This month I participated in a really neat event called “21 Days of VGM” in which I was tasked with composing and sequencing a single piece of music every day, for 21 days. The event was run by Video Game Music Academy and included a daily email with tips and sheets full of interesting writing prompts. This blog will go over each day’s piece, how I approached it, what I learned, and a reflection on how I can improve. I’m very glad I did this as it forced me to write everyday (even when I was tired or uninspired) and allowed me to audit a lot of my new samples I have recently bought. Now, let’s begin!
(Hear the entire playlist here.)
Day 1 – “Sus”tain your Enthusiasm
This was a chance to imitate some common orchestral textures I’ve heard in big video games. Specifically this piece from “Super Mario Galaxy” and the main theme from “Octopath Traveller”. Having started this event a day late, I cranked this out in a half hour. Overall, this was just a simple composition exercise for me. It gets better from here.
What I’d change: More rhythmic variation in the strings. I also should have used my new string patches which are a lot smoother and less harsh. The oboe/flute lines would have sounded better in unison, with an added clarinet an octave lower. The chord progression and violin 1 line is very meh.
Day 2 – Game Over?
This piece was supposed to be a short 10 second game over theme, but ended up getting a little more long winded. I decided to divide the phrase into four distinct key centers, using common tones to help smooth out the chord shifts. I imagined four heroes from different backgrounds working together trying to find common ground.
What I’d change: Needs a nice ending, but overall I was happy with this short little piece.
Day 3 – A Pirate’s Life for Me
One of the prompts provided by VGM Academy was to write pirate music. I think I may have composed this in my head while taking a shower, so when sitting down to write this it basically wrote itself. Using the Session Strings 2 library I had recently bought, I learned how to switch between staccato and sustain articulations using velocity triggers. I also got to write a legit style snare drum part, a skill I had to revisit when I did some arranging for an Army Band audition.
What I’d change: Mix brass a bit less, especially those around the middle C range. The bIImaj7 is a bit too “jazzy” but I did it to amuse myself.
Day 4 – Music Box
Another prompt by VGM Academy was to compose a piece solely on the music box. I was able to locate a nice Music Box patch I had in the Factory Music Library of Komplete 11. In the daily email they sent us, they mentioned exploring different melodic intervals to get new ideas. Realizing I rarely write descending minor 6ths, I decided to use that as my opening interval to see where the melody would take me. I used exactly one borrowed chord, the ever awesome iv! I was glad to try something new and this short piece came out pretty well. I just wish I had more time that day to develop this piece.
What I’d change: Less echo/reverb. Make it a tad longer and use more colorful borrowed chords.
Day 5 – Zzzzzz
After a long gig with the Navy Band, I came home in the evening and was exhausted. Not wanting to go downstairs into my office, I played this short piece from my midi keyboard into my Macbook. This is styled after a typical Inn/Rest theme in any JRPG style game. I used a new “warm pad” string sound that I bought recently, which blended well with the doubled french horns.
What I’d change: Come up with a more creative chord progression. This is the same ii7-bII9-Imaj9 progression I used in the Shadows of Adam’s inn theme. While this progression can sound “dreamy”, there are probably more creative ways to get to the “I” chord.
Day 6 – Brass Fanfare
I had a free morning before a day long gig and I cranked this out in around two hours. The instrumentation for this was three trumpets, two french horns, two trombones and a tuba – an ensemble that is similar to something my friend David Miller writes for (check his stuff out, it’s incredible!). Writing this reinforced some habits of mine, such as my tendency to write step-wise progressions. Especially those with ascending major 2nds. Though instead of using my usual bVI-bVII-I progression, I used bIII-IV-V, which is common in the OSTs of Legend of Zelda (among others). I’d say this piece sits somewhere between a typical video game style piece and an actual chamber composition, but probably closer to video game because of some of the repetitive whole notes (those aren’t very fun to play).
What I’d change: This piece needs a more interesting tuba part, and less chord per bar writing which I have a tendency to write.
