I composed a new piece of music for an upcoming IGT game this past week, that is quite different from anything else I have done for a slot machine. It is rare to use electronic instruments, but the producer and game designer feel strongly that a modern dance mix style would work well in this game and we should push the envelope. So I started experimenting with my synthesizers to come up with a track that conveys that vibe.
The drums in this music style are very simple, yet infectious. There must be something primal in human beings, causing a simple, pulsing beat to get them up on their feet and dancing when hearing it. So the drums are a very simple, repeating pattern.
Electronic dance music also relies heavily on arpeggios. This is a musical term that refers to individual notes making up a chord, rather than all the notes being played at one time. Modern synthesizers often have arpeggiators that will automatically arpeggiate chords played on the keyboard. More sophisticated arpeggiators will also allow for extensive control over the timbre of the sound. So if the composer is locked into a very specific tempo and a repeating pattern of notes, the thing that will make the song interesting then, is the chord progression.
My first layer of arpeggios was actually composed on a piano so that I could hear the basic chord progression. That chord progression was then transferred into an arpeggiator, which then automated the rhythm and timbre of the notes.
As I added more arpeggiated tracks, the challenging part was in creating music that has interesting musical counterpoint. Counterpoint in music is when there is more than one melody being played at the same time. These different melodies play off of each other and combine to create a whole, seamless piece of music.
As I always do, once I have a good demo of the direction that I’m taking with a piece of music, I call in the producer and game designer to get their feedback. That way I’m not wasting time. After they heard this piece, the producer turned to me and apologized for not knowing the musical terminology, but she didn’t care for the “tinkly” sound. Despite the description, I knew exactly which layer she was talking about. I disabled that layer and played it again. This time she loved it and they both gave me the green light to finish the piece and put it into the game.
That fifth layer of counterpoint was the only issue she had with the piece. And that made me start wondering how many layers of counterpoint can be played before it becomes confusing to the listener.
As it so happens, my family just watched the 1987 film version of “The Untouchables,” which features an outstanding music score by Ennio Morricone. There is a scene toward the end of the movie where United States Treasury Agent Eliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner) is chasing Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti, a henchman for the notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone. The music in this film sequence is very intense and it uses counterpoint to convey those emotions. When the movie was over, I listened to that music again. It contains four layers of melody and rhythm— just like my piece when I removed that fifth layer.
So I’m thinking that four layers of counterpoint is the magic number that the brain can understand, without being overwhelmed or confused. Thank you, Ennio Morricone, for not only a great movie soundtrack, but for also teaching me another lesson in music.
And by the way, if you are interested in learning more about Ennio Morricone, he also was famous for scoring several of Clint Eastwood’s “Spaghetti Westerns” such as “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”
Here is a YouTube clip from “The Untouchables” to which I am referring: