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The Power of the Sung Word
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The Power of the Sung Word

March 20, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

[In this audio feature, originally printed in Game Developer magazine, LucasArts' veteran soundtrack composer Jesse Harlin argues eloquently for the expanded use of the sung word in game scores.]

Cave ab homine unius libri is a Latin proverb that means "beware a man with only one book," and when sitting down to write choral music for entertainment media, it's the Latin texts that composers usually reach for first.

Rather than crafting meaningful text, many pieces of choral music for games or movie trailers contain a hodge-podge of random words or disconnected phrases.

For the most part, this seems to be due to tight deadlines, a Latin-illiterate audience, and a general sense that sounding like "Carmina Burana" will automatically result in an epic score.

This approach does a huge disservice to a choral score. The human voice is the most emotive of all instruments, as well as one of the most dynamic in terms of timbre and range.

Most importantly, the human voice is the only instrument that can communicate to the listening audience through the poetry of the written word.

Setting meaningful text to your music adds an emotional impact unachievable with any other instrument and holds the potential to captivate listeners and pull them deeper within the game world.

Real-World Alternatives

Latin may have been the original choral language at the birth of Western music, but it has been turned away from more and more since the late 15th century.

Hundreds of thousands of choral texts exist in the classical romance languages of French, Italian, and Spanish as well as German, English, and more unfamiliar texts in Chinese, Thai, Russian, and any other language with a cultural folk song tradition.

Since choral music has the ability to comment on drama in a way very much akin to the Chorus of traditional Greek theater, the first step when deciding to write choral music should not be which existing piece of classical repertoire to ape, but to think about what the choir can dramatically represent that makes it powerfully unique to your work.

Rather than simply sounding epic in a generic sense, a choir can add to the music by tying the characters together with the plot and setting. Consider where the game takes place. Latin text is considerably less appropriate for a World War II first-person shooter than would be Wagnerian German.

Swords and sorcery fantasy games are almost always imbued with an Arthurian sense of early Anglo-Saxon mystique. Rather than using the crutch of cliched Latin, choral work in Gaelic or the Old English of Beowulf lends a noble fluidity to the sound while infusing it with an exotic unfamiliarity.

Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

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