#TheoryThursday: How Can Video Games Make You A Better Arranger?

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Can playing video games actually make you a better arranger? 

Video game music is often regarded as frivolous, but there are many lessons to be learned from actively listening.

Here are a few from the brilliance over at 8-bit Music Theory.

Let's begin with a little bit of orchestration.  

Oftentimes, most of what we call "arranging" is actually orchestration. Put simply, it's the orchestration that tells the various instruments/parts what to do. Arranging deals with higher altitude aspects such as harmonization, groove, meter, form, etc.

Orchestration Techniques in Banjo Kazooie

Re-orchestrating a section of a piece to serve a different function is a really effective tool towards keeping your piece interesting and engaging.  Check out how the orchestration of one of the main themes gets pared down to evoke a different feel whenever underwater.  

The 4 arrangements of "Click Clock Wood" beautifully illustrate how to reimagine a single piece of music many ways to create various moods.  This is a great way to think about arranging for different parts of a song.  A chorus (or refrain) typically has the same musical material from iteration to iteration within a song, and using this technique can provide some good inspiration for adding some variety to your arrangements!

Next, we'll hit a bit of functional harmony.

Vertically, harmony is the consonance or dissonance created by two or more notes being played or sung at the same time.  Horizontally, voice leading helps dictate where the notes "should" resolve.  Functional harmony is a kind of navigational system that shows the innate harmonic gravity of a piece.

Interesting Harmonic Choices in Sonic the Hedgehog

As an arranger (and/or orchestrator), it's your job to set up and release tension while strategically meeting and defying expectations. Check out how "Sonic the Hedgehog" composer Masato Nakamura cleverly deals with tension and release throughout his remarkable scores.

Nakamura often takes to using nontraditional resolutions in his compositions. That's fine for composition, but when orchestrating/arranging a traditional piece, we're locked into the base harmonic progression (or are we? ... more on this later!).  

We can use this technique as a way to expand upon the tension and release by enhancing the meat of the chords, instead of the foundation. Add a nine, take away a seventh, and let your creativity be your guide.

On the other side of the coin, we've got nonfunctional harmony.

Nonfunctional harmony refers to harmonic movement that doesn't serve a straightforward function towards the setup and/or release of tension through the conventional I (tonic), IV (subdominant), and V (dominant) paradigm. Instead, it adds color and personality to the piece.

Nonfunctional Harmony in Chrono Trigger

Orchestration (and arranging) comes down to making conscious artistic decisions. Using various "colors" to emulate different moods is a fantastically simple way to create a certain feel. The kinds of color palettes composer Yasunori Mitsuda cooks up are a great example of how to tastefully use nonfunctional harmony. 

Taking a step back from technical theory, nonfunctional harmony is a great bridge to discussing creativity. While writing a straightforward orchestration is always fun and useful, stretch your creative muscles sometimes.  

Experiment with harmonic soundscapes behind a bass and melody of a song, instead of a typical chord pattern. Even changing the background from commonly used syllables or words to more ethereal "sounds" can make a huge difference in how the score sounds.

This experimental, creative bent leads us naturally into really changing things up with reharmonization.

Jazz Reharms in Pokémon

Reharmonizing seems to be all the rage these days. Having a bit of method to your madness will go a long way towards making strategic harmonic decisions and not just adding "cool colors." "Pokémon's Sun and Moon" actually has a lot to teach us about how to reharm.

This is a fantastic way to reinvent a favorite song or piece for your ensemble. And it goes both ways: You can turn a ballad into a rock song or a motet into a folk piece. Think beyond simply slowing things down and changing the mode -- what new story can you create? This can really give your version distinct identity.

What about melody?

Melodic Sequencing in Super Mario

What makes Koji Kondo's iconic "Mario" music so fun, engaging, and memorable? He does a lot with very little. Through melodic sequencing and motivic development, he crafts simple melodies into major works of genius.

Kondo is one of the most underappreciated composers of his generation. What we can take from his work with melody is beyond technical, it's philosophical.  He's a perfectionist. He revises and revises and revises.  

Our final lesson is simple.

Don't be afraid to edit your arrangements after they've been sung. The best test bed for any a cappella orchestration is to have your group sing through it.  Revision is a key part of music creation and is something no one should be afraid to do.

What have video games taught you about music?


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