If you dabble in music and composition you know well that writing music and coming up with new material can be a challenging task. You have moments of inspiration where a great tune or chord progression comes to you. The rest of the time it can be a brutal churn. My aim in this post is to describe just one way you can utilize those moments of inspiration, and make the absolute most of it.

The concept of theme and variations has been around for a very long time. A lot of classical music can actually be considered just that: a short theme and the rest is simply expounding on that theme. However in some compositions (going at least as far back as Bach) there are explicit variations of a theme, with each variation having a clear start and end. Perhaps the best example I know of is a simple and timeless melody which was composed by Niccolò Paganini. The first 25 seconds are that melody:

And how does he do this? He simply inverts the initial notes of the theme and puts it in a major scale! (I use the word simply cautiously here…of course there is much more to it than that, but you get the idea).

So why should we care, and how does it help with games?

  • Having laid down a basic theme, it is possible to create several many pieces based on it and have your game soundtrack developed more quickly than you would, were you to start from scratch for each track.
  • Perhaps more importantly, you will end up with a certain cohesion among your tracks. Often your variation may deviate from the theme to such an extent that it is no longer recognizable, however this connectedness, in my opinion, will be felt if not heard.
  • Eventhough sticking with a theme might seem like a restriction, in many ways it frees you and allows you to become much more creative within its boundaries. And it can be a plain fun exercise to do!

To explore this a bit further I decided to go through some music I worked on and describe some different ways I used to create variations on a basic theme. This music was composed not for a game but for a short film which some friends and I worked on for fun last year. I do realize that game music can have very different requirements to that of movies, however the concept which I’m introducing here still applies.

The Theme

The movie is a film noir which is meant to be comedic. I wrote the main theme song on the piano which was somewhat inspired by the old Poirot TV series:

Nothing fancy here. The main part consists of 4 chords that move down the keyboard chromatically. I don’t even know what these chords are exactly which tells you how little music theory I know, and how much I let it stop me from writing music…

Changing the Mood

In one of the scenes the main character, detective Joubert, meets “The Boss” whose face you never see but you hear his voice. He is meant to be mysterious. To convey this I decided just to use the same chord progression as the theme with broken chords on the right hand and octaves on the left. The contrast between the high notes and low notes and also the broken chords give the “mystery” feel to the track. This was a simple change; there isn’t even a melody so this track was very quick to write:


Next up I wanted to write some cheeky music for a scene where the main character is interviewing a victim. The choice of instrument, and how that instrument is played, has a great influence on the feel of the music. I had heard a lot of TV series and movies use cello picks to convey what I was looking for. You’ll notice that the melody is quite similar to the main theme, and again the same chord progression is used. At around 35 seconds, the clarinet comes in, playing an alternate but complementary melody line. I actually tried various other instruments but settled for the clarinet (and this is one of the many free things you get when you’re working with digital music…simply switch out the instrument until you find the right one):

Throwing Voice into the Mix

Human voice can add a great dimension to your music. This may not always be the obvious choice for a game but especially choral harmonies can be effective depending on what you are trying to achieve. For a couple of the scenes I wanted a special theme for detective Joubert. This track also involved a lot more work than the previous ones as I had to add drums and brass instruments. For voice, one of my friends sang all 4 parts. Again note that the chord progression is the same here. I was able to create a second similar, but more subtle track by asking her to sing it slightly differently. I just removed some of the other tracks, added some finger snaps, and voila! I had a new track:

Going Beyond

In all the tracks mentioned above I was sticking fairly close to the original theme, and at least kept the chord progressions the same. But there is no limit in how far you can stretch this. The theme is just meant to be a starting point. In the following track, you might be able to recognize a slight resemblence to the original melody. However the chord progression has completely changed:

And the credits track is even further from the original:

Don’t Forget What You’re Writing For

It’s not always rainbows and butterflies when it comes to writing variations. What you need to remember is what genre you are writing for and not get too liberal with your choices. One of the scenes involved the main character chasing after a suspect. I wanted to write something a bit more upbeat and started playing around with more of techno sound. It was still a variation of the original theme, using the same chords. I personally liked what I had, however I had lost objectivity and had convinced myself that it’d be appropriate for the scene. Eventually my colleagues convinced me that this wasn’t the write sound (literally on the night before screening). In a mad rush, I simply changed out some of the synth sounds with orchestral instruments. The result was more than cheesy (and not the good kind of cheese which this film demands). Here are the before and after results:

Anyway I hope the descriptions above give you some ideas about how you can create many tracks by starting from an initial idea, and in what ways you can vary the theme. Feedback and thoughts on this would be great as I’m not a professional musicians and just relying on a few experiences. If you are interested to see the short film (amateur warning!), here it is: