Civilization IV was the first title in Sid Meier's legendary empire-building titles to receive a soundtrack release. Most of the background music for the game featured a serviceable amount of art music from various eras, spanning from Bach's cello suites for the Renaissance Age, to symphonies of Dvorak and Brahms for the Industrial Age, to the minimalism and operas of John Adams for the modern era. However, a number of original compositions were also featured on the game, some such as the main theme and leader's themes based on earlier titles, others such as Christopher Tin's famous "Babu Yetu" being created specifically for the game. The official soundtrack release focuses on both classes of original music.
The soundtrack opens with an arrangement of the Original Civilization Theme, created by Jeff Briggs (the founder of Firaxis Games who incidentally holds a Doctorate in Music Composition). It develops from its mellow woodwind-based opening into a richer orchestral tutti that encompasses the vast worldly flavour of the game. The latter half of the composition takes a more abstract direction clearly inspired by minimalism. Unfortunately, the theme fails to improve on earlier counterparts, featuring thin orchestration and unconvincing synthesis that result in an overall hollow and rambling sound. In an age where the Civilization series offers MP3 playback capacity and full orchestral recordings are the standard, such low production values are not acceptable.
The meat of the soundtrack is dedicated to the various leader themes featured in the game. The choice to headline the soundtrack with such themes is perhaps dubious; after all, they are clearly subsidiary to the world background music and rarely receive extended plays in the game due to the limited and abrupt nature of diplomatic negotiations. However, they are some of the surprisingly few quasi-original compositions here when most material is licensed. Note, however, that original is used in a relative context here, since the majority of these tracks are based of their Civilization III counterparts, and most of them are already loosely based on existing national anthems, folk songs, and suchlike. Perhaps for such reasons, a number of the leader themes had to be omitted.
Despite their sparse use, the leader themes are broadly effective in the game. Whether the soft guitar-based phrygian scales to represent Spain's Isabella, the aggressive primitive percussion to represent Mongolia's Genghis, or the inviting if poorly implemented militaristic orchestrations to portray Washington, they all provide a fitting representation of the leader's origins and personalities. Furthermore, the leader themes undergo a subtle shift from their primitive origins to more sophisticated versions during the course of the game, concomitantly with the changes in the main background music. The shift in stylings is reflected particularly well in the soundtrack release.
Regardless of functionality, the leader themes are mostly very dull on a stand-alone basis. The focal ideas are generally uninviting despite their often familiar origins and their treatment is often too understated and straightforward to leave an artistic impression. A few are a little more charming, for instance "Alexander", but it's not enough to redeem the soundtrack from its tedium. The same applies to the two "Ancient Music" themes featured here. These tracks are respectively dedicated to ethnic chants or flute ululations, each time above tribal percussion. The resultant soundscapes are quite convincing for representing ancient civilization, but have a monotonous, rambling quality when extended to up to ten minutes on the soundtrack release.
There are two more ambitious compositions by freelancer Christopher Tin that partly redeem the soundtrack. His menu theme "Baba Yetu" has become one of the most famous video game themes in history, thanks in part due to Video Games Live. The choral performance by Stanford Talisman is the main highlight, interpreting a translation of the lord's prayer in Swahili, and beautifully integrates with the synthetic orchestration to create a worldly and liberating epic. However, its rendition on Tin's song cycle Calling All Dawns is even more impressive, with its more intricate orchestration and performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The "Opening Movie" features similar elements, but encompasses a vast dramatic scope, given the cinematic sequence it accompanies.
While acceptable as background music in the game, the Civilization IV soundtrack falls down as a stand-alone experience for several reasons. Most significantly, few worthwhile original compositions were created for the game in favour of licensed material, leaving a selection of mostly supplementary works here. Those remaining compositions generally were unintended for stand-alone listening, lacking memorable melodies, dramatic archs, and cutting-edge implementation to make them more than merely functional compositions. The compositions by Christopher Tin are the only exceptions and listeners would be better advised to experience his full album Calling All Dawns featuring "Baba Yetu" instead.