Many sound effects have a dominant frequency, especially for artificial sounds (UI, "powerups") and short effects that get repeated (machine guns). Whether by design or accident, these sound effects could be in tune with each other, or with the music.

My questions are, does this matter at all (in games), and if it does, what effects does this produce? When would one purposefully create harmonies, disonnances, or avoid such effects altogether?

In music theory, the effects of consonance/dissonance is well known, one of which is that notes in tune with each other are pleasant, and those that are not are unpleasant. But what about in games, does it matter that, for example, the laser gun you are shooting is in tune with the music?

At least a few well known games have harmonic sound effects, and although it may be deliberate, I'm not sure if it's a purely subjective/artistic choice, or whether it was designed to evoke specific feelings from the player. One notable example is Candy Crush Saga, whose match effects are all part of the same major key as the music: https://youtu.be/8TIeNDnJiN8?t=6m57s

Another example is Super Mario Bros, in particular the 1-up sound effect: https://youtu.be/w2NjUDfOp2o?t=22s although other powerup effects like the coin sound are not in the same key, for whatever reason.

At least one sound designer seems to think this is important:

Aaron Marks: I think I’m pretty much always in the ‘musical’ mindset when doing sound design, whether it’s recording, mixing and mastering or on a creative level. Music is definitely in my blood and I think, subconsciously at least, it’s always there when I’m doing any audio work. I definitely have some techniques where I ‘tune’ sound elements to be either pleasant or something a little more harsh. I also tend to pay attention to the music that is accompanying a scene or game level and often tune the sound effect to a note which blends well or I’ll go the opposite direction and detune it, especially for evil characters and their weapons, for example. You definitely want the audience to ‘feel’ the evilness and this is a great way to do it without being in their face about it.

In games especially, part of the goal is for all of the sound effects to feel natural to the game and not bring any undue attention to themselves. By doing this, the ones you want to really stand out will definitely be noticeable and have more impact. I’m always very careful for sounds like tractor beams, engines, humming machinery or ambience to tune them so they all work together and with the music.

Although this is just one opinion; I'd like to hear from those who have experience with professional game sound design to weigh in, is it something that sound designers generally worry about, and if so, when would one want to have sounds that are in tune, out of tune, and what the effects are.


1 Answer 1


Harmonizing the soundscape is another level of polish you can apply to your game, and it works like this: If you're going to be playing a lot of the same sounds over and over, and most action games need to, you don't want it to get annoying. So you fine tune the sounds so that they don't clash but still sound pleasant, or even musical, when played together.

Conversely, you can emphasize sounds by using harmony followed by sudden dissonance or vice versa. Horror games often use ambiance in harmonized tones, then make the parts that are supposed to be scary dissonant. Just like we can use music to signal changes in tone, so can we use contrasting harmony. This way we can get quick changes in mood that wouldn't make sense to try with music.

So, when the sound isn't clipping, all the recorded audio is high quality and noise free, and they aren't playing the same voice samples over and over, but the game just sounds off, it might just be the harmony. You'll usually find it in low budget games that make heavy use of clips from libraries or found on the internet, with no attention to tweaking those sounds to work together. It's not that bad (compared to some of the other flaws mentioned), but it can make the game sound "amateurish."


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