The Right Audio – 9 Tips For Creating Targeted Kids Game Music and Audio

Creating and selecting music and audio for kids games has all the challenges of composing music for any game, film or TV show. Finding the right audio, and musical landscape can be a crucial component to whether the game is a success. For me, the ultimate test, after all the conversations and work, is whether kids keep the music on while they’re playing!

I have put together a handful of tips that I’ve picked up over the years that I can recommend if you need to figure out how to design, explain and/or write kids game music and audio. I’m writing this from my viewpoint as a composer and sound designer with the hope that it might help other game audio folks; and also writers, producers, game designers, audio directors, audio programmers, folks in marketing and PR, and any creative person involved in creating a kids games. My hope is that if you follow these guidelines, the music and audio in your game will greatly enhance the game, making it a critical part of the gameplay, so much so, that kids couldn’t imagine playing the game without your audio and music.

Here are my: 9 Tips for Creating Targeted Kids Game Music and Audio

  1. Figure out what you’re working on
    When I begin a project, it’s my job to learn as much as possible about what I’m working on, beginning with the intention of the creators. I’m interested in listening, reading, and looking at everything; the game design document, any artwork (finished or not), any levels (whether they’re playable yet or not) and any relevant analytics from the marketing folks about the target market, including whether the game is a sequel. I also try to gather any and all musical references that the design team has been thinking about. If you’re a composer, plan to ask for as much as your client can give you, and be prepared to look, listen and ask questions. If you’re on the developer side, be prepared to provide these materials to your curious composers and sound designers. The more open you are to the creative folks you work with, the more likely they are to be on target with their work. While there is a certain amount of mind-reading that happens with my clients, I prefer to be a translator – to gain inspiration from narrative, visuals and design elements that my client has provided – translating all of these materials into the right audio.
  2. Get buy-in about what you’re going to create
    Once I figure out what I’m going to work on, I compile an audio brief, a document that outlines all the information that I’ve collected (see #1), with clear directives about what I’m going to write, then I share it with my client. By sharing this information with my client, I can be clear with them about what I’m intending to write, and they can share the audio brief with members of their team, so they all know what to expect. Communication is so very important during the whole process (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-speak-music-5-tips-communicating-composer-jerome-rossen/). Establishing an open line of communication with your creative team from the beginning is very important.
  3. Be clear like a laser
    When you’re in planning mode, creating or discussing an audio brief, clarity of genre and style will always be helpful, including specific genres, artists and tracks. If I have a client who tells me they want the music to be fun, I’m going to ask for more specific information. Do they mean something bright and cheery with ukulele and percussion? A mariachi band? A piano playing ragtime? You get the idea. These examples might all be fun in the right context, but none may fit what my client has in mind. If my intention is to be clear with genres, I will have a better chance to deliver music that will fit the game and that the client likes.
  4. Write up – Aim for a few years higher
    In my experience with my own kids and as a guest artist in the classroom (K-12), kids want to aspire beyond their age. They want to read about the lives of kids a few years older. They don’t like to feel babied. It’s the same with music written for them. For preschool games, kids don’t want the music to feel too young. For young elementary games K-2, the kids don’t want the games to feel too kiddie-like. And for 3rd-5th and tweens, for instance, if you’re game is reaching from a pop music genre, your best bet is probably to reach for current pop music as a model. When in doubt, add a bit more sophistication to the music and you’ll be on track.
  5. Try to narrow the target market
    Often game designers and marketing folks have an intention that a kids game will try to reach a really broad range of kids; some games are successful at this. When I approach a game where my client says they want to reach K-5, I really have to dig in and figure out whether the younger, K-2nd grade kids are playing the game differently than the 3rd-6th graders. If so, I have to make a decision with the game designers of which narrow group to write for. In this example, it would likely be best to write for the older group, the 3rd-5th grade audience, without alienating the younger kids. Also, I find an interesting thing happens – when I’m successful focusing on a narrow target market, the audio will often work well for wider audience as well.
  6. Don’t water down
    Kids can handle sophisticated music and audio, in fact they’re expecting it. Whether you like it or not, your game is competing with all other media out there. This includes movies and tv shows with huge audio budgets, that may contain full orchestras and high-end pop producers. No matter what you audio budget is, your game can have sophisticated, well designed music and audio if you have the right preparation and the right team from the beginning.
  7. Scary, minor and major
    If there are realistic events happening in-game, then it may be completely appropriate for them to sound realistic… but be careful, especially for the younger audiences, sometimes those sounds need to be tempered. For example, if there is a space explosion in a preschool game, it might be more effective for it to sound more fun than scary, with some synths added in for musical sound design. Be mindful about writing in minor keys. Believe it or not, only a small percentage of the music I’ve created for young kids games (K-2 and younger) includes music in minor keys. There is one game developer that tries it’s best to avoid using minor keys altogether! The only case I can remember using a minor key for this developer was in a game that helps kids identify emotions – I used a minor key for “scared” and “frustrated”, but not a handful of other emotions. In general, keep it major if you can for the young ones.
  8. Pay attention to the game design
    Keeping track of the basic game design principles of the game will help you figure out how complex your music should be, in any given level. How long will the player be on this level? How complex is this level? Is there any data from play-testing? As far as length of track, if it’s a really easy level, and the player won’t be there long, then it may not make sense to use a long, 1 minute looping track. On the other hand, if it’s really hard and the player will be there longer, it might make sense to provide more music so that the loop doesn’t get boring. As far as difficulty, make sure the music pairs properly with the complexity of the game. I prefer to use less complex music, when the game is more complex. For instance if you’re working on a really complicated puzzle, my caveman brain gets distracted if there’s too much other stimulation. Complex levels may be well served from minimal or no melody, and fast tempos. Remember, the music is here to serve and enhance the game experience, not the other way around.
  9. Use odd and vintage genres wisely
    I love odd genres, and I love mixing them. It’s OK to use all kinds of genres, but make sure you’re being mindful in the way you’re using them. I make sure I have a reason to use the genre I select – perhaps cuing off of the geography, landscape or shift in the narrative. Also, I think it’s great to throw a bone to the parents or caregivers now and then, as long as you’re aware that you might be including a genre that you know the kids may not understand. Remember the adults are often listening but not playing the game. Be mindful that a parent or adult might ask to turn the music down, or ask the kids to stop playing the game (G-d forbid!).

