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Salla Hakkola and Ari Pulkkinen: Conversation between two game music composers

by FMQ

Salla Hakkola and Ari Pulkkinen exchange thoughts and experiences on creating game music. Each having won several international awards, they have made music for the global superhit game Angry Birds and are among the top names in Finnish game music. What does it take to write game music – and what is the state of the genre in Finland today?

Salla Hakkola: I became a game music composer somewhat by accident. I began composing when I was an exchange student in Mexico. In that new environment, writing music was a liberating and horizon-broadening experience. Actually, all the creative work I do has its roots in that experience. Having graduated in Finland, I partnered with my brother Ilmari Hakkola to set up a production company that mostly produced animations but also made media music for ads and games. I was doing other things at the time, too: I was interested in experimental live music, I was on the board of the Ears open! association, and I was studying composition with Eero Hämeenniemi. In 2011, Rovio acquired our production company, and we began to write music for them. Without the background that I have in media music and classical music, I would never have taken up writing music for games.

Ari Pulkkinen: My history is a bit different. Basically, I went directly from amateur to gaming professional. I had been playing video games since childhood, and I was also keen on music. I began to create music using PC trackers just out of interest, while me and my friends were also designing games of our own. This led in 1999 to the creation of a major freeware game that became big enough to make the cover of PC Gamer magazine in Germany and the UK. In 2003, Frozenbyte approached me to ask whether I’d be interested in working in their audio department. My first game there was Shadowgrounds, which also involved guitarist Jussi Sydänmaa of Lordi fame – the winner of Eurovision in 2006. In addition to writing music, I scripted and designed game worlds. In 2008, I set up my own company, AriTunes, and at the end of last year I was appointed Audio Lead at Housemarque.

SH: Sounds like the background of many game music and audio creators. Many are already familiar with this world. This is my point, that in my case it happened more by accident.

AP: It doesn’t matter how you get here.

SH: My link to the gaming world was really through my brother. He was making music with software since he was 10 years old, and we were fans of games and game music when we were little. We played Mario music and Heroes of Might and Magic on the piano, four hands. That’s actually the sort of spirit I’m still working with now. He and I set up the audio department at Rovio, and now we have a company together.

AP: I’ve been happy as Audio Lead at Housemarque. While I’m still interested in game music, I like new challenges as well. I’ve been writing music for other people’s projects since 2003, and I’ve always thought about what it would be like to make music for myself. 

SH: I can relate to that. Game music is always written to commission. It has its merits, because it’s fun to work with a specific framework and assignment. It’s like a problem-solving task. You don’t have to start from scratch by wondering what it is that you want to say.

AP: Yeah, because the narrative comes from the game.

SH: That’s where the inspiration comes from, but I always wonder what something would sound like if I could do it exactly how I want to [outside the context of the game]. That’s why I’ve had these harp projects and performance art pieces when I feel I need more freedom for my expression.

AP: That’s smart. I’ve had breaks from making my own music for too long. It would have been a good idea to have a professional agent to handle all the contracting and stuff. Every company works differently, and it takes time and effort to deal with that. That time is taken away from making music.

SH: Especially with rights. Companies have varying attitudes and not a lot of knowledge. Sometimes just mentioning music copyrights can irritate people. This makes contract negotiations stressful. 

Apart from her activities as an award-winning game music composer, Salla Hakkola is also known as a pioneering harpist. Photo by Ilmari Hakkola.

Imagination and humour

SH: My thinking is that everything I do is part of a big picture and that everything affects everything else. If I use a lot of string quartet in a game, working with that kind of style and production, I get the feeling that I’d like to write some music like that for myself, maybe combining a harp with the string quartet.

AP: Yeah, working with different styles really broadens your horizons in productions. One day we’ll be hot shot producers for younger talent when they get around to doing more things. When you’ve worked with so many genres and styles, you have a pretty good idea of what works where and what hasn’t been done yet. I’ve got all kinds of things from electronic to orchestral and rock music. I now find it much easier to begin writing music once I know what I’m doing. All it takes is the motivation and the right feeling.

SH: Diversity is good. For me, encounters are important in music, and I often start off game projects by thinking about people – like it would be really great to get the guy who plays the jouhikko, and so on. I don’t build my musical worlds just inside my head, they’re about human encounters as well.

AP: It’s great to have a library of musicians you know. Musicians interpret things in such different ways. The variety of music in games is broad, and the people who enter this business are usually interested in challenging themselves. That’s how it used to be with tracker software when I asked my friends to challenge me to write pieces in various genres.

SH: That reminds me: when we started at Rovio, we had your Angry Birds theme song. I made a dozen arrangements of it, from Vivaldi style to campfire song and from Danny Elfman style to the music of the Andes. It was such a fun stylistic exercise! The great thing about game music is that you can use your imagination. People in the game industry often want something unique, and they’re really open-minded about it. It’s great to be able to use humour and not take things too seriously.

AP: Humour is really important. I remember Dead Nation by Housemarque, which is really dark and depressing. I made this zombie carousel with crazy carousel music. It was recorded in a slightly weird way, and when the guys heard it, they came to the studio laughing and asking what the hell is this? It was great to see gamers getting on board with it.

SH: The musicians seem to have a great time too. It seems they’re always excited about game music projects. It’s a bit different from the stuff they usually do.

AP: It’s important to have fun when you’re doing stuff. You can have fun at recording sessions, using funny terms and demonstrating crazy playing techniques. I’ve even written designs funny enough to make you laugh when you read them.


Ari Pulkkinen
Ari Pulkkinen regards humour as an essential part of creating video games and game music.

Music builds the game world

SH: Mobile games are usually casual and don’t involve that anxious moods, but generally any game team will have more ideas than anyone can fit on a screen. Music can introduce a depth dimension that isn’t immediately apparent in the game itself. It’s important to consider game music as not just an accompaniment to what’s happening on the screen. In Merge Mansion, for instance, the stories of the game are incorporated into the music, which does not always mickeymouse the screen but instead provides an emotional enhancement. Music makes a game much more multi-dimensional.

AP: This is why my current job at Housemarque is so inspiring. My job is mainly design and mapping emotional modes – how the various modules connect to each other and to gameplay. My aim is that anyone can easily understand my design and do their own thing within it – not to restrict anyone’s creativity but just to provide a framework in which it’s easy to develop things. I’ve really enjoyed doing this. It’s much more about guiding and directing the style of the game – like a coach in a team sport.

SH: Sounds like fun. I play a lot of the games for which I write the music and analyse them closely. I also give feedback: I may say something if something doesn’t feel logical or ask whether a particular character is supposed to be mischievous or relatable. But it would be great to be able to contribute to design and to influence the game itself like that. 

AP: Things like doing voiceovers for the characters increases your understanding, especially if there’s no spoken language, only sounds.

SH: Have you done voiceovers? I’ve done some, but I wouldn’t call myself a voice actor.

AP: Yes, I have. In Angry Birds, for instance, we thought about how to get a really evil laugh – like a predatory banker when someone gives them money. With the birds, I spent a lot of time thinking about the whistle: what kind of a sound would an angry bird make? Those were good days at the Rovio offices!

SH: So you did the music and the sounds for the original [game]?

AP: Yeah, and I also did the voices for all the games on which I worked from 2003 to 2017. I’ve had great sessions with creative teams brainstorming about what zombies or various other characters might sound like. It’s more fun than a night of karaoke! I’d say it’s useful for the musicians to know about the sound design of a game, because it works hand in glove with the music.

SH: Ever since Rovio, I’ve been able to write music together with the sound design team. Sometimes designers have used my demo clips for the sound background. It’s great when the music and the sound design go well together.

AP: I got involved in sound design through the first Fallout games because the universe was so well done with music and ambience. It was a great way to establish the ‘open world’ universe by creating a mood, not just with melodies but with ambience as well.

SH: I also believe that less is more. I’d like to write very minimal music, but the game teams almost always want music with drive, because that’s what people are used to. They don’t always realise at the demo stage that something that sounds too simple on its own may work better in the context of the game. I’ve never been able to write game music that’s as minimalist as I’d like. You can experiment with stuff in major console games, but not in mobile games.

AP: That’s exactly why I’d like to continue doing console games. There’s more scope for using silence as an effect, for instance. In the future, I’ll be able to create Atmos material in my new studio. It still thrills me at a cinema when the Atmos logo appears on the screen and the sound flows through the theatre. I want to create that feeling in a game universe.

SH: It’s also good to note that it’s not necessary to pump up the music and the sound at the same time. I usually discuss this with the sound designer, and if there are massive sound effects somewhere, then I won’t write massive music for that scene, because that’s counterproductive. I’d like to take this interaction further, but for mobile games the aim is usually to keep them simple. I’d like to make a soundtrack with harp and electric harp, for instance. More of a mood music sort of thing.

AP: I’d like to explore adaptive music, how to create a story and a piece that evolves as the player progresses. There would be so many parameters to resolve: the framework, the design, the story, the progress of the main character, etc. In the world of big console games and big projects, all the hours go into design.


Immersion is vital

AP: At Housemarque, I try to make sure that the people there understand what we’re doing on the audio side. The main thing is to be able to work with multiple genres and to have a good time. The scale is relevant, of course, whether we’re talking about an AAA release or a mobile game. It’s easier to approach all kinds of things in mobile games. 

SH: Music in mobile games is somehow underrated – the attitude seems to be that mobile games just cannot have good music. On the other hand, in mobile games there are fewer people telling you exactly what the music should be like. If the music fits the mood, it doesn’t matter so much what style of music it  is. So that’s pretty gratifying.

AP: I think it’s important for any game music composer to be able to combine genres to create something unique. It’s also important to be enthusiastic about games – to know how games work, what ‘boss music’ means for example, what its history is, what it requires, and so on. You need to know the big picture that the music and the gameplay form. A film score illustrates scenes, but adaptive music in games is something different.

SH: A multi-genre approach is a good thing, but everyone doesn’t have to be able to do everything. It’s OK to develop a style of your own. Of course, it’s important to keep an open mind. It’s essential to be able to relate to things other than music and to be able to use your imagination to bring in things that you can’t see in the game. You need to know the game thoroughly so that you’re aware of everything that’s happening and how it runs over time. I’d say imagination and immersion are vital – and knowing the product for which you’re writing music.

AP: Good point. I feel that general attitudes to gaming and game music have improved in Finland. The Game Music Collective attracts huge audiences, and interest is growing. Game music is becoming more of a mainstream genre. I’ve had feedback from players who were inspired by the music in Angry Birds when they were kids and took up music as a hobby as a result. That’s similar to what happened to me with Star Wars. Live music is great too. It’s important to have motivated musicians who understand the function of original music in a game and know how to interpret it.

SH: That increase in interest may have to do with a shift in the music industry. Not so many physical records are sold these days; it’s all on your mobile. The game industry is already bigger than films and music combined; it’s a huge business that generates massive revenue. It’s no wonder that it has attracted interest among music makers. The game industry is interested in working with artists, but there could be much more collaboration than there is at the moment.

AP: Actually, I had a project eight or nine years ago to bring together the game industry and the music industry. One of its tangible outcomes was that you can now become a member of Teosto [the Finnish Composers’ Copyright Society] if you write music for games. But it will take a lot to really bring these two industries into synch.

SH: Companies need to have more knowledge about the things you can do with music and how you can use it commercially. This would be a win-win, but this aspect is almost completely ignored.

AP: Game companies have the mindset that they need to own all the content, even if they’re not doing anything with it and don’t know how to develop it further – such as music. If we have a game that sells a million copies – how could we kickstart the music into an independent existence beyond the game?

SH: Exactly. The companies would benefit too, because as publishers they would get half of the streaming income and make money without doing anything. So there are a lot of things to pursue, and a lot of opportunities.




Salla Hakkola

  • Harpist-composer and performance artist, best known for her soundtracks for the Angry BirdsClash of Clans and Merge Mansion; worked at Rovio between 2011-2019 as a composer, producer and music consultant 
  • Awards: Grand Winner / Best Music (mobile game) for Merge Mansion albums and Gold winner / Best Original Game Soundtrack for Friends & Dragons (NYX Game Awards 2023); best game soundtrack / The Fruit Nibblers(Game Audio Awards 2016)
  • Master of Music (Music Education Department, Sibelius-Academy, 2006); composition studies; orchestral conducting & Paraguayan harp studies in Mexico D.F. 2003-2004
  • A pioneer of the electric harp in pop / rock groups and on the experimental art scene; performances with a wide range of top artists in Finland in various genres (Apulanta, Yona, Verneri Pohjola, Jukka Perko)

Ari Pulkkinen

  • Audio Lead at Housemarque; CEO & Producer at AriTunes
  • Music for the Trine series, Nex MachinaSuper Stardust HDResogunOutlandDead NationAlienationAngry Birds
  • Awards: Finnish Game Developer of the Year 2011; Best Soundtrack of The Year / Resogun (Red Bull Music, 2013); Best video game soundtrack / Trine 2 (Game Music Fans, 2012); Best European Sound Nominee (2nd Place) / Trine 2 (European Games Award, 2012); Best PS4 Sound Design (IGN, 2013)

Featured photo: Lasse Lehtonen
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi