Let’s make safe-zone music for your game

There’s a couple of different ways to name this type of music, but the one that I think captures it all is “safe-zone”. Whether you’re in town (for an RPG), or on a save-screen (in a metroidvania); you’re safe. You cannot be harmed here. The best way to give this message to the player, is via the music. It is an instant queue that everything is fine, all is well.

Unlike the previous article about making quick chip-tune music, I’m going to assume you have some small amount of music theory knowledge. But I trust you will read the second article on making music so that you have as much theory that I sort of expect you to have for this article (don’t worry, it’s not a lot).

In this article, we’re going to learn what makes it sound “safe”; and therefore, how we can make it ourselves. Let’s begin.

I’ve mentioned it before but I should mention it again. I am a game programmer, a hobbyist at that. I am not a composer though I have played in bands and written songs. Any musical knowledge I put in these articles are distilled down to their absolute core, taking many shortcuts. This is intentional. I am trying to help game developers, not composers.

Analysis of Safe-Zone Music

The best way to determine how to make pleasant safe-zone music, we should start by listening to some existing ones. One of my favorites is Kalm from Final Fantasy VII.

Soothing

Have a listen. Hmmmm… man, I feel safe, and warm, and relaxed. Let’s break down the song a little to determine how it’s done that to me. Let’s start with the most obvious things that stand out.

  1. It’s slow paced
  2. There’s not a lot of notes being played, the melody is simple
  3. There’s an underlying string section (violin, viola, cello etc) playing some soothing long notes
  4. There’s a guitar/lute/harp playing a constant pattern throughout the whole song, it changes key but it’s underlying pattern remains pretty consistent
  5. The melody is being playing by woodwind (flute for example) which gives a soft, soothing quality to it.
  6. A sort of lead-violin section comes in for different parts of the track

Okay, that’s pretty straight-forward right?

Let’s listen to another one.

Space is cool and so are we

This sounds completely different! But it’s still safe-zone music. Let’s add some more to what we had before:

  • There’s still only a few instruments at any one time
  • The track is still fairly slow, even when that percussion comes in, it still feels slow
  • There’s that constant synth rythm underlying the whole track, though this one has some variation. This is like the guitar/lute/harp thing from the Kalm song
  • There’s some happy tinkly bells and cymbal percussion
  • There’s a lot of reverb going on (space is big though, right?)

The song is Kingdom’s End from X3: The Reunion; a massive time-sink of a game where you cruise around a lot and do a lot of nothing. But it’s a very relaxing, cool game. There’s action when you get into a fight, and then the music changes accordingly. But there’s a lot of “safe-zone” music, I think the full soundtrack is over 4 hours long.

We can continue to analyse songs, and obviously we’ll come across safe-zones where the music doesn’t follow what we have above. But I guess the point is that we are learning to create music that sounds like the safe zone music above.

Instrument Selection and Feeling

The first thing to do is decide on the instruments we want to use. As per the second article, different instruments can give different feelings. What feeling does your game have?

Does it have one? It should. It really should. Even the simplest of games should. Let’s go back to my old favourite staple, Pong. I could make it fast-paced with fast-paced electronic music. That sort of feeling bends me to make the graphics neon and bright-lights on black backgrounds. That’s what the electronic feeling will help me do.

But imagine if my little pong game was all bright neon lights and it had a blues soundtrack. That wouldn’t really work, I mean we could try and make it. There’s a lot of good stuff done when you smash genres together, but it’s hard to pull off.

I could make the music slow, and melodic, like that track above from X3. But then it wouldn’t suit our fast-paced Pong… maybe we could do a slow Pong, where the purpose is to gracefully curve and spin the ball like a ballet, the point being to keep the ball active for as long as possible, with as much grace as possible?

So what’s your games feeling? What’s the style? That will determine your instrument selection. If you have trouble determining what instruments to use, then look at other games and media. Listen to the music in those films, TV shows, and games; google the soundtracks and listen. Ask people questions about it. These are your instruments.

For the purposes of this article; I am making an RPG. It’s a Final Fantasy, Zelda-like type of top-down jRPG. This is the first town you come to in the game after being in the wildlands for the initial section. As characters, this is the first time they have had a chance to relax and feel safe and rest.

