Video game music composer gives lecture at the Library of Congress

Photo of video game music composer Winifred Phillips giving a lecture at the Library of Congress (Whittall Pavilion, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC). Winifred Phillips' lecture was the first video game music composition lecture given at the Library of Congress.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

On April 6th I was honored to give a lecture at the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in Washington DC (pictured right).  As a video game composer, I’d been invited to speak by the Music Division of the Library of Congress.  I’d be delivering the concluding presentation during their Popular video game music composer Winifred Phillips is here shown outside the Thomas Jefferson Building (Library of Congress, Washington DC), where she gave the first-ever video game music composition lecture at the invitation of the music division of the Library of Congress.premiere event celebrating popular video game music.  My lecture would be the very first video game music composition lecture ever given at the Library of Congress.  I was both honored and humbled to accept the invitation and have my lecture included in the 2018-2019 season of concerts and symposia from the Library of Congress.

In my presentation, I included many topics that I’ve written about in previous articles.  My lecture topics included horizontal resequencing, vertical layering, and interactive MIDI-based composition. I explored the various roles that music has played in famous games from the earliest days of game design (like Frogger and Ballblazer).  I also discussed how music has been implemented in some of the awesome games from the modern era (like one of my own projects, Assassin’s Creed Liberation).

My lecture was supported by a full house in the Whittall Pavilion at the Library of Congress. The audience gave me both a warm welcome and lots of great questions following the conclusion of my lecture.  Afterwards, the discussion continued during a book signing event that was kindly hosted by the Library of Congress shop.  During the book signing event, I was pleased to sign copies of my book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music. I also got to talk personally with quite a few audience members.  Such an engaging and insightful crowd!  It was a pleasure getting to know these lovely people.  I really enjoyed the lively conversation – I had the best time!!

The video of my full lecture will be posted on the Library of Congress web site within the coming months.  However, I thought I might offer a preview in the form of a partial transcript including some of the top questions from the Q&A session that followed my lecture.  So here are some of the questions that were posed – starting with a question about a topic of great importance to the Library of Congress – copyright protection for artists!

The Library of Congress logo, from the article for video game composers by Winifred Phillips (game music composer).

Question I know copyright is a big thing, so I was wondering how do you approach that?  So that you can avoid having the copyright issues?  At least from your experience?

Phillips: Copyright is a very interesting and important aspect of our work.  A lot of games are structured specifically around the idea of using licensed music. I’m sure you can think of a lot of Electronic Arts sports games in which music is introduced for the first time.  You find a band that you really love by playing one of those sports games.  That’s been a really big avenue for young artists to make their start, and it’s been great for the music community at large.

No game developer wants to find out that they’ve used a piece of music and that they haven’t secured the rights appropriately.  Particularly if you’ve fallen in love with a track.  You’ve incorporated it into your game, and (oh God forbid) you’ve actually structured your gameplay around it.  Then you find out you can’t use it!

It’s great that the Library of Congress has served the artistic community for so long in making sure that artists are protected.

Popular video game music composer Winifred Phillips is pictured during her lecture at the Library of Congress (Whittall Pavilion, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC). Presenting her lecture to a full-house at the Whittall Pavilion, Winifred Phillips gave the first video game music composition lecture at the Library of Congress.

Question What challenges do you face, or conventions do you follow, when you are mixing down a dynamic piece of music for a retail CD release? Or for a promotional material?  How do you make that stay interesting to the listener, if it’s not as dynamic as it once was?

Phillips When you’re composing music for a game, you’re essentially composing a lot of different bits and pieces.  You know that during gameplay they’re going to be triggered by the progress of the player.  So it’s essentially a flexible, fluid story.  I try to think about the most impactful course that the player might have taken through that level…  through that piece of music. Then I will construct in my music production software an ideal course, an ideal way to go through it.  I’ll mix it so that it becomes a memory of the experience of playing that game.  A lot of the people who buy these soundtracks are people who have played the games.  They want to own the music because they want to relive the experience.  That’s what I’m thinking about when I’m pulling all of the interactive elements together.  I want to create a sort of ideal listening experience.

Question How often do you use virtual libraries, in comparison to a real orchestra?  Do you use virtual libraries more for mockups, or do you use it more for scoring a game?

