Music for games - getting it right

Music is a vital part of the game experience, and here are some ideas on how you really make it work:

1. Identify where you need music
There are typically four areas where you need music in a game:

• In-game music - background tracks
• Intros/outros/cutscenes
• Menus and interface
• Rewards - level completed jingles etc.

Look at these key areas to find out how much you need.

For in-game background music, consider how long the player will spend in a given level. In general, I'd recommend going for 2-3 minute loopable tracks to keep things varied. And have separate tracks for each level. If everything takes place in the same level/world, consider changing the music according to events in the game, time of day and similar.

One important point: Don't tire the listener with tracks that demand too much attention - remember it has to be background music that supports the on-screen events. For example, very melodic stuff can become extremely annoying if the player has to listen to it for hours on end.

For fixed-length intros/outros/cutscenes, simply calculate the lengths of your cutscenes to see how much music you need. If the length is dynamic, go for ambience-setting tracks that can be looped.

When it comes to menus and interface areas, you'll once want music that doesn't tire the listener.
However, this is an area where you can use a piece of music to establish a musical theme for your game - and in that case, don't be afraid to pick a track that stands out. If all goes well, you'll have the player humming your track long after they finish playing :)

Reward/dying/etc jingles need to be short and to the point. If game events trigger a longer sequence, you can use a jingle to notify the player of the given event, and then transition into an ambient track to set the mood.

2. Find your heroes
If you know a game within your genre that really nails the music side, study it and learn from what they're doing. You can draw inspiration both when it comes to the music style and the way they're using the music.

3. Bring in music early on
Having selected the music in your production early on can really help you in the development phase. Many royalty-free music sites allow you to download watermarked previews of a given track, and you can use this to your advantage.
Bookmark tracks that you find fitting and use the watermarked versions as temp tracks in your production. This will give you a feel of what really works in your particular title.

Needless to say, you'll of course want to make sure no watermarked tracks make it into the final production, and that you've acquired an appropriate license for the tracks you end up using.

4. Avoid sound clashes
The soundscape of your game is going to consist of music, sound effects, and possibly voice-over as well. Make sure the music doesn't clash with your sound effects, that the voice-over can be clearly heard at all times. Most of the time, the music should serve as background music (notable exceptions being theme music and event jingles), so make sure it's picked and mixed as such.

5. Find your signature music style
With royalty-free music, there's a myriad of tracks to choose from, so getting a consistent sound to the music can be tricky. And just as you probably have a certain visual style in your game, so should you have one in your sound.

I'll suggest picking tracks that are similar in style, possibly from the same composer if you find someone who's really doing great stuff.

And if you've narrowed things down to a great collection of tracks, but just miss that one track for level 3 or for the game theme, consider asking your favorite composer to do a custom track for that one. It'll cost you more that just using royalty-free music, but overall you're still saving a lot of money and time compared to having everything custom-composed for your game.

6. Using dummy's - not so dumb!
Just as you can use the watermarked previews for getting a feel for the music, so can you use dummy voiceover and sfx. When it comes to dummy voices, grab a microphone and record them yourself. Having your whole game soundscape created with dummies/placeholders can help you figure out what works and what doesn't.