A well-crafted musical score has the power to completely transform the player’s gaming experience, adding depth, mood, and emotional impact to the game’s world.
Unfortunately, commissioning music for a game can prove to be a challenging task for many game developers, especially when it comes to effectively communicating their vision and expectations to the composer.
In this article, we will delve into the process of commissioning music for your game, and at the end, I’ll share the exact template I use to ensure a seamless and successful collaboration with my composers.
Music Commission Pricing
When it comes to commissioning music for your game, most composers charge on a per-minute basis.
On the low end of the spectrum, hobbyist artists may charge anywhere from $30 to $100 USD, while full-time indie composers may charge anywhere from $200 to $400 USD.
Studio rates, on the other hand, can be upwards of $1000 USD, and more established composers may command even higher fees.
When negotiating the cost of the music, there are several factors to consider, including:
- Rev-share percentage
- Ownership of the music tracks – you may be able to negotiate a lower price by selling the soundtrack separately and giving the composer 100% of the revenue
- A rough estimate of the number of soundtracks you need
- The total length of music required (I generally estimate 2 minutes per track as a rule of thumb)
- Your budget for the project.
Introduce Your Game to the Composer
Once you’ve found the right composer for your project, the initial step is to give them an overview of your game. Share the story, gameplay mechanics, unique selling points, and any concept art that will help bring your vision to life.
This is mostly standard procedure, which I’m sure most of you are already doing. Once the composer is apart of your project, we can move on to the process of commissioning individual soundtracks:
How to Communicate Like a Director
Contrary to popular belief, you do not need any musical experience to be able to communicate to composers.
Music composers frequently deal with clients who have no music knowledge. It’s part of their job to listen, understand the director’s visions and communicate without technical music lingo.
Unfortunately, as great as musicians are, they can’t read minds. You’ll have to clearly communicate your abstract ideas to them.
1. Create a List of Descriptions
A common pitfall when commissioning music is being too vague in your descriptions.
For example, simply saying “create a soundtrack for a sad scene” doesn’t provide enough detail. There are countless variations of sadness, and a description like this could mean anything from “grief over the loss of a loved one” to “despair and loneliness.”
To effectively communicate the emotions you want to convey, it’s crucial to create a list of detailed descriptions to provide to the composer.
- holding back tears
- bottling emotions
- moving forward
This type of detailed description will give the composer a clearer understanding of your expectations and help them create a soundtrack that truly captures the emotions you want to convey.
You can include as many descriptions as you feel are necessary. I personally provide 10-20, but feel free to include as many as you need.
2. Create “Negative Descriptions” (Optional, but Helpful)
Negative descriptions are things you don’t want in the soundtrack. Maybe you want a sad scene like the above, but you don’t want it to be hollow.
You can do that by adding negative descriptions:
If I want the song to be sad, but not hollow, in my mind it’s obvious, but the composer might not know this.
To be sure – I include these negative descriptions. You don’t need to include really obvious negative descriptions like “happy.”
The negative description list is generally much smaller than the description list.
3. Find Reference Artwork (Use AI to Generate)
Visuals can greatly assist a composer in understanding the mood and atmosphere you’re trying to convey. Find 1-3 images that embody the emotions of the scene you’re working on. Usually one image is enough.
With recent advancements in AI technology, you can generate stunning artwork that perfectly captures the mood.
It does require some prompt writing skills, but this is a skill all game developers should know. I recommend learning this.
To get started, you can try setting up Stable Diffusion on your computer, or utilize AI art generators out there. These tend to offer free credits as well.
4. Find Reference Music
When including reference music, it’s ideal to find multiple tracks, although this isn’t always possible.
Having multiple reference tracks helps composers identify the common elements you want included, and fosters creativity by allowing them to blend different compositions.
Reference music can be a double-edged sword though. Since you’re using music that wasn’t composed for your game, it’s likely not going to be perfect and this could influence the composer in negative ways.
Becoming too attached to the reference music can limit the composer’s style and creativity.
5. State What you Like/Dislike About it
Just including Youtube links to a bunch of music isn’t enough. You also need to state what you like and dislike about each soundtrack.
Very commonly, since these soundtracks weren’t composed for your game, they are going to have flaws. It’s up to you to be able to pick out those flaws and communicate them to the composer.
