Penka’s Masterclass on Cultivating a Career – Part 4 – Cultivating an Individual Style as a Composer


Since there is an overabundance of talent in the business of media scoring, it is important that you stand out as an artist and have something unique and individual to say. For me, cultivating a style seemed crucial because I was a woman who needed to stand out in an effort to prove myself. As you begin your career I would recommend that you strive to develop a unique artistic voice and musical persona by scoring indie features and artist projects. It is also crucial that you master a few Hollywood scoring styles that you feel comfortable with. This skill allows you to compose stock cues for production music libraries, or to be an additional composer or composer’s assistant for a busy composer. The seeming contradiction of this argument is difficult to convey but important to understand. Ultimately, you want to develop a unique voice and “sound” in order to get hired for the solo scoring gigs on artistic projects such as indie features, shorts, and indie games. ALSO, you must have a command of a few established styles of scoring so you can work as an additional composer, write for Production Music Libraries & trailers and generate some income while your career is in gestation. This two-fold approach will make you highly desirable by potential employers. Let me say again and again, talent is valued the most. Talent speaks louder than anything else. Talent continues to impress even the most jaded employers. Your talent, passion and entrepreneurial skills will propel you forward in your career.

Cultivating Individual Style

How does an artist cultivate an individual style? Your individual style is an accumulation of your overall personal and creative identity, sensibilities, and influences. Ask yourself, who are you as human being and musician? What music do you feel passionate about? Each one of us has had an experience in adolescence where we’ve been stunned and overwhelmed by the beauty and power of music. It’s what made us love music in the first place. Go back to these early musical influences because they are a part of your musical identity, which will feed into your musical style. Discover music that resonates with you, and determine what kind of styles appeal to you.

I was born and raised in Bulgaria, immigrated to US in 1990 as a student, and came to Hollywood in 1999 to begin my composer career. Intuitively I felt that staying connected with my Bulgarian roots was vital for cultivating my composer’s style. In 1999 I got hired for my 1st Hollywood scoring job precisely because of my non-Western sensibilities and authentic voice. (It was an AFI thesis short film titled Shadows directed by Mitch Levine). This job propelled me further – for a few years after 2000 all my scoring jobs came from AFI leads and referrals. This piece below composed in 2012 from my orchestral album A Warrior’s Odyssey is an example of blending my Bulgarian musical memories with inspirations from Open World and Fantasy game scores (e.g., Sorcery game published by Sony Computer Entertainment)

Once again, in 2009 I got hired on my breakthrough scoring job, Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands game because of my deep knowledge of non-Western music and fluency in the Hollywood fantasy-action vernacular. Here is a Suite of my original music from Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands (Ubisoft, 2010)


Other Examples of Unique Individual Style

In my opinion, having a unique style and “signature sound” is even more crucial for a game composer than for a film or TV composer. In video games the “sound” (style, arrangement) and the “game theme” function as a branding device. They define the genre, story, characters, worlds, even the target markets and platforms of the game. The sound, musical style and themes not only are the heart and soul of the game; they also make it a memorable, visceral experience for the player. Do you remember the musical theme & style of Super Mario Bros (Koji Kondo’s enduring music), the Tetris music, or Marty O’Donnell’s theme for Halo? Jason Graves has a unique style and sound (Dead Space franchise). Mick Gordon has a unique sound (Wolfenstein: The New Order). Jack Wall has a style (Call of Duty franchise). Steve Jablonsky created one of the most enduring and emotional themes for the Gears of War 2, 3 games. Inon Zur created an iconic style for a number of franchises (Baldur’s Gate II, SOCOM II, Fallout, Dragon Age). Garry Schyman created a distinctive and memorable style & sound for the iconic Bioshock games (one of the franchises that inspired me to reinvent myself as a game composer.)  For links to these and other examples, please visit Part 2 of this Masterclass – Seeking a Composer Assistant Job or Internship.

Having a style, your signature “sound,” and being able to write iconic main themes is a pre-requisite for a game composer. In a way, this is similar to composing themes for TV jingles or Top 40 hit songs.  Each jingle needs to be iconic, memorable, and distinctive – both thematically, and with its  own unique “sound.”  In addition, game scores have a heightened degree of specificity in how they sonically define  the world of their games in the respective genre.  This serves the purpose of branding the game and making it stand apart from its competition. Consider how distinctive the “sound” of different sci-fi franchises is: compare the scores of Mass Effect, Halo, Deus Ex, StarCraft II. In the realm of indie games the same rule of “unique sound branding” applies, not necessarily with hybrid-symphonic epic sound, but with specific musical genres. Each casual game tries to be unique, memorable and distinctive, in an ever-growing ocean of products. Composing only generic, background “media” music is not enough for a game composer. As you can see, cultivating a personal “sound” and “style” is crucial.

Non-Musical Inspirations

Open yourself up to other inspirations besides music, such as art, philosophy, literature, technology, games, lifestyle, travel, etc. You might find ideas in these areas that will ignite your musical inspirations further than you could have imagined. Finding your own individual style can’t be learned from a book or in school – each one of you will need to do some deep thinking. It’s a personal, private journey. Listen, research, and study new music daily to immerse your ears in all styles and possibilities. Naturally, you will gravitate to certain styles and will shun others. You cannot be a jack-of-all-trades; this is not what artistry or self-expression is all about. Being an artist is the consummate expression of your inner, individual self. Compose daily to transform your influences into your own music.

