TUTORIAL: How to write Banjo-Kazooie music
Updated: Jul 17
Hi and welcome to my first tutorial!
Today we will look at one of my favorite soundtracks and write a track in a similar style. The game is Banjo-Kazooie, and the soundtrack is written by Grant Kirkhope.
I remember playing it on my N64 around 2000, and 10-year old me was blown away by all the awesome tracks. Super Mario 64 was great, but Banjo-Kazooie was so much more fun, with its fantastic dialogue, humor, collectibles, and creative design. And of course the music!
The musical style of Grant Kirkhope often consists of «ompa» rhythms, chromatism, tritones, the harmonic minor scale (a minor scale with a raised 7th), and non-diatonic chords (chords that are outside of the scale). He is also a very melodic composer, focusing on a memorable melody. So for this track, I will have;
A clear and defined melody
Chords outside the scale
Before we start, I want to add that this is just my take on writing a Banjo-Kazooie track in one specific style. There are many ways of doing it, and this is just one way.
First, let's have a listen to the whole piece
The main chords and rhythm For this track, I want to write in A minor and have a bit of that sinister villain feel to it (looking at you, Gruntilda). The chords I have chosen are Am, Fm, Ab and E (i - vi - bI - V). The Am consist of A - C - E. The Fm consist of F - Ab - C, and will therefore give a harmonic minor feel to it and give a cool sinister vibe. The Abm consist of Ab - C - Eb. The Eb will be a tritone in the A minor scale and gives a bit excitement to the chord progression. If we divide the chords into the strings section, it will look like this:
The bass and cello alternate between the root and fifth of the chord, and then leads back to the Am again by playing E - F - G# (from the harmonic minor scale). The viola and violins play the rest of the chord on the off-beat. This creates the «ompa» rhythm and gives a steady (but also a bit humoristic) accompaniment.
Let's add some clarinets that will double the high strings and a contrabassoon that doubles the bass, and a cymbal, bass drum, and a tambourine. This will sound like this:
Now, let's start with a melody. Kirkhope often uses the bassoon for the melody, so I will do this too. The melody looks like this (in F-clef):
In the first bar, I start on the root note, but go to G# before going back to the A again, and then to C and E, outlining the A minor chord. Then I go to D# (the tritone) and E. In the second bar, the melody outlines the Fm and the Abm. When Kirkhope plays non-diatonic chords, he often lets the melody play the notes of the non-diatonic chord, emphasizing the chord change. The sudden chord changes stick out, but since the melody bounces between the chord notes, it feels more natural. The third bar starts out like the first one, but the two last notes are F and G before moving to Ab and C in the fourth bar (the third and fifth in Fm). Before going down to the Ab, I go quickly into B. This is the tritone in Fm. The last notes are a descending scale over an E major chord that takes ut back to our root again. The fifth and sixth bar repeats the two first bars. The listener will connect to the melody easier when you repeat certain parts. It is easier to remember lines when you already have heard them, right? In the two last bars, I wanted the melody to have an ending. It moves between the A minor and E major chord. That will be our main melody for this piece. I have used ompa rhythms to give the song a cartoony feel, and the melody plays a lot of tritones and raised sevenths. Some of the drastic chord changes are emphasized by the melody that plays chord tones from the new chords. This is what the full A-section sounds like now:
B-section A common technique from Kirkhope is to go straight to the development of the theme after we hear it the first time. Videogame music may be looping for a long time when you play, for as long as you are in the particular area. Even though many composers like to play the same melody twice, he likes to have as much variation as possible to keep everything sound fresh. For the B-section, I will do something a bit different than in the A-section. The high strings will be playing longer lines from the chords, but they will play them with tremolo. The low strings will switch to pizzicato, but now they will mostly play the root note of each chord. It is much more sparse, but it will still give the song some rhythm. Our chords in this section are Fm - Am - E - Am (bvi - i - V - i). These are just the same chords we used in the A-section. For there, we go to a G major and to the relative chord of A minor, the C major (a little nod to you Gruntilda, VII - III). Then to Dm - E - Dm - Am - E - Am - G - F - E (iv - V - iv- i - V - i - VII - VI - V). This sounds like this:
The melody in this section will feature a flute. The flute has a really airy quality to it, and I think it will fit very well over the strings. Since the melody and rhythm were "jumpy" and staccato in the A-section, I will give the flue longer lines to have some contrast. The melody looks like this:
The melody starts on an Ab, the third of the Fm, but then to an A. Even though this will sound in theory pretty dissonant (An F add #9), it sounds cool in this particular piece. For the rest of the melody, it basically just plays notes from each chord with some passing notes. A cool little trick Kirkhope often uses is the celesta and harp playing a short arpeggio on each chord. The bright timbre of these instruments gives the chord some sparkle, so why not add this to our section?
Now this section is starting to sound pretty good. Let's have the bassoon doubling the flute from bar 16, and we will have this:
Variation of the main melody Alright, let us go back again to our main melody. The chords a melody will be the same as last time, but this time the high strings will play pizzicato and be doubled by trombones. The low strings will go back to arco (playing with the bow), and the tuba will join them.
What would the soundtrack of Banjo-Kazooie be without the marimba? In an interview with Composers Quest (that can be heard here https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/composer-quest-podcast/composer-quest/e/n64-composer-grant-kirkhope-talks-banjo-kazooie-goldeneye-perfect-36257081#/), Kirkhope mentions that he used marimba a lot because of the N64 hardware limitations. The marimba has a pretty short sustain and therefore used less space. The melody is the same as when the bassoon played it, but to boost our Banjo-Kazooie vibe, let's add some trills. On the places the bassoon played long notes, the marimba will play a trill between D# and E.
Instant Kirkhope feel to it, right? Let's add some bass drum to the first beat of each bar, to give it some weight, and the section will sound like this
C-section If you noticed the last bars in the last example, you heard that the piece will now modulate to the next section. From Am, the basses and tuba play the same bassline, but now they have moved up one semitone. This leads us to Bb minor. Now let's get some more experimental with the chords, just like Kirkhope. The melody will be some kind of variation of the main melody, and also play mostly chord tones. The first bars are Bb minor and A major (v - bVII), then Bb minor, and then D major (i - III). The D major has only notes that are a semitone apart from the Bb minor, and strikes into the section and gives us a little bit of harmonic disorientation. If we are not dissorientaded enough, let's go up one semitone to Eb major, and alternate between that and D major. Then we go to F minor and alternate between that and E major, before going back to D major again. Then to F minor and E, that will lead us back to A minor. We have created some really weird transition between chords now, and the listener is not sure where the tonal center is anymore. Kirkhope uses this a lot, throwing us between different chords that normally don't go well together. Let's see how the stings play this:
You can also see that the strings play a different rhythm now. It still has some sense of ompa, but not as much as before. The low strings still play root and fifth, and the high strings play the rest of the chord. They still serve the same function, but the new rhythm gives the piece some variation. As before, the melody plays on top of each chord, outlining the sudden chord transitions. The melody is played by the bassoon, and halfway through the flute doubles it. Let's have a listen:
Notice how the marimba now plays chords by playing tremolo between two of the chord tones. This brings both some interesting harmonic and rhythmical orchestration to it.
D-section Now, for our final section, let's combine some of the elements from the whole piece. The strings and brass go back to the standard ompa figure. The melody will be divided between different instruments. Since the last section ended on an E major, we start at an A minor. But now, on each first and third beat, a new chord will be thrown at us. So we start from A minor but then go to F# major, C minor, A major, Eb minor, C major, D minor and E major. Now the listener will really feel disorientaded. From each chord minor, chord we will move down a third before going up a tritone (remember, Kirkhope loves tritones!). The melody starts with a clarinet, then the marimba (with a trill at the end) and then flute and oboe together. Each time an instrument takes over the melody it will start with the root and major seventh and root again just like the main melody did. In the last bars, the chords are D minor and E major, leading us back to our original key. After this, it is time to loop the whole piece again.
Let's add an intro, and we are good to go.
Conclusion In this tutorial, I tried to mimic some of Grant Kirkhopes techniques in order to create a track in the style of Banjo-Kazooie. The rhythm is mostly played ompa, giving it a cartoony and light-hearted feel, with some clear melodies on top. I have used a lot of tritones and the harmonic minor scale, and a lot of non-diatonic chords. A LOT of non-diatonic chords. By throwing around these chords, the listener will not be able to know where the piece is headed. But by letting the melody play chord tones, it will still make sense and not feel unsettling. Now take a listen to the whole piece again:
I hope you liked this tutorial. Stay tuned for more! Haakon