We had the chance to meet Martin O'Donnell and talk about his inspirations, creating the legendary Gregorian chants for the Halo soundtrack, and the future of game music.
Martin O'Donnell is best known to gamers for his music for the iconic Halo and Destiny franchises, but he has also contributed to games such as Myth and Oni. Over the past 30 years or so, he has created a number of legendary tracks that have underscored the emotional impact of the game and become timeless. We had the chance to meet him and talk about his inspirations, creating the legendary Gregorian chants for the Halo soundtrack, and the future of game music.
What inspired you to pursue a career in music composition for video games? Can you describe your creative process?
That sort of varies if I'm working with somebody and they've given me some general directions of the kind of emotions they hope the music can evoke, that helps a lot. So for example with Halo 1 I had been working with the team on sound design and we knew what kind of environment we had and we had military weapons and we were thinking there would be aliens and some cool stuff. But when we started getting closer to a real world with a story, I remember asking my writer friend Joe, „Well, what do you think the emotions should be?“ And he said people should feel ancient epic and mysterious. And that was all I needed. „Okay, let me see if I can come up with something that evokes those emotions.“
So I almost always start from some sort of an emotional standpoint, what sort of emotional story do I want to tell. So visuals help, some sort of story helps, sometimes dialogue is really wonderful to score cutscenes. And then once you have some themes that have gone along with some sort of an emotional setting like a cutscene, then then you have music themes that you can develop later in other contexts.
How do you approach capturing the essence and atmosphere of a game through music?
That's a good question. You know, the atmosphere of a game changes from one game to another, but you have a lot of leeway when you're just trying to be sort of atmospheric. Often, I play the game, I'm immersed in what the game is, I know what the story is, I know what the characters are doing, and then I just look at the environment.
And if it's a dark, spooky environment, the atmosphere is going to be dark and spooky. So, it's just I really try to match what I'm seeing. And, you know, I like to talk about what I call the emotional journey of a player. So, whatever the player's emotional journey is, as they try to make their way through a level or an environment or accomplish something, the music needs to enhance that emotional journey.
Where did you take inspiration from music in Halo? I'm personally interested in a lot of the inspiration for the chants.
Well, when it comes to Gregorian chant, it all boils down to when I heard that it needs to make people feel a sense of the ancient. I studied early music studies when I was getting my master's degree in composition, and I was always a fan of medieval music and church music, and I was in a group that actually did Gregorian chant. So, I always felt like that's a beautiful way of evoking that kind of emotion.
So, I thought, okay, well, I'm going to start this thing off with a genuinely-sounding Gregorian chant, it's just I'm going to write one, and so that's what I did. Believe it or not, I was in the car on the way to the studio, and I started singing in the Dorian mode and came up with that melody.
Yeah, but there's a huge contrast because Halo is a vast sci-fi universe and game, yet it features medieval-sounding chants.
Well, I mean, if you think about it, even the word Halo, you don't necessarily think it's going to be sci-fi, and we knew that we wanted to not be nothing but sci-fi tropes, right? We wanted to try to introduce a few things that might be unexpected, like the fact that a group of aliens that were banded together calling themselves the Covenant, and they were bound by their religion, and that's not necessarily the kind of thing you see a lot in sci-fi. So a religion being something that's ancient, it's just like, chant evokes that. There's this religious feel to the chant. There's a religious connotation even to the word Halo, so I thought that was cool.
Do you have a favorite piece of music that you've composed for the Halo series? Which one and why?
Well, I have a soft spot for the very first one because it was done in 1999, which is 24 years ago now, and we had to do it really quickly. It had that ancient, epic, mysterious feel with the Gregorian chant, big percussion, cellos, and violins. It was a lot of fun to create, and so many other themes were based on that opening piece of music that I did.
So I love that one, but there was something from Halo 2 that was very mournful. One of those pieces, like the High Charity Suite, when I hear it, I'm like, oh, that was a good one. But I also like some of the ODST pieces. 'The Deference for Darkness,' I think, is one that was very different from what I had done before. It had some jazz elements, and I really enjoyed that piece. I still enjoy it.
Your work is not just about Halo, you composed for Oni, for Myth, so how did you craft iconic sound for these titles?
Yeah, you know, there's some people who say it's not all that distinctive that they can hear influences in Myth:Fallen Lords that we just brought right on through into Halo. So, I mean, a lot of times I'm just working on trying to evoke emotions, so if I'm trying to do something sad, a sad piece in Myth might sound a lot like a sad piece in Oni and Halo, I don't know.
But what happens is you start working on a game like Oni, and it's an anime-looking game, it's got references to Ghost in the Shell, and you sort of come up with some instrumentation and some feels, and then you try to stay consistent with it. But I also think that sometimes there's a unifying style that might still come through on a lot of different things. So I don't spend a lot of time trying to be careful about being 100% honest and be careful about being 100% unique in everything I do. I just want whatever I'm doing to really fit the situation of the game that I'm scoring.
And did you take any inspiration from anime soundtracks or something like that for Oni?
