The Sound of Scary
Minecraft’s composers talk Nether music!
Ahhh, music. The thing that brings people together, puts words, chords, or beats to our deepest emotions, and inspires us to attempt outlandish haircuts to signal group allegiance (looking at you, Thomas circa 2002).
But also: ahhh, music. The thing that plays ever-so softly in the background as you journey into the unknown, lulling you into a false sense of security. It slowly builds in intensity and eeriness, only to somehow perfectly reach its crescendo with the sudden appearance of a Ghast and SCARE THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS OUT OF YOU.
Today, let’s focus about the latter definition! Because… We’re happy to announce that we’ve added three new tracks for the upcoming Nether Update, all composed by the talented Lena Raine! Those tracks are available in the snapshot that was released yesterday, and we’ve had a chance to pick Lena’s mind about the creation of said tracks.
But before Lena tells us exactly how she manages to make the tiny hairs on the back of your neck stand up, let’s talk about how she came to write and compose music for Minecraft in the first place!
Historically, music in Minecraft was the sole work of one artist: Daniel 'C418' Rosenfeld. If you’ve ever played Minecraft and made use of your speakers, you’ve listened to C418’s music.
However, in recent years, Minecraft has exploded. Not literally (as in getting too cozy with a Creeper) but it has grown to involve bigger teams and new games. So since about Update Aquatic, a number of musicians, composers, and sound designers have brought their own sonic sensibilities to Minecraft, Minecraft Earth, and Minecraft Dungeons.
In addition to C418 and Lena Raine, Mojang’s Audio Director (and noted panda noise expert) Samuel Åberg has composed a lot of the ambient sound and music for Vanilla Minecraft. Some of the mash-up packs created by Mojang partner 4J include music by Gareth Coker. Minecraft Earth’s music is written by Shauny Jang, and the creepy-crawly underworld of Minecraft Dungeons have been given their sonic identity in a collaboration between Peter Hont, Johan Johnson, and Samuel Åberg.
So many games, so many musicians. And, in happy parity news, Bedrock and Java now sound a lot more alike, after the Bedrock team recently added the final missing music to their libraries. Yay!
Did you notice Samuel Åberg’s name appear twice? That’s because he writes a lot of music, but also keeps a watchful eye on the big picture of sound and music (not “the sound of music”) of Minecraft.
“Music and sound design play a huge role in the expansion of the Minecraft universe,” says Samuel. “Every new Minecraft experience needs its own strong audio identity. All new audio should be unique, yet still feel connected and united with Vanilla Minecraft. This is something I feel really passionate about.”
"Visually, people have a strong impression of what Minecraft looks like. But I also firmly believe that Minecraft has a unique expression when it comes to sound design and music."
Samuel explains the importance of the “Minecraft authenticity”, and how the team works together to shape a collective understanding both of their origin, but also their destination.
“Be it the new Nether biomes, a creepy crypt in Minecraft Dungeons, or a beautiful AR landscape in Minecraft Earth,” continues Samuel, “these places in our games not only look like Minecraft, but they all really feel like Minecraft. I think music and sound play a huge role here. Visually, people have a strong impression of what Minecraft looks like. But I also firmly believe that Minecraft has a unique expression when it comes to sound design and music. For Vanilla, I think the new Nether sound experience, with its refreshed block sounds, new ambience and music is a good indication of where we are heading, sonically speaking.”
With that context in mind, let’s get specific about the new Nether music, and how Lena Raine has worked to achieve her vision.
How have you approached writing music for the Nether?
Lena: The strongest prompt I had when first approaching the music was that the world of Minecraft, and especially the Nether, is a magical and occult place. I really wanted to take that inspiration and draw from my own interests to give the music a personal flavor, while also holding true to the vibe of the original soundtrack. A particular inspiration was the process of building a portal to the Nether, which very much feels to me like an alchemical process, transmuting one thing to another. I really wanted to imbue my music with that essence of alchemy.
One of the primary instruments in Minecraft is the piano, and so one of my challenges to myself was to see how far I could push the sound of the piano until it resembled other things entirely – again, that alchemical process. So each piece explores different properties of how to use the piano to create otherworldly sounds. Whether it's the sound of the piano strings being bowed, or plucked, or put through multiple layers of effects, it's all primarily working with one base sound and then layering in other synths and instruments to build up the mood.
What are some emotions you hope to evoke in the player?
Lena: I wanted each piece to feel like a progression of emotions, or a journey from place to place within this other world. There's a degree of beauty to the Nether, but it is also terrifying in both its details and scale. I love to play with contrast in my music, so one of the pieces really plays with that sense of scale. It goes from this really tight, cramped corridor-like feel, an intimate piano solo, and then grows farther and farther away until it encompasses a huge overwhelming cavern. And so there's equal parts hope, despair, claustrophobia, overwhelming space, beauty and terror, which makes for a delightful variety.
What has been a challenging aspect of this project? What about a rewarding one?
Lena: I think one of the most intimidating things about coming into any existing game is that there have been years and years of experiences players have had with it, and so suddenly introducing something new can possibly feel like an intrusion into that space. And then take into account that it's Minecraft, one of the biggest games in the world, and suddenly I'm huddled in the corner of my studio going “Oh God, what do I do!?” But the most rewarding thing for me in contrast to that has been taking into account the legacy of the game and its music, and coming up with something new that I hope compliments it well, while also adding my own little flavor to the world.
How, if at all, is writing music for Minecraft different than writing for other games?
Lena: One of the first things I ever noticed about Minecraft when I played an early version years ago was how organically it just rises up out of the world and the ambience. It really feels like a natural extension of the environment. I remember being really drawn in because of that, and was delighted when I started hearing music emerging from nothing. So I really took that to heart when writing new music for the Nether. I wanted every piece to feel like it was rising up as an extension of the existing ambience, that the sounds were being organized into music in a natural way.
Do you have any favorite memories from this project?
Lena: Writing good ambient music is often a pretty challenging exercise in restraint. There's so many opportunities to stand out that you need to pull yourself back from, because the music needs to sink into the background. I usually write extremely melodic music, but my first drafts for the Nether pieces were actually pretty restrained when it came to melodies. But I was delighted to hear back from the folks at Mojang who wanted to hear even more of my melodies, to make it really sound like "me"! So I gladly went through another pass and added some memorable passages that I hope get stuck in everyone's heads.
Anything you'd like to add?
Lena: It's been such a tremendous honor for me to be able to contribute to Minecraft, and I really hope everyone out there that sets foot into the new corners of the Nether enjoys getting a little freaked out to my music. I'm looking forward to hearing your stories and seeing your adventures!
Thanks for answering our questions, Lena! And of course, for setting our dreams and eh, nightmares, to music.
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- Thomas Wiborgh