Composing video game music to build suspense, part 3: creepy clusters

Winifred Phillips (video game music composer) working in her studio on the music of the Dragon Front video game.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to our five part discussion of the role that video game music can play in enhancing tension and promoting suspenseful gameplay!  These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, entitled Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense.  If you haven’t read the previous two articles, you’ll find them here:

So, now that we’ve discussed ominous atmospheres and jarring jolts, let’s look at the next technique in our arsenal:

The Creepy Cluster technique

From game composer Winifred Phillips' article on suspenseful game music - an illustration of the 'clusters' technique.As we know, tone clusters are collections of notes packed together to produce unnerving dissonant effects. While it might seem like any cat can walk across a piano and produce unpleasant clusters, well-executed dissonance is actually one of the trickiest techniques we can employ.  It’s tremendously potent when used with expert precision.

Why do human beings respond so intensely to dissonance? Professor Michael Epstein of Northeastern University’s Auditory Modeling and Processing Lab has devoted over 20 years of expert research into why certain sounds have the power to instantly incite and deepen fear in listeners.  He tells Boston Magazine that “common musical intervals, changed slightly to create dissonance, are immediately disconcerting.” According to Epstein, “very precise noises trigger human fear and discomfort.”

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Communication Tips for the Video Game Composer

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, working in her music studio.A successful career as a video game composer involves much more than our day-to-day challenges in our music studios. In addition to our role as music experts, we need to be well-rounded business people and great members of a creative team.  As a speaker in the audio track of the Game Developers Conference this year, I had a chance to take in a wide variety of GDC sessions, and I noticed how often teamwork was discussed.  Along the way, a common idea emerged from many of these talks — good communication is key. This is a concept that I explored in my book (A Composer’s Guide to Game Music), so I was delighted to see a further discussion of the issue at GDC this year.  Far from just a valuable personality asset, the ability to communicate well must be considered a top priority: as intrinsically valuable as rock-solid competency, awesome artistry or compelling vision. Good communication amongst team members can make or break the development of a game. As game audio pros, we share this in common with our coworkers in other segments of the game development community. However, it becomes especially important for us to focus and emphasize good communication when we’re working remotely as independent contractors. With that in mind, I thought I’d use this article to briefly highlight some GDC 2016 sessions in the game audio track that discussed this popular topic, so we can think about more ways to enhance and improve our communication skills.  And later we’ll discuss a practical example from my work on the music of the SimAnimals game from Electronic Arts.

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