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Game Design From Outer Space

How different time signatures can increase the replay value of a game? Try to find something comfortable but interesting for your brain.

Macro of a metronome

Time Signatures: How the Brain Enjoys Your Soundtrack


There’s nothing more annoying than a looping soundtrack, I’ve always thought, and I think that’s linked somehow with time signatures. You can make short or long loops but it will always come a time when your mind can’t stand it anymore. It’s alienating. A looping music can lower games’ replay value, and I’m not only talking about bad music pieces. Even if it’s true you can turn off music in most of the games, and some people (read: me) even puts on his own music while playing, I think not considering the soundtrack as part of the design is a big mistake.

Music should be part of the design not only when gameplay is about playing instruments (like in Guitar Hero or in Patapon, for instance): we live in an image-based society but the most powerful media can embed auditory messages along with visual ones, why do we undervalue them? I think it’s an education-related issue. It surprises me, for instance, a lot of people cannot tell a major chord from a minor one when they hear them. It’s as if they couldn’t tell the difference between red and blue but with sounds. Games can do a lot to spread basic ear education, but that’s a different story and I promise to talk about some other time.

Ear Trumpet

Ear trumpets is the future

Time signatures can help you make a looping soundtrack (even a short one) that won’t reach an annoying repetitiveness very soon. Maybe this is not the best solution to integrate music into a design document, but at least you can increase the replay value of your game with no extra expenses, and that sounds quite juicy, doesn’t it?

Why should I choose complex or mixed time signatures?

We’re dealing with something related to comfort zones. Our standard time subdivision is 4/4, most of the music we listen to is in that time signature, and if it’s not a 4/4 maybe it’s a 3/4, 6/8 or 12/8. It’s very rare we listen to music with different time signatures than those. That’s why those signatures are our rhythmic comfort zone, 4/4 in particular. I must admit I have some doubt about how this consideration can be valid for different ethnic groups. It’s possible a Turkish person can feel comfortable within a 7/4 or a 7/8 signature as some of their traditional songs; not to mention Indians… I guess international artists exported the 4/4 signature as a standard in the whole world, but that’s still a supposition.

Anyway our brain doesn’t need an effort to decipher how time flows during a song if that’s in a comfortable time signature, and this is the crucial point I want to make: no effort equals boredom. When you listen to something in 7/8, on the other hand, your mind has two works to do: the usual decoding of melodies and harmony and a decoding of rhythm that doesn’t take place when you’re inside the time signatures’ comfort zone. This can bring more effort, therefore less boredom.

What you need to do is not to overcomplicate things, if it’s true that more effort equals less boredom we mustn’t forget that too much effort could lead you to rage quit, and  for the same reason melody and harmony shouldn’t be too complex too. I think there are only few time signatures outside of the comfort zone you can safely use: 7/8, 5/8, 5/4, 7/4, 9/8. These time signatures are complex enough to make your mind work but not enough complex to feel overwhelmed.  If you have no idea what they sound like you can make some experiments with this browser metronome. Maybe at the beginning composing in not too common time signatures can result harder, you just need to break the habit and get into it. Just let the music flow and make the time signatures do the hypnotizing work for you, with little effort you can increase your soundtrack replay value and help humans exit their comfort zones.

Watch this: a 7/4 that hypnotized Italy some years ago (and apparently a good half of the population never recovered).

Conclusions

Time signatures shouldn’t be assigned by default settings, if you love what you do you should at least think about every detail more than two minutes. Maybe I’m wrong with this comfort zone feeling, but at least it’s something worth discussing. For this reason I invite you letting me know what you think about it, if you ever tried a similar approach to soundtrack creation please let me know, make me listen to something. Music is an open world that never stops to amaze me, especially when I abandon the easy way.


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