surrounded by infinite stars whirling right past you. And just think, the whole of the soundtrack sounds like this, not just ‘Outlier’. Incredible!

No Man’s Sky currently stands as one of the largest open-world games on the market at the moment. It has a seemingly ever-evolving layout and updates galore from developer’s Hello Games. So it’s no wonder 65daysofstatic tried (and succeeded) to compose a soundtrack that felt and sounded as vast and impressive as the game itself. 

Engage

video game music producer DAW

You have to complete your research and explore the cultural, ethnic and musical backgrounds of the game you are working on. After this, it’s time to figure out how to ensure players will engage with the music.

When composing a soundtrack, the music of a particular cutscene, a battle or just general exploration must encapsulate exactly what the gamer is feeling in that moment; even before they know what they are feeling themselves.

Create a motif or a signature sound that will appear in most if not all tracks throughout the game. This will keep players engaged since familiarity is always welcome in new experiences. 

Music is there to guide us toward the intended emotion. It helps build anticipation, settle nerves and encourage curiosity. It’s incredible how game composers manage to unapologetically take advantage of our senses. They do this simply with just a handful of notes in a few different arrangements.

Compose

music composer writing music

Firstly, you have to choose your instruments, motifs, main keys and any other aspects you think necessary. Then, it’s time to begin composing your soundtrack. It’s as simple as putting pen to paper. If you like to work traditionally, or starting up your music production software.

Make a list of what needs to be made, meaning main theme, title screen, pause menu, character theme(s), location(s) and so on. Of course some games will have more than others, some less. The Sims 4, for example, has fewer musical tracks than Assassin’s Creed Odyssey or No Man’s Sky. Yet, composer Ilan Eshkeri expressed the simplicity and easy-going nature of it perfectly.

When composing, you will not only be writing the music, be it sheet music or through digital software, you will also be mixing, remixing, demoing, and testing different melodies and variations.

Have a trusted friend or colleague nearby to bounce your ideas off. You could describe the cutscene or setting before playing them a snippet of your track and see if they feel the intended emotion and understand what you are trying to convey through the music.

Like all other aspects of the game design process, the music composition will take trial and error before you produce the perfect soundtrack or score. But we can assure you, it’s totally worth it.

How To Become A Video Game Composer

There are plenty of opportunities for people who love gaming and music to make a name for themselves in the industry. You can go down the formal route and do a university course and gain access to an internship, or you can go freelance and put your talent for making music to good use.

Let’s discuss how to become a video game music composer with and without qualifications. 

What Qualifications Do You Need To Be A Video Game Composer?

headphones with laptop recording a composition

Most companies looking to hire a video game composer do not specify any particular qualifications but do look for people who have graduated with a music-related degree.

When thinking about third-level education, consider undergraduate courses in music, music production, digital music and sound arts, creative music technology, digital music technology and others in a similar vein. 

These provide a backbone for working in music production, including where it intersects with the gaming industry. If you want to further your studies, you could do a postgraduate or masters degree, specialising in a particular area, or you could seek an internship with a gaming company.

It would also be beneficial to know how to play one or more instruments when applying seeking a video game composer career. Of course there are some people who have an ear for music and perfect pitch without a talent for singing or playing musical instruments.

This does not make them any less accomplished in the field. But if you are skilled in the guitar or piano, or even the recorder, make sure to promote this when approaching potential employers. 

How To Become A Video Game Composer Without Qualifications

producer working at a mixing desk

If you’re worried you won’t be able access the music side of the gaming industry without any particular qualifications, don’t be. You can, but you’ll need a few qualities and attributes worth noting to help you along the way. 

Determination and a willingness to adapt to any job will have companies look favourably upon you. You can’t expect to be approached by Naughty Dog to write the music for the rumoured Uncharted 5 game or be accepted into a role that requires 5+ years in the industry. You will have to start smaller, even if it means starting outside the gaming industry

Look for gigs writing jingles for commercials, sheet music for music schools, soundtracks for friends of yours who are into game design. Indie mobile phone games have become a huge part of the gaming industry, and many seek lesser-known game composers to keep production costs down. 

