A Score of Questions

A lot—most, perhaps—of the oxygen surrounding the Halo Infinite gameplay reveal this month was sucked up by Craig memes and the graphical presentation, but it would be a shame to skip over the forgotten half of any audiovisual presentation—the music, specifically, for our purposes. The gameplay demo was not only important for giving us a concrete look at what a slice of the game would look like, but giving us a better idea of what the game would sound like.

With the “Deliver Hope” trailer at E3 2019, 343 Industries showed off the music of Curtis Schweitzer, Infinite‘s newly-announced composer (working alongside the audio team of music supervisor Joel Yarger and audio director Sotaro Tojima.) 343i also put into words a thesis for their goals with the music of Infinite:

Music is critical to every Halo experience. It has been from the very beginning and in Halo Infinite, we’re taking that tradition very seriously. […] [Tojima] has challenged [Yarger] to find accomplished music composers that can stay true to the musical traditions of Halo—originally created by maestros Marty O’Donnell and Mike Salvatori—harness its inherent power, and build on those foundations with new creativity and emotional depth.

Given the enormity of the score’s importance and scope, we wanted to hire a team with a specific working sensibility and skillset. More importantly, a team of talented composers of original music that could work seamlessly with existing melodies and themes to blend the classic and the new— music that will sometimes map to familiar characters and ideas, but also introduce brand new threats, wonders and discoveries in dramatic and immersive ways.

With the Microsoft showcase and Halo Infinite gameplay demo, it’s clear that 343i wasn’t joking about using the plural form of “composer” in that writeup, as they announced another composer, Gareth Coker, was joining the project as well. With the musical team established and examples of their work available, it’s time to consider what the realization of 343i’s goals are here—and where this music fits in the landscape of what makes “Halo” Halo. [Update: In August, 343 Industries announced Joel Corelitz of The Unfinished Swan and Death Stranding was also joining the team. The following piece does not dive into Corelitz’s contributions.]

This ‘stuff’ is your history!

What describes Halo‘s music? To many people, it might just be “monks”, or else some vocalized variation of dun-dun-dun-DUH, but those are imprecise. Halo‘s music was established by a stable corps of composers at Bungie—Martin O’Donnell, Michael Salvatori, and eventually a few additional personnel such as C Paul Johnson and Stan LePard. Perhaps crucially, Halo‘s musical tone was established before the game’s overarching story was even set, as O’Donnell composed the iconic main theme for the game’s Macworld 1999 debut, at a point when the game was still a third-person shooter on personal computers. Bungie writer Joseph Staten famously only gave O’Donnell a few suggestions, including something mysterious and ancient.

What O’Donnell turned out is arguably one of the few modern iconic pieces of game music that can stand up against the juggernauts of the medium. But O’Donnell also clearly established exactly what kind of music Halo would be known for. First and foremost, there was a strong choral component, fusing western Gregorian chant with a pinch of southeastern Qawwali singing. There was likewise a heavy use of distinctive strings, at times lilting in such a way that they threatened to turn the theme into an Irish reel at any moment.

Clip from “Truth and Reconciliation Suite”, Halo: Combat Evolved soundtrack, featuring the distinctive choral component alongside the near-fiddled strings section.

Later trailers, such as the E3 2000 demo, established other parts of the Halo sound; the inscrutable nature of Forerunner machinery was underlined with synth-heavy ambient tracks that could make someone feel uneasy (“There’s a lot of unlocked doors for something that nobody’s supposed to have been in for a hundred thousand years…”)

With the team of O’Donnell and Salvatori, Halo‘s music remained fairly consistent throughout the Bungie era. While Halo 2 infused more rock guitar, Halo 3 largely stepped back from those touches, and the music was recorded with ever-larger groups of real orchestras alongside digital instruments. As side projects, ODST and Reach each stretched the soundscape further to fit the moods of each project. Another composer didn’t significantly contribute to Halo until 2009’s Halo Wars, when Age of Empires composer Stephen Rippy turned in a score that very neatly adapted O’Donnell-Salvatori’s sound to the requirements of a real-time strategy game. Rippy consciously analyzed the previous Halo scores to identify elements that featured strongly, and as a result Halo Wars heavily uses the choir, as well as the piano, which showed up incidentally in Combat Evolved but grew to be a huge part of the music for Halo 3, starting from the announcement trailer. Essentially, by 2007 O’Donnell had firmly established what could be considered the music counterpart to the gameplay’s “holy trinity” of guns, grenades, and melee—choir, piano, and strings. If you have those ingredients, you’re well on your way to crafting a Halo score.