Day 7 – Cool Cat
This piece was written to be a musical representation of a drawing by Abe Tena. I went more for the “cool cat” vibe and didn’t really capture the robot as well as I’d have liked to. I actually borrowed part of this tune from an incomplete piece I had been writing for my newest game project (tentatively titled “Quartet”), which was written for a real “cool” kind of character. I really struggled writing a melody for this tune. It ended up being the last thing I added and I feel it’s the weakest part of the piece. I wish I had found my finger snap samples, because that was originally what the shaker at the top was supposed to be. I have since found them, but I decided not to retroactively edit the piece. I got to use my new Session Horns library which sounds pretty decent.
What I’d change: Get away from the minor ii-V bridge and do something more interesting. Less chord per bar writing. A hipper melody. Finger snaps!
Day 8 – Uhh…what?
This piece was the first day where I was really feeling burn out and lack of ideas. I ended up deciding to start the piece by using a 12-tonerow in the bass/guitar. I then used a 12-tonerow in the top of the keyboard voicing and derived chord qualities from that. Once in the middle section, I tried to go for a more through-composed style, which was strangely liberating. The piece does sound at times a bit unfocused and schizophrenic.
What I’d change: Honestly, in a weird way I like this one. Though the middle section really belongs in its own piece. I might develop that further in a future piece. The hi-hat (a new drum patch I was trying out) is a bit too present. I need to put that in its own track and bring it down a few DB.
Day 9 – Desert Theme
Another chance to use my new sitar patch, which sounds leagues better than the one I used in Shadows of Adam. I also used my new choir patches with “ooo” vowel sounds. They turned out nicely. I stuck with the tried and true 5th mode of Harmonic Minor scale and kept the bass on a constant drone, planing major triads over it to create suspense and dissonance. I think this one came out pretty decently, but I’d have to really dig deep to extend this further.
What I’d change: Less sitar in the mix. Let the strings take the bridge to be smoother, drop the sitar there. Lessen the choir in the mix, especially the Tenor/Bass power fifths.
Day 10 – Fall is Here (but Winter is Near)
I asked the Something Classic Discord for a writing prompt and they challenged me to write the music for a sleepy autumnal town that is closing in on winter. To capture the sleepy effect, I tried to avoid using too many dominant chords and focused on colorful step wise progressions. For instance, Ebmaj9 going to Dmaj9 is a nice planing sound that still suggests a dominant/tonic movement. I’m not crazy about the melody but some of the progressions (especially the bridge) I am happy with (Side note: why don’t people write more min(maj7) chords?). I added sleigh bells because anything that suggests winter has to have them, it’s a rule. The drum groove was a straight lift from Persona 5’s “Beneath the Mask”. I used a new setting on my string patches and I was happy with how smooth and dark they came off on the bridge.
What I’d change: The melody needs a few more passed to really be poppin’. The drum groove gets a little repetitive, but I was hoping for a slight hiphop/trance ambience.
Day 11 – Melancholy
I’m really happy with this one. To get the sustained pedal sound in Logic easier, I wrote this as two piano tracks. The piano sounds come from the Komplete 11 collection. Something I’ve been doing lately is using sections of ¾ time to help make a 4/4 piece feel like it’s picking up momentum. I remember first hearing this in the score of Wicked when I was playing the show in Nashville back in 2014.
What I’d change: I used my tried and true i-bVI and bVI-bVII-IV progressions which I do in nearly every tune. I wish I had some more progressions in my back pocket.
Day 12 – Mystery of the Woods
This is a Chrono Trigger pastiche, specially a reference to Secret of the Forest and the Black Omen theme. I’m not crazy about the A section melody, but the rest of tune came out pretty well. I’m especially happy with the bridge progression and the lush string pads I was able to get with my new samples. I focused less on a functional progression and more on shifting colors with strong melodies on top. In the final section, I used the classic Chrono Trigger 1 4 5 1 piano ostinato over various bass notes to create different chord stacks. The 7/4 section worked better than I thought it would at the end (thought it might sound pedantic). Csus/E voice leads well to Ebmin9 in the final bars.
What I’d change: The melody sounds a little bit too “chord to chord” if you know what I mean. I wish I could have written something that floated over the bar line and flowed seamlessly into each color shift. The kick drum sound on my new drum patch needs some work.
Side note: Check out my arrangement of “Secret of the Forest” I did for the Navy Commodores.
Day 13 – To the Moon… and back?
Inspired by this drawing by Megan Crisp and the FFIV “Another Moon” track. I tried to capture an alien but slightly comical flavor. I used a “Star Spangled Banner” quote a tritone away from the root (I’m a dork) and automated the panning of the synth brass track so it constantly moved from hard right to left. The last chord is a tone cluster which I wrote mostly in Logic.
What I’d change: This piece needs better production values. Just something to suggest an even more outlandish type of scene. I also think the ending lingers too much on the root. If I revisited this I’d tighten the ending up and explore having two sections of clarinets playing in different keys while cross fading. I did something similar to that on my arrangement of “Spy Eyes” during the free section.
Day 14 – Putting on a Pizz
My constraint for today was to write an all pizzicato string arrangement. This was another example of being tired and not having much time to write. I think this one came out decently and I was able to get some momentum on the chord progressions by using inversions in the bass.
What I’d change: I should have used my other string samples, these sound a bit harsh. The progression is also pretty stock. There’s that iv again!
Day 15 – Two-bit 8-bit
For this assignment I aimed to write an authentic 8-bit style track. Similar to the original NES, I limited myself to 4 tracks playing at all times. To get the right sounds, I used the NES and Gameboy sounds from the Super Audio Cart library. I wish I had more time on this but was tired at the end of the day (doesn’t that sound familiar?)
What I’d change: The A section should have been doubled and had a first and second ending. I should have spent time getting more interesting variations in the harmonic part, it’s a bit too repetitive in its stream of 8th notes. The production values are also pretty mediocre. But overall, this was a decent outing. At least I avoided doing the bVI-bVII-I progression (didn’t avoid the half time rock feel though…).
Day 16 – The OK Chorale
I wrote this one rather quickly, after a long day of funeral support at Arlington Cemetery. I thought back to my freshman theory classes and did my best to follow all the voice leading rules. Though I did break one. The V7 going into the last A section doesn’t have the 7 voice lead down to a 3rd. This was mainly to avoid a double 3rd with the melody, but I should have just omitted the 7th to avoid this. Forgive me Bach! I was also able to get the nice minor chord dissonance between the Sop/Alto by voicing leading a 2-1 in the Alto with a sustained b3 in the Soprano. I’ve done a few church gigs in Alexandria and I’ve noticed this to be a common trope in choir writing, though it’s a bit more modern than Bach. The Komplete 11 choir samples are really great and I experimented with a large church style reverb, which is different than the usual stock silververb I use on everything. Overall, I was mostly happy with how this turned out.
What I’d change: This piece could probably use more interesting contrapuntal lines in the inner parts. I could have also used more passing diminished or secondary dominant type progressions to get more flavor. This was an exercise and I really tried to honor the correct composing practices for this, which tends to make me write safer than I usually would.
Day 17 – Three’s a Crowd
I used some unusual prompts that VGM Academy supplied all the composers with. The “JRPG Special” prompt dictated to use a flute, violin and piano. The “Trinity” prompt dictated the melody had to consist of only three unique pitches within an octave. I decide to add one further constraint by putting the piece in ¾ time (get it?). The challenge was to make the flute melody (comprised of only three notes – E, F#, A) sound melodic and not repetitive. I used the levers of harmony to disguise this fact and I think if you aren’t listening carefully the chords may distract from the fact it is indeed the same three notes throughout. For the violin countermelody, I didn’t adhere to the three note rule because I’m 18 and I do what I want.
What I’d change: I probably should have used more rhythmic and articulation variation in the flute. I may have gone overboard with the harmony and came off sounding a bit academic. This piece isn’t necessarily something that could be used in a JRPG-style game, though it is similar to “Waltz of Wonder” which I composed for Shadows of Adam.
Day 18 – A Winner is You
I was gone from home the vast majority of the day and ended up having to compose this piece directly into Logic (via my midi keyboard) while in the break room of the Navy Yard. This is something I struggle with, as I’ve always used sheet music (a visual medium) to compose. I was also pressed for time and whipped this up in about 45 minutes. I did enjoy playing each drum part in pieces. Each part of the kit is in its own track which sounds nice for mixing and panning purposes. A little tiny bit of delay on the snare seems to go a long way :)!
What I’d change: I wish the intro was better, it’s a bit cringy. But I think the simple bridge section, triads over a static bass note, is surprisingly effective and funky. I also think I should have replaced the french horn part with alto sax and the trombone 1 part with tenor sax, but my samples for both are less than stellar.
Day 19 – Samba Del Sol
Kelsey suggested I write a samba. I used some inspiration from Jon Barnes’ great arrangement of “This Nearly Was Mine” . His arrangement has a similar intro, which I modeled after liberally. I especially enjoyed using one of my favorite sounds on the bridge: Sus9 chords planing in minor 3rds. It’s a classic. I had fun writing some enclosures and bop style passing notes in the bridge. I hope I got the samba groove correct in the drums. Drummers, let me know!
What I’d change: I think if I had more time it would have been fun to do some more soli material or more reharminization in the reprise of the A sections. But overall I was happy with how this came out.
Day 20 – Home Sweet Home
For this piece I really tried to write something sweet and sincere, invoking the feeling someone might have returning to their hometown. This also harkens back to a typical type of town theme you might hear in an rpg or action game. I avoided any extended chords and focused on mostly diatonic triads to allow it to breathe. I had a lot of fun writing this one and was even able to get a modulation in, (starting in E, modulating to A, then back to E) though I’m not 100% convinced the modulation back to the home key works.
What I’d change: I think I would need more time to get this mix to sit right, which would involve automating a lot of the woodwinds to be softer when they play pads. The melody is also decent but not great. I think the biggest issue is too many of the phrases start on beat 1. I think another pass through would have really improved the melody.
Day 21 – Nobou, you didn’t!
For the last day I decided to go big. I used an entire studio orchestra (strings, winds, brass, and rhythm section). I also decided to pay homage to one of my favorite game composers, Nobou Uematsu. Some things I tried to emulate of his were:
-Busy step wise melodies in the A section(s)
-Said step wise melodies being played a 3rd up on the repeat
-Flowing and smooth melodies in the B section
-5 #5 6 motion over a minor triad
-Planing diatonic triads
-16th note arpeggios in the synth
-4thy synth lines and chord progressions
Additional constraints were given to me by Kelsey and my friend Evan. Kelsey suggested writing a section in 5/8 and Evan suggested having a vamp. The intro, alternates 5/8-3/4 and 5/8-2/4 and serves somewhat as a vamp. The result is a bit tenuous, but I did my best.
What I’d change: The mix may be too “hot”. I think I’d need to spend a lot of time getting this to sit correctly. I’m not 100% convinced the intro works or flows well. It’s pretty pattern-y and doesn’t really sound as melodic as it could. Perhaps a repeat of it with some development could have helped. A floating melody over the top could have connected it with the more rock based section. I still ended up using a lot of my Tyler-isms to my disappointment, but when I was struggling to come up with something I went to things I knew would work!
It was satisfying to produce a new work every day even when I wasn’t feeling up to it. It made me realize a few things about myself and my writing. I have inescapable sounds I gravitate towards. When in a clutch I tend to not have time to come up with different solutions. Additionally, I have reaffirmed my love of a wide spectrum of music. If I write or play too much of one style I will get bored. Overall, I had a great time with this project and I’m looking forward to doing it again in the future. If you got this far, thank you! I’d love to hear what you think. Feel free to reach out to me on my twitter.