Video game music was one of my earliest musical loves.
I can recall spending many a halcyon day as a pilot of the Terran Confederation fighting the Kilrathi. As the gripping Wing Commander soundtrack by George “The Fat Man” Sanger and Dave Govett roared from my speakers, I realized that games could be as enjoyable to listen to as they were to play, and that when done skilfully, they could be as compelling an experience as any film or TV show.
As my tastes in video games expanded beyond the PC, my friends knew that the way to my heart was through my ears.
“David, you’ve gotta try this game. You’ll love the music.”
“This game” was Final Fantasy V, and I I easily lost count of how many hours I spent listening to the soundtrack on loop (oh, and playing the game, too).
At around the same time, a young me was developing an interest in composition, with a particular taste for music to accompany a narrative. This quickly translated into taking an interest in scoring video games.
In the years that followed, I was commissioned by the players of a certain online RPG to write very real music for their virtual game world (including in-game anthems, event music, and more!), as well as working on a few indie game projects. Meanwhile, I put my scholarly background to use in chronicling the history and practice of video game music (even presenting my work at an academic conference a decade ago!).
Today, we will go Inside the Federmusik of the newly-released mobile game, Brawlstar Legends, a 2-on-2 MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) developed by Gazia Games, available now* for iOS and Android.
Each of the four players in this game is in control of a hero. Both sides are home to three towers (or, to be specific, two towers on either side of a central core, referred to as a “nexus” in game parlance). Supported by computer-controlled waves of minions, your objective is to destroy the opposing team’s towers while defending your own. The team that destroys more towers by the time the 3-minute brawl is over (or the first team to destroy the opponent’s three towers) is the winner.
The (Brawl)Stars Align
An old friend of mine from my undergrad days at the University of Toronto had become a game developer and software engineer, and had recently joined a new game studio in Singapore. He reached out to me earlier this year and explained that they were searching for a composer for their upcoming game, and that he was keen to put me forward.
An audition process followed in late March, with me entering the musical arena to, quite literally, do battle — that is, to write the first minute of a prospective battle track for this game, in accordance with the team’s stylistic and musical desires as detailed in a design brief.
The team’s weapons of choice? Full orchestra.
Blades out and following through with every swing, I made short work of my assignment. After the dust had settled, I happily accepted the commission and began work immediately. The team held me to a fairly aggressive schedule of demos and revisions as we worked (and reworked) through the tracks in my work docket.
Music to Brawl By
The team indicated that they wanted an orchestral sound, but not to the extent that live players were required. In other words, my task was to write MIDI orchestral mockups, but to temper them to about a degree or two below pure realism, bearing in mind that the intended audience would be experiencing this music on their phones and that some nuance would be lost. That said, even though the production was only realistic-ish, I maintained my sense of orchestral idiomatic writing, so this music is perfectly playable (y’know, in case there just so happen to be any video game orchestral concert producers listening… 😉 ).
The soundtrack features music for three battle sequences, two loops for the menu screen, a loop for the pre- and post-battle loading and scoreboard, and a handful of flourishes and stings. In this blog post, I will detail the tracks I wrote for the battles and the menu screen.
The Three Brawls
I was asked to create three standalone battle (or “Brawl”) tracks, without any explicitly shared themes or motifs (so, by design, there isn’t an overarching “Brawlstar Legends Theme”).
Each of the Brawl tracks is designed to get the player in the mood to march into combat and vanquish their opponents. The dev team requested that while the music should build through the sequence, it should also remain at a relatively moderate level of intensity throughout, so as not to exhaust the players. Rather than limiting myself to only one theme and a set of variations per track, the team challenged me to vary my melodic material several times over the span of each level to keep things interesting.
Each track bears a similar martial character so that each one can be encountered randomly in any given brawl without the feeling that any one battle is necessarily more significant than any other (for example, there are no explicit “boss battles” in this game). This similarity is largely accomplished through orchestration: melodies and countermelodies are mainly traded between horns and trumpets (and occasionally violins), the lower brass and strings provide chordal and textural support, the woodwinds largely provide exciting flourishes (or “ear candy,” to use a technical term), the percussion provides a strong martial timbre, and the sparkle of the harp and dulcimer offers a nod to the fantasy setting. Even so, each of the three brawl tracks assumes a slightly different flavour.
You might not pick out some of these details while in the midst of brawling (and honestly, you should be concentrating on the battle at hand!), so here is a little musical behind-the-scenes look at some of the tunes.
(…and yes, for my fellow early music nerds, the title of this section was a reference to Susato’s The Four Brawls (Les Quatre Bransles). No, I am not sorry.)
My audition piece formed the basis of Brawl 1. As I intended to capture more of the heroic, adventurous side of the game, this track offers more in the way of sweeping melodies shared among the horns, violins, and trumpets than you may find in the other two brawls. At the time of writing, you will hear this track featured in the tutorial (as well as later in the live arena).
If nothing else, the team requested that my battle themes be catchy. To me, the best way to do that is to make sure that the melodies are singable, within a certain range, and not too difficult. For the A-theme of my first Brawl track, I wanted to hit the team right away with something that fulfilled all of these points. The melody, underpinned by a harmonic progression outlining the E Dorian mode, plays out in an ABAC form before launching into the B-theme.
The B-theme serves as a softer bridge, building between bouts of bombast, and is meant to carry the player into the second minute of gameplay. Harmonically, we shift from a Dorian progression to an Aeolian approach in each of the four miniature phrases; we don’t stray from the tonic mode of E Dorian, but rather attack it from a different angle, much like how the combatants might change up their approach to their opponents at this point in the game. The rhythm of the accompaniment switches in this section to a pattern that urges the fighters on while the melody arcs overhead.
After a brief interlude to expand upon and conclude the B-theme, we next present a C-theme to keep things fresh. We return to more of a literal tonal centre of E Dorian, but cadencing the miniature phrases in E major for a more heroic sound, mirroring the progression of the characters by this time in the round. We also introduce triplet figures in the accompaniment while the melody remains in duple meter, to add a little spring in your step as you unlock and unleash your final powers. This eventually leads into a final heroic restatement of the A-theme in F# Dorian.
Brawl 2 is a bit darker in character and features more of a musical duel between the horns and trumpets, trading melodic phrases fairly evenly as they battle each other through a series of several key changes. While there aren’t meant to be any explicit repetitions of motifs, I maintain a sense of overall continuity with Brawl 1 by constructing the melody and its underlying harmonic structure largely in the Dorian mode (albeit in C Dorian this time, rather than E).
We open with a full statement of the theme in the horns, which is then answered in full by the trumpets sounding their own melodic variation (based melodically on the third instance of the motif). For rhythmic interest, I begin with the snare maintaining a triplet rhythm underneath the horns’ duple-meter melody. When the trumpets answer, the snare switches to a quicker duple-meter pattern, which has the effect of stepping up the intensity.
The B-theme increases the frequency of interplay between the horns and trumpets; whereas the A-section begins with full statements of the theme, the B-section sees them trading shots one short phase at a time (one such example is shown above). Harmonically, led by the trumpets’ answer at the end of the A section, we venture from the safe confines of C Dorian and begin to destabilize, modulating into E-flat Dorian and A Dorian. This presents the ear with a bit of a challenge, to mirror the increased difficulty level that the players are undoubtedly facing at this point.
A brash, forceful statement of the C-theme sounds in the horns, roughly timed to coincide with the point in the round when players are unlocking their final, most potent powers (known commonly as their “ultimates”) and are likely unleashing them on their opponents for the first time. Harmonically, the modulation at the end of the B-section sets up a transition to E minor and B minor (by way of E Dorian), which are fairly remote tonal centres compared to the home key of C Dorian. This subconsciously adds to the stress and excitement that the halfway point of the brawl is heir to.
A full statement of the C-theme by the trumpets leads to a return of the trumpets’ melodic variant of the A-theme in the now-familiar harmonic territory of E Dorian. The horns and trumpets join forces and finish the battle in octaves with a restatement of the C-theme in F# Dorian.
By the time I had the first two battle themes under my belt, I felt I could afford to be more musically adventurous. Brawl 3 is set in the odd time signature of 7/8 time, giving an uneven feel to keep the players on edge. In addition, I vary the divisions of 2s and 3s between sections to keep the listeners on their toes. Similar to Brawl 2, I explore the various themes and motifs in several different key areas, creating tension section by section by deliberately modulating upward by steps of varying sizes as I take the ear on a journey to relatively remote places.
The horns take the lead in this musical expedition for the first half of the piece, stating the first three themes in order. The A-theme begins in the mode of A Aeolian (essentially the “natural minor” scale), with a healthy helping of Dorian mode mixed in for melodic interest. The alternation between Aeolian and Dorian every couple measures sets up a regular pattern of tension and release to mirror the ebb and flow of gameplay. As this theme ends, I introduce larger, deeper drums to increase the intensity as we head into the B-theme.
A few seconds before the combatants’ secondary powers are unlocked, we modulate immediately up a minor third to the key of C, also with an alternating Aeolian and Dorian harmonic structure, for the B-theme. Particularly in this section, this alternation between modes serves as a harmonic call-and-response, with each short phrase’s tense Aeolian opening being answered by a heroic Dorian ending.
With little warning, we step up to the key of D, again switching between Aeolian and Dorian to maintain harmonic continuity. In this section, I felt that keeping the harmonic pattern that we have become accustomed to by now was imperative because we immediately reverse the rhythmic pattern from 2-2-3 to 3-2-2.
In the second half of the piece, the trumpets take over the melodic lead while the horns provide countermelodic support. We modulate up a minor third to the tonal centre of of F (Aeolian and Dorian) as the trumpets answer the horns’ previous statement of the C-theme with one of their own. This finishes with taking us up another minor third to A-flat (Aeolian and Dorian), which is pretty much as far tonally as you can get from our starting point of A, for the trumpets’ first statement of the B-theme. An interlude follows to modulate us upward again, this time to B (Aeolian and Dorian), for an aggressive repetition of the B-theme, made even more so by being doubled by a trombone in its own octave for added depth. The horns and trumpets resolve their differences in the end and finish strong together with final statements of the A-theme in the key areas of D (up a minor third) and F# (up a major third).
The End is Near!
An advertisement for the game, featuring the brawl-ending music.
With 30 seconds remaining, a “hurry up” track takes over (which you can hear in this ad for the game). The intensity ramps up immediately, signalling players that they are quickly running out of time to make their final plays, crush through the last waves of minions, and pull off that last shot to destroy that final tower.
In order to create musical interest among the three Brawl tracks, I had decided to write them each in different keys and take them on wildly different harmonic journeys. Yet, my challenge for the End Music was to make a coda that was musically compatible, regardless of which track was playing during the battle. My solution, as you may have noticed, was to conclude each of the three Brawls in the same key.
The driving force during these final 30 seconds of play is a rapid string ostinato over counter-rhythms played by the percussion and lower brass, while the horns and trumpets build tension with an ascending line.
In the event that the battle has not yet been won by the time the counter runs out, a minute of sudden-death overtime play ensues. The developers asked that this track be written with a little more swagger, like a chanting crowd clamouring for you to strike the final killing-blow. This track is slower in tempo than either the brawl tracks or the end music.
The lower brass, lower strings, and percussion set the mood and the groove. The horns and trumpets each exchange a statement of the Sudden Death theme, then engage in a rapid trading of shots and licks, as if calling each other out, while the violins and percussion goad them on. With 10 seconds remaining, the horns and trumpets join forces and finish in unison; if you survive until the end of sudden death overtime, the battle results in a draw.
After each battle, you return to the menu, or “hub,” where you can select your champion for your next brawl, invest in upgrading your collection of heroes and spells, purchase items, and so on. The two tracks I wrote for this portion of the game maintain the overall heroic character and adventurous spirit of the game, while being much lower in intensity than the Brawl tracks, reflecting the non-combat nature of this section of play.
The team tasked me to create melodies for this part of the game that were different from those of the Brawl tracks (so again, by design, there was no overarching “Brawlstar Legends Theme” requested). Additionally, as the amount of time a player will spend between battles is not definite (compared to the battle sequences, which are of a fixed duration), the team requested that I write these menu tracks to be loopable.
The easiest way to make a looping track that is intended to be essentially background is to restrain harmonic and melodic motion — essentially, to not move very much. However, one of the greatest dangers of looping is engendering a feeling of annoyance or boredom through repetition. As such, I was challenged to keep things musically interesting. I threw out every rule about being innocuous that I had ever learned and let my musical imagination run wild (within reason, of course), painting with modal mixture, an array of harmonic modulations, and melodies that were alternately meandering and sweeping.
