Soundscape Escape: The Synergy of Music and Writing
I often find myself mumbling a few song lyrics from time to time, as if my own personal theme song is playing.
Sometimes, I hear these words when I am sitting behind my desk in front of two PC monitors, bathed in the dueling glows of blue light. Other times, these words appear during a shift at work, as the sky blackens due to the flow of time. Or when I am all alone, and these words remind me of how far I have come in life.
What are these words, you ask? Well, they go like this:
“Suddenly, my journey has begun
While everyone around blessed me, how could I’ve known?”
These lyrics come from the rock song “Divide My Heart” by Daisuke Ishiwatari and Naoki Hashimoto, which appears in the 2D 1v1 fighting video game Guilty Gear Xrd -REVELATOR-.
If you are not familiar with the game or the song your first thought is likely, “wait, how the heck do you pronounce Xrd?” (No worries, I had to look it up too.)
But pronunciation isn’t what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about why I find myself singing along to a foreign song that I only half remember. Songs like “Divide My Heart” carry a deeply personal meaning to me, as if they were the soundtrack of my life. And, they might even have some influence on you, even if you haven't listened to any of them before.
How Did We Get Here?
Back in high school, I had a lot of time to play video games. Which, as a college student, an intern, and a part-time employee, is now a rare luxury. But in those days of yore, you could have found me all night Friday through Sunday exploring some abstract digital space, controller in hand. This is when and where my first dream was born, as I have already written about. Within this time, I played through NieR Automata, Final Fantasy XV, Titanfall 2, Yakuza 0, and most of the Kingdom Hearts series.
A lot of teenage boys like video games, so what made me special? Well, I like to think of myself more than a video game fan. Maybe I am a devotee or a connoisseur.
If a person could have an excellent taste in film, or song, or food, I liked to think that I had quality taste in video games. I keep up with the latest releases, juiciest industry news stories, and marvel at the prolific stories of game companies and developers. What really interested me, however, was the storytelling capabilities of video games. With games, there are a lot of different ways in which a story could be told. A game’s narrative could be straightforward like a movie (Uncharted, Halo). It could also be very malleable, allowing for the player to interact with the story in a variety of ways, like in Bethesda role-playing games. A game's story could be its main selling point, like Telltale Games, or it could be very obscured and hard to digest, like the hidden lore within Dark Souls or Destiny.
An underappreciated part of storytelling in games is music. Much like in TV or film, music can help construct the story that the creators are trying to tell. But with games, music can go further than that. Oftentimes, music is responsible for helping to carry the tone and theme of parts in a game. In just one title, you could have melancholic melodies and heroic harmonies, songs that yield dread, inspiration, excitement, and action.
The variety of music with video games comes from the diversity found in the medium. Uniqueness becomes a necessity. The aforementioned Guilty Gear is a fast-paced fighting game, which leads to its music being heavily inspired by classic rock music. But with a game like Kirby, a cute side-scrolling platformer for all, the music is a very cheery affair. The direction that the developers have for a project demands specific types of music to help solidify its eventual final shape. This shape is not only determined by the developers, but also by the talented composers, musicians, and audio mixers that also influence it. Effectively, game music is designed like any other part.
Now, how does this relate to me as a creative person? I haven’t developed any games, obviously, so why does this niche part of modern music interest me so much?
Well, whenever I write, I like to do so while listening to music. Who doesn’t? But I don’t like to listen to the latest chart-toppers or the classic tunes of yesteryear. I like to use video game music while writing to help guide my pen. As I said, game music is designed; it serves a role.
As a writer, I like to use game music while I work for this very reason. I find that it can help with determining the direction that I want to go in, specifically in three different ways:
You probably expected this one, given that many people like to have music on while they work. Music has a very unique effect on people as it can deeply affect your mood. Tranquil songs can help you study. Rock can motivate you when you're exercising. Pop music can help you destress and remember to have fun.
With game music, I find that this effect is much easier to manually produce, given how specific a song could be. Let’s say I’m working on a fantasy story, and I’ve got all these ideas in my head, but lo and behold, I just can’t express them on the page in which I want them to be. What I need to do in these situations is figure out how I can direct these ideas. To do that, I search for a fantasy game’s original soundtrack, hit shuffle, take a breath, and listen to the first song for a bit. If I vibe with it, then I leave it on. If not, I shuffle to the next and the next until I find one that is just right.
Yeah, it’s a simple trick. But it works wonders. The music that melds with my ideas helps to define them. The right song, with the right rhythm and tune, can give some direction to my writing. It’s like when you turn on the sound in a movie after watching it silently for an hour. Music is the missing element that can kickstart the actual work.
This isn’t exclusive to fantasy music, nor does this only work when the genre of the song and your writing are the same. It really depends on what kind of music listening experience you want to start off with. For example, I’ve mostly been writing this very post while listening to the uproarious rock of Guilty Gear. Though such loud and heavy music might conflict with the peaceful tones of a blog post, I find that it motivates me when I’m stuck in a stupor.
Speaking of Tone
Building off of the mindset I have, the feeling that music gives me also influences how I express my ideas. With a lot of games, music is used to make you feel an emotion. Directly influencing what you perceive while watching the screen. This also happens while I write, because the music can help me find the right emotional tone that I need.
Since I’ve played a lot of the games that these songs come from, they call upon memories that further influence my writing. Helping to find and develop the tone that I need for a scene that I want to create.
If I’m writing a climactic showdown between my protagonist and their rival, I would want to have some boss fight music playing to find the right voice. It helps to determine how tense I want the scene to be. How explosive I want the outcome. The music brings me back to the tension of the original scene it played in, which I can then use to help create what I want to write.
Though this technique does wonders with creative writing, it can also work pretty well with more formal work, such as blog writing, school reports, or other professional matters. If you want to make a point, then the right song can help realize it. For me, when I am building up to make a strong point, I like to put on “Finish the Fight” from Halo 3 to give me that push that I need. It’s a high-energy song that gives me the drive to create.
It’s a Journey
But at the end of the day, whether it’s a video game soundtrack or mainstream songs, music is a form of artistic expression. Musicians of all types, be they composers, singers, or else, drive to create a response from their work. Just like writers attest to do. Both forms of art go hand in hand.
This is why I really like to write while listening to game music. When I write while listening to these types of songs, it reminds me of the dream I originally had about being a game developer. Sure, I‘m not on that path right now but the type of music I use recaptures that feeling. With a sense of ambition and adventure, I take that feeling and use it to enhance my new passion.
That, I whole-heartedly believe, is the real magic of writing with music, especially if the music means a deal of importance to you. The songs speak to you on a deeper level, like a Grecian muse whispering in your ear. It turns from a mere aid into the drive of creation.
I never would have thought that my interest in video game music would have so deeply impacted my writing career. Yet, these songs inspire, influence, and motivate me in a way that’s hard to replicate. This practice has become so ingrained into my creative process, I don’t think I would be the same without it.
Even though I have both appreciated video game music and writing for a long time, they still manage to feel like bold new endeavors for me because of their impact. It’s somewhat strange, I would say, because it feels that suddenly, my journey has begun.
About the Author
Leonard Brattoli is a sophomore Honors student majoring in English. He offers to the Foundation his writing skills as one of its newest Newsletter and Blog Writers. His background is varied, including experience in creative writing, academic papers, review work, and collaboration.