6. State the Genre, Tempo, Length and Instruments
This should be pretty basic info. State the genre you want the piece to be in, the music tempo, the length of the piece and whether it is looping.
It should look something like this:
- Genre: Jazz
- Tempo: Slow-Medium (although you can specify BPM here, I like to give the composer flexibility)
- Instrument: Piano melody, percussions
- Length: ~2 minutes
- Looping: Yes
7. Communicate Texture/Complexity
What exactly is texture or complexity? The easiest way to explain it is this:
Imagine texture as a spectrum from “Simple to Complex” (some call it “thin” and “complex”).
“Simple” just means one layer of melody playing. Meanwhile “Complex” can have multiple melodies playing at the same time on top of many layers of accompaniment.
You can just use a simple 0-10 scale to communicate to the composer how complex you want the music to be. Or you can leave this up to the composer.
As a guideline (not a hard rule), simple textures work best for sad or neutral soundtracks. Meanwhile high complexity is good for making the player anxious, or creating happy soundtracks.
Again, this is just a rough guideline and not a hard rule.
8. Decide on the Music’s Power
When it comes to music in your scene, do you want it to be the star of the show, or a subtle backdrop?
If characters are speaking, it’s important to keep the music low-key so that players can focus on the dialogue.
It’s also crucial to consider the level of drama you want in the music. If the composer goes overboard, feel free to give them feedback.
Simply saying “it’s too dramatic” will be enough for the composer to understand and they should be able to correct it.
These types of details are key when working with a composer to create the perfect musical score for your scene.
If you and the composer are still not on the same page, don’t be afraid to ask for a revision. Be clear and specific about what you like and what you don’t like.
To save everybody time, don’t be afraid to make requests that make you sound like a dick.
For example, you might ask for a revision, only to find out that the revision was not what you had in mind. Maybe you weren’t clear on your intentions, or the concept is quite abstract.
Whatever the reason was, politely tell them that the revision is going in the wrong direction.
When you’re going through the revision process, give them indicators on whether they’re going in the wrong or right direction.
If you don’t like everything they made and just want them to start over – tell them that. This will save time. A good composer will understand and do their best to accommodate it.
10. If in Doubt, Just Ask
Seeking the composer’s recommendations can be a helpful step in determining your music direction.
Share all the information you have, including reference artwork and a description, with the composer.
They may provide suggestions that spark new ideas and help you clarify your vision.
Good communication is key in this process. If you’re not sure where to start, begin by discussing simple elements which you already had in mind – such as genre, texture, tempo, etc.
Once you have a clearer picture of what you want, consider adding reference music.
My Music Commission Template
Here’s the music template that I use which I find highly effective for getting my ideas across:
To use it, just make your own copy. You can do so by going to File -> Make a Copy
Where to Find Composers For Your Game
Here’s a list of places you can find composers:
1. Contact Game Composers Directly
My favorite way is to just reach out to composers directly.
Ask around your social network, or look for other indie games with music you like and reach out to them.
The benefit of this method is you get to work with a composer that you like. If someone recommended them – it’s usually a very good sign as well.
2. Social Networks
You’ll find many composers on game dev/music related Discord groups and Facebook groups. Just lurk around these places. Eventually you might find someone with a style you like.
Alternatively you can also do a Twitter callout with appropriate hashtags like #gamecomposer. Beware: you’ll get a lot of applicants, even months/years after you make the post. I personally don’t like this method, because there’s too many applicants to sift through.
You’ll find many artists on subreddits like:
The benefit of using Reddit is you can easily find someone who’s passionate about your project, passionate about creating game music and generally their rates are affordable.
4. Freelance Platforms
Freelance platforms have many types of composers and not all will specialize in game music, but the quality is really good and worth checking out:
- Fiverr (has both low cost hobbyist composers and top notch professional composers)
- Skeb (for finding a native Japanese composer)
5. Game Engine Forums
Although many of these forums aren’t as popular as they once were, you might just find what you’re looking for in them:
- Unity Forums
- Unreal Engine Forums
- RPGMaker Forums
- Lemma Soft Forums
- Godot Forums
Each composer is unique, and what may be effective for one may not be suitable for another.
When working with your composer, I recommend going through the steps highlighted above, present the template and inquire if the format is appropriate.
Additionally, ask if there are any additional details they would like to include.
A personalized approach is the best approach.
By following these steps, you should find it much easier to communicate what you want to your composer.