Tutorial: Battle Theme - Part 1 (Drafting)
Putting this here in the forums to which I'll link to from various groups. Forgive the spam.
I'd say I'm pretty experienced in this area. I've created innumerable battle themes, mostly in the style of the Pokemon games. Still, I believe this tutorial to be useful for any battle theme. The main part to pay attention to is step 2: form. The other steps are auxiliary and particular to me, though it may be useful to some.
1) Create a new score. This will be your draft - title it as such. You'll want to choose "Choose instruments" and two grand pianos for your instrumentation (consider also choosing a different set of dual-staff instruments - one of my favorites is the square synthesizer). This allows you to create a melody, bassline, and harmony, and leaves room for jotting down embellishments and/or accompianment. Also feel free to add any instruments you feel are essential to the sound of the battle theme (e.g. slap bass, percussion). Choose any key, time signature, tempo. I'll be going with 4/4 at a fast tempo in my example, which is pretty standard for Pokemon. Most will also go with a minor key, but for the sake of applicability I'll use a major key.
2) First let's go over structure. Structure is quite important for...well, every piece of music. Even lack of. For a standard Pokemon battle theme, there's usually a transition from the overworld (T) (dedeledeledeledele) into a strong statement (A), usually in a classic dotted-quarter dotted-quarter quarter note pattern (see every battle theme in Hoenn). It may or may not be in the home key. It also may or may not be the "main theme" of the piece. It may not even exist at all - just go straight into the loop from the transition. It's your decision. This goes on for about 8 measures after which the loop starts. Here comes the (B) section, and it should be quite memorable. This is the theme that will be repeated at least once before changing tack. The (C) section is literally anything, be it elaborating on existing material, referencing material out of scope, creating an all new theme, or just going ham with the instruments. This is the most "tense" part of the battle theme. Then an optional (D) section, which can either be original or a restatement of the (A) or (B) themes - the "release" - which leads back into the loop.
If you got all of that, let's continue. If not, no worries, you really don't have to know it, especially since this is only an observation of Pokemon battles.
3) Right, we have our score open. There are infinite ways to start composing: intro first? A section? Bassline? Melody? It's up to you. But for the sake of simplicity (and the tutorial) I'll just say: start at the beginning with (T). You can always change it later. Anything will do, so long as it leads logically into the next note. Length of transition should scale with importance of fight, imo.
4) Next is thinking of a melody. I'll have it be the major theme of the piece, though you don't have to follow. Something simple, not too active - you probably want to save the excitement for later. Note: I can't tell you how to write a melody. That is something you'll have to get a feel for on your own.
Yes...seems like I'm going the four chords route. But that's how the cookie crumbles. No matter, we can expand on it later down the line.
You may also want to have some sort of motif here, right before the start of the loop - like a percussion break or something, a few extra measures. Helps the song lead back into itself later down the line.
5) Once you've done that, you can either a) think of a bassline, something that will set the tone for the rest of the piece, or b) keep going with the melody. I think I'll try for a bassline. With Pokemon, for the classic feel, you'll want some eighth-note fourth or fifth vamps. You know what I mean. But more recent titles (and most other battle themes) eschew such simplicity in favor of something catchier.
Simple, yes. And no, I'm not going to resolve it just yet.
6) Here, place a left repeat sign - the loop starts. The (B) section. Use your compositional skills to think of something that will stick in the player's mind. Restate it, changing it slightly. It'll be the rhythmic and melodic basis of the entire rest of the piece. And then assign a bassline and/or accompianment to that.
Woah, I kinda went ham there. The main thing to note is that I really hammer in that theme, as well as the rhythm. Also remember that what sounds good on piano may not sound as good on other instruments - and, likewise, if something sounds off on pianos only it may not sound as bad when fully instrumentated.
And to get into the next section, it would be prudent to have a transition, easing the listener in using the theme you've now developed. Try a key change, or a new rhythym, which the new section will carry over.
Alternatively, you can have this transition be a period of rest, the calm before the storm. A build-up to the next section. It's very important in a battle theme to not have a constant barrage of chaos. Have some moments of...contemplation.
7) (C) section time! Here's where you change it up! Things are new, yet at the same time just as much a part of the song as every other part. In crafting this evolution, you want to keep with the tone of the song. To explain how to do that is hard. You may want to speed up, or even slow down (the pace, not necessarily the tempo; see also the last part of step 6). This can also be the high point of the song - you might even want this to be a sort of bridge, to get to a massive reiteration of the main theme in section (D). The (C) section is the most variable part of this form I've come up with.
Somehow, we've changed keys. Which is good. I've also introduced a new theme.
8) You're almost there! The next part is the last, in which you find a way to transition back into the (B) theme. It can be as simple as finding a chord progression, a smooth bassline, or even just a percussion break (the same one you might have created to go from (A) to (B)?). The trick is to make the loop seem natural, which doesn't mean you can't make it abrupt. Just not a sudden chord change of tone straight from (C) to (B), y'know? Then add the repeat sign and you're done!
9) Almost. Now's the most important part: listening to the battle theme as a whole. Redo the (T) transition if you don't have a proper one. Something that stays in line with the rest of the song.
A rather drastic transformation. Still not perfect, but can always be altered later. Wait, I said that before as well..
As you listen, also imagine what the instrumentation would sound like. Think about which parts will go to which instruments. Consider taking notes using "staff text" (CTRL+T). Imagine the percussion. Where will the accented beats go? What would sound groooovy? Listen to it after changing the piano sound in the mixer to something else. Are there any obviously clashing notes? How could you mask that? Would you want to? Just listen to it over and over and over again until it gets stuck in your head as you make lunch; make the tiniest changes to your DRAFT day by day without ever getting to instrumentation...oops, don't actually do that. You want to finish eventually, right?
The full score I created for this tutorial can be found here: https://musescore.com/daforlynx/tutorial-battle-theme-draft
The next part, Instrumentation, is coming soon. That is where your battle theme truly comes to life. But it is a somewhat simpler process (barring percussion) that mainly involves copy-pasting and general knowledge of Musescore and your soundfonts rather than theory.
Please leave feedback so I know how to create better tutorials.