The year is 1998. My friend Joseph has come over to my house to show me his new game, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. He blows on the bottom of the cartridge — an ancient and sacred rite — and pushes it into the console. He flips the switch, and the screen illuminates with the Nintendo 64 logo. A moonlit field fades into view as our hero rides his trusty steed through the night. A gentle melody plays on a virtual flute, accompanied by the signature sounds of a 1990s electric piano.
Looking back, the music for the opening sequence is simplistic compared to today’s lush full orchestra game soundtracks, but the impression that music made on my 7-year-old brain has lasted a lifetime. I had found something that, as corny as it sounds, spoke to me. Instrumental music, which had always seemed either far away or downright boring, was something I could engage with.
Over my years studying and working as a composer, I’ve met a number of other folks whose first introduction to non-popular music was similar to mine. “Game composer” is an actual job that real, skilled people have now. It’s a viable career choice, even if it’s competitive (getting a job in an orchestra is also competitive) and a lot of folks in the world of classical music are starting to see its value. To understand why, let’s step back in time.
Let’s-a Go: The Early Days of Game Music
In the early days of gaming, technology was limited. Like, really limited. It was impossible for someone to create an orchestral score for a game. The hardware that existed didn’t have the capability to manage more than a few sounds, and those sounds were limited to electronic beeps and bloops. Folks like Koji Kondo, composer of the Mario and Legend of Zelda series were often pulling double duty, doing the sound design, composition, and arrangement that companies now have whole teams doing. These limitations on technology and time resulted in scores that are relatively simple, and rely heavily on sampling and other techniques typically associated with music tech rather than “traditional composition.”
In a 2017 interview, Nobuo Uematsu, the composer behind the Final Fantasy series, discussed how he developed that series’ iconic theme. In 1987, he had three sound samples to work with (the aforementioned beeps and bloops) and eight channels. To put that in perspective, EastWest Symphonic Orchestra, one of the leading sound libraries on the market today, has nearly 50 samples... for violin alone. It wasn’t until Final Fantasy VII was released on PlayStation, a decade after Uematsu’s iconic theme debuted, that he felt the piece was truly finished. He finally had the tools in his hands to let us hear what had been in his head this whole time.
As for the significance of that piece, Uematsu considers it a foundational part of his career:
“It’s the root of my life now as someone who makes music,” Uematsu says.
It’s Dangerous to Go Alone: The New Generation of Composers
Technology has changed since those early days and game music has grown with it. In another interview conducted when the London Symphony Orchestra was recording his work, Uematsu pointed out that many current game composers are people who grew up playing games and wanted to study music because of the work that he and composers like him created. They spawned a whole generation of composers! He said that, because game music inspired these folks to pursue education in music, the quality of the composition and orchestration has improved. Also, being able to actually record with a real orchestra instead of beeps and bloops doesn’t hurt.
Austin Wintory, the award-winning composer behind Journey, has been working in the gaming industry since the early 2000s. With degrees in composition from NYU and USC, it’s hard to argue his competence as an artist. After nearly two decades in the industry (and a 2013 GRAMMY-nom for Journey to boot), Wintory is one of many composers who encapsulate just how far things have come. The soundtrack for Journey was scored for full orchestra, features numerous solos by skilled musicians, and was recorded by the Macedonia Radio Symphonic Orchestra.
In a YouTube video created by Wintory, he states that scoring this game was a challenge that he wasn’t sure he was skilled enough to tackle. With the right soloists and an open mind for collaboration, though, Wintory and his colleagues were able to create something that not only serves as a backdrop for an amazing game but is a fantastic work in its own right.
Wintory isn’t the only classically-trained composer making a career in this field. Lena Raine, composer behind games like Celeste, Guild Wars, and Minecraft discovered her love of music through the Sonic the Hedgehog series. She later went on to pursue a degree in music composition from the Cornish College of the Arts. She was nominated for a BAFTA and received the ASCAP award for Video Game Score of the Year for Celeste.
Beyond people making careers in the field, game music fosters collaboration with top-notch performers across the globe. The Distant Worlds concerts may be the most successful game music programs hosted by orchestras, celebrating Nobuo Uematsu’s music for Final Fantasy, but they’re not the only ones. In 2019, MUSIC engine, a Japanese ensemble specializing in video game music, hosted a concert for the fifth anniversary of indie smash hit Undertale. Even more amazing is that many game developers — especially those with budgets — are including full orchestra recordings in their games. We’ve come so far from the days of one university student like Koji Kondo doing it all on his own!
Musicians are even getting asked to arrange and perform game music for special occasions. Duo Licht, a North Carolina violin and viola duo, was recently asked to arrange Uematsu’s Prelude from Final Fantasy VII for a wedding. It was an interesting but fun challenge, Andy and Lilian Licht say.
“The arrangement begins with the viola, which passes off to the violin and then continues back and forth between the two instruments. By the time we get to the violin playing double stops the viola part is the only one playing arpeggios, and Lilian’s plucking finger felt like it was going to fall off from exhaustion.”
The solution to saving Lilian’s finger and getting the sort of resonance they wanted was to use bows, and share the load.
“We decided to have a go using our bows for the arpeggios and slur them in groups of eight until we got to the violin double stops, when Lilian then slurs them in groups of four. In the end, we resorted to what suits the best for our instruments, feels comfortable to play and sounds as resonant as possible.”
On being asked to arrange game music, Duo Licht says they’re enjoying getting to add these pieces to their repertoire as well being introduced to new games.
“We love that video game music is gradually being added to our repertoire and we’re excited to perform it!” they say. “We’ve never played Final Fantasy and we’re excited to play the game through having discovered, explored and appreciated the music.”
Stay Awhile and Listen: The Future of Game Music
Gaming is one of the fastest-growing entertainment sectors in the world, outpacing sports and film, and continues to grow. This isn’t the niche industry it was in 1985 when Kondo put those six iconic notes into the first Mario game. There are thousands of independent developers and studios across the globe creating a vast array of projects that all need the perfect music. That perfect music needs someone to write it.
Game music courses are cropping up all over the place online, through platforms like Udemy, SkillShare, and others. More than that, though, the education sector as a whole is taking gaming — and the skills needed to succeed in the development world — pretty seriously. Many high schools offer introductory courses in game design that allow students to get their feet wet in many areas, composition included. At the collegiate level, some universities and colleges like Berklee are starting to offer courses in it as well. Some are even making them available to the general public so that anyone with the right skills and interest can start developing their craft.
As Nobuo Uematsu pointed out in another interview, many young composers are getting into music through gaming. As teachers, we can and should present our students, especially those who may not have much experience in the world of classical music, with a broad spectrum of music to help them find their niche. We can connect with them by incorporating examples of video game music into our theory classes. We can assign young learners pieces from their favorite games to encourage them to practice (it works). We can also learn what skills are needed to work as a game composer, and help our students who are serious about pursuing a career in it find a pathway into the industry.
Game composers want to create great art that draws people in, and encourages them to be a part of the story, both in the game world and outside of it. Think of game music as the next melding of entertainment and art. As with opera, ballet, musical theatre, and many genres before it game music is here to stay, so in the words of Deckard Cain of Diablo, “Stay awhile and listen.”