The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) created the never-seen-before style “neo-plasticism.” Mondrian began his career painting academic landscapes and still-life, then dabbled in cubism. Soon, he was influenced by the metaphysical philosopher Mathieu H.J. Schoenmaekers, and specifically by his (questionable) ideas that a circle is “imperfect” and a straight line is “perfect.” Hence, Mondrian explored working exclusively with straight lines. Later, he added prime colors. Mondrian’s unique style became a seminal influence for 20th-century art, architecture, design, fashion, and beyond. I like to bring up the story of how his style was formed under the inspiration of strange early-20th-c. philosophy (which also inspired the art movement De Stijl.) If you are curious, I would recommend checking out an anthology of Mondrian’s work and tracing the evolution of his style year after year, from his early conventional landscapes to his iconic style. The point is that composers, too, can be inspired by a variety of influences, not just by music.

penka art

True Blood’s Composer Nathan Barr

A great example of a composer who has cultivated his own truly individual style is Nathan Barr (True Blood, The Americans, Hostel I and II, The Last Exorcism.) Nathan studied at Skidmore College, started his career assisting Hans Zimmer, and is currently an Emmy-nominated composer, cellist, and multi-instrumentalist. He has a vast knowledge of many historical string instruments as well as guitars, bowed guitar-viola, pedal steel guitar, etc. The cello is his main instrument. Because of his knowledge and fluency as a performer, he plays on his cello with different techniques, tone, bowing and styles. Nathan was inspired by Baroque and early music & string techniques as much as he was inspired by Bernard Herrmann and the horror scoring vernacular. All these inspirations became part of his personal artistic blueprint, and he combined these techniques with his horror sensibility (honed on such hit films as Hostel 1 and 2) to create the unique score for the hit HBO show True Blood. Nathan performs all instruments himself, and his score uses various guitars, bowed guitar-viola, Medieval/Baroque string playing, prepared piano, multitracked cello, percussion. The vocals are by singer Lisbeth Scott. Nathan said, “I prefer using real instruments to samples because of the many happy accidents that happen when playing a real instrument that can lead to interesting and unexpected compositional approaches. This cannot happen in the same way when using a sample library.” He blended influences from the past and present to cultivate a singular, never-heard-before sonic style that captures the horror, longing, sensuality, love, brutality, loss, location, time and timelessness of the stories in True Blood. Nathan’s music simultaneously fits and transcends the genre of vampire scoring.

Nathan Barr – Grieve To Grave To Groove (True Blood, Season 1)

Gears of War 2 by Steve Jablonsky – An Analysis of a Theme

To see how Steve Jablonsky created his Gears of War 2 Theme, check out my artilcle on the importance of composing memorable game themes that was published on Output’s blog: Analysis of the Gears of War 2 Theme.


Learn the conventions of a style, but don’t be trapped by them. Study the masters before, then break out and cultivate your own style. Discover yourself, follow your own style to its greatest height, and most importantly, be authentic to the core. Artistic expression is about being your authentic self.

In closing, I would like to present to you the words and music of one of the most remarkable and masterful composers working today, Neal Acree. Acree is known for his exceptional music on Blizzard’s game titles – World of WarCraft, StarCraft II, Diablo III, Overwatch, for the Chinese game Revelation Online and for the TV shows Stargate SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis. Here, with Neal’s permission, I wanted to share his inspiring essay on building oneself as a distinctive composer, and a few tracks of his music.

Neal Acree Artist essay

Additional Examples For Further Listening

Here is some inspired music by Neal Acree on game franchises such as World of WarCraft and StarCraft II created by Blizzard Entertainment, and for Revelation Online.

StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void Opening Cinematic

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor Cinematic

Main Theme music from Revelation Online by Neal Acree

Previous Articles in this Masterclass Series

Part 1 – The Four Skill Sets of Successful Media Composers

Part 2 – Seeking a Composer Assistant Job or Internship

Part 3 – Your Composer’s Career Toolbox

About The Author

Penka Kouneva is a Game & film composer of “exquisite talent.”  She began her career in film/TV in 2000. She composed on PRINCE OF PERSIA: FORGOTTEN SANDS, TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN games (themes by Steve Jablonsky). Her solo composing credits include the indie features THE THIRD NAIL, MIDNIGHT MOVIE, PRIMROSE LANE and telefilms ICE SPIDERS, CHUPACABRA, NUCLEAR HURRICANE.   Recently, Penka scored the award-winning PS4 game Rollers of the Realm, H-Hour: World’s Elite on STEAM, the iOS games Intense Life, Galaxy, IronKill, Hades , VR rides and others. Penka has released two critically acclaimed orchestral albums, The Woman Astronaut (on Varese Sarabande, 2015) and A Warrior’s Odyssey (on Howlin’ Wolf Records, 2012).

Special thanks to Natalia Perez, Alexandre Cote, and Michael Sweet for their Editorial Assistance.

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