[Picture taken on top of a mountain by Lake Ashi, ~40 minutes from Mt. Fuji.]
If you’ve ever been to Japan you’d know it’s just as beautiful as it is depicted in the movie The Last Samurai.
That’s why guys like Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs went there for inspiration…
While in Japan, I studied a lot of creative people. Including three of my favorite composers: Nobuo Uematsu, Yasunori Mitsuda, and Hitoshi Sakimoto. All of whom are true musical masters.
Believe it or not, but being a video game composer requires an enormous breadth of musical experience and skill.
Pay? maybe not so much. But skill? Yes.
Video game composers are the comprehensivists of the music world. As are the people who make themes for movies, like Hans Zimmer.
Not only do they need to know how to play *multiple* instruments, but they also have to understand sound technology and computers, a bit of business, dramatic structure, how to lead an orchestra, and a bunch of other stuff.
Lessons from 3 of the Greatest Musical Masterminds
A brief introduction is in place:
Mitsuda: Made the timeless soundtrack of the game Chrono Trigger, which is hailed as the greatest and most original-sounding music score ever made.
Uematsu: Created most of the soundtracks for the Final Fantasy games (the most famous RPG game franchise in history). He is considered to be the #1 video game composer and he’s also part of George Lucas’s secret gang of people who meet at the Skywalker’s Ranch 1.
Sakimoto: Another prolific producer of video game music scores. Mainly for the company Square Enix.
The reason I was curious to study these guys is because they’re some of the most creative people in the world. So I wanted to see how they engage with their work. What their process is like, and so on…
Below you’ll find citations and commentary on different interviews and transcripts compiled from my commonplace.
Since the lessons pertain to mastery they are timeless & universally applicable.
Let’s start with Mitsuda.
[Note: Here’s a great song by Mitsuda I’m listening to while writing.]
Mitsuda’s Work Ethic and Drive to Prove Himself
Interviewer: I remember when we spoke to you awhile back, you mentioned how deeply absorbed you’ll get in a project, where you’ll basically live the project for a given period. Do you still find that to be the case? Is the distance part of finding that balance?
Mitsuda: I used to live really close to the studio, so I didn’t care about the last train and would keep working all night. But yeah, now I do try to catch the last train to make it home at a decent hour.
Interviewer: I also remember that you said you’d fall asleep in your chair because you’d be working so hard and that melodies would actually come to you in dreams. The ending theme to Chrono Trigger, for instance, came to you in a dream.
Mitsuda: Yeah, that’s true. Back then, I’d camp out in the studio the entire time. I’d keep everything on all the time and I’d drift off to sleep. If I was sleeping and a melody came to me, I’d jump right up and be able to work on it.
Interviewer: So did that really happen?
Mitsuda: Yes, and it’s happened a lot to me recently.
Interviewer: Do you think that’s kind of amazing in a way?
Mitsuda: You know, it’s kind of like what happens in everyday life — if you think about something a lot, it’ll appear in your dreams. That’s how music can be for me. I’ll be thinking about a project so much that melodies will come in my sleep.
Interviewer: Any other examples that you can distinctly remember of melodies coming in a dream?
Mitsuda: “Bonds of Sea and Fire,” Bart’s theme from Xenogears.
Great ideas come naturally when you’re committed to what you do.
Mitsuda and Uematsu: Student & Master Working Together
The following segments are from an interview with Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu.
It’s about a game (Gun Hazard) they composed the music for, where they collaborated together on equal terms for the first time.
Mitsuda is asked by the interviewer if there were any big differences in their work methods?
Mitsuda: There were certainly times when it was easy. But — and I hope I don’t offend Mr. Uematsu by saying this — he’s 36 and I’m only 23, so our levels of experience are vastly different. Mr. Uematsu’s done loads of games and has a lot of know-how. If we were to work together, I had to raise my skills to the same level. The fans don’t know or care how old you are or how much work you’ve already done; the music is all they judge by. So I felt incredible pressure to try to approach Mr. Uematsu’s level.
Uematsu: But you know, there’s really no difference in levels between us. Except… I was really worn out by this job.
Mitsuda: Is that so?
Uematsu: Well, like I mentioned earlier, the genre here was different from the melodious style I’m used to writing for Final Fantasy, so I had to face a lot of my weak spots. How many pieces did I wind up writing, 20-30? Well, what I typically do is come up with an idea on my Mac and save it as number “M-whatever,” and so store up a library of usable ideas. For this project, I wound up with over 200. So compared to my other projects, my batting average on this one was terrible. (laughs) Really, just awful.
There were a lot of pieces on the demo tape I gave to Omiya Soft that were discarded. …but actually, I think it was a good experience. See…Final Fantasy VI was a sort of ending point for me. Not just the music, but the whole game. I thought, if I do this work for the rest of my life, how many more games will I be able to do? With the satisfaction and excitement I felt after finishing that project, I thought I had reached my primary goal, and could quit doing game music with no regrets. That’s how I thought then…but on the other hand, there was a part of me that felt that wasn’t true. That it couldn’t be true. I was very grateful to have worked on FFVI, and the CD sold very well, but I felt that someone like me who could only compose that kind of music shouldn’t be able to sell that well. So there was a wedge driven into my heart. There were still many things I had to do, and I knew what my limitations and weaknesses were.
Doing Gun Hazard at this time made me fully realize these things, and I returned to my original intentions. I became keenly aware that I wasn’t done yet, and I’m very glad for that. As Mr. Mitsuda said previously, he’s 12 or 13 years younger than me, and the feel of the sounds he produces is quite different. It’s fresh and new, it’s the product of the digital era. (laughs) It’s really sharp, you know? So working with him was also instructive for me. Tired me out, but it was a good experience. So maybe my next work will sound like it’s been spruced up… Anyway, like I said earlier, there’s not much difference between our levels. No difference, or maybe I’d lose out (laughs). What I can say is that my procrastination method is excellent and I’m always full of arrogant self-confidence, no matter what the project. (laughs) That’s all.
Some key points to take note of here:
- Mitsuda (being young and not yet successful) was hungrier and also had higher energy levels.
- Uematsu (being a master) had expert pattern recognition and a highly refined work process.
- Both learned from each other in different ways. It was a synergistic relationship.
- Uematsu collects ideas in a commonplace-type fashion.
Below is another excerpt on what they learned from the other, each of them commenting on the other person’s unique strength:
Uematsu: Oh, there were a bunch I couldn’t have done, honestly. Hmm, what’s a good example…I mean, they’re all so good…Umm…ah, the ending theme “Trial Zone,” that one’s good! Particularly the synth intro. Players would probably say it most resembles Chrono Trigger. It really has that “Mitsuda Sound” …when you look at my music, it’s full of whole note values. My strings and such are always stretched out and sustained. But Mitsuda has a throbbing quality, his music scatters as if blown from a shotgun, and he has a strong sense of color. That kind of sense is…well, I’ve never written music like that, so…that’s most what I’d like to steal. (laughs) I opened the score to see how it was arranged, but it didn’t look as if he’d had to go to great effort to come up with it. I realized it was just his unique sense. It’s his personal gift, to be able to come up with passages that affect me like that with such frequency.
Mitsuda: Oh [for Uematsu’s songs, it would be], the opening theme..
Uematsu: You couldn’t do it, right?
Mitsuda: I couldn’t do it. I can’t write music as difficult as this. (laughs) The chord progression is really incredible. You don’t know where it’s going to go next. I don’t have that kind of sense at all…the echoes of those chords left me dumbstruck, and I was kind of shocked. (laughs)
Lesson: Everyone has their own unique strength–and it’s important to stay true to it. The flip-side of this fact is that when you’re studying someone who’s particularly good at some thing(s), you have to decipher how much of it is replicable. You can’t copy someone else’s genetics.
