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Music and the games people play

By Sydney Hawkins
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Play me out

videogame conference logoNext time you fire up your favorite video game and prepare to slay the competition, take a moment to observe how far gaming audio has progressed. Where once gamers heard mere bleeps and pongs, they now may be treated to complex and interactive scores produced by big-budget orchestras and chart-topping rock bands.

Earlier this month, scholars and professionals in the fields of musicology, music theory, ethnomusicology, media studies, sound studies, composition, and more gathered at U-M for the fifth annual North American Conference on Video Game Music.

Matthew Thompson, assistant professor at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, was lead organizer and presenter at the event. He is a classically trained pianist who teaches a popular course on video game music at the University, and is considered a leading expert on video game music. We decided to ask him a few questions as he prepared to get his game on.

Q: You’re an accomplished pianist and a vocal coach — what made you think to use video game music as a teaching tool?

Thompson: Back in the late ’90s, The Michigan Daily interviewed a bunch of U-M students to see how many people they could find that could hum the Super Mario Bros. theme song, and they couldn’t find anyone who didn’t know the tune. It’s kind of amazing if you think about how ubiquitous it is in our culture. That’s also the kind of thing that people hate about video game music, how repetitive it is. But for me, a piece of music that people have heard again and again and again — I can use that teach form — which is much easier than playing a Beethoven sonata that people aren’t familiar with. So five years ago, I began to teach a music appreciation course through the lens of video game music at U-M. Since then, it has become enormously popular with students from all majors.

Q: What are the specific attributes of video game music? How is it different than a song you might hear on the radio?

Thompson: When a lot of people think about game music, many still think about the bleeps and bloops of the early ones in the ’70s and ’80s that had simple melodies and sound effects that were made for one or two sound channels — like Oregon Trail, Pong, and Pac-man. As video games got more complex, the music became more important. A linear song that you’d hear on the radio includes an intro, verse, chorus, chorus-up-a-half-step, end. Video game audio is nonlinear, which means that it changes based on what you decide to do in a game. If you open one door, you’ll hear one thing. If you open another, you may hear something completely different. For every choice you make in a game, there are certain sounds to go along with it. And when you think about the fact that these games are sometimes 50 or 60 hours long these days, the way that music is made for them becomes really fascinating.

Q: How important is the music in a video game?

Thompson: The number one reason that video game music exists is to increase immersion. Early on, the programmers were the same people who composed. The beeping sound that you hear to signal you’ve turned on the game soon turned into simple melodies. My favorite early video game music example of interactive audio is Space Invaders. As the game got harder and you killed more invaders, the tempo of the music sped up in conjunction with the gameplay. Game audio has progressed so much since then, that now there are huge music budgets for these AAA games that are recorded by the top orchestras in the world and highly interactive, complex musical scores.

What do you think of the trends in video game music? Do you have a favorite theme or song? Let us know in the comments section below.

Sydney Hawkins

Sydney Hawkins

SYDNEY HAWKINS joined the University in 2012 and currently manages communications, branding, and digital marketing strategy connected to the University of Michigan's arts and culture initiative. She spent eight years as a radio broadcaster in Michigan before working in marketing communications roles at University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) and the Ann Arbor Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.