Choosing the Soundtrack for Civ 4

Kyle Roderick, a master’s student in music at Texas Christian University, recently contacted me with some questions about the soundtrack to Civ 4. I am sharing my answers here for anyone else who might be curious about how it was created.

Q. Why was preexisting music chosen to underscore the game? Why not have a wholly original score?

By choosing preexisting music, we were able to include pieces of the highest quality which also gave a historical flavor for relatively low cost. Creating our own score would have been expensive, required a lot more work, and would likely be much shorter in time. (We had almost no practical limit on how many historical pieces we could include.) Most importantly, Civilization games are improved by real bits of history, even if incidental, such as relevant historical quotations, the names of great people, accurate wonder visuals, and so on. Music was one more tool for us. However, we did write music for certain key parts of the game, such as the classical age, which has no preserved musical pieces. Also, we did commission a piece from composer Christopher Tin (my college roommate, by the way) for the intro screen, which became “Baba Yetu” and actually won a Grammy award, the first ever for a video game!

Q: Why this music? How did you go about choosing the pieces which would underscore the various game periods?

I selected the music based on my own collection of classical music. I spent a few months listening through as many works as I could while listing ones which might work well. I then added them to the game to see how they matched the experience of playing Civ. I discovered that many of my top pieces worked poorly because they had too much dynamic range – a great climax might work well in a concert hall, but it can be a little disorientating as background music during a turn-based strategy game. Thus, much of the soundtrack is built from dance music (such as Brahm’s Hungarian and Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances) or middle movements of larger concertos or symphonies (such as the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony). One climactic piece I did leave in, regardless of how it broke the mood, was the final movement of Bach’s Double Concerto simply because I love that piece so much.

Q: Much of the music which accompanies the Medieval game period is from the real-world Renaissance, and the Renaissance game period is underscored by Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. Could you comment on these perceived discrepancies?

Unfortunately, the best pieces (and especially my personal knowledge of them) are not distributed evenly across history, so I had to fudge the dates a bit. Design is a series of trade-offs, and – in this case – sacrificing historical accuracy for the highest quality of music made sense. Giving Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven their own era meant they get plenty of time to shine while still leaving room for the great Romantic composers. I was also unsure of what to include from the actual Medieval period, so this shift strengthened the whole experience.

Q: The modern era is represented solely by American minimalist composer John Adams. Why only Adams, were other composers considered?

The repertoire from modern period is much more varied than that of any other era’s, which meant that finding a consistent style and tone would be difficult. Furthermore, the chaotic structure and casual dissonance of much of modern music would be a difficult match for the mainstream audience of Civ. John Adams is a singular composer from this era; even though he is as well-schooled in minimalism as Glass or Reich, he composes with the heart of a Romantic. His works have a certain movement and thrust to them which makes them a better fit for the less experienced ears of the average player. By using only Adams, I was able to maintain stylistic consistency for the era while also finding a palatable way to stay true to the stylistic innovations of the periods.

I would like add that I will always be grateful to whoever at 2K Games actually approved by request to include so much John Adams. The price was not low, and it was certainly an idiosyncratic choice. I was somewhat expecting them to balk at it, and I’m glad they supported me. (I have similar feelings for them approving the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll” as the background piece for the Rock and Roll wonder; so many other cheaper (or more expensive) paths could have given that moment a very cliched tone.)

Q: Saint-Saëns and Rimsky-Korsakov together are an interesting case. They feature one track each in the Industrial game period, both selections from larger works: the “Allegretto con moto” from Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto in A minor, and “The Young Prince and the Young Princess” from Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Sheherazade. Why were these two tracks included? Were other composers considered for singular inclusion?

I played the cello from early childhood through college, so I have always been partial to pieces which feature that instrument. Furthermore, the Saint-Saen Concerto was probably most difficult piece I ever learned, so I wanted include something from it, and the middle movement made the most sense. I probably toyed with including something from his 2nd Piano or 3rd Violin Concerto, but the former is a bit too explosive and the latter is a bit too apocalyptic. As for the Rimsky-Korsakov, I wanted to add something from Sheherazade because it would provide just a dash of exotic (or, at least, exotic-sounding) music. “The Young Prince and the Young Princess” is a long, slow dance, so it was the best choice to maintain the game’s flow.

Q: Another interesting case is that of the inclusion of John Sheppard’s Media vita. Sheppard is a relatively obscure composer in that his significance is usually overshadowed by Thomas Tallis, whose works are not represented in the game. Is there some reason behind the inclusion of this track?

My knowledge of music from the Renaissance is quite poor, so I enlisted the help of my cousin Erik Anderson, who is a cello professor at Minot State University, and his wife Dianna, who is an accomplished pianist. They created a list of pieces and composers I should consider. As a result, I bought a bunch of music from this period, and the Sheppard piece stuck out to me because of its austere beauty and consistency with the period. I am actually surprised when I look back that I didn’t include any Tallis; I guess they just didn’t stand out to me for some reason.

Q: The recording of “Christian Zeal and Activity” was edited to exclude the sermon. Was this your decision? How do you feel about this significant alteration?

That old recording is an essential part of “Christian Zeal and Activity” (used to great effect by Scorsese in Shutter Island), but spoken dialogue would seriously damage the flow of a Civ game, so I had no choice. Indeed, I edited most of the Adams pieces to take out some of their more climactic or dissonant moments; “Harmonielehre” is missing its shattering opening, for example. Taking these bits out was disappointing, as I didn’t want to damage the structural integrity of the work, but also one of the many steps made to make Civilization 4 fit together as a whole, without any single element demanding the user’s attention over all the others.

Q: If you could go back and change something about the soundtrack to Civilization IV, what would you change? Why?

I am quite proud of how the soundtrack turned out; I often get compliments on it, and I certainly never would have dreamed that “Baba Yetu” would win a Grammy. Of course, I wish my musical knowledge would have been deeper and wider so that I could have built a more varied selection; I definitely leaned pretty heavily on Bach, Beethoven, Dvorak, and Adams. However, if I was to design another Civ game, it would be extremely difficult to go through the process over again and force myself to pick new pieces; I do view the soundtrack of Civ 4 as a piece of myself that sits inside the game, an enthusiastic jumble of my passions and my happenstances.

6 thoughts on “Choosing the Soundtrack for Civ 4

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  2. “If I were to design another Civ game..”

    Dear Soren, do not torture us with such a sentence… I am (or was, because I got fed up with some attitudes there, but that’s another story) one of your fierce defenders in the Civfanatics forums after the so-called Civilization 5 hit the street… I don’t know if you realize how much we, the true hardcore civvers, miss the quality of your work. You, Sir, need to come back to the Civ realm and put the series back where it belongs, after this tiny experiment with a fake game designer…

    Please come back.

  3. The music was one of the most remarkable parts of Civilization IV (which was through and through a remarkable game) and got me interested in corners of classical music I hadn’t given more than a glance before.

    Also, as a hobbyist game designer/developer, your blog has provided me with some of the best insights on making strategy games I have ever read. It’s been a while since your last post–I hope you’ll continue to share your design-wisdom with us in the coming years!

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