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The Grant Kirkhope Formula: How to Write Music Like the Man Himself

Hi. My name is Stephen. It's been my dream since the age of eight to be somehow involved in making video games. I am currently in university majoring in Computer Game Design, with the aspiration of one day becoming a music composer for games. Today, I would like to share some knowledge, both to aspiring musicians and people who just want a good read.

As far as video game music goes, my absolute favorite composer is Grant Kirkhope. For those who don't know, Grant Kirkhope is a composer who has written music for quite a few games, most notably the two Banjo-Kazooie games for the Nintendo 64, as well as Donkey Kong 64.  

It is pretty much an established fact that Kirkhope is a bona fide badass. You can't really have a discussion about Banjo-Kazooie without mentioning his name and how awesome he and his music is. 

But how does he do it? How did he make such memorable and amazing tunes? Well, this is where the title of this blog comes in. 'The Grant Kirkhope Formula' is a term I made up for the songwriting process of the N64 games Kirkhope worked on, namely the ones listed above. What I mean is, I've been 'studying' his music for a long time and I've noticed that Kirkhope seemed to like to use certain 'catalogs' of instrument combinations for the levels he would write for (Like how a lot of BK's and BT's snow levels use a lot of the same instruments), and I think that was they key. If you limit the amount of instruments to use, you'll be more likely to give each part as much TLC as possible if you want people to like your song. And that's how Kirkhope's songs became so memorable. You can tell that no one part in a song was given priority over another.

And that's not to say that his style is overly complex. On the contrary, it is actually quite simple. Today, I am going to show you how to write a Banjo-Kazooie song in a way that will totally not come off as self-promotion... *cough*


For aspiring musicians who want to become composers for games, replicating Kirkhope's style is a great place to start, mainly due to it's simplicity. First, you need three things:

1. A music writing program of some sort. Personally, I use Sibelius when I write songs (although I am slowly transitioning to Logic Pro). Sibelius is a program that allows you to write music just as the composers of old did, but in this digital age, you have an advantage: When you put notes down on the sheet, your computer will emulate that sound, and you can play back your whole piece to see how it sounds, making it easier for you to know where to make changes. Some of you may be overwhelmed by traditional notation and are more comfortable with Piano Roll (you know, those little block things) in programs such as FL Studio, and there's absolutely no problem with that. However...

2. A knowledge of writing music. This is why I prefer Sibelius. If you don't know how to write music, then Sibelius can help you by teaching you how to read it first. As far as quarter notes, half notes, rests, and the like go, you can learn that by just plopping notes down and seeing what comes out. But it is crucial to know the intricacies of time signatures, key signatures, and tempos, and I'm not too sure if other programs make it as simple as Sibelius does (I could be wrong, though. But in my opinion, transitioning from traditional notation to blocks is much smoother than vice versa). It may sound like a lot of work, but trust me; Once you can read music, you can easily write it.

3. A desire to write music. If you're an aspiring musician, this shouldn't be a problem.

Got all that? Of course you do. Let's get started!


First, I want you to listen to this. This is the very first song I ever wrote over a year ago.

Doesn't sound very Kirkhope-ish, does it? Well that's because I didn't intend it to be at the time. When I wrote this piece, I wanted to sound like you were visiting a fortune teller in an old school RPG. Hence, the title of this song, 'Madame.' So why did I show this song, then? Well, in time, I would turn this into a Banjo-Kazooie style piece, simply by changing and adding instruments.

And that, my friends, is the secret of 'The Grant Kirkhope Formula.' You can literally take any melody you come up with and make it sound like a Grant Kirkhope piece. It all depends on the instrumentation.

So for today, we are going to write a song in the style of Clanker's Cavern from Banjo-Kazooie, and we're gonna keep it simple. Please take a moment and watch the linked video. Once you're done with that, we'll move on with creating a melody.


Now, since we're writing a Clanker's Cavern-styled piece, the best key to use for this dank and messy kind of level, in my opinion is B Flat, but feel free to experiment as you follow the instructions below. And let's keep the tempo at about 100 BPM (beats per minute).

Once you have that in mind, just go about your day and make up some melodies in your head (or aloud). You can do this in the shower, on a walk, whatever. Once you come up with something you like, WRITE. IT. DOWN. Trust me, if you don't get it down on something before you go to sleep, you will forget about it. And if you think your melody sounds bad, you're wrong. It sounds great.

And remember to take the melody's length into account. Clanker's Cavern lasts about two minutes before repeating, and it has several segments that sound different from each other, as well as a key change in the middle. My original song I showed you, 'Madame,' was only about 30 seconds before it goes into repeat because there was only one 'segment,' unlike Clanker's several. However many 'segments' you want in your melody, try to keep it under two minutes, so that when it repeats, it will still feel fresh.

Another thing you should keep in mind when coming up with a Grant Kirkhope style melody: The range. If you notice, the ranges of his melodies are never extreme; they never go all over the place. If you need assistance, use a piano as reference. Pick a small section of keys and work with them. To put this in simpler terms: Dream Theater likes to use every note in existence. You are not Dream Theater.

Once you get your melody down, it's time to decide what instrument(s) to use. Well, one of the more prominent instruments in Kirkhope's catalogs is the clarinet, which is the instrument that provides the melody for the latter part of Clanker's Cavern before it repeats. Let's use that.


So with the melody taken care of, we need a bass line, percussion, and off-beat brass (I'll explain that one last). Now for the bass line, just do the same as you did with the melody. It will be much easier now that you have a melody to go by (although some people prefer vice versa). This may sound like me being a lazy instructor, but trust me: Your imagination is the most important tool of songwriting. You can take all the music theory classes in the world, but, as useful as they are, they ain't gonna help you if you have a weak imagination.

But one thing to keep in mind when making a bass line: Keep it simple. You can just do quarter notes if you must. Just don't make it more complex than the melody.

Now there are a few instruments Kirkhope uses for his bass lines. For a Clanker's Cavern style piece, a tuba works best.


Unless you're a percussionist, writing percussion parts in Sibelius will be a pain in the ass. This is one the advantages of programs that use Piano Roll instead of actual notation. If you're using Sibelius, this video is a godsend. It's actually really easy once you know what you're doing. Since you hopefully have a melody and bass line down, coming up with a percussion part should not be difficult.


The off-beat brass, in my opinion, is the defining feature of a Grant Kirkhope song. Now, what do I mean by 'off-beat brass?' Well, let's refer back to Clanker's Cavern. During the four-count, you'll hear a pair of brass instruments making very brief sounds in between one and two, two and three, and three and four (aka the off-beat). For the off-beat brass, take two brass instruments, have one play a note, then have the other play a third below that note. When I say a third below, I mean the third note in the sequence starting with the note already placed. To make it simpler, you have the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. If you're playing A, then F would be the third below it (A, G, F). In sheet notation, if you have a note placed on a space (as opposed to a line), the lower third would be the space right below it.

Sometimes thirds won't work with the song you're doing. It may sound better in fourths or fifths. Experiment!

As for instruments, I'm not sure if Kirkhope uses two of the same instrument, but I use a trumpet for the high third, and a French horn for the lower third, just to add a little extra flavor.


Once you've gotten all that down, congrats! You've written a song!

Now remember that song I showed you earlier that I wrote, the fortune teller one? Well, let's hear it now, using the steps that I provided!

(I suggest you watch it in full-screen)

That is much better. See what I mean? It's all in the instruments.

Now, are we done? Of course not! This is Grant Kirkhope we're talking about here! We're just getting started!

Usually, each level in the Banjo-Kazooie games has about one song with multiple variations, each one sounding like their own song. In this blog, we're going to cover three variations, starting with the most common one:


I'm not too sure what instrument Kirkhope uses for his underwater songs, but the closest thing Sibelius has is a harp. 

When you place a harp in Sibelius, it will create two lines of music: one with a bass clef (to cover the lower notes), and one with a treble clef (which is worth 20 Notes). Just copy and paste the melody on the treble clef line, and the bass line on the bass clef one. Done and done.

When you are finished, it should sound something like this:

(Again, it's best to use fullscreen.)

See how different it sounds? And it doesn't even require that much effort. It's freakin' awesome!


There are a couple of ways to handle this. Usually, Kirkhope just uses a marimba and calls it a day, but sometimes he gets fancy and adds a theremin. For my piece, I just used a marimba and called it a day.

The marimba, like the harp, has a great range and also uses a bass and treble line when put into Sibelius. The beauty of Sibelius is that it allows you to change the instruments without messing with the notes you've put down, which is very convenient for emulating Grant Kirkhope's style. So you can really just change the harp to a marimba and you'd be done. However, in a deep cave, you want to build suspense, and in situations like this, less is more. So if your original melody or bass line has sixteenth notes or higher, make them quarter or eighth notes, like I did for the song below.

When you are finished, it should sound something like this:

(Please to fullscreen.)

And now you have three songs. See how easy this is? Now comes the fun part.


Aww yeah. Grant Kirkhope goes to town when it comes to the boss fights. And now you have the opportunity to go absolutely nuts with your music.

The most important part of a boss fight song is the intro. The intro is its own little thing that serves to let the player know just how screwed they are for picking a fight with the boss. Take, for example, the first two seconds of 'Weldar' from Banjo-Tooie.

Be creative with your intro. Brass, strings, whatever. Don't hold back. Just make sure that the intro is no longer than two seconds.

Now, unlike the other variations, you're going to have to make some changes for the boss fight, namely two things:

One: Increase the tempo. Experiment as much as you need to, but it has to be faster than it was originally.

Two: Whatever instrument provided the melody originally, change it to brass. For extra flavor, use a trumpet to play the melody, then have a French horn do the same, but an octave lower.

Another minor change that would help is to keep the tuba for the bass line, but restrict it to quarter and half notes. It fits better, trust me. Oh, and adding a timpani can also help. And cymbals. You need those clashes.

Now there is one last thing to add on to the song: Strings.

With strings for boss fight songs, Kirkhope does one of two things: Either he has them do eighth notes the whole time (like in Chilly Willy and Chilli Billi), or he has them do blistering fast arpeggios (like in Weldar and Mr. Patch).

I have not experimented with arpeggios yet, but it would seem that they are 32nd notes. Pretty damn fast. Kirkhope's arpeggios are usually eight notes long. Start with one note, then build up to the fifth note, which should be the same as the first, but an octave higher, then notes six through eight will be going down in that same order. Then you just repeat.

Doing eighth notes is a lot easier, as it's just one note the whole time. Either way, make sure you have two string parts. I find it easy to just have them be violins. If you're doing arpeggios, have them play the same thing to add extra oomph. But if you're doing eighth notes, have one play a note, and have the other play a third or so below it. I say 'or so' because, as I said, there will be times when writing in thirds just sounds weird. For example, in my finished piece, the strings played a fourth apart instead of a third.

When you are finished, it should sound something like this:

And there you have it folks! You have completed what is necessary for a Banjo-Kazooie level. Give yourself a pat on the back.

So remember when I said that this totally wouldn't be self-promotion? Well, I apologize if you couldn't detect the sarcasm. As many people, including Kirkhope, will tell you, it's hard to get into the industry as a musician. And I'm witnessing this firsthand. There are so many internship opportunities I see at my university, yet none of them are looking for musicians. They all want programmers and animators, things I'm not good at.

What's a composer to do, huh? Well, as those same people will tell you, the answer is persistence. Do everything you can and more to get your name out. At some point, someone will listen.

Anyways, I hope you enjoyed this blog. Feel free to check out my website, as it has all my music neatly organized, unlike my SoundCloud page. 

You know, I had this blog on my mind for a while, but didn't really get the chance to get it down until now. I think I should make a series of this, maybe have the next one cover a snow level or something. Don't know when that will be, though.

Well, once again, I hope you enjoyed reading this! Until next time!
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