For this I’m going to use:

  • Harp
  • Violins

That’s it. The reason is I want to keep the track simple for this article; and I also want to illustrate just how much you can do with so little. If I was really making this game, I might not even expand upon this track much more. I like it the way it is (but I’ve been listening to it a lot).

One of the reasons I’m able to get away with only two instruments is that the harp is going to provide me with two voices. A harp’s sheet music has two staves, the bass and the treble. Now; a real composer of real music would probably consider how playable the music is. But our music is played by a computer, which has infinitely long and quick fingers, so I don’t need to worry about the poor harpists ability to strum two successive notes while plucking out a bass line.

The violins can also play several notes together, that will let me play out some dyads and triads.

Starting the bass line

I tend to always start with a bass line. This, I think, is because it’s generally going to be a pretty steady and driving sound that permeates throughout the music. In this case, I’m trying for the sort of music more like the Kalm example above, so it needs to be a slow kind of pace.

Go ahead and open up MuseScore, or if you’re not worrying about sheet music (or don’t like doing it that way), open up the Piano Roll in your DAW of choice.

DAW Options
BandLab have now released Cakewalk as a free download. Cakewalk is the first DAW I ever learnt to use, many, many years ago when there were no options but to pirate things. I now use Cakewalk over Ardour, simply because it’s a much more stable product (but I’m keeping an eye on Ardour development).

To be completely honest, this bass line was partially created by my mucking about on my ukelele (this explains the notes I’m playing). If you haven’t got some sort of musical instrument, you may want to invest in one. A simple MIDI controller like this one is a good choice, you don’t need pads, but what you do need is a few knobs to control VSTs, and a couple octaves of keys to play notes. Something good quality like that will last you a long time.

Here’s the bass line:

MusicSheetViewerPlugin 2.4
The bass line

You’ll note that it’s slow, we’re only at 80bpm. It’s soothing as well; the reason is that there’s sort of like two notes that are being played that our brains are emphasizing for us.

Steps and Leaps

When our music goes up and then jumps back down like this, on the beat, it makes the high notes stick out. The rhythm here is technically just “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &”, but it sounds more like “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &“. This is because of that movement the notes have going up. The sudden jump down off that 1st note is what makes it stick out in your ear, with the other notes become intermediary notes until we get to the next “peak” or “pinnacle” (your brain will know that when the next note jumps down again).

Using this technique, starting up high, and leaping down only to gradually rise again, allows us to fill in the entire song with this background run of the harp.

1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & WTF?
In music we count out beats. 1, 2, 3, 4 (then the band plays rock ‘n’ roll). Well, remember the time signature here is 4/4; and from our previous article we know that means there’s going to be 4 beats to every bar, and each beat will take a quarter of a note to play (1/4th). Well, if every beat is a number, 1, 2, 3, 4 then every half-beat is an &. One and Two and Three and Four and One and Two and Three and Four and…

Steps and leaps are ways to describe the interval between notes. The interval is basically how much space there is between them. There’s times when you want to “leap” away, either up or down, and times when you want to “step” up or down. Part of this article is explaining this technique, but it’s also something you will pick up as you get better at making music.

What note are we playing?

These notes that are playing, are G, C, E, G, G, C, E, G in the first couple bars. These notes constitute a C-Major triad/chord. We’re also in the key of C-Major, we know we’re in the key of C-Major because there’s no key-signature markings (okay, technically we could be in A-minor, but we’re not).

This C-Major is the tonic chord. It’s the tonic chord of our key. This makes it the first, or I chord from C-Major key (capital I because it’s a major). If it seems like terminology is needlessly doubled up, “C-Major chord” and “C-Major Key”, it should hopefully become clear soon.

This is important because there’s certain…. patterns that are followed in music. Not strictly followed, but generally followed, and more often than not. As amatuer video game musicians, we would do well to follow these patterns. The reason is that in western music, I mentioned before, there are tropes. Well, what chord follows a chord is a trope; all of us sort of expect to hear one or two chords after we hear a chord.

