TUTORIAL: How to write Stardew Valley music
Hello everybody! This tutorial will be on writing music in a similar style to the soundtrack from Stardew Valley, as well as exploring how the elements of the music represent different things from the game. Ah, Stardew Valley. The game where you play as a normal person, tired of working in an office and the life in the city. You find a letter from your grandfather that tells you he wants you to move to Stardew Valley and take over his old farm. With a lot of hard work, you get the farm running, make new friends, get married...and fish! A lot. I played this game over my summer vacation a couple of years back, and I could not stop playing. I just had to do one more day, to fix that, talk to that person, do a quest, and so on.
The game features a great soundtrack too. Eric Barone, the man behind the game, composed all the songs himself. The soundtrack uses a lot of instruments you normally would find in country music, such as banjo, guitars, drums, piano, and bass, but also orchestral instruments such as marimba, flute, and harp. There are a lot of synths too. Barone used Reason as his DAW to make the music. Since I am a Logic Pro user, I don't have access to the same instruments that he used, but I will try to make something similar. I use Kontakt as my main sampler, and included in Kontakt is the "Kontakt Factory Library". This tutorial will use exclusively samples from it (....except banjo, since Factory Library don't, have it). The different seasons of the gameplay a huge role in the game. Some elements are only available in a specific season. The cool thing is that the music reflects each season, and how it is portrayed.
Spring: Fresh, lighthearted, a new beginning
Summer: Happy, fun, warm
Fall: Mellow, mysterious
Winter: Slow, lonely, cold, majestic Let's make a spring theme! Here is the full track
Intro The soundtrack of Stardew Valley is mostly based around the major, minor, or mixolydian scale. Since this will be a spring theme, I think it will be best to use the major scale. First, let's pull out a banjo! I will start by using A major and D major as my chords. Since the banjo is a plucked string instrument, it works well to use for arpeggiated patterns. Here is the pattern I made:
The first bar is A major, the second is D major, and then it loops. Notice how it plays the notes from each chord. In the A major, it plays A, C# and E, and on D major, it plays F#, A D. These are just notes from each chord, but arpeggiating it like this makes a very nice rhythm. Also, see how not all notes are 100% on the grid. Some notes are slightly behind it. This is called a swing rhythm, or a syncopated rhythm. It gives the track a bit more laidback feel. Fits good to the spring feel, right? Next up is the bass. The bass will do something similar to the bass, but just with less notes.
The bass plays the root and fifth of each chord. This is a pretty common country bass line, giving the track a stable rhythm. The highlighted note is an E, even though we are still playing a D major chord. This note makes a slight tension that leads us back into A major again. Now we need some percussion. I used a shaker and a woodblock. The shaker gives some more drive to the rhythm, and the woodblock feels like a snare drum. The shaker is the lowest note, the woodblock is the highest.
Now we have a pretty nice intro, and it sounds like this:
Main melody The main melody will use only notes from the A major scale. I picked the marimba to play the melody since it has a nice and hollow sound. The fast attack of the marimba makes it a great melody instrument, as the notes "pop" out. It also gives this track a fun feeling, since each note is pretty short and bouncy.
As you might notice, it does not feel "finished" at the end of the line. Barone uses a lot of a technique called "Call and response". This is a technique where an instrument plays one line, and another instrument plays a new line after. It is like the first instrument asks a question, and the other instrument tells the answer. With the risk of getting a bit philosophical here, I am thinking this could be because this is how a farm sounds like. You have all kinds of animals making noises all over the farm. You can hear one animal make a sound, and a different animal makes a sound somewhere else on the farm. So we have the question/call, but we don't have the answer/response. Barone uses a lot of electric piano in these tracks, so I decided to use this for the response.
The melody will now be complete with two different lines. When we add this to the track, as well as having the rhythm and chords from the intro, we will have a pretty nice main melody part.
