Many of us have played and listened to VGM (video game music) for our whole lives, and we’ve adored it. Nevertheless, there seems to be a large number of people who can’t explain to their parents why they love it so much, especially when there’s so much to the genre. That’s why I’m here to hopefully clear up what makes VGM so amazing. And sometimes not so amazing. My goal on this site is to help the new upcoming VGM composers in any way I can. Whatever your favorite genre is, whatever your favorite game series, company, or otherwise, I hope to cover at least something for everyone.
My name to all of you will be LunAzul. I, too, have loved VGM my whole life, especially the Zelda, Mario, and Pokemon series to the point where I’d often power on the games simply to listen to the enchanting melodies and catchy tunes. Eventually, I couldn’t help but try to write my own music. I began to study music in its most simple form: classical music. Then I went off to study more on my own, and to this day I continue to study. I hope to share all my knowledge I am learning with all of you. Therefore…
Let’s start with the beginning. (I’ll try not to get too carried away 😉 )
Since this is the first ever post, I’ve planned to go over the extreme basics of music theory, so when I get into greater detail everyone will be able to understand what a diminished chord, a Locrian scale, and sus4 chords are.
So, in order to begin, I’ll discuss what language music is in.
Here’s a handy chart to learn the most common notes, or the “letters” of music.
This will help people understand how to read the literal language of music. Each note has a name correlated with a specific tone A-G. So if we start on C, then play past the next seven notes until we reach C again, we have gone up an “octave.” Together, all seven notes are referred to as a scale. (Take note of middle C, it’ll be important later)
Notes have many forms in music, these being the most common:
Putting these notes on a staff tells the person reading at what time, with what rhythm, and when not to play, as indicated by the kind of note/rest.
Now, the distance between notes is very important, such as steps; most notably, the whole and half steps. Looking at the keyboard, a half step is the smallest distance between notes. This usually just means hitting the closest black key up (sharp) or down (flat), but for a few notes, (B, C, E, and F,) the half step is another white key. To avoid confusion, we’ll just say that the closest notes up and down are the half steps. For all notes, this is achieved by “sharpening” or “flattening” the note. The next steps are whole steps, which are simply two half steps. C to D, for instance or E to F#.
Before we move on, realize that scales and intervals are not stuck on C. Every single note can be the beginning of a scale. These are called scales or keys. C major is the easiest because it only uses the white keys on a piano, and therefore has no sharps or flats. here’s a nice little reference for that: In any key, songs tend to start on the first note of the key, and also end on that note. This makes the song feel complete. But, you don’t have to only play one note at a time! So this leads right into…
Intervals. These are also the distance between notes, but it includes all distances. A half step is a minor second, for example. Here’s a chart of all intervals in the key of C (up to an octave).
Now, on to the “words” and “sentences” of music. Here’s a picture of a really short song I’ve written to show off what makes the letters form words.(excuse the odd lyrics and crappy look, it’s an older song, but it’s short enough to explain)
Look at the way the music is written beautifully on the paper. This is simply called notation, as I’m sure most people know. The music is separated by bar lines splitting the song into bars. Four in this case (bar lines are highlighted in light-green). In music, a bar is a “word,” and a bunch of them together form the equivalent of a sentence, or what is called a phrase. In this jingle, for example, there is only one phrase. Before the music starts, however, is a mess of stuff that may look confusing to newcomers.
First (in yellow) are the clefs. Clefs tell you where you are in the range of audible sound. Remember middle C? It’s the middle of this range. The first clef, called a treble clef, is the range above middle C, and the bass clef (looks like a backward C) is the range below.
(Note that there are other clefs and you can go higher and lower than just the treble and bass clef, but for simplicity, we’ll stick with these two.)
In purple is the key signature. This shows you what notes are sharp and/or flat throughout the entire piece, and therefore also the key of the song. This song has one sharp: F#. This means we are in the key of G major.
In red is the time signature. This tells you two things: 1. how many beats are in a measure and 2. what kind of note gets one beat. The most common is 4/4, which just so happens to be the time this song is in. The top note, or the numerator, tells us the number of beats. In this case, it is 4; therefore, there are 4 beats in a measure. The denominator tells us what kind of note gets one beat. Here it is 4, which means quarter notes get one beat. At 2, half notes get one, at 8 eighth notes get one, etc. The numerator is a little more important, and the best way to get a feel for it is to try counting along with the music. Here’s two examples, one in 3/4 and one in 4/4.
Don’t worry about the Roman Numerals in Blue yet.
The numbers so beautifully underlined in black are called the tempo or metronome marking. Tempo is how fast a song is, and this is determined by a thing called BPM, or beats per minute.
One thing you may have noticed is that the first measure here only has one beat, even though the song is in 4/4. If you didn’t, do now. This is called a pickup, and it’s pretty much exactly what it looks like. At the beginning of a piece, sometimes you need a beat or two to introduce your song. Then the real song picks up. Here’s an example. (you don’t have to listen all the way through, it is only the first note after all) Pickups are not anything necessary, by any means, but they’re a nifty tool sometimes.
Now let’s listen to the song.
It’s really nothing special, but it’s enough to show you how the notes are played and the way to notate it. All music can be notated, as strange as it may sound, with any instruments you may like!
Now, there are a lot of different things to discuss, and I’ll be sure to cover as much as possible over time. But for now, here’s what you should’ve learned:
1 Notes are like the letters in the language of music, and they can be written in many different forms in order to show how long each tone is.
2 Bars are like words, and when together they form phrases. These allow for complete thoughts.
3 At the beginning of a score, there is a bunch of weird stuff (signatures, clefs, etc) that tell you what kind of song it’ll be. Key, tempo, time, and more.
4 Songs tend to start and end on the same note.
5 One more thing you need to learn. There are no rules. Everything is a guideline, if that. Just play around ’til it sounds good! Music is an experience, not a ruleset. It’s an art, not a set of instructions. Have Fun!
Finally, if you’d like to try notating your own score for free, there is a program called Flat.io where you can for free. Here’s a link to it for you. If you’d like to contact me to ask for requests, or to collaborate with me on Flat, or to tell me I suck at writing, just e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Until next time,