You can read about them here in sufficient detail. In fact, I recommend you spend some time on this website, it’s super helpful (that’s lesson 57, so we skipped a lot). Mugglinworks.com also has some free Chord Maps that provide an alternate way of looking at chord progression. We’re not going to worry much about progressions because we’re largely only playing the same chord over and over again, as you’ll soon see.

For out little bass line there, the next set of notes is F, C, E, G, F, C, E, G. This is a Cadd11. It gets this name because it’s a C-Major like before, but we’re adding an extra note to the triad, we’re adding the 11th note from the bass C-note. C is 1st, D is 2nd, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F is 11th. Now, you would notice that the F is not that far “up” from the bass C, it’s actually only 4 steps up.

This is just perculiarity of music theorists jargon. Most seem to prefer to call it a Cadd11 no matter how the added note is actually played. Is it between the E and the G, or above the G? Guitar players tend to call this chord a Cadd4 because they are more specific sometimes? I don’t really know the answer for why there’s different names. We will call it from now on a Cadd4, because I think that tells us exactly where that extra note is being added, the 4th from the bass.

Cadd4 is really just a flavour of I (the tonic chord, C-Major). So if you’re following along on the chord progression charts and maps, we haven’t moved. But to be sure, we’re not really playing a Cadd4 because we’re not sounding all the notes together. A Cadd4 is a little dissonant or biting because the E and the F are kind of fighting it out for who gets to be in the middle. But when we play it like we have, it’s called an Arpeggio, all broken-up like, it sounds okay.

The next bar we’re playing to E’s. Previously we were playing two Gs (in the first bar), so we’re still playing a C-Major Arpeggio, but we’re just changing the way we play it.

Finally, the last bar of our arpeggio, which from this point on in the song just repeats, is a… Hmmm. I guess if I use something like a reverse chord finder it turns out to be a Em7#5/C. This is a long name, but it means it’s an Em7 with a sharp 5th and the root note as a C… The sharp 5th turns the normal B or an Em7 into a C, and the the /C puts that into the bass note…. Man, at some point naming conventions fail.

Let’s just say we’re playing the same arpeggio but we’re adding in a D. You’ll notice that throughout the arpeggio the leading note, the strong note, the one that gets leaped away from, is descending gradually. This is one of the things that’s giving us a smooth feel, the arpeggio is soothing, slowly playing out notes of a C-Major (which in and of itself is a pleasant, and unoffensive sounding chord), while it’s also playing out a very slow and dull melody.

We’re getting a lot of bang for our buck with just this single bass line of a harp.

Adding a Melody

Now we can use the treble stave of our Harp to play out a melody on top of this arpeggio. It’s pretty clear from the above that we’re in a C-Major and we’re kind of sort of just playing a C-Major all the time. Just one chord.

Let’s do this phrase by phrase. We’ll make a phrase, then well talk about it, add another one, and keep going like that. This is how I do things, allows you to focus on just a few bars, between 4 and 12 at a time, before moving on. Doing it in chunks that really helps you keep track of things.

In music theory
A phrase is like a little group of notes, like 4 bars long, that ends in a cadence of some kind. I’m not being that strict here. What I’m talking about is probably more correctly termed a phrase group, but that’s cumbersome. What’s important is that we’re working on a section of the music at a time, each section will sound a little different.

First Phrase

So this is what I’ve placed down:

MusicSheetViewerPlugin 2.4
The first phrase

There’s only four notes that start half-way through. I’ve done it half-way to allow the arpeggio to be heard and understood by the listener before bringing in the melody. I wouldn’t always do this, but in this case, that arpeggio bass line is so soothing that playing it first sort of sets the tone or feeling of the music to be simple, background, safe-zone music (this is extremely subjective though).

We’re playing A, B, C, B. This is technically a Am(add2) chord; but the thing is, C-Major and A-minor are kind of like the same. Those two keys, scales, chords, have the same notes, it’s just the order they’re playing in. This means that the first phrase of our little melody is still playing a different voicing for C-Major.

We are getting a lot out of one chord!

Second Phrase

Okay; let’s build out a second phrase for another 4 bars. I want this second phrase to be a little bit more complicated than the last one (we can’t just pluck some notes on the beat and call that a melody).

