Keeping An Open Mind About The Halo 4 Soundtrack

Yesterday, we finally found out the identity of Halo's new composer — Neil Davidge, best known for his work with Massive Attack, will be filling original Halo composer Martin O'Donnell's shoes for the upcoming game.

They're big shoes to fill.

If you had told me back when I played the first Halo that the soundtrack for that game would wind up being one of the most iconic modern-day video game soundtracks, I wouldn't have believed you. It didn't grab me immediately. And yet years later, I have so many fond memories of the game, its characters and its worlds… which is ridiculous, when you think about it!

The Halo stories are dense and borderline incoherent, their characters are either militaristic clichés or weird babbling aliens. Their hero is a helmeted guy who speaks in terse, emotionless grunts. And yet they inspire so many emotions, so much feeling.

I'll tell you how they do it — they do it with music. O'Donnell's soaring, melancholy melodies and spacious harmonic ideas are so flat-out good that they provide the heart of the entire Halo series. Without that music, Halo would be a fun sci-fi shooter, but it wouldn't feel half as vital, resonant, or alive. Listen, in case you've forgotten what I'm talking about:

Every time I hear the Halo music, it conjures some sweeping vista or massive battlefield. I feel a stirring inside. Vague feelings of heroism and sacrifice, of noble action in the face of impossible odds. This is some really good stuff!

It was with some trepidation that I listened to the clip of the new music that was released yesterday, titled "Halo 4 Soundtrack Samples." It is described as a combination of two different tracks from the game, mixed together to give us a sense of the new musical direction of the series.

There it is, give it a listen. Hmm. I have to wonder, was this track really the best choice? It's flat, there's no melody — just a series of driving rhythms pushing a chord progression up and outwards. Nothing resembling the layered composition that gets going in the original Halo music… it's all a bit bland, isn't it? Where's the fire, where's the drama? Where's the melody?

Some variation comes in towards the end, when the piano (ever the iconic Halo instrument) makes an appearance. It's a welcome textural change. But I can't help but feel a bit like my ear is latching on to it in an effort to find some purchase, any purchase, amidst the flat textures and chords of the rest of the piece.

I certainly don't want to jump to any conclusions, and I'm keeping an open mind about the soundtrack. Davidge is a talented guy, and a self-professed fan of the series; I do think he knows what he's doing. And of course, he's not working alone — he's heading up a large team of talented guys, many of whom are interviewed in this promotional video that was also released yesterday:

It's nice that they've got so many people paying so much attention to the music. O'Donnell has always struck me as a very traditional composer, and it'll be interesting to hear where someone with a background in sonic exploration and electronic music will take things. Note that orchestrator Matt Dunkley was a conductor on Inception, a soundtrack which, among other things, pulled a trick similar to some of the techniques they're discussing by slowing down Edith Piaf music and re-recording it.

Speaking with Edge, Davidge says, "It's a new journey, it's a new story, it's a new arc, and so I feel like my job is not to revolutionise or reinvent but to continue the evolution."

"We respect absolutely what [O'Donnell] did, and obviously these iconic themes are very close to gamers' hearts," he tells us. "So we all listened to what he'd done, and I think you'll always be on a hiding to nothing if you're trying to pastiche that. Instead, we wanted to take that to another level.

"Hopefully the Halo fans will see that we're being respectful," he says, "but we've also taken it somewhere else, and maybe onto a higher plane. If you're always trying to reference back, you're not creating new things."

For now, I'm going to chalk up that weirdly flat demo track to an overly safe choice by whomever was deciding what to share, rather than a sign that the soundtrack will itself be safe and predictable.

I'll be chatting with Davidge next week about how one approaches such a monumental task as crafting a new Halo soundtrack. I'm looking forward to it.

In the meantime, here are some favourite tracks from past Halo games. It may be time to move on to something new, but these compositions will stick around for a good long while still:

"Halo 3 Menu Music"

Nice. A reprisal of the famous Halo introduction, with a more funereal tone to the following music.

"Unforgotten"

A fantastic track from Halo 2, a good example of how a simple melody can open up into something noble and beautiful. And aah, that piano. Nice epic skyline additions from YouTuber BensoftMedia, as well!

"Rain"

Halo 3: ODST was probably the least-loved Halo game, but its soundtrack was the most interesting of all of the games. It was a mixture of the open chords and driving rhythms of Halo sprinkled with a dusting of jazz, of all things (as pointed out by Chris in his awesome mixtape about jazz in games). Big suspended piano voicings, melancholy string lines, flatted fifths and even a soprano sax solo! Distinctive and lovely.

"Finish the Fight"

Man. That open piano chord. That, to me, says "It is Halo time" like no other single instrument. Holy hell, this is some triumphant music, is what this is.


Comments

    Oh, I'm sure plenty of people will be open-minded about change on the internet and will allow the composer a chance to- DIE! DIE! I want you dead! You deserve the gas! Rape my childhood will you!

    Massive Attack...and Halo...together......greatest thing ever

    Maybe it's just me but that Halo 4 soundtrack sample sounds very Mass Effecty. It's not bad, it just doesn't seem very Haloey. Maybe it's the lack of context that's keeping it from sounding super awesome and it'll sound better in game alongside some visuals.

    Honestly though, for me it doesn't feel like a Halo game without some form of that classic Halo theme. Reach was a decent game but it lacked that theme which sort of made the experience feel less epic when compared to the Halo trilogy.

    Yeah, I was also a little underwhelmed by that choice of demo track, 'flat' is probably the best word to describe it. It also seemed vastly different from O'Donnell's less obviously 'heroic' work.

    That being said, I'm really excited to see where they go with the music and the composers certainly have a great CV.

    I feel like you cannot really comment on this music yet. You need to know the circumstances of the events transpiring. The music is merely and assistance to that. This music could and may be fucking PERFECT for the setting that it is used within, and you will have to eat all these negative comments up. The track could be less 'layered' for a reason, with what will basically be a new trilogy of story they need to set the stage, it could be darker then the originals, to be honest, very childish story in comparison to say, mass effects version of galaxy destruction.

    ODST is easily one of my favourite videogame soundtracks. Rain is such an evocative track - perfectly matches the dark hub city from the game.

    I personally like the sample. It reminds me of both the original trilogy (particularly Halo 3) and Reach.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRwWGXEsxm4

    In Amber Clad from Halo 2. One of the best pieces of game music ever, in my opinion.

    Author is a pseudo musician - the Halo 4 mix released so far is awesome.

    That vidoc was nice and all, and I really appreciate the way they talk about taking it to somewhere new, taking it to a new level. And ultimately that's what I want. I'm excited for a new composer.

    But the several samples I've heard so far are just painfully generic strings + timpani drums progressing through absolutely predictable chords.

    I'm not afraid of change. In fact I crave it. The thing that's made the Halo tracks iconic was not Marty's signature style, it was the way Marty wrote music that felt like it didn't belong in a video game. I remember my first reaction when I heard Halo 1's chanting monks. I was 18, a rabid Nintendo fanboy determined to hate the XBOX but when my friend hooked his XBOX that music spoke to me so loudly, I remember thinking 'wow, I did not expect to hear that'. It felt like it didn't belong in a video game, it said 'this is something different, you haven't played this game before'. I remember my parents coming into the room to have a listen cause they thought it was awesome music. No one from the generation above me had ever wanted to listen to a video game song before.

    Basically the Halo music has always been successful because it's turned heads .. or ears, what I mean is the Halo music has always challenged what you expect in a soundtrack.

    Marty's instrumentation, adding the piano and then harp/trumpet fanfare style in Halo 3 just seemed so bold at the time, once again it was almost shocking. And he did it with ODST and Reach. Rich, colorful instrumentation and really unpredictable chord progressions really sum up Halo's style.

    It's not like Marty is the only person who can do this. I'm sure dozens of composers can write something that makes you go 'woah, now I didn't expect to hear that'. Halo doesn't need Marty, it never did, it just needs a composer to go where you don't think they will, to use instruments that no one would pick for a shooter, it needs to be challenging, it needs to 'turn ears'. But unfortunately, from the 3 or 4 samples I've heard so far it's been generic action game/movie music that you could sync up with any game/movie that's about war/action. If you put any of the previous Halo music to say, the movie Troy, you'd say 'oh cool, that's the Halo music mashed up with Troy'. But if you put the current sampling of Halo 4 music against Troy one might not even know any different.

    Like I said, I don't fear change, I crave it. I want Halo 4's music to surprise me. I WANT the Halo music to change, change like it has each game, and it doesn't need Marty to change. Marty is a genius sure, but he's not the only composer able to write unpredictable music. It just needs to be really unexpected and ear catching. I intend to give Neil Davidge every benefit of the doubt and I'll base my final opinion on the final product.

    I just hope that final product has something more than the utterly generic music they've shown so far.

      WOw, that sounded so closed minded. Forgive me for worrying, it's just that I've always believed, like the author of this article, that the music was an absolutely equal ingredient to Halo's success alongside graphics and gameplay.

      I do intent to keep a very open mind with Halo 4. I really hope the music released was not at all a representation of the final product and I really do hope the final soundtrack is every bit as colourful and bold and unique as any of Marty's scores, if not even better.

      I think you summed it up very nicely! I totally agree.

        Now that I think about it, that music they released seems a lot like the kind of music that's playing behind an encounter. Y'know, that fairly unobtrusive, rhythmic, purposeful music that sits nicely behind a warthog driving section? Perhaps that's what it is.

        Halo music definitely has 2 gears, that subtle background music that glues the game together and then that showstopping music that's designed to distract and draw you in and grab you by the ears.

    I don't think the guy from Massive Attack has to worry about who's shoes to fill, somehow.

    The Halo orchestral pieces make me feel like i could slay a dragon while falling from orbit into a pit of fire and breaking the sound barrier.

    Halo music has always been epic, spralling with massive driving beats indispersed with soaring strings and brass. TBH the Halo 4 stuff sounded closer to 'epic-in-a-can'. Good but doesn't stand up against the other Halo tracks up there.

    "If you had told me back when I played the first Halo that the soundtrack for that game would wind up being one of the most iconic modern-day video game soundtracks, I wouldn’t have believed you. It didn’t grab me immediately. And yet years later, I have so many fond memories of the game, its characters and its worlds… which is ridiculous, when you think about it!

    "The Halo stories are dense and borderline incoherent, their characters are either militaristic clichés or weird babbling aliens. Their hero is a helmeted guy who speaks in terse, emotionless grunts. And yet they inspire so many emotions, so much feeling.

    "I’ll tell you how they do it — they do it with music. O’Donnell’s soaring, melancholy melodies and spacious harmonic ideas are so flat-out good that they provide the heart of the entire Halo series. Without that music, Halo would be a fun sci-fi shooter, but it wouldn’t feel half as vital, resonant, or alive.
    "... Every time I hear the Halo music, it conjures some sweeping vista or massive battlefield. I feel a stirring inside. Vague feelings of heroism and sacrifice, of noble action in the face of impossible odds.
    "... Some variation comes in towards the end, when the piano (ever the iconic Halo instrument) makes an appearance.
    "...It’s nice that they’ve got so many people paying so much attention to the music. O’Donnell has always struck me as a very traditional composer, and it’ll be interesting to hear where someone with a background in sonic exploration and electronic music will take things."

    I can relate to most of this article, especially what was said about the emotions. I look forward to reading the interview. But I feel the soundtrack will be worse.

      I really like the piano in this at 3:15
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebr-UTWLfyE

    I'm a musician myself (not a good one, admittedly). But I didn't have a single problem with the Halo 4 sample. There's melody and drama, and plenty of layers and variation.

    It does sound a touch less solemn than the usual Halo sound we've heard before, but it could still be a great score.

    I think I agree with the feeling that the halo 4 track sounded flat. I think they'll have their work cut out for them to reach the bar set by martin odonnell.

    Also, just as a sidebar, whenever people talk about taking things to another level, I find it incredibly annoying, and often indicative of the opposite occuring.

    Guys,...listen to it on your tv with a subwoofer.

    It is alot deeper and has a lot more sub-bass than anything on previous Halo soundtracks - it reminds me alot of "Adagio in D Minor" by John Murphy (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQXVzg2PiZw) and when used in context that track has more power than almost any in film score history. It is also used in Kick Ass in the nightvision scene (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0f6f0MvjdQ. )

    It is so much more powerful than anything from Halo 3 - which i just completed for the 3rd time last night. I really like this direction and I think it should fit with their more character driven take on the franchise. It's alot more human so far but it still has some unsettling melodies in there that fit in with sci-fi so well.

    it sounds a bit adventurey and a bit mysterious, the piano bit seems to be hinting at some sort of secret danger. Seems like this would fit the opening level to the game or when MC has just started a plan into the unknown, especially a jungle region.
    Just my opinion.

    I would honestly just rather if they used the music from Halo CE, 2 and 3. It's not very original but no matter what that music always inspires people and gets them ready to play. It's just amazing how they made it so cohesive with the game. This music isn't bad, it just isn't Halo.

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