One of my favorite soundtracks I rarely discuss comes from Portal 2. I figure I forget about it because it’s so completely not orchestral music. But my, my… it has delicious counterpoint!
Mike Morasky wrote it, and if you don’t know much about Mike, I imagine he’ll be your hero before the end of the day. I dunno, just a hunch. Here’s a taste from Valve’s website:
“Teenage guitar player in a bar band in Montana; award-winning experimental composer in Tokyo; audio hardware programmer in Silicon Valley; underground art rocker touring the world; 3D animator and director for television; electronic audio collage artist in France and Japan; visual fx artist on The Lord of the Rings and Matrix trilogies; AI animation instructor at an art college.”
There’s an overarching theme to this soundtrack worth mentioning, and forgive me for diving into the music theory waters for a moment. Major and minor scales are built from a series of half-steps and whole-steps. The scales aren’t symmetrical. For instance, the major scale consists of the following series of steps: whole whole half, whole whole whole half.
In the 20th century, composers started using symmetrical scales like the diminished scale (also called the octatonic scale, because it has eight notes instead of seven). The diminished scale can start with a whole step or a half step, but then it alternates until you get to the top. So, whole half whole half whole half, etc.
The whole tone scale is symmetrical too, and is constructed only of whole steps, no half steps. This scale only has six notes, and all the chords you can build from it are augmented chords. It has an otherworldly sound. To me, an augmented chord (or a whole tone scale) sounds very open and wide, compared to a more crunchy, compact diminished chord or scale.
Hungarian composer Bela Bartok was into all of these scales, as were Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, and a ton of the Russian composers. Bartok supplies some pretty amazing, concise examples. Here’s an example of the octatonic scale from Bartok.
And here’s an example of the whole tone scale, also written by Bartok. To my ears, whole tone sounds open, and the octatonic scale sounds closed.
In any event, with that sound of the whole tone scale in your ears, listen to Technical Difficulties by Mike Morasky for Portal 2. In fact, listen to the full soundtrack with that in mind (you can, to this day, download the entire thing for free on their site here). Morasky expertly chose that sound to weave throughout the game. It’s brilliant, and I love it.
Emily Reese is an on-air host for Classical Minnesota Public Radio. She is also the host and producer for Top Score, Classical MPR’s podcast about video game soundtracks, and created MPR’s Listening to Learn series. She earned an undergrad certificate in music education and jazz studies from the University of Colorado — Boulder, and a Master’s degree in music theory from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Emily lives in Twin Cities with her cat June Bug and loves gaming, with or without friends.