I hope these tips are helpful to you as you move forward creating music and audio for your kids game. I hope that they help you make your audio essential to your game. If you have any questions about any of the tips, please let me know – I’d love to discuss them with you!

Jerome Rossen is a composer, songwriter, producer and professional musician. For 18, Jerome has created music for advertising, apps, and kid’s video games. Jerome has created music for Originator Kids “Math Tango: Starbase”, Leapfrog and Spinmaster. Jerome has placed his music in major TV shows like “The Bachelor” on ABC and MTV’s “The Challenge”. Jerome also creates the music for the Happy Tree Friends, a very funny (though very violent) cartoon for adults and mature kids, with a huge cult following. He runs Freshmade Music, an independent audio studio.

How do you find and choose a composer to work with for your video, ad, app, film, game or TV show?

You’re working on an ad, a film, a game, an app or a TV show. You and your team have poured your heart into the copy, the script, the artwork… you’ve done the shoot, you’ve begun building the levels, and you’re ready to hire the perfect composer. Where do you look?

To start with, when is the best time to start looking for your perfect composer? As a composer, folks contact me at different times in their creative process, and I’m happy to speak with anyone at any point in their project. It’s great for me to have a conversation toward the beginning of a project so I know creatively what to expect, and it can be helpful to know early on about the key deadlines. In a typical project, I start creating when there is a fine cut (for film and advertising) or when there is some sort of creative lock down on the art and game play, like a playable level (for apps and games). This allows for plenty of room for creative twists and turn, and changes in direction and scope.

So you have your fine cut, or your levels pretty much ready – what next? Take a moment to figure out how much you can articulate on your own? Do you know how much music you might need? What’s the target audience? Do you have an idea of genre or instrumentation? If the answer to any of these is no, that’s totally OK! The composer you hire should help you with all of the pieces to this puzzle.

Once you think you know what you want, start asking around to folks in your industry – filmmakers, directors, editors, producers, audio post professionals, video game developers, app developers – to see if they can recommend someone.

Once you start to get some names, look at the work the composer has done before – is there something that seems like it matches what you’re working on, and the vision you’ve articulated? Oftentimes a composer might have some work that could be a perfect example for you to listen to, but it’s not on their website. For me, I don’t post every single project I work on so it’s always great to ask if there is something specific you’re looking for.

Try first to hire someone local, so you can meet with them face-to-face and really get a feel for them as a person. This might sound counter to the global, super-connected world we live in, but you will appreciate this, especially if you’ve never worked with a composer. It’s not necessarily just about managing them and understanding their workflow, though this is easier in person – being able to have a meeting or two in person can be really great. As you get more experience working with composers, this may become less important to you – or not!

Next, have a conversation with them. You want to figure out whether you click, and think you can work creatively together. Chances are, if you have already produced something that needs music, you likely have experience hiring a creative person (or five!) for your project. If you can’t find someone local, I recommend setting up a Facetime or Skype call.

What about just “hiring” someone for free? Oftentimes, you might be able to find someone who is interested in working for credit. In my experience, you get what you pay for. If a composer is working for free, chances are they are not going to be as concerned about your deadline as another composer who is getting paid and is under contract. If you do decide to go this route, I believe that there should be at least some sort of barter or exchange – at least some meals, web design or something else that you can offer them.

Do you know your budget? Working with a composer generally costs more than licensing a track or tracks from the internet – though the experience and the results are usually very different. For advertising, there is generally a fixed rate for a “track”. A general rule for a film, game or app project is that around 10% of your project’s budget could go toward the music. Rates can vary widely depending on whether the final project has a wide release or if it is an Indie project. It can also depend on the amount of experience the composer has and the amount of projects he or she has worked on.

To summarize, here are some tips when you are ready to hire a composer for your advertising, app, film, game or TV project.

  • When: You can begin the search for a composer as soon as you know you need one, but expect them to begin working when you have a fine cut (for advertising), a playable level, some approved artwork (for games and apps)
  • What: Figure out the basics of what you need either yourself or with your composer – how much music? Target audience? Genre? Instrumentation?
  • Who: Ask around for a referral
  • Where: Start local
  • How: Have a conversation just like you would with any creative person
  • How much: What is the budget?

If you find any of these tips helpful, I’d love to hear about it. Please feel free to contact me with questions or comments about working with a composer. You can contact me at info @ freshmademusic .com (no spaces).

Jerome Rossen is a composer, songwriter, producer and professional musician. For 15 years, Jerome has created music for advertising, apps, and kid’s video games. Jerome has placed his music in major TV shows like Gordon Ramsey’s “The F-Word” and “The Bachelor”. Jerome also creates the music for the Happy Tree Friends, a very funny (though very violent) cartoon for adults and mature kids, with a huge cult following. He runs Freshmade Music, an independent audio studio. You can learn more at www.freshmademusic.com.

Country and Western

blues brothers
“ELWOOD: What kind of music do you usually have here?
CLAIRE: Oh, we have both kinds — country and western.”
– The Blues Brothers, 1980 written by Dan Aykroyd and John Landis

I like all kinds of music including, country, western, pop, jazz, classical, and world – the list goes on. I listen to lots of music too that I may or may not like; largely pop music if my kids are in the car. Maybe I should be more totalitarian about their listening habits and play more Miles Davis, Mozart and Motown? In any case, whenever I’m listening to anything, I don’t really turn off my music analyzer muscle, and this was the case when Kelly Clarkson’s “Heartbeat Song”  was on the radio yesterday. I’m not prepared to make an argument for whether it’s good or bad – that’s for you to decide – but I can tell you my opinion; one of the musical reasons why this song has become popular. And I’m also going to reference A-ha’s “Take On Me” .

To me, the biggest reason why “Heartbeat Song” is popular is because of the way the beat changes between a fast, frenetic feel during the verse, and a slow, epic beat during the chorus. I think dramatic changes like this one are very compelling to pop music listeners. I think listeners generally find music interesting anytime there is a part of a song that “kicks in” or where there is a smooth feel-change that feels natural, and gets your attention; that makes you want to dance or dance in a different way than the section of the song before it.

During the verse, the words bounce along like it’s bubblegum pop, although in this case, the music is actually playing against the words. Whereas the words show worry, concern and stress, the beat just keeps moving along.

“Pins and needles on my tongue,
Anticipating what’s to come”

The drums during these verses are very simple, with the kick on 1 and 3, the snare on 2 and 4 – the drums are hitting every quarter note here. There is a rhythm part played by a guitar or synth – or maybe doubled that is playing 8th notes. The verse has a very quick, driving feel. The pre-chorus has an interesting transitional feel to it. It’s a broken beat that forecasts some of the drama to come, but it doesn’t get too epic.

Then we get to the chorus. The beat here is in ½ time, as compared to the verse. If this section were experienced by itself, this could be the climax of a ballad. The feel here is very epic – Clarkson is singing in a higher part of her register, and the words are meant to be… heartfelt.

“This is my hearbeat song and I’m gonna play it, been song long, I forgot how to turn it up up up up all night long….”

Which brings me to A-ha’s “Take On Me”. This song employs this same technique in the chorus, just in a smaller dose.

In the beginning of the song, the whole feel is quite fast, again bouncing along. The chorus has the same feel, and momentum moves forward until you get to the line
“I’ll be gone….” For these 4 bars, there is a brief respite of ½ time, right before singer A-ha singer Morten Harket sing’s his falsetto high note. In the music video, it’s the moment when the animated hand breaks the third wall and motions for our blond protagonist to enter into comic book world. This all doesn’t happen as a coincidence… To me, this is one of the attractions of the song and even provides one of the reasons why this was a breakout hit for A-ha in 1985.