Penka Kouneva is the world-renowned composer behind the Gears of War 2 music. An incredibly in-demand orchestrator, Kouneva is successful in film, TV, and video games. She’s put her touch on uber-popular titles like Gears of War 2 & 3, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. We thought it would be fun to pick her brain and get the gritty details of what it takes to develop a great video game theme. And to demonstrate, she was awesome enough to analyze the Gears of War 2 theme “Hope Runs Deep” by her frequent collaborator, star composer Steve Jablonsky.
Breaking down the main ingredients
Steve Jablonsky composed a theme rooted in the aesthetics of Remote Control Productions, a film score company run by Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams. The main ingredients of this style are a hybrid orchestra, modern synths, percussion, and a memorable melody for the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) army soldiers. The thematic melody — alternately epic and personal — instantly identifies the protagonists and the game.
The identifying features of the track’s sound are a relentlessly propulsive string groove under the soaring melody, a futuristic ticking percussion groove, syncopated big beats in low strings, low brass, big drums, a full orchestra, a full choir, and a modern and dark harmonic palette. It also has a transparent, well-crafted, long-scale structure with the thematic development of a Beethoven symphony and is essentially a song form (intro, AABA, coda).
Large-scale formal structure of the theme
The overarching structure of the theme is: intro, signature motif, solo soprano, AAAB, transition, Aiv (variation), Av, coda (drone).
One of the questions I wanted to explore in this blog is what makes a theme memorable and what makes a melody stick in your mind. Arguably, the Gears of War 2 music, and its theme in particular, are distinctive and memorable because the earnest melody for the COGs is repeated with varying harmonization, in different orchestration densities and energy levels. It is featured in both a heroic style and also in a more elegiac, emotional style.
The formal structure has the clarity of a Beethoven symphony — each restatement of the theme comes as inevitable after what preceded it, creating an ever-intensifying emotional arc. However, more precisely the form is an extended AABA song form with a long intro, an elongated “A” (after the “B”) and a long coda.
The orchestration has a crucial role in reinforcing each restatement (variation) of the theme and in our perception of the large-scale form. Each statement gets more intense as new instrumental colors are layered and sound progressively louder and dense. The balance between repetition and thematic variation keeps our attention glued to the theme, without ever feeling bored. The “B” theme introduces the greatest thematic contrast and emotional payoff as the orchestration reaches its greatest mass and intensity in fortissimo with the soaring choir. All of these thematic approaches brand the game as a military science-fiction shooter and set the mood for the hero COGs in the dark futurist planet Sera where they will battle the monstrous Locusts.
Composing a great video game theme
One of our big tasks is to cultivate a deep, immersive knowledge of the game genres and the corresponding musical genres (adventure, fantasy, sci-fi, western, racing, etc.). During this process of close, analytical listening, we must discern what musical elements serve as “signifiers” of the genre (choices in arrangements, orchestration, production, sound, specific melodies, harmonization, textures, figurations, and riffs for any and every genre).
Musical signature: Because of its power to identify the game and “brand” the franchise, every game score needs a musical “signature.” It could be a memorable theme, motif, or even a riff, but usually, it’s the combination of a signature theme, chord progression, and “production sound” (style). The musical style is often defined by the game genre and its conventions.
Musical elements: The composer needs to choose and craft musical elements that suggest the game world. The musical elements include melody, rhythm, harmony, structure, arrangement, orchestral colors, texture, dynamics (loudness), overall sound, and aesthetics (hybrid orchestral, electronica, traditional orchestral).
Melodic theme: Most strong melodic themes share some common traits: they are singable and they evoke a clear emotion that the listener can relate to. The structure of the theme is easy to follow by balancing repetition/predictability with variation/fresh motifs, in both the melodic phrases and the rhythmic patterns.
Harmonic palette: The harmonic palette is a choice that strongly defines the genre. Consider the difference between a modal score that suggests Americana, from mostly minor heroic chords and “power chords” that make up a shooter like Modern Warfare, and how this harmonic syntax for a modern shooter is different from a heroic tactical shooter with a patriotic feel, like SOCOM 2 (the patriotic theme would have minor chords mixed with major chords).
Instrumentation: The choice of instruments reflects the aesthetics of the score. The orchestral or instrumental colors make the theme memorable and distinctive. For instance, the modern hybrid sound of the Gears of War 2 music relies heavily on dark percussion and grooving strings. The traditional, bright and sparkly orchestral colors of Microsoft’s Kinect Disneyland Adventures suggest the aesthetics of Disney family adventure films.
The function of the game’s theme is to set the world, story, and characters for the game, as well as to create an emotional, evocative, and immersive experience for the gamer. The ability of a game composer to capture all of this in a theme is a most vital skill. One of the most important jobs of a game composer is to compose distinctive, compelling, memorable themes. Themes act as a “sonic” signature for the game, and will define the genre, the storyline, the characters of the game, and ultimately serve as a powerful identifier of the game’s brand.
A great book for composers is Chance Thomas’ Composing Music for Games: The Art, Technology and Business of Video Game Scoring. Chapters in it are devoted to the composer’s toolkit (musical elements, structure, harmonic syntax, great melodies) and on how to develop those skills to compose great game themes. I strongly recommend this book; it is one of the most eye-opening and inspiring books for composers (and not just game composers) that I’ve ever read.
Another great book for composers that discusses game themes and leit-motives in great detail is Winifred Phillips’ book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music
Words by Penka Kouneva.