Developing Your Unique Style

How to develop your unique style as a video game music composer.



Developing Your Unique Style

One of the most challenging aspect of aspiring to become a video game music composer is that of finding your own style. The usual advise is for the aspiring composer to start exploring different genres and styles to "steal from" and, through a process of mixing and matching, experimenting and finding one's voice. That should certainly be followed through, however, I'd say that, perhaps, passion is the first principle here. So, what would the composer be personally passionate about when making music? Let's explore this idea.

Passion can mean many different things in the context of the video game music world, for instance, it may be the specific genres that the composer likes the most, which may include a subset of emotional tones that he's more personally inclined to choose in most situations, such as happy, uplifting, and majestic emotional tones, alternatively, it may be the particular music instruments or sound design techniques the composer likes the most.

The first aspect that is important when finding your own style then is to know what's your primary strengths. It may not be what the composer would like to do next, but what he has been doing for the most of his time as a composer, which is probably a strong indicative of musical elements that he's been passionate about anyway.

It's a very common trap for the aspiring composer to want to learn too many things at a very little span of time, and unfortunately, music composition is not an easy art to master, it takes considerable time, discipline, energy, focus and deep immersion in what you're doing.

Let me use myself as an example. What I "would like to do next" is to become good at classical orchestration, also, to become a good piano / keyboard player, as well as someone that is somewhat close Nobuo Uematsu's skillset (as much as everyone else that is fond of the JRPG genre), but what have I been actually up to? I've been a no music theory and music sheet reader fan, and a rock / heavy metal drummer and guitar player (as I've been playing in rock / metal bands on and off), which is not necessarily an "inferior" music background but maybe not really the most adequate one.

The result of me trying to be the best composer of rock / metal as well as classical orchestral music at the same time is that I've ended up making mediocre to reasonably good orchestral music and "good enough" rock / metal music (instead of the best stuff of it), which didn't reflect well what I wanted in terms of sales and work opportunity.

So, does it mean that I should've given up on my dream of becoming a competent orchestrator and JRPG composer? Not at all! But If I want to become a professional video game music composer (and we need to define what does that mean in later posts), it's probably best that I should be playing on my strengths first while focusing on one thing at a time.

That being said I decided to enroll in a music college so that I can be forced to suffer able to properly learn and master the fundamentals (and the advanced knowledge) of music theory, music reading, aural skills, etc. I also hired a private guitar teacher to get my guitar skills and knowledge to the very next level, while also shopping some great composition courses on the Udemy platform.

I also organized my VSTs (virtual instruments plugins) in order to compose one style at a time and created a roadmap to study and practice both the fundamentals of music theory, music composition and music production. Meanwhile, I also decided to keep working on commercial video game music that I already know how to do on a competent level (instead of trying things I can't really handle very well yet).

With all of that experience I learned that we, as aspiring video game composers, need restriction and limitation for at least the first few years while we're trying to tackle all of it and finally work and earn as a VGM composer. So, to connect those perceptions with the question of finding your own style, that basically means we need to work with our sense of self-knowledge, focus and mastering the fundamentals of our craft, which basically entails being competent at what we're already naturally passionate about in terms of music composition.

In my case, just to illustrate it better, that means I need to:

1. Get to the advanced level of rock / metal style.
2. Master the fundamentals of music theory, composition and production.
3. Develop and follow through a roadmap of orchestration and the JRPG style.

Which is a direct consequence of:

1. Having worked on self-knowledge (knowing what I'm already good at and what I want to be good at next).
2. Working with restriction and limitations (seeking to cover all the necessary study and training to develop myself in the fundamentals of the video game music composition career).
3. Focusing on fewer goals at a time (becoming advanced with my strongest skills and creating a plan to achieve what I'm weak and unexperienced but actually want improve).

To sum it up:

When trying to find your own style, the first steps would be to know what you're good at, so that you can actually do some work and be paid for it already, while improving it faster to the next level (which is the strongest factor that'll decide the quality of your work and the probability of your success), all of that while paving the way in a clear and focused direction of where you want to go to next.

Also, if you're a blank slate and don't even know or have a particular style you're already decent at, then just follow through your passion, start exploring your strongest urges in the moment, and, remember, music is infinite, so even when we're trying to answer such questions as to how to find our own style in music that'll actually take us into different questions, answers, and directions to go exploring.

So, remember, you need passion, self-knowledge, focus and a desire to actually learn and master the fundamentals. At least that has been my experience as to what has been responsible for some of my success as a video game music composer so far.

Now let's go back to the beginning and talk about the more common advise to go explore other genres and styles in music.

Passion, Self-Knowledge, Focus and the Fundamentals

Exploration, Experimentation & Synthesis

The first music instrument that I learned was one that is involved with the most primitive element in music, which is rhythm. I started practicing very easy rock songs while trying to nail down how to handle my hands and feet simultaneously, which is quite a challenge for beginners! Eventually I learned the basic technique and the most typical drum fills. I was already able to play basic rock songs in amateur rock bands at this point, however, I felt generic, a huge deal generic to be honest, that's when it recurred to me: I needed to get out of my hobbit village!

I was a big fan of a jrock (japanese rock) band called "Dir en Grey" which is among a number of attempts to classify it: visual kei, experimental, extreme metal, alternative metal, avant-garde, etc. To say in a few words, it's a very unique, authentic and original band to the point that people have a very hard time classifying it. In the case of its drummer, Shinya, he's also a very talented and unique drummer, so much so that I learned for the first time that it was possible to create grooves making a polyrhythm mixing the hi-hat, ride cymbals and the tom drums intermittently!

I remember taking the trouble to learn some of his most iconic drum grooves and drum fills and that kinda instantly made me one of the unique and authentic drummers in the small town where I live, because I would mix and match elements from traditional western rock and metal bands such as Nirvana and Iron Maiden with eastern jrock bands such as Dir en Grey and The Gazette in my playstyle.

The first element in this process of finding your own original musical voice is the actual exploration of other music styles, and to connect the dots with the first part of this post, to do that among the styles and genres that you're actually passionate about. But I wouldn't say that it stops in there, since I'm still in the middle of the journey I'd say that what is lacking to me now is to step out of my comfort zone. I also need to force myself to explore other music styles and genres I'm not really quite fond of yet.

There are elements of music exploration that should happen in the passionate zone and outside of it as well, because, well, to simply put it, it's just never enough, you can always be better than what you currently are.

Speaking of comfort zone, another process that is a bit of a heavy lifting is the intermediate work you should be doing after all the exploration, which is actual experimentation. Going back to my drums journey it took me quite a while to figure out how I'd put the jrock fills and grooves in my own original music, which, without wanting to go to deep into this, that's when you have to get your hands dirty - the moment where you need to sit in your instrument and play with all the music material you gathered.

Let's simplify, if you're in the world of music composition for a while you'll perhaps know already that in order to sound jazzy it would be almost mandatory for you to start using those 7th chords in your chord progressions, but say that you want to mix some 9th chords as well, in this case, you'd be playing with the Major 7th (Strangeness), and the Compound Seventh 14th (Tension & Dissonance) with those chords.

The knowledge and experience with the different music styles and genres you would've explored already would give you a foundational start for your experimentations, perhaps then you may be able to create unique musical habits of your own and start forming your own musical signature in there.