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Creating ESO: Music

Discover more about the music in The Elder Scrolls Online and how it will shape the atmosphere of your adventures.


Our Approach

When we first started thinking about the soundtrack for The Elder Scrolls Online, there were a number of goals we knew we wanted to achieve. The first and most obvious: it had to be true to the spirit and style of previous Elder Scrolls games. We want you to feel musically right at home in ESO, so you’ll hear familiar themes alongside entirely new ones—an extension of the series’ musical landscape. We hope that as you play and listen, you’ll feel the same sense of intimacy and emotional connection to the world that you’ve felt before in Elder Scrolls games.

Another goal was to make the soundtrack an integral part of the environment. So much so, in fact, that you might feel like something is missing if you play without the music. The Skyrim soundtrack excels at this; it functions as the ambient sound of the world, not just as background music. The ESO soundtrack functions in much the same way, seamlessly merging with the other ambient sounds in the world (and the visuals as well) to create a space that draws you in, making the experience of just being in Tamriel something special. We’ve seen a number of comments in our feedback that some players can just stand still in the world and let the music, sound effects, and visuals wash over them, getting lost in the moment. That's exactly the effect we’re aiming for with the music and overall atmosphere in ESO.

To do this, we started with the established musical language of The Elder Scrolls, but then iterated tirelessly on how best to use that language in a way that serves the world, doesn’t grow tiresome, and fits the situation at hand. Buzzwords like "interactive music" and "non-linear composition" got thrown around a lot, and we experimented quite a bit with different systems. At one extreme, we had a music system that was capable of adapting to gameplay on a measure-by-measure basis, but it proved almost prohibitively difficult to work with, and didn't yield very satisfying results. As it turns out, that degree of flexibility is fundamentally at odds with developing meaningful musical moments within the Elder Scrolls’ vocabulary. At the other extreme, we tried a system that prioritized musicality over adaptability, so we ended up with a lot of lovely music that played out from start to finish, ignoring and steamrolling over action in the game. 

We eventually found our sweet spot between the need for flexibility and the importance of having an Elder Scrolls-worthy soundtrack that doesn't wear out its welcome over many long hours of play. The music is truly composed—not dynamically generated—but structured in such a way that it can take left or right turns at key moments as the state of gameplay changes. The various pieces are tied to particular biome types, locations, and moods. Most importantly, the soundtrack had to mesh well with the other audio and visual elements to pull the player into the world. Themes come and go, floating by, catching the player's ear then receding, evolving into the next theme. Rather than hearing a motif over and over and growing weary of it, the player's ear latches onto phrases here and there that enhance the moment.

An aside about those themes: we had a bit of fun working in some themes from the earlier Elder Scrolls games. The main reason for referencing them is that it just makes sense; calling back to familiar melodies when you’re in familiar terrain can be a very powerful thing. But it also became a bit of a musical Easter-egg hunt. Themes were woven in—sometimes on the surface, sometimes quite deeply—and wait to be discovered. One of our favorite moments was when a player called out a cello solo from the Morrowind soundtrack that got re-orchestrated into a whole new context. Despite the new setting, this fan caught it right away, which was exciting to see.


Who Did What?

The in-game score was composed by Brad Derrick and Rik Schaffer, both long-time veterans of MMO scoring familiar with the particular challenges of scoring for games this big, this diverse, and this non-linear. Because of our music design iteration mentioned above, the score itself also went through many iterations, keeping us busy as the "how to write ESO music" requirements evolved. Writing music in one-measure chunks one month, then six-minute chunks the next, then 30-second chunks the next kept everybody involved on their toes. Our audio programmer Chris Friedemann deserves a special mention: he was right there through all the iterative refinement during development, and made all the trial and error (and eventual success) a possibility. Good game music is nothing without good integration.

Jeremy Soule worked on the title theme and music for cinematics, but in a way, he contributed much more than that, with his earlier Elder Scrolls soundtracks being such fantastic music for us to work with and carry on the spirit of. The Elder Scrolls series has big musical shoes to fill thanks to him, and we hope we've risen to the challenge.

Another fantastic contributor is Malukah, known to many for her beautiful renditions of game music, including several Elder Scrolls pieces. We hatched an idea to have her compose and perform a number of lore songs to use for our in-game musicians and bards. The process was simple enough (at least on our end; Malukah had the hard part). We pulled together dozens of poems and song texts that were already in the game, asked her to pick ten that caught her fancy, and had her write songs around them. The results are amazing, and we think you’ll agree when you hear them as you explore the world. We have a sneak peek to share with you—here is a video of Malukah performing a special arrangement of Three Hearts As One, one of the bard songs she wrote for The Elder Scrolls Online.


Quote from Malukah about creating the bard songs in ESO: There were many beautiful poems and texts created by the ESO Writing Team from which 10 were chosen to be performed by the bards in Elder Scrolls Online. Composing the music for these songs was an amazing experience. Both fun and a bit daunting!

There is something magical and peaceful about the visual and sonic beauty of Elder Scrolls games. I wrote with this feeling in mind so that the songs will hopefully be good company for the players while they explore Tamriel.

Once the songs were finished, we had a handful of other vocalists sing them as well, so not all the bards would use Malukah’s voice (especially the male ones). On top of that, we had a lute player and a flute player record improvisations on the songs, and that's what you’ll hear when you encounter non-singing bards or street musicians. Those are a great complement to the sung versions of the songs. Just hanging out by the bards in game makes for a very lovely time.


Recording

The ongoing iteration of the music system and continual refinement of the musical style meant that live recording would have to wait until those challenges were settled. Then it was time to convert the hours and hours of synth mockups and demos into real flesh-and-blood music. At long last, the fake choirs and stiff orchestra would come alive, and we'd take the last step in creating a score with the beauty, intimacy, and emotional pull that we wanted for ESO.

We traveled to Europe to record a full orchestra, large mixed choir, and numerous soloists over the course of a month. Those were some very long days and nights as we worked out the finer points of translating the music on the page into fantastic live performances. There was lots of "let's try this ... now let's try that ... now louder ... now softer ... one more time...." We focused heavily on dynamics and the nuances of the performances, because much of this music depends on those things to be effective. We feel that "deceptively simple" is a fitting characterization for the music of The Elder Scrolls—the notes on the page are only half the story. It's the finest detail of how those notes are voiced that make all the difference. That is true of the ESO music as well, and so the players, singers, and conductor got quite a workout as we zeroed in on the exact performances we wanted.

To that end, at the beginning of recording it was predicted that we had far more time than we needed to get through all the material. How long can a bunch of whole notes take to record? But in the end, we used every last minute and then some. Turns out all those whole notes are a challenge after all. Here is a short video clip of the orchestra performing one of our ambient songs that you’ll hear in some Aldmeri Dominion and Daggerfall Covenant zones in ESO.


We're now in the final stages of bringing all the live elements together, polishing those mixes and getting them into the game—replacing the "fake" versions with the good stuff one piece at a time. We couldn't be more pleased with the results, and we hope you’ll agree that we've met our goals: to create a personal, intimate, Elder Scrolls-worthy soundtrack that is an indispensable part of the ESO experience.

Thanks for checking out this edition of Creating ESO! The soundtrack will be available on iTunes, so keep your eyes (and ears) open for more news about it!


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