With the changing of the guard from Bungie to 343 Industries, the new stewards of Halo departed from the established sound in many ways. If much of the game was designed around proving that 343’s game could stand on its own apart from the previous Halo games, the audio likewise reinforced that. The tag team of Neil Davidge and Kazuma Jinnouchi composed music that keeps much of the same spirit of Halo—ancient, mysterious ambiance with more cinematic music—but departs substantially in the substance. Listening to the score again, I think one can grossly simplify their partnership as Davidge primarily contributing ambient or more electronics-driven music, while Jinnouchi scored more traditional orchestral offerings, but they work together as a cohesive whole.

Davidge’s music underscored one of the earliest pieces of Halo 4 content we saw, the concept art trailer from HaloFest 2011, and it definitely encapsulates much of the resulting game’s sound—at times far more electronica-driven, while also having a more bombastic, darker tone. One of the major shifts comes in the classic choral arrangements, which Davidge treats less as instrumental texture than as voice, with the vocals on tracks like “Revival” speaking (made-up) words rather than singing tones.

Halo’s monks are treated as a sort of a Forerunner speaking chorus in Halo 4, as in this clip from “Revival”.

At the time, the soundtrack to Halo 4 was not effusively received, which I think partially relates to how the sound felt too alien from previous scores, and also how little of previous Halo music actually appeared; the Halo theme basically does not appear aside from a brief snippet until the very climax of the game, for example, and aside from a very few select quotes no other themes make any significant presence. At the same time the score, especially in its ambient music, felt like a return to the inscrutable alien feel that typified Combat Evolved‘s score; the sense of mystery and wonder that was peeled back and became familiar with successive games.

Halo 5 represented something of a course correction in many respects from Halo 4, and its music represents that shift. Now the sole composer, Jinnouchi purposefully incorporated much more classic Halo music, although he often treated them in different contexts; the once-portentous music used for the Covenant in Halo 2 is rearranged as the music of Jul ‘Mdama’s rapidly-weakening faction in the track “Scavengers”, for example. The Halo theme itself returns as the game’s menu music, as well as being reinterpreted in a climactic rendition in the campaign as “The Trails.” A major distinction in these scores from “classic” O’Donnell-Salvatori music is the heavier emphasis on leitmotifs, recurring musical phrases that represent characters. O’Donnell’s Halo work generally doesn’t focus on motifs—witness Halo 3‘s “Keep What You Steal” track, which pares the piano-driven Halo “Love Theme” that was originally a lost cut off the Combat Evolved soundtrack with a repurposed “Earth City” theme from Halo 2. The moment is Chief and Cortana reuniting, and has nothing to do with New Mombasa, but O’Donnell repurposes the music into something new to fit the emotional context. In Halo 4 and 5, meanwhile, Chief has his own theme—the guy got through three games without one—and Team Osiris likewise gets one to anchor their side of the story. Listening to the Halo 5 soundtrack very much feels like a musical work that could stand alone telling a story without any visuals; it’s a very different approach than the “classic” sound.

Jinnouchi’s solo turn brings up unique touches that aren’t found in many other Halo scores, especially very fast string arrangements and repeated arpeggios, as well as brassy flares and snare drum usage that sometimes feel very John Williams-inspired, bringing the sound of Halo very close to Star Wars at times.1 Halo 4 and 5 often treat the game experience much more like a film than Bungie’s games, so it’s not surprising the music takes more cinematic cues as well.

The merging of classic Halo elements—strings, choir, and some subtle synths—into something quite different, from “Advent”.

All of this brings up to Halo Infinite, and where it fits in with Halo‘s musical evolution.

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone

343i isn’t being coy about their intents with Halo Infinite as both pushing Halo‘s gameplay forward with a new, open-world-styled mission structure alongside a deliberate return to “classic” elements from the game, and that extends to the music as well. The announcement trailer featured the iconic piano fanfare from Halo 3‘s “Finish the Fight” alongside the shot of a classic-looking Master Chief visor. Schweitzer’s music for “Deliver Hope” does its own thing for the initial section of the trailer, but ends with the classic Halo theme, and so does the recent gameplay trailer. But there’s enough new material there for us to see where the music of Infinite might be headed.

First, it’s helpful to know more about the composers. Curtis Schweitzer is an American composer whose video game titles include Starbound and Earthlight. Playing tracks from Starbound immediately demonstrate the combination of strings, piano, and choir that are essential to a Halo score. (Funnily enough, his main theme to Interstellar has a very similar melody to Halo 4‘s “To Galaxy”.)

The escalating strings here are a similar approach as Jinnouchi’s Halo 5 score.

The original music Schweitzer composed for “Deliver Hope” leans heavily into the use of a “soulful piano” sound, alongside choral swells (used a la Halo 1–3 as instrumentation rather than voice) and a lot of snare and drum accents. The end of the piece swells back into a rendition of the Halo theme, with strings that more than any track I’ve heard since Combat Evolved Anniversary approach the lilt of Combat Evolved‘s sound. The post-titles stinger also takes a bit more from Halo 3, lifting the melody from the very opening track, “Arrival”. It’s no doubt a “safe” selection of music, but it’s not hard to argue that Schweitzer manages to skillfully blend O’Donnell’s music together.

Gareth Coker is probably the bigger name insofar as composers go, as he’s produced music for Minecraft expansions as well as the Xbox darling Ori and the Blind Forest. Looking through his quite-extensive online portfolio, I’m struck by the range expressed in his work—he goes from music designed to specifically evoke specific regions and time periods to epic adventure and then the quiet, lush music of Ori. The main theme of the latter, I think, is a great example of Coker’s work at integrating the Halo trinity in an interesting way; the piano is going full soulful ballad, but even with the choral accompaniment, the score never feels like it takes a turn into something maudlin and treacly.

The main theme to “Ark: Survival Evolved” brings to mind the bombast of Jeremy Soule’s Total Annihilation soundtrack, as well as a sweeping sense of an adventure film.

As this month’s showing was a much longer gameplay demo, we get a much better opportunity to hear Coker’s work thus far on Infinite, and we can draw a lot more from it in direct comparisons, especially with the track that plays over the demo’s finale, “Set a Fire in Your Heart”:

The opening measures feature a lot of reverbed brass and soft electronic touches, before added heavy drums. I think it’s fair to say that between Schweitzer and Coker, Infinite‘s score is going to follow Halo 4 and 5 in leaning into the dominant elements of modern scoring, which includes a lot of dark percussion and Hans Zimmer-style bwwwwaaah, which was a huge component of the score of Halo Wars 2, composed by the team of Gordy Haab, Brian Trifon, and Brian Lee White. I can’t say I’m particularly a fan of how this brash style has overtaken the musical zeitgeist, but its use here feels much more measured.

There’s a lot of other parallels the brief piece brings up for me in terms of past Halo associations that are unreservedly positive. The brief bridge around 1:10 to 1:20 reminds me a lot of atmospheric pieces Davidge produced for Halo 4, such as the openings to “Kantele Bow”, “Nemesis”, and “Swamp”. The Halo theme’s integration at 1:20 calls back to a lot of Stephen Rippy’s work in doing the same in Halo Wars. This part of the piece balances the dominant Halo theme (being used to represent Master Chief) with a more subtle bass motif for the game’s Big Bad, Warchief Escharum. The call-and-response “dialogue” between the two pieces is something special and I hope we see that kind of interplay in the game between the characters themselves. At 1:54, the music breaks in a triumphant crescendo, giving way to a piano section that is a practical dead ringer for an oft-forgotten score (and composer) in the Halo universe; the work of Tom Salta and specifically Halo: Spartan Assault.

A clip from Spartan Assault’s “Prelude”, to compare with the very end of “Set A Fire In Your Heart” above.

Salta has been basically the unsung B-team composer in 343i’s arsenal, punching way above his budget with the music for Spartan Assault, Spartan Strike, the Fall of Reach animated adaptation, and Halo Online (with his music adapted for the stirring Halo 2 Anniversary cinematics trailer.) I’m kind of disappointed Salta never has gotten his shot at the “big chair”, but that Coker has some of the same sensibilities is heartening.

Overall, what we’ve heard from Infinite‘s music thus far seems like it nails and exceeds the target of familiarity plus newness that 343i is striving for. Coker and Schweitzer’s work hews more closely to the “canon” Halo sound, but it still inherits or follows some of the “modern music” sensibility that influenced Halo 4 and Halo 5. Writing for games is different (or should be) than writing for other media, and in his Halo Waypoint interview I think Coker understands that. The composer said he believes the music respect’s Halo‘s legacy “while also introducing new and unexpected musical ideas into Halo‘s musical tapestry,”2 and I think there’s every indication thus far they are primed to hit that target. Halo’s music has been the site of many fertile composer collaborations from the very beginning, and we can look forward to what Schweitzer, Coker, and the 343i audio team produce to dazzle our ears.

  1. I dare anyone to have someone listen to snippets such as this bit from the opening of “Composer” and not have most people think it’s a brassy fanfare from a Star Wars film.
  2. “Set a Fire in Your Heart”, Halo Waypoint, July 28, 2020.

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