Kevin Penkin wrote the music for Florence, a romantic short interactive story released on iOS and Android in 2018. Later added to Nintendo Switch, Windows and Mac in 2020, Florence has the most spectacular, dreamy soundtrack we just happened to stumble upon one day. That could be you!

Accept anything that will get your name out there so that you have tangible examples to reference when you do land an opportunity with a gaming company. 

Music Software

While you may not want to or have the means to attend university specifically to study music production, there’s nothing stopping you from playing around with music production software at home and learning the ropes on your own.

We are living in the digital age after all, there are countless tutorials on YouTube and guides online to facilitate self-teaching. 

If you’re willing to pay for software, consider your budget first before diving right in. Ableton Live and Avid Pro Tools are just two examples of music production software that are compatible with both Mac and Windows. Some software works with Mac products only, others with Windows only.

Make sure to check the compatibility of your chosen software before committing, particularly when money is involved. If you’re not 100% sure and forking out tonnes of cash seems gratuitous, many of these software platforms offer 7-day or 30-day free trials.

Where To Find Video Game Composer Jobs?

music composer recording music

Like so many other roles in the gaming industry, you’ll have to put in the effort and search for video game music composer jobs. You might be lucky enough to land an internship somewhere, but sometimes it’s not as simple as that.

Scour job posting sites like Indeed and LinkedIn for roles with ‘video game composer’ in the title, or a similar variation of that. 

Don’t be afraid to apply for these even if they say experience is preferred. That’s only a preference, not a requirement. You might get lucky! After all, if you haven’t applied, you don’t stand a chance. You may as well give it a shot, they might appreciate your enthusiasm and courage. 

Network, network, network. If you have any friends, family, or estranged classmates you haven’t spoken to in years working in either the music or gaming industry, reach out to them.

Ask if anyone has any work opportunities coming up or if they know of an opening somewhere. They might know someone who knows someone who knows someone. You know how it goes! 

Connections are paramount when starting your video game composer career. Don’t be afraid to be upfront about what you’re asking. In fact, they will most likely respect you for this rather than finding out later you had an agenda all along.

Build and maintain these relationships as they may come in handy further down the line.

Video Game Composer Salary

person counting money

The salary of a video game music composer can depend on many factors including your experience and your employer. The level of experience you carry when commissioned for a project will often determine your starting salary or the amount you earn per job depending on the terms of your contract or work agreement. 

If you are new in the industry you can’t expect to be making the same amount as Dan Romer (Far Cry 5) or Hajime Wakai (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild). But anything is a good start. 

Salary can range depending on where you are in the world and for whom. In the UK, a game composer’s income can range from less than £20K to over £60 with an average of £25K. In the USA, hired composers working for a company earn around $80K a year, while freelancers earn on average $60K. 

No matter where you are, if you are working freelance keep in mind these salary approximations refer to those who have steady and constant work. Freelancing does come with the added risk of lack of employment so always keep an eye out for new opportunities if you want to go down this route. 

That Was Our Guide On Video Game Composers

artist making music on computer

So that was our guide on how to become a video game music composer. We hope it has opened your eyes to the potential that lies beyond your front door. Whether you want to go down the academic route and get a degree in music production or a related field, or you want to attempt it on your own, what’s stopping you? 

The musical aspect of a game’s design process really is one of the most important aspects and is often underrated or underappreciated. The ability to create an uplifting atmosphere or a devastating tragedy simply through different sound variations is something we are constantly in awe of.

Show us what you’re made of so that we can be in awe of your work too. We look forward to hearing what you come up with! 

If you liked this article, why not check out another on our blog! We recommend, Game Designer Guide: How To Become A Video Game Designer, Esports Team: Our Guide On How To Make An eSports Team, and What Musicians Can Learn From The Video Game Industry to get you started!

Are You In The Gaming Industry?

Want to read more about the gaming industry? Then check out our blogGame publishers and developers, what can we do for you? Our incredible music licensing service can help you streamline the way you license high-quality music and commission original compositions for your gameplay, apps and advertising campaigns including YouTube and social media.

Also, with our Showcase page, you can flaunt your character design skills, show your creativity in level design, and show off your ability to design a fun, polished game. You can also showcase your work, list your upcoming games and allow fans to pre-order or buy them! Try all of this out for yourself by joining Music Gateway. Get your 14-day free trial, no strings attached.

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