MusicSheetViewerPlugin 2.4
Phrase 2

New Notation

Alright so a few things first, some new notation. That thick sqiggly line that goes up in the second bar? That’s called a Arpeggio! Hahaha. It basically tells the player to play those notes as a little arpeggio in the span of time it would usually take to play those notes together. The arrow indicates the direction, you can play them up or down.

We’ve covered P and the m before but it’s worth repeating. P means softly, m means normally. Just the volume of the notes. However, the reason I’ve done it here is just because of the particularities of MIDI. The eastiest way for me to sort of simulate a long strum across the harp, is to do the above, using two triplet (we’ll get to that) using notes that span 1/32nd of a beat.

But doing that normally sounds really harsh and loud, so I just make it soft, then normal again afterwards. That’s just for MIDI. There could be a better way to do it, but I don’t know it.

Now those little 3’s you see under it. They mean “triplet”. This basically means play three notes in the span it takes to normally play 2 notes. They have a significant effect on the rhythm and sometimes really help to give a sense of movement to a melody, or a sense of ambling maybe? Again, this is all subjective stuff and the context of the triplet will change things.

The notes being played

The first bar is more familiar notes. C, B, G, E. However, note that the B is a step note, it’s not really part of the overal harmony, it’s just moving the melody along, we we can kind of ignore it. Looks like we’re still playing C-Major.

Next we’re playing that same series of notes as before. But we’re throwing in a D, again, it’s just a stepping note for the melody. The final two bars are similar.

It’s important that these stepping notes are acknowledged. They don’t fit into the overall harmony of the music being played. So if we solidified this whole thing down to a single chord per bar, those stepping notes don’t fit, they would make the chord sound dissonant, harsh, ugly. But as melodic notes they work well as steps to the harmonic notes.

It also helps to keep these melodic notes on the off-beats so that they feel like steps to the harmonic notes in the melody.

When deciding which melodic notes to use, you generally will take notes from the key you’re in. Very subjective.

Third Phrase

Now we’ll round it our with one more phrase. I’d like this to have a little more “strumming” so that’s what I’ve done:

MusicSheetViewerPlugin 2.4
Phrase 3

Now the harp is playing a couple chords, again, arpeggio style. The first is a C Major with the G as the bass note (also known as C/G). It’s followed by a few melodic notes until it comes to rest in that bar on a C.

The next chord is a Dm6/F, which is our first real change from C-Major. It’s a minor which is why it sounds so different to the other chords. But it’s not out of place because we’ve been using these notes throughout the melody, but only now are they all coming together in a chord. As a bonus, our base is playing a low F at this same point, which helps to exemplify the root of this chord being an F.

Next we have another A-minor, we’ve seen this before, it’s sort of like a C-Major. Then we quickly have a G6. Then we round it off by hitting the peak of the melody and then gracefully falling away to a E.

We fall to an E, not a C, because we want the piece to feel imcomplete. That’s because it’s going to continously loop. If we came to a auditorially satisfactory conclusion, the track would end, and it would be very noticeable when it started up again. Ending on this note let’s us just continue to repeat the track with no pause and it won’t feel too weird in the game.

Adding Some Strings

Now what we have doesn’t sound too shabby right?

MusicSheetViewerPlugin 2.4
Complete harp

It’s nice, and you could even use it as a complete song. Maybe if you changed the instrument to a piano you could use it in the background somewhere during a characters soliloquy in your JRPG 🙂 But we’ll keep going, the goal is to flesh it out with our second instrument, the Violins.

I say “violins” with a plural, because I intend to use a violin “section” when I put this through my VST later, but right now we’re just listening to violin singular. Let’s work on the strings in the same way we worked on the melody, one phrase at a time.

Strings Phrase One

This is what I’ve layed down for the initial phrase.

MusicSheetViewerPlugin 2.4
Strings Phrase 1

So what’s happening here? We’re playing everything softly, as denoted by our little P. We’re playing a bunch of whole notes before really doing anything. We’re starting with a C; this is an obvious choice considering all the C-Majoring we’ve been doing previously!

This is followed up by adding a G to that C. This dyad is the bass and high note of our C-Major. So we’re sort of building up on the C-Major gradually. This is something we’ve done before when laying the melody, we’re building up constantly.