No, except that another company, I believe they're called Power of Two, and they had already been hired by the Bungie guys early in the project, and they did a lot of electronic stuff. And so I inherited all this electronic music, which was great. I implemented their electronic music in the game, using it for moments when I needed EDM, and sprinkled it throughout., I had it from them. So that was not me, although we did a couple of pieces that were sort of in the EDM style, but there was this nice contrast. We would have a small string ensemble doing something poignant, and then we would go into some cool electronica that came from Power of Two. I've seen Ghost in the Shell and other anime, but I try not to be overtly influenced.
How do you balance the need for creating a unique musical identity for a game while also ensuring it fits seamlessly into the gameplay?
I want to be technically solid. I want to be able to play the game without too many bugs. I want to be able to understand what the story of the game is, and then I can actually write music that fits what I'm playing. So I'm aware I sit with the designer of a particular level or of an encounter, and I'll say, okay, what are all the options I have as a player? Where could I go? What do you want people to feel here, here, and here?
And that's when the game is pretty mature, right? The game is almost ready to ship, and then I'm ready to write appropriate music and implement the music into the gameplay. And then that's when it really gets fun. Suddenly everything comes together, the sounds are working, the dialogue's there, the gameplay is solid, and I can throw the music into those moments and make sure that the music is adaptive to what the player is doing, so it can expand, contract, and change based on what the player does. And that's sort of the final frosting on the cake, the way I look at it, is to finally get to that point where I can write and produce music and implement the music into the game and see how it all works.
So do you prefer to be able to play the game before you compose music for it?
Yes, absolutely. Like, that sometimes frustrates the producers because they like everything to be sort of done at the same time. As I mentioned earlier, it's like a cake, and you can't frost a cake that's still batter. You have to get the cake baked, and then you can frost it. So what I'll do is maybe I'll mix up a bunch of little pots of frosting of different flavors, and then when it's time I can decide what frosting I want and how to put it on the cake. Most of the time I'm writing music very close to the end of the project because that's when the project is ready for what I'm about to deliver.
A lot of composers we interviewed told the same thing but there is one exception. Inon Zur did the main theme for Starfield when the game was just an idea in Todd Howard's head.
Yes, yes, that's funny. Actually, let me say this. I like doing something very early. Like with Halo, the first big theme was done for a trailer we did for Macworld in 1999. And I knew it was solid. I knew that it had thematic elements that would be things that I could develop later. So having some main themes done early, that's really good. And it makes me be able to sort of relax because then I know I can develop that as I go. But I don't want to write all the music too early. So some of the main themes I can get out of the way. And then I focus on sound design and casting actors and directing and implementing the whole thing. And then by that point I'm much more aware of what's going on in the game. And I can write the rest of the music.
You've been in the industry for about 30 years. Having worked on long-running and successful franchises such as Halo, Destiny, and Myth. How do you stay inspired to create new and unique music?
Well, I'm inspired right now because I'm basically retired. So I don't think I'm going to do any more game scores. I probably won't work in the game industry. I'm coming to conferences and sort of sharing my experiences with people and still staying in touch with people. And I still love playing games. But I'm writing music now more for myself than for anything else. And I might be writing the music for myself, but I'll share it. So if there's two or three people that want to listen to it, I'm happy about that. I think I'm sort of on the other side of the grind of being an audio director at a game company and doing all that work. It's a lot of work. There's a lot of pressure. So I think I'm done.
Do you miss it?
You know, I think I'm too newly retired to miss it yet. So ask me in a couple years. I might go, well, maybe I'm not so retired. I don't know. We'll see.
Looking back at your career, is there a particular moment or achievement that you are especially proud of?
Yeah, I would say I was able to sort of conceive of and compose and collaborate with other composers and produce a suite of music called Music of the Spheres, which was the musical prequel to Destiny. I got to work with Paul McCartney. We were in the studio at Abbey Road and had a 120-piece orchestra and 40-verse choir, and it was really a pinnacle achievement for me. So even while I was doing it, we mixed it at a great recording studio. After we recorded at Abbey Road, we took it and mixed it in Santa Barbara, California. And I remember finishing that mix thinking, I think this is it. It's never going to get any better than this. I think I just topped out, so I was right.
What's your opinion on the AI, and how can AI technologies affect game development or even composing music?
Wow, that's a good one. I feel like because I'm on the other side of the cutting edge of trying to figure out how to create things, I might not really understand how AI works. I'm hoping AI is simply a tool for people to make creation easier. I have a hard time believing that AI will actually replace creative people. I can see how AI might help a composer flesh out some ideas and still make some interesting choices.
I'm not sure I'm ever going to work with it myself, but we'll see. What I certainly don't want to see is a composer is no longer being hired and somehow a big pile of music gets thrown into a bucket and then „new music“ comes out on the other end and people just throw that around and dialogue is thrown in and no actors are hired anymore and art is just made by AI and no artists are hired anymore. I think that's probably overreacting to what AI is going to do. I think if it's a tool that helps people create, that's the best possible case. I hope some of the fear tactics that I hear about are not going to happen.