One thing was for certain, for both of the Hub tracks: I had to plan my harmonic strategy to allow me to take the listener on a musical journey and coherently return to the same key area as I started in, all within 90 seconds, without thrilling action or sound effects to cover me.
No problem, right?
For the first of the Hub tracks, I wanted to express the notion of the hero’s heart: a sense of warmth, but boldness; adventure, but home.
I planned this track out in three sections, each one slightly different in character and centring around different key areas.
A shimmer of strings welcomes you to the main screen, and a melody begins in the horns, calling you to adventure. I introduce a little mystery as we furtively step away from our tonal centre of C major and then return back again before taking the leap into the harmonic unknown.
In general, I chose to have the melody outline or highlight the chord or key area of the moment, in order to introduce the concept that we will be exploring different key areas, but also to keep the ear stabilized. I make liberal use of common-tone modulations to smooth the transitions from one chord to the next, as if we are venturing forth one step at a time.
The melody in the horns is supported by the trombones providing a chorale-style chordal texture, with occasional pulses of their own for interest. The main rhythmic support in this section is provided by the pulsating lower strings.
The trumpets, doubled by the harp, present a new melody, pivoting into the key A major. We embrace the adventurer’s wanderlust, though — in musical terms, this means not staying in one tonal centre for more than a bar or two. I change the texture of the accompaniment in this section as well: to start, there is less of a palpable pulse, with the trumpets’ melody supported mainly by long, sustained chords, to give a sudden feeling of weightlessness. I softly and subtly introduce a barely-there snare to give just the slightest pulse in the second half of this section to ground us as we head into the final portion.
The horns, doubled by the violins, present another new melody as we round the corner into the third act of this track. This section represents the hero’s strength, beginning with a more stable tonal centre of D, making healthy use of the Mixolydian mode for the impression of depth (before mixing modes and setting up and exploring other key areas one last time). The trombone choir presents its chordal support like a fanfare for a hero’s welcome, and the pulsating lower strings from the A-section return to create continuity for the loop point.
Once I had successfully figured out how to do the kind of looping menu track that the team wanted, all I had to do was replicate the pattern and do it again.
(Yeah, right. As if the team would let me get away with that!)
I wanted to explore a more martial tone in the second Hub track, yet remain relatively restrained and subdued, as if building a quiet anticipation for the battle to come. While some elements of this track are shared with Hub 1 (such as starting in the same key), I took the opportunity to explore different harmonic and textural approaches.
I chose to restrict myself harmonically; we end up modulating a fair amount, but we keep more solid tonal centres for longer. This musical tactic enabled me to construct my melodies in shorter, similar phrases, interspersed between bouts of accompaniment, as opposed to a longer, through-composed line; that it sounds more deliberate and planned represents the strategic side of the game.
I introduce the melody in the trumpet, supported by a horn choir, while the snare drum, bassoon, harp, and lower strings mark time. Similar to Hub 1, I built my melody to highlight the shifting harmonic landscape, opting to guide the audience on our adventure rather than disorient them. That said, I make use of the trumpet’s characteristic nature to phrase the melody more like a series of bugle calls.
I use a more steady pulse throughout this track, making use of pedal points — where the bass stays on the same note while harmonies shift above to create a built-in pattern of tension and release. In other words, the battle is on the horizon, and it’s up to you to steel yourself for it. Yet, the tone overall remains hopeful and refrains from descending into gloom and despair; after all, you’re a hero — nay, a legend.
The A-section concludes with the pedal-point gently shifting up to E-flat to introduce the B-section. We hear a new melodic idea presented in the piccolo in its middle-low register (for a darker, more hollow sound). This is supported harmonically by similar Dorian-mode movement as we have in other tracks in this game, for a sense of continuity. We hear a new, faster pattern in the snare, and we thicken the texture by adding the trombone choir to the horns. The violins and trumpet take the piccolo’s idea and expand on it as we step through other key areas, ultimately returning to our home key of C.
My utmost gratitude goes out to the team at Gazia Games for allowing me to join them on this adventure!
That’s all for this episode of Inside the Federmusik. Have you tried the game yet? Let me know in the comments below. Until next time, see you in the arena! Happy Brawling!
*At the time of writing, the game is in open beta in Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Australia, Japan, and Canada.