More than just a soundtrack: The music behind video games

Illustration by Maggie Miller Buy this photo

By Amrutha Sivakumar, Deputy Magazine Editor
Published September 28, 2014

From three-dimensional gameplay to motion-detection, video games are on the move to enhance your recreational experience. What some people may not realize, however, is that what they’re hearing while they play is evolving all the time too. Video game music is a world of its own — just ask School of Music, Theatre & Dance Lecturer Matthew Thompson.

By introducing students of all academic and musical backgrounds to the concepts that underlie the conception and production of game tunes, Thompson’s new course “Video Game Music,” has created a lens through video games that can be musically appreciated. The course introduces students to the 50-year history of music in video games, eventually equipping students with the skills needed to compose their own game sounds.

Thompson, in an interview with The Michigan Daily, said a professional game composer’s goal is to make the music essential to the game play while making sure players feel engaged with the sounds.

“Suppose you’re walking through a maze and a bass comes in, keep going the right way and then a drum comes in, keep going the right way and there’s some strings that come in,” he envisioned. “You’re getting this aural reinforcement very subtly while you’re completing this task and that you’re doing something right.”

Going on to describe the stochastic processes behind a person’s video game experience, Thompson started singing out how a generic cheery game backdrop might change into a minor key or come to a finish as a player loses a life or dies. On the other hand, a success in the game might result in faster victory music.

“The audio choice is going to be determined by player decision, so that’s out of your hands. It’s totally opposite from how music usually is. You have to compose the music in a way that it can go to any place depending on what’s needed.”

Thompson said the School of Music, Theatre & Dance often looks for ways to offer music classes to non-music majors due to the broad appeal of music appreciation classes. Teaching more technical terms — such as tone, dominant and form — could be more comprehensible to students when taught with video games as the reference point. The Michigan Daily speculated in 2001 that if a random student were asked to sing the Super Mario Bros. theme song, they would be likely to know every note.

“I’ve always played games since I was a kid,” Thompson said. “The music is so repetitive, and so the plus as a teacher is that those stuff has been drilled into people’s brains, unlike a Beethoven Symphony.”

For University alum Jen Remington, the goal was always to graduate from the University’s Performing Arts Technology program and go into scoring film music in L.A. But after serving as an assistant to several composers and building up music industry connections, she found herself a place in the composition of video game music.

“I had such a positive experience working for other composers that I learned a lot, things that I never knew,” she said. “You can learn a lot from things online, books and YouTube, but there’s nothing better than being an apprentice to somebody.”

The biggest difference between scoring music for film and for video games is the duration of the composition and the way video game music has to be composed to loop. For Remington, the biggest difficulty in adapting to the style of video game composition was that the ending of the piece had to be able to seamlessly connect to the beginning without hearing a “click or a pop.”

Remington said all of her contracts had been on a work-for-hire basis. Though she had tried to negotiate royalties for her compositions in the past, Remington said she had learned that it wasn’t like the industry to offer musicians a percentage of the games’ revenues.

“Video games make a lot of their sales within the first three months, and then the sales die out. Film and TV plan reruns and go into syndication, and you can get royalties for years and years,” she explained. “Because the way video games are sold, I think it’s smarter for them to keep their money — that’s the main difference.”

Despite a growing video game culture among University arts and music students, Wolverine Soft, a student organization dedicated to growing game development culture at the University, has found it difficult to keep a steady inflow of musicians into the club.

The coding process typically takes longer than the time required for composition, Engineering senior Austin Yarger, president of Wolverine Soft, said, which caused some student musicians to lose interest in the process. He estimates that there are currently three to eight active musicians in Wolverine Soft.

While Silicon Valley gaming companies traditionally have long pre-production sessions where artists draw up extensive blueprints to convince executives to invest in a two to three-year game creation process, University games have shorter turnovers, Yarger explained.

In 48-hour “game jams,” groups of four — traditionally made up of two engineers, an artist and a musician — spend a few hours conceptualizing a video game idea that is unique, fun and interesting. As the engineers code the initial prototypes, the artists and musicians work simultaneously to draw concept pieces and create game’s sound.

“It is unfortunately a struggle,” Yarger said of recruiting arts and music students into Wolverine Soft. “When you think of video games you think of how visual they can be and how there’s a need for those students, typically we have the need for arts and music students.”

Mark Maratea, senior engineer at Electronic Arts, one of the world's largest video game publishers, and university recruiter, said the EA recruiting team was actively looking for highly qualified musicians from the University to enter their workforce. For these positions, Maratea said a musician’s application should include a portfolio and a demo reel demonstrating their ability to create a variety of sounds.

“For most traditional games that is a sound effect and music based thing, they will author their own sound, usually in a small studio with drums and guitars, and they will track the soundtrack and the sound effects live,” he described. “They will monkey with things, and they will record the voice-over tracks and give the audio direction.”

One of Wolverine Soft’s leading missions is to increase a student's ability to be placed in the video game industry. By bringing in large corporation such as Lizard Entertainment and EA to their mass meetings and campus career fairs, Wolverine Soft has been able to place one to three students into the video game industry each year.

“We definitely try and get those companies to come in and look at our Michigan engineers, Michigan artists, designers and musicians,” Yarger said. “It’s definitely very competitive though, like it is in Hollywood or any form of entertainment, but we have had successful placements. I think the takeaway is that it is very competitive but still possible.”

Remington, who graduated in 2000 not long after the program was first offered to music concentrators, commended PAT for its “avant garde” take on music education and its interdisciplinary courses. Her now-husband, who also graduated from PAT, was able to use his broad PAT education to secure a job in the film industry when record label jobs were hard to come by.

Despite the School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s focus on more mainstream music forms, Thompson said he believed that studying many of the University’s classical music options was not wasted when a student decided to pursue an alternative industry upon graduation — citing an example of how studying Shakespeare could help theatre majors when they auditioned for shows such as Saturday Night Live.

“We understand that multimedia and music is a path going forward,” Thompson explained. “To turn a blind eye to it, nobody wants to do that. Could we have more modern classes? Yes. Are we talking about that kind of stuff? Yes. ”

Janet Rarick, associate professor of music career development at Rice University, currently administers several courses at the Shepherd School of Music that enhance music students’ career development early in their collegiate career. She said she believed that one reason many music school students find it difficult to discover alternative careers in music is because of their lack of career focus.

“It’s ‘I’ve got to be really, really good and I don’t have time to deal with that right now. I’ve got to learn my music and I’ve got to practice,’ ” she explained. “Students graduate, and winning a job in an orchestra is very difficult at this point. For most people it’s a long road, and it’s very expensive.”

On the other hand, while institutions such as Carnegie Hall have begun to offer fellowships and programs in career development, Rarick said these programs are also very competitive.

“If you’re going to do something on an alternative basis, you’re basically starting a small business,” she said. “There isn’t the kind of framework that science and industry has for students, we don’t have that in the music world. It’s not built into the industry.”

“The successful people are the people in alternative kind of ventures who are able to see where there is a need for something, and I think this is crucial,” Rarick stressed. “You have to see what is missing in our current arts environment and does that interest you to try to fill that void.”