The Study That Makes The Video Game Composer
Over the course of about three years, I set about studying the work of the video game composer Jeremy Soule for The Elder Scrolls video game series. It was an intense study and a particular challenge on account of musical notation not being my strong suit.
I’m pretty much a self-taught musician and despite having two granddads who play the organ (one of whom was even a teacher for years and years) and despite going to college to study music business and performance, I never quite managed to master reading music, not notating.
From the outset, this study of Soule’s work for TES was going to be a challenge. But it was one I was eager to take on. It was The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion that made me truly fall in love with video games and video game music, you see. And it was Soule’s work on the series that, in my first years even entertaining the idea of being a video game composer, I sought to emulate.
To this day, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion’s soundtrack remains one of my favourites – if not my number one favourite. It’s so filled with life and joy and an almost spiritual affection of existence. Which may have something to do with Soule having written it after surviving a car accident. You can almost hear the gratitude for being alive in the music.
Alas, by the time I sat down to study Soule’s work as part of my quest to become a video game composer in my own right, there was something about the Oblivion soundtrack and the technology Soule had available to him at the time to create it that made it feel dated.
Moreover, Skyrim was quickly becoming a mainstay of the RPG genre and its music went above and beyond my expectations as a fan of the series. So, it would be Skyrim that I would take to studying.
During this quest to become a video game composer, during this years long study of Soule’s work on Skyrim, there were three things that stood out to me as defining features of the soundtrack. Things which are present to a lesser or greater extent in his previous works but nonetheless things which make Skyrim’s music the unforgettable video game soundtrack it is.
In this article, I’ll share with you the two lessons I learned from my years long study of Jeremy Soule’s work on my quest to become a video game composer in my own right.
The Video Game Composer Must Be A Singer/Songwriter Too
Video game music is a whole medium of its own but across all music that really sticks with huge audiences, has one reoccurring quality. Be it rock, pop, folk or instrumental orchestral video game music, the melody is the thing.
On initial listening, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s soundtrack is not one that stands out as being driven by its melodies. At least when compared to its predecessors Morrowind and Oblivion. Skyrim’s soundtrack is one of soundscapes – swelling strings and yearning notes that ring out fade off into the distance.
And yet, upon closer inspection, those memorable melodies of Morrowind and Oblivion haven’t gone anywhere. In fact, they are just where they’ve always been but this time with a whole new level of finesse – and immersed in a sea of swelling sounds. But we’ll circle back around to those soundscapes.
During my years long study of Soule’s work as a video game composer on the Elder Scrolls series music, one thing I kept coming back to – time and time again – was that his melodies are both moving and familiar, simple and filled with emotion.
This is true in Morrowind’s soundtrack too, and in Oblivion’s. But it hits a sweet-spot with Skyrim. Soule’s melodies for Skyrim’s soundtrack are memorable because they are lyrical. They capture your attention and imagination, not because they are in your face and modulating through key signatures, but because they are delicate and paced.
What Soule does so well, however, that so many other video game composers seem to struggle with, is that he creates music befitting a fantasy role-playing epic with none of the cliches, none of the tropes. It feels like fantasy but it doesn’t feel like you’ve heard it before or like it’s copy and pasted from renaissance fair’s bard’s setlist.
The melody in Far Horizons is a stationary summons from a great distance, reaching out across the landscape. The twinkling piano in Secunda is like a delicate game of hopscotch down the piano. Their simple melodies repeat through variations that are not just lyrical but sing-able. And this is where the video game composer must become like the singer/songwriter.
It is the video game music that calls the players back time after time. When the intricacies and reward chemicals of immersed game play are gone from the player’s mind, a simple, singable melody – pregnant with feeling – can bring players back time and time again.
The Video Game Composer Must Have the Courage to Feel
The video game composer must have a mastery of feeling. And, in music, feeling is the atmosphere you create and the way you express ideas through your musical choices.
Something I find myself saying often, as a musician with my roots as a songwriter, is that composing music for video games as a video game composer almost turns the process of creation inside out.
When you’re writing a song, you write from the inside out. You reach inside of yourself and find a feeling and then use the music to channel this feeling into art. When you’re a video game composer and you’re composing music for video games, your starting point is entirely different. Instead of starting from a feeling you have and having the creative process be an open-ended process of creative exploration, you’re starting from an outline, intention or feeling someone else needs you to write music towards.
Writing a song, you’re writing from the inside outwards. As a video game composer, you’re writing from the outside inwards.
The former is ideal when you’re writing an album of songs that exist purely as the product of your own emotional exploration, or a message you want to convey. The latter, however, requires a familiarity with your own inner emotional landscape and knowledge of how best to translate that into music.
Here, music theory can help pave the way but at the end of the day, it’s where you’re willing to go to in your own feelings, in your own emotional landscape, that will be the last word on the range of music you’re capable of creating.
If you shy away from melancholy, for instance, your music may never reach the hearts of the listeners in quite the way it could. And melancholy is front and centre in Skyrim’s music.
What Soule shows us with his music for Skyrim is that he knows melancholy well. But the feeling of Skyrim’s music is embedded in its sweeping, layered chords just as much as its delicate melancholic melodies.
And what Soule does with those chords is not what most composer – video game composers or otherwise – might do. Rather than moving whole chords, 2-3+ notes at a time, the chords step gently, one note at a time into new formations. And as each note moves, the colours of the music change too.
Coupling this subtle stepping technique with the way Soule layers together pads, string and often choral voices, to create a thick, rich bed of texture, what results is nothing short of a soundtrack as immersive as the game it was written for. Not to mention that this is merely the accompaniment to the yearning melancholic melodies which play out delicately atop them.
The Video Game Composer’s Masterclass
Just about any skilled video game composer with a decent library of music available online can serve as an informal masterclass to the aspiring video game composer who is eager to learn.
In 2016, that was me. And while I’m not done learning by any stretch of the imagination, what I learned from my study of Jeremy Soule’s work has gifted me an insight into video game music that has been invaluable for me as I’ve gone on to become a video game composer in my own right.
What Soule has done so well with The Elder Scrolls series is to create music that is so completely the music you would expect of a fantasy RPG in a historical setting and yet something that subvert those expectations so beautifully time and time again. This is video game music at its best. It is apt for the escapism of a video game while remaining unceasingly human and real.
And a huge part of that is avoiding those fantasy tropes we’ve all heard time and time again in melody and letting the swelling soundscapes speak for themselves as they gently guide you to new and beautiful locales in game. And isn’t that just the perfect match for an Elder Scrolls game?
A beautiful, unforgettable video game experience which subverts expectations and leads you somewhere more beautiful than you expected to find yourself.
A Video Game Composer is Born
When I set out to study Soule’s work, I did so in part because I wanted to write some music for a Skyrim mod I was creating at the time. The mod, like a lot of rookie projects in game development suffered from a classic weakness: I bit off more than I could chew and tried to make something I could never finish. But it wasn’t all for nothing.
The Skyrim mod died a slow death but the music lives on. In fact, it’s now up in my Limited Exclusivity Video Game Music Library here on my site. So, if you’re making a fantasy RPG and you want music for your game that hearkens back to the best parts of Skyrim’s music, you’re in luck. Or, if you’re just a bit curious what the fruits of my years spent studying Soule’s work on Skyrim yielded, you’re in luck.
Just click here and you can listen to hours and hours of my music, inspired by Jeremy Soule’s work on Skyrim.
And if you’re interested in bespoke music for your video game, click here.