Music is a strange art form. It can exist entirely on its own, but it can also be used to improve other art forms as well.
Movies, video games, TV shows, and even commercials just wouldn’t be the same without their accompanying music.
Something truly special happens when a talented composer sits down to create score music. To be honest, it’s still a bit of a mystery to us exactly how it all happens.
Our interview today is with one such talented composer, Yueh-Yun “Sandy” Chen. Originally from Taiwan, Chen has been a composer for years, crafting and contributing music for shows (“Una Vida, Una Cena” and “Elite”), board games (“Tokaido” and “Mysterium”), and short films (“The Graveyard Shift”).
We got to talk to Chen about all kinds of different projects, from board games to video games and just about everything in between.
If you’d like some more info on Chen and her work, feel free to visit her website and give some of her music a listen.
For now, let’s take a look at what Chen had to say about her career in music composition and the creative challenges inherent to it.
What was your first exposure to video games and great video game music?
There’s a particular game that I love regarding the story, style, and music. It was a Taiwanese RPG stand-alone game called “The Scar in the Sky”. It was the first RPG I played. Though it is a simple 2D turn-based game, it is still one of my favorite RPG games. Its music is also really inspiring and full of Chinese characteristics, using Chinese instruments such as Guzheng and Sheng.
As I learned piano when I was little, I would transcribe the melody line and the harmony from the game and tried to play it on the piano. I played that melody many times growing up.
Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to compose for games yourself?
Before I went to Berklee [College of Music], I didn’t know the difference between game music and film music. During an introductory course for video game scoring at Berklee, I learned that game music is more like interactive music, as it needs to be flexible enough and reflect the action of avatars or players accordingly, which is different from film music, which has a linear timeline.
When composing game music, whether it’s for a video game or a board game, the composer not only needs to think of the aesthetic of the music, but also has to consider the game functions and many other elements. Game music needs to be really well designed in order to make the transition smoother between different music pieces for different game states, or make the music loop with variations each time to maintain players’ excitement. Somehow, I feel composing for game music is like putting together a puzzle, and I enjoy that process.
Projects like these led to a much more general interest in interactive music for me. I think creating interactive music, in whatever form, is very appealing to me and my creative sensibilities.
What does your writing process look like? How long does it take to develop a single idea?
Before I start to write, I make sure I know what kind of music my clients want. When I get the vibe of that style of music, I start to doodle around on the keyboard. Usually, I just keep trying whatever comes to mind, and at some point, I find an idea that feels solid, and then I keep writing until I have three or four more ideas like that one.
Sometimes good ideas come out when I’m not at the keyboard at all. Ideas can come up when I’m doing chores or just going about my business. The trick is to stay alert and be ready to write down ideas as they come.
Do you ever ask friends to listen to your early ideas for a new project? Do you appreciate that kind of feedback?
Music is very subjective, and everyone has their own taste and perspective. So when working on a project, I tend to focus on the clients’ needs and feedback.
But sometimes I get stuck. It could be when I have no idea what to write, or when I’ve revised for the same cue so many times, or when I feel the music lacks something very specific. That’s when I ask my friends for their opinions.
Do you tend to get a lot of notes and suggestions from those creating the game?
Writing game music is not like writing for motion pictures. Most of the time I get some hints for story scripts, characters, setting, and game functions, but without really seeing the game, as it might still be in development.
But as the project progresses, I have a better idea of what they want for the music. That makes things much easier.
Who are some other contemporary composers who are doing great work for video games?
There are many great video game music composers. For example, Nobuo Uematsu is a Japanese video game composer. He has worked on most of the Final Fantasy series. Sometimes he is also referred to as the “Beethoven of video game music”. His music for Final Fantasy has been performed in many live concerts around the world.
Jason Graves is also an active video game composer who I admire very much. Some of his great works include Moss, Tomb Raider, and Dead Space.
Another great composer is Wilbert Roget II. He was the composer for Call of Duty: WWII, a few of the Star Wars games, Mortal Kombat 11, and many others. I got to see him speak at GameSound Con 2019. He’s just a really nice person and willing to share his experience and knowledge with others.
Which of your projects was the most creatively challenging?
I would say every project is different and each one has its own challenges, and each challenge teaches me something new.
For the first game project I worked on, they asked for chiptune music. It was a totally new genre for me, though I’d played games with chiptune music before, I had no experience of writing that style of music. So I did some research and tried to find some sounds and tweak them to the point where they would fit the game. I blended those sounds with more traditional orchestral instrumentation, and they really appreciated the blending of the two styles.
Each project is so different, and that is the most interesting part of being a composer, whether you’re writing for games, movies, shows, or anything else. Each has its own set of challenges, but each also has its own benefits and moments of joy.