In this next portion, they’re both asked how they get so much work done. The interviewer wonders if it entails a great degree of mind-body mastery?
Uematsu: Yeah, yeah. But you know, you just learn how after 10 years of doing this. Your body does only what’s necessary, nothing more. (laughs) So sometimes it’s scary when I look at Mitsuda. The young never stop moving, you know? Doing things like not going home, working all night without sleeping, laboring meticulously over sounds the users will never even hear. (laughs) And in the end, of course, you start shitting blood! (huge laugh) …ah, but really, I do love that method. After all, I was like that too, long ago. I wanted to exhaust myself doing everything I possibly could, so it makes me feel good when I look at someone like Mitsuda. But the fact that he’s bleeding and gets holes in his stomach, that stuff is kind of scary. His physical problems are more of a concern than his musical…(laughs).
“The body only does what’s necessary, nothing more.”
Gee, that sounds familiar.
Mitsuda: Hmmm. Well, Mr. Uematsu sure is a fast worker. When they were programming the sounds into the Super Famicom, in the spirit of competition, I would think, “Since Mr. Uematsu put 2 pieces in today, I’m gonna get 3 in next time!” So working with Mr. Uematsu impelled me to do my own work quickly. It was an incredibly valuable experience for me in terms of writing game music. When I was doing Chrono, writing just one piece would take several days. But this time, I felt a constant prodding from behind.
Uematsu: And just spending a lot of time on something doesn’t necessarily make it good. Sure, sometimes it turns out that way, but working quickly causes you to focus your energies.
Mitsuda: But I believe the tone colors and musical ideas I came up with are more interesting than they were in Chrono. So I think my method worked well for the most part, but you never know, I guess. (laughs) Arriving at work early and leaving early, getting a good night’s sleep to be fresh for each day…I think I acquired greater control over myself through what I could manage of that regimen, but…I still get confused. (laughs)
Here, I see many similarities in my collaboration with Mikael Syding.
Mikael has much more experience than me, including a more refined work method and expert pattern recognition. So, in many regards, he knows what to focus on and what not to focus on, which allows him to do stuff faster than me.
Like Uematsu, he’s also good at energy management and rarely compromises on sleep.
I’m more like Mitsuda, working frenetically on stuff to the point where it may take a toll on me the next day. It’s hard not to for me, because my creativity often comes in lumps, and I always want to capitalize on it as much as I can.
On one side, it’s great being able to push yourself to the limit (or beyond it), but you also need the self-knowledge of understanding when not to do it–to pace yourself more economically for the long-term.
For the legendary Chrono Trigger soundtrack, Mitsuda worked until he got an ulcer, shit blood regularly, and was abruptly hospitalized 2.
I too have shit blood, but not from getting an ulcer. . .
One time I was in the gym doing weighted dips with 40 kg. 10 sets of 6 reps.
Said and done. Then I told myself: “Fuck it, don’t settle, you need to push through the plateau!”
So I did a number of super sets using some kind of machine (I don’t know what it’s called, but it simulates a lat pull-down, working the upper body and back), and I pushed myself so hard that I felt that something burst.
But there was no pain, so I figured it only was my imagination.
When I went down to the locker room to shower–feeling pretty damn good about myself, I might add–I took off my pants and felt a sudden, warm sensation. It was the friction between my pants and underwear. . .
This did not happen because it was an exceptionally hard gym session for me; it happened because of cumulative build-up of stress, the result of overworking myself during a longer period.
You have to know how to push yourself, but you don’t want to push yourself too hard, too often, in too many areas of your life. Even when you can.
Strong people can destroy themselves.
Nobuo Uematsu Learned on His Own
Uematsu: I’ve never been trained, and I’ve never been to a music school. It’s all self-taught.
Most masters are self-taught. And even if they attend some school of formal education, that only gets you so far. 90% of mastery is self-education.
But on the other side, Uematsu was “lucky” to get a head-start. . .
Uematsu: When I got into junior high and I discovered at the same time that I could play my own music and make my own music using the piano, I knew that I wanted to do this pretty much for the rest of my life and was already sucked into it. This was given to me as a kid. Knowing that some people around me who were already taking piano lessons from when they were like five or six — younger than me — I knew I had to sort of make a difference and do something different in order to be able to stand out. So in that sense, I didn’t really care for Japanese music at that time. I didn’t think that I had to listen to Japanese music to learn something new.
He knew early on that he had to differentiate himself from the pack, which is why he cleverly and deliberately chose to take control over his inputs for information by listening ONLY to European music.
Whenever Japanese music came on the radio or TV in his vicinity, he ran away or shut it off. Damn smart for a teenager.
On Avoiding Over-influence from any One Style
Uematsu tells an interviewer his biggest musical inspiration is Elton John. The interviewer asks how many of his songs are influenced by Elton’s sound.
Uematsu: Obviously if I think about it too much, I get worried that I’m going to pick up parts of his music or I feel like I’m going to be influenced too much. My basic focus is to let it be simple, to let it speak for itself. I’m sure there’s some sort of effect on me from having listened to his music for a long amount of time, but I don’t necessarily think about his music or even listen to his music when I’m composing my own.
In the short-term, over-influence may be unavoidable. But over the long-term, as you’re exposed to other styles and methods, you become naturally attuned and learn to assign the proper weight and frequency of use.
It’s like Bruce Lee with JKD–you learn to mix it all together in a beautiful blend. A master synthesizes his own style over a longer period of time.
When you become too swayed by any one factor, you’re missing the bigger picture of what produces quality/value/success. It takes some time for the brain to put things into its correct context.
Can it Be a Good Idea to Tamper with an Original Creation?
Uematsu gets asked if he wants to remake the music for Final Fantasy 7, which is hailed as the #1 RPG video game.
Uematsu: I would definitely go for it. But if they added something here and there, maybe added some scenes and new music to Final Fantasy VII, I wouldn’t really be all for it. Sort of to give a fresh look to it is fine, but still keep the music components. I don’t think you would want to see the scenes that you have in your head with the music that you know fits well and to have me change things here and there. So rearranging meaning getting it up to the standards we have today is fine, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
This is wise reasoning, from a business standpoint. Because:
1) You’ll provide value to lots of fans.
2) You’ll make a huge amount of cash.
3) And you won’t ruin something that’s sacred/nostalgic. Like Coke did when they changed flavors.
If you can do #1 and 2, but it comes at the expense of #3, you’re better off not doing it at all. Ill-will and resentment is very rarely worth money.
Hitoshi Sakimoto is Asked How He’s Been Able to Keep His Music Sounding Fresh Over the Years:
Sakimoto: When you’re working at something — let’s say you’re at a job for five years — you’re constantly learning and becoming more experienced. So even if you’re doing the same exact job as you were five years ago, you wouldn’t go about it in exactly the same way — you would have taken some steps forward. And if you haven’t taken any steps forward, you’ve wasted your time. I think my music remains fresh because I’m constantly taking those steps forward.
You always have to be learning new stuff, developing as a person, and refining your work process. Or stagnate in a bottomless pit of monotony and meaninglessness (not to mention pay-grade).
A helpful practice is to make random lists of “the most important things to keep in mind” for any one thing you regularly do. You may or may not use the lists, but it helps you avoid unconsciously wasting time and focus on stuff that doesn’t produce results.
What’s His Creative Process Like?
Sakimoto: I guess this is different for everybody — but in my case, there are times that I’ll come up with a melody while I’m relaxing, and there are times when I’ll run downstairs to write down a melody. But actually, in those cases, the melodies haven’t been all that great. I have much better results when I’m actually concentrating in my studio. That’s more of my pattern in terms of coming up with melodies.
Some people, like the guy who wrote McGyver, come up with their ideas while taking a break from work. Other people, like Sakimoto, get their best ideas while working specifically on a task.
For me, it’s a combination.
What about you?
What’s your work process like?
When and where do you get your best ideas?