We have now established the main melody. After presenting the main melody, Barone often plays the same melody again, but with added instruments and counterlines. This is a very common technique to do, so the listener gets a new round to hear the main melody, but also presenting new instruments and keeping some variations on the same thing. The instruments from before will continue doing the same thing, but let's add a guitar, drums, and a synth. The guitar will do something similar to the banjo, giving the track a rhythmical element while also outlining the chords.
The synth will also do the same. I picked a patch called "Bowgart" from the synth selection of Factory Library. It has a calm and nice sound, almost spiritual. This adds to our atmosphere or a laidback and positive tune, but also some kind of wonder. The synth outlines the chords.
The drums will have a kick on the first beat of every bar, and the snare will double the shaker.
The new instruments together sound like this:
And now let's add the instruments and melody from before back in
B-section In our B-section, we need to have some variation to keep the listener interested. Let us start with some new chords. I picked E major and D major. The E major is the dominant of A major, but going to D major instead of A major gives us some kind of tension. I used these chords to give the track a feel of adventure. You don't have to go straight back "home". The player in Stardew Valley is encouraged to explore, and by not going back straight to the tonic, the tune now reflects this. The banjo is now playing the melody, and the keys and marimba have stopped playing. Here is what the banjo now plays
And this is how it sounds like now
After 8 bars of this, we would maybe expect to come back to the tonic. Instead, we go to F# minor. This gives us some kind of unfulfilled ending. Maybe we did not find what we expected to find in the mines? But wait? What is this? We now go to a B major! This chord is not in the A major scale, as normally it would be B minor. But playing a major on the second degree of our scale, called a secondary dominant, gives the track some kind of optimism. Even though we might not found what we initially searched for, we continue our adventure! After this, we hear a D major and E major, leading us finally back to the tonic. At the very end, we hear the electric piano play a short line. The electric piano is still doing the call and response after a long banjo melody. As well as filling out after the banjo has stopped playing, it also represents something small we might want to check out and explore. Let's repeat this section, but let's do the same thing that we did in the A-section. The banjo still plays the melody, but now the marimba plays a pattern similar to what the banjo played in the A-section
The electric piano comes in as well with counterlines. Towards the end, the marimba also plays counterlines. We have now three melodic elements in this part. Since the music of Stardew Valley is looped and played, again and again, we need to have different elements to listen to not to get bored of the music. This is a great way of doing this. We might not notice the counterlines the first time we hear the track, but maybe the second or third. The second part of the B-section sounds like this
And when we add both parts of the B-section, we have this
C-section The C-sections is pretty similar to the intro.
After 8 bars, the guitar and bass stop playing. The drums and percussion are still present, so we don't lose our sense of rhythm here, but it feels more "floating" now. This is a technique similar to "Spring (It's a big world outside)" and "Summer (Natures crescendo)". Since many of the instruments stops playing in this section, we now hear more of the natural ambiance and animal sounds in the game. Maybe this is done to draw the player more into nature, and feel calmer? Or to remind the player that we need to relax in our lives and enjoy nature. When the guitar and bass stops, we hear some occasional call-and-response melodies by a vibraphone and marimba. The chords underneath is still A major and. D major. The green notes are vibraphone, the orange is the marimba.
It sounds like this
After this part, we end on an A major that also ends our tune. Conclusion
When we have added everything together, we have a pretty nice and positive, but also a bit adventurous, track. The full track sounds now like this
One of the key elements of this track is that we almost exclusively used notes and chords from the major scale. The rhythm is not 100% on the grid, but some of the notes are a bit "behind", giving us a laidback feel. The melody uses often call and response, presenting parts of the melody with different instruments. This gives us also some kind of representation of a farm, where you hear sounds from all around. The secondary dominant gave us an adventurous feeling. And in the end, when the bass and guitar stopped playing, the track felt more calm, giving us some relaxation. This part could also be a good place where we could have some nature and animal sounds. The instruments I used are all from Kontakt Factory Library, except the banjo (RealiBanjo from Realitones) If you want to download the MIDI-file, you can get it HERE If you have Logic, you can get the entire project HERE If you liked this tutorial, I would be happy if you could share it so more people can enjoy it. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me! Haakon