September 20, 2022

Your music is a letdown? Here’s how to avoid that.

(The simple art of not ruining your project from the beginning)

You’ve spent thousands of hours making your dream game. Coding long into the night, night after night… you’ve poured yourself into crafting the art and designing every detail to look exactly as you’d imagined.. and finally you’ve received your first music from your composer! And it’s awful.

Well… probably not awful. However, it’s absolutely NOT what you wanted. In fact, it’s far from it.

Let’s go to the beginning of this musical catastrophe. You were very excited to hire Barnabas your composer. You know that he is extremely talented, can deliver a really professional soundtrack and can’t wait to start. You gathered together the resources, sent it to him excited to know that this crucial area of your game is finally happening.

First you wrote up a description. Specifically, you told Barnabas that you wanted it to be “lively” and “exciting”, with lots of celtic instruments and energy. You shared youtube clips for “Epic Celtic Combat Music” and “Relaxing music from The Shire” to capture the aura your game needs. You thought about sending more, but hesitated; you didn’t want to overwhelm him. You also wanted the music to be original, not overly influenced by other soundtracks.* You felt confident he should have enough from you to execute your vision.

So what happened.

The issue wasn’t in your vision for the game’s soundtrack, or even your composer. In fact, I’m sure Barnabas is great! The issue is, he really had no idea what he needed to be doing.

The solution is simply to provide references, a description and to provide them well.

I thought I did that, I hear you say.

What exactly went wrong? Let’s list it out:

  1. The initial description was devastatingly vague.
  2. The references had no continuity and do nothing to guide the composer.
  3. There weren’t enough references.

Before we tackle these let’s clarify the simple truth to why composers work with references:

They will get you what you want. Your beautiful/killer/head banging soundtrack is so much more likely to exist if you use references.

I have had numerous clients worry it might influence the music too much and prevent my work, and therefore their soundtrack, from being original. Fortunately, that almost never happens. Creatives want to do things differently. Composers will instinctually push into new ground with the music, and giving references will sets the loose guidelines to make sure their composition fits your vision. The reality is music could go an infinite number of directions, so you need some sort of parameters in place to guide the composer to the general area you want them in.

That’s all there is too it. You give references to get what you want. If you want your soundtrack to accomplish what it needs to for you, then this is not the step to skip.

Now that that is out of the way, let’s address the issues we identified above:

  1. Vague. Every set of references requires an explanation. Use this to give broad brush strokes, but not uselessly so. In the above example, the description was “lively and exciting”. What does this mean though? Exciting because there is a lot of action? Exciting because there is a lot of joy? “Exciting” is just too vague of a term. Let me show you what I mean: “Lively and exciting, like you are about to go into combat and there is a lot of danger! Energy is high and the stakes are raised a bit. The game is bright and colorful, so it doesn’t need to sound dark.” It’s still broad enough for the composer’s creative freedom, but also guides the composer by giving context.

  2. References had no continuity. In this example I was a bit obvious, however, this is a very common issue. In the example above, the references were limited to epic combat music and ambient music reminiscent of quiet country-dwelling hobbits. These are clear opposites. Take a moment to think about your references before you give them. What do they have in common? What is different about them? Make sure they have what you want in common, and explain that as best you can. Help your composer “hear” your inspirations.

    As is, these two tracks, without clarification, leaves the composer to hear celtic instruments in common. Of course, they are being used in dramatically different ways… but there are probably flutes and celtic percussion and maybe bagpipes in both. Ok, now the composer assumes that’s what you want. WITH clarification, you could say something like “I do not like how epic the combat music is, however I really like the vocal sound and would love that in the style of the other reference” Now you have clarity as to what you want from each reference, as well as what you don’t want.

  3. Finally, there weren’t enough references. The simple truth is you can’t send too many reference tracks to your composer. They will only give them more information to help understand your desires and vision. For example, two references are just an A-B comparison. It’s hard to identify what the consistent threads are if the references are limited. My recommendation is to send 3-5.


This process is important for you to take ownership of. I’m speaking to composers, but this could easily be applied to be any creative endeavor.

  1. Clarify, clarify, clarify. Dig into their descriptions and make sure you can get as much clarity over what they are asking as possible. Write all of your questions down and bring them to your client.
  2. Listen to each reference carefully and make a T-chart. On one side, write what qualities are similar between them, on the other write what is different. If this creates questions bring them to your client before you begin any actual work.
  3. Request more references. If you only receive one or two, ask for more. Shoot for 3-5.

These problems are easy to fix at the beginning and hard to fix at the end. Asking for complete rewrites of music is expensive. It costs a TON of time and if there is one thing the entire world understands… it’s that time is money.

Be thorough at the start of a project and communicate very clearly! It will pay off massively in the end.


Unless you are paying an hourly rate, never ever use your composer to experiment with your sound. You will waste your own time and theirs. If they are generous enough to go along with it, then you are wasting a ton of their own money as they aren’t being paid for the extra effort. Let them experiment on their own (within the parameters you give them), any good creative will, but never use them for your own experimental endeavors…

…Unless of course you pay them for that time. Then by all means, go ahead!

*If you are worried about limiting your composer’s creativity by giving them references, you can throw that notion out of the window. Limitations breed creativity! Any artist who has created something truly great, did so by limiting their tools/time/method etc. In the words of Jack White: “Telling yourself you have all the time in the world, all the colors in that palette, that just kills creativity”.