That’s what a melody really is. Building up and then settling down, doing this over and over again until reaching a climax and ending the song. Keep this in mind, you only want one climax in your track (again, a subjective, and general, rule). This sort of means that our strings are playing a second melody.

I wouldn’t go so far as calling this a counterpoint. Not yet at least, but that’s what we’re aiming for. So the next notes we’re playing and going to start to move into the realm of counterpoint.

We’ve also got a new bit of notation! That ♮ is a “natural” symbol. Look at the last bar, we play a A, G# and then a G-natural. The G is a sharp because we add the hash; but that hash applies to all the Gs that remain in this bar/measure. We want to play another G, but we don’t want it to be a sharp, we want it to be whatever it was before, so we add the natural sign.

Strings Phrase Two

MusicSheetViewerPlugin 2.4
Strings Phrase 2

It should be clear that we begin by playing notes from a C-Major again. But then, we play the notes of a B-diminished chord. Thankfully, this works with the harp notes being played, that you’ll remember is like a C and we’ve got a D that helps us move along.

The next couple bars, I could again sort of work out what chords are being played, but now we’re going to get a little lost. That’s because we’re not really interested in chords anymore, we’re interested in the harmony. This is a hard thing to nail down because it’s somewhat subjective; but if you listen to these notes being played, you’ll hear how it melds together. It works. It doesn’t sound discordant. That’s what we’re working toward.

Getting the right notes there can be tricky. There’s additional music theory that you can read up on to understand a little more about it; but if you’re like me, it’s going to involve a lot of trial and error. As you get better at it, you’ll be able to start with a pretty good guess. Then you forget about it and listen again the next day and make adjustments, something you thought sounded perfectly fine yesterday will suddenly sound terrible the next. But that’s the subjective nature of music!

Strings Phrase Three

Let’s finish this off:

MusicSheetViewerPlugin 2.4
Strings Phrase 3

Now our strings are going to start to move. We’ve been building up, and this is the phrase that our previous melody reaches the crescendo, the peak, the pinnacle!

To start off with, we’re playing our normal sort of up-down movement. We’ll do it for two bars, in the second one we’re just going to add an extra note. That’s because that extra note allows the melody to move into the next measure.

The next two measures are reaching the peak the same as the harp melody. We move up toward it, get agonisingly close to it, then fall down, then we get there. We stay up there for just a moment, we move off it quickly. Remember, we don’t stay up there long.

Completed Piece

So now we’re done; here’s the complete music in MIDI form:

MusicSheetViewerPlugin 2.4
Complete-ish

But now, you want to use your VSTs. In this instance I’m going to use two instruments by Sonatina, Violin and Harp. I’ll use the single harp and 1st Violins Sustain. You can get them all here, there’s a lot of instruments to download, they all sound fantastic.

I won’t go over the process of hooking these all up. But I will explain what I’m now doing. Firstly, I have switched to Cakewalk which is now free (as in beer), which replaces Ardour. I have also routed MuseScore to MIDI which is being used as real-time input to Cakewalk. What this allows me to do, is mute MuseScore and when I hit play in MuseScore, the MIDI is routed to the VSTs loaded in Cakewalk. This means I can hear the final output music in real-time.

Here’s the results using the song we’ve just written using the VSTs I mentioned above:

Completed

What’s Next?

We’ve covered what safe-zone music is, and talked about what makes it sound safe. It’s a combination of instrument selection and the notes we’re playing. Slow music, a constant flow of notes, and a simple melody and a bit of counterpoint. That’s how you do it.

So, go ahead and do it! Make your own safe-zone music. Start by following along with what I’ve done above but change the notes and adjust the melody a little. Use a different key, anything will do. Change the instruments, use a Flute instead of the treble line of the Harp. Use a Bass instead of the bass line of the harp, Ample Bass P Lite II is the best Bass VST free or otherwise in my opinion. Instead of a violin section, try something else, some Horns from Sonatina can sound awesome!


That’s it for this article. Next time we’ll cover a different kind of music, we might try making some action music! Until then, keep practicing and let me know how you go. Nothing would make me feel better than to hear some of the music people have made from reading these articles. So comment, or drop by the forums, and we’ll listen to what you’ve made and we can work on it together.

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