Phillips There have been projects where I’ve used it just in the mockup stage at the beginning. Then the project has gone on to record with a live orchestra.  So that’s always fun. But then there are other projects where the budget is just not going to accommodate that.  One of the things that’s important to me as an artist is the option to work with both large studios and also indie teams that don’t have the same kind of budgets. It allows me to do a wide range of projects that are exciting and creative.

To make an orchestral sample library sound satisfying and realistic requires a minute attention to details.  Also, a really good understanding of how sample libraries work.  How live musicians play.  Then, you can approximate the sound in a way that’s going to feel satisfying for listeners.  On the other hand, when you’re dealing with a live orchestra, you really want to be able to take advantage of the strengths of that medium, and appeal to the expressiveness that a live orchestra or live soloists can bring.

A photo showing Winifred Phillips (popular video game music composer) as she presents the first-ever video game music composition lecture to be given at the Library of Congress (Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC).

Question As someone who plays musical instruments but who has never composed – if I were to try to make an indie game or something and I wanted to make my own music – what kind of recommendations would you have?

Phillips I’ve seen development teams in which the main developer also creates the music.  There have been some really interesting games that have been created that way.  If you are a musician creating a game, you can sense how the music fits into the mechanic of the game – since you’re creating both.  So that’s something that I’ve seen done.  But I do think that if you haven’t composed before, it might make sense to try to start doing some of that first, before you try to bring those two elements together.  They’re Popular video game composer Winifred Phillips discussing her music from Assassin's Creed Liberation during her lecture at the Library of Congress (Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC). This was the first video game music composition lecture given at the Library of Congress.very different disciplines.  You want to have a basic skill set.  You want to be comfortable with that, before you start taking something that’s hard in and of itself (music composition), and then adding into it something else that’s hard in and of itself (game design). You don’t want to get overwhelmed.

If you are familiar with any student teams, or teams that are involved in game jams, you could get involved in that.  A game jam is one of these events in which all of these game developers come together to create games on the fly really quick.  It’s actually a lot of fun, because it becomes a way to be very creative and solve problems right on the spot.  It’s also a fantastic opportunity to jump into a team right away as the composer.  You get an opportunity to just think about that part of the game, to create the music within the structure of a team.  I think you’d learn a lot about what goes into music composition for games.  Do that first – before you put the thousand ton weight on yourself by doing both things at the same time.

Question Given the gaming consoles and other platforms have grown so much in terms of their capacity, what limits do you feel are placed now (or still) on your budget?  And what’s your response then, in terms of strategies that you bring to increase your expressiveness?  What resources are available, while still remaining within the resources allowed?The Library of Congress organized a book signing event to take place immediately following a lecture presented by popular game music composer Winifred Phillips in the Library of Congress (Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC). Winifred Phillips signed copies of her book, A Composer's Guide to Game Music, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

PhillipsThat definitely becomes an issue from project to project.  I can’t honestly think of a single project I’ve worked on when budget doesn’t become a factor, even when the budgets are very large. There’s always the opportunity for your ambitions to explode beyond the boundaries that any game budget can accommodate.  At that point you triage the situation.  You look at it and you say, ‘how can I maximize the potential of a smaller amount of music? How can it provide coverage for a game and not become too repetitive – too annoying?’  You don’t want your music to become a negative. You always want it to be something people love.

I’ve talked about vertical layering, the idea of music broken apart into its individual layers that can be used separately.  That makes one piece of music more flexible to cover a larger amount of time. It can morph and change and become more adaptive to what’s going on.

On the other hand, there’s also the quite valid consideration of when music should settle back into silence. That gives the player room to absorb the moment. You strategically place music in those positions where it’s going to have maximum impact, where it’s going to be meaningful. You can still have a satisfying musical experience in the game without needing an enormous budget to accommodate it.

So those are two approaches that can address the problem.  But it’s a continuing problem.  Every game development studio wrestles with it at one time or another. We’ve all got the hope and the yearning to do something really special with music.  A lot of the times we can!  Sometimes the restrictions can make us be creative in ways we couldn’t have predicted.  That is the way to grow as a development team or as an artist and composer. So these challenges can serve to make us grow and become better.

The Library of Congress logo, included in the article for video game composers by Winifred Phillips (game music composer).


I hope you’ve enjoyed this partial transcript of the Q&A session from my lecture at the Library of Congress.  Be sure to revisit this space over the coming months, when I’ll be posting a link to the full video recording of my lecture on video game music composition.  The video of my lecture will be preserved as a webcast on the Library of Congress web site, where it will become a part of the Library’s permanent collection.  In that capacity, my lecture will be available in the Library of Congress collection for worldwide viewing and for the benefit of future generations.  It was a tremendous honor to give a lecture at the Library of Congress!  I’m grateful to the Library of Congress’ Music Division for inviting me to speak about my work as a video game composer!


Photo of video game music composer Winifred Phillips giving a lecture at the Library of Congress (Whittall Pavilion, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC). Winifred Phillips' lecture was the first video game music composition lecture given at the Library of Congress.Popular music from composer Winifred Phillips’ award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score will be performed live by a top 80-piece orchestra and choir as part of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which kicks off in 2019 with its Los Angeles premiere at the famous Dolby Theatre. As an accomplished video game composer, Phillips is best known for composing music for games in five of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims.  Phillips’ other notable projects include the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution, and numerous virtual reality games, including Scraper: First Strike, Dragon Front, and many more.   She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the MIT Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality games. Phillips’ is a sought-after public speaker, and she has been invited to speak about her work as a game composer at the Library of Congress, the Game Developers Conference, the Audio Engineering Society, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, and many more.  Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.



Video Game Music Concert Tours

Colbert presents The Legend of Zelda Concert (article by Winifred Phillips, video game composer)This week I thought we’d check in with some of the top orchestral video game music concert tours currently underway.  We’ll take a look at some reviews of 2015 performances from the respective tours, and we’ll also take a look at video from some of the most recent concert performances.

The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses

Legend of Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses marquee (article by game composer Winifred Phillips)Originating as a simple four-minute overture performed at a Nintendo press event in 2011, Symphony of the Goddesses kicked off as a full-fledged concert tour in January 2012 and currently has 33 dates scheduled for 2016 that will take the popular tour all around the world.  The concert’s program lineup focuses exclusively on famous music from the Legend of Zelda games.  In a review of the September 25th 2015 performance at the Providence Performing Arts Center in Rhode Island, Broadway World critic Andria Tieman wrote, “Overall, this was a night of fantastic music, excellent people-watching and a fun, visual performance. This is something that Zelda fans should certainly seek out.” Here’s a video clip from the Oct. 30th 2015 broadcast of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, in which the Symphony of the Goddesses tour performed their Legend of Zelda Medley:

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VR Audio: Past, Present & Future

VR Audio (article by award winning video game music composer Winifred Phillips)In this blog, I thought we might take a quick look at the development of the three dimensional audio technologies that promise to be a vital part of music and sound for a virtual reality video game experience. Starting from its earliest incarnations, we’ll follow 3D audio through the fits and starts that it endured through its tumultuous history.  We’ll trace its development to the current state of affairs, and we’ll even try to imagine what may be coming in the future!  But first, let’s start at the beginning:

3D Audio of the Past

Alan Blumlein (article by award winning video game music composer Winifred Phillips)In the 1930s, English engineer and inventor Alan Blumlein invented a process of audio recording that involved a pair of microphones that were coincident (i.e. placed closely together to capture a sound source).  Blumlein’s intent was to accurately reflect the directional position of the sounds being recorded, thus attaining a result that conveyed spatial relationships in a more faithful way.  In reality, Blumlein had invented what we now call stereo, but the inventor himself referred to his technique as “binaural sound.”  As we know, stereo has been an extremely successful format, but the fully realized concept of “binaural sound” would not come to fruition until much later.

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A Composer’s Guide to Game Music in 2015

A Composer's Guide to Game Music, photo from the article by game music composer Winifred PhillipsHappy Holidays, everyone!  2015 has been a really memorable year for me, and a successful one for my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music.  Writing this book not only allowed me to express my excitement about game music, but also opened up my world to a huge community of game music enthusiasts that I’m now proud to call friends.

I’ve been delighted to meet so many people who have read my book – from aspiring composers, to scholars and educators, to game audio pros.  It’s been tremendously gratifying!

I’d like to spend this blog recapping the events of 2015 as they related to my book, and I’ll also be sharing some book-related resources and tutorials that I created in 2015 (in case you missed them).  Happy Holidays, everyone, and thank you so much for your tremendous support this year!

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First Look: Beep Documentary interview with game music composer Winifred Phillips


The Beep documentary is an awesome upcoming crowdfunded film consisting of interviews with top game composers and sound designers from around the world.  Leading up to the film’s world premiere in Spring 2016, the Beep Documentary team has been releasing webisodes of interview footage with selected composers and sound designers who will be featured in the documentary.  I’m pleased to share that a webisode of my interview has just been posted by the Beep documentary team!

Beep has been described as “the most comprehensive documentary of game music/audio history ever made,” and “a huge and culturally significant undertaking to document the history of video game sound and music through interviews with composers and other game audio professionals from around the globe.”  The Beep documentary is described best on the project’s website: “Relive the moments of your childhood, and hear the stories behind the songs and sounds of your favorite games from the people who created them. Help us to give the composers and sound designers throughout game history a chance to tell their own stories, to share the truly amazing things that they achieved.”

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Total War Battles: Kingdom

Total War Battles Kingdom - Winifred Phillips

Winifred Phillips won 2 Global Music Award Gold Medals for the music she composed for Total War Battles: Kingdom.

I’m happy to announce that one of my latest projects is Total War Battles: Kingdom, developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega. I was happy to join the music composition team for this fantastic project! Along with my long-time music producer Winnie Waldron, I worked with Creative Assembly’s audio manager Richard Beddow to compose atmospheric medieval-inspired music for this awesome upcoming strategy game.

I’m also very happy to share that my music for Total War Battles: Kingdom has already been recognized with two Gold Medals from the Global Music Awards!  My music producer Winnie Waldron and I received a Gold Medal in the category of Game Music, and I received an additional Gold Medal in the category of Composition/Composer.

I won the two Global Music Awards Gold Medals for “Dark Ages” – a track I composed for Total War Battles: Kingdom.  I was hired by Creative Assembly to join a team of composers who each worked separately to compose their own tracks for the game. Each composer brought unique strengths to the project, and I was proud to work with my award-winning music producer Winnie Waldron to compose my own tracks for this terrific game!


Two Global Music Award Gold Medals recognizing music composed by Winifred Phillips & produced by Winnie Waldron for the game Total War Battles: Kingdom.


Here is a YouTube video containing my award-winning music from Total War Battles: Kingdom:

Total War Battles: Kingdom is the latest game in the popular, multi-million-selling Total War franchise. Now in its 15th year, Total War is one of the most famous and critically-acclaimed series in gaming!  Here’s some info about the Total War franchise:

A drive for historical authenticity and superb gaming quality has helped establish the franchise as one of the most successful games of all time. The Total War franchise has won numerous awards, including two BAFTA Awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and an Ivor Novello Award. The video game franchise was also the basis of two television shows: Decisive Battles on the History Channel, and Time Commanders on the BBC. Alongside the core historical-based games, the Total War series has expanded to include the mobile title, Total War Battles: Kingdom.


My music for Total War Battles: Kingdom was performed by a live ensemble comprised of some of the best and most accomplished musicians performing with historically authentic medieval instruments and techniques. The ensemble includes one of Europe’s top lute players, and members of this ensemble have graced the concert stages of such venues as the Royal Opera House, The Royal Festival Hall, and Kensington Palace, among many others. For Total War Battles: Kingdom, I combined evocative aural designs with a consort of period instruments and medieval modes. I used these techniques to transport listeners into the mysterious world of the Dark Ages. Here are the musicians who performed my music for Total War Battles: Kingdom:


  • Lute: Elizabeth Kenny
  • Recorders, Fife, Flute: Chloe Lochbaum
  • Vielle, Hurdy Gurdy: Sylvia Hallett
  • Hurdy Gurdy: Sue Eaton
  • Mandola: Andy Reynolds
  • Celtic Harp: Heather Wrighton
  • Cello: Richard Harwood

From left to right: Elizabeth Kenny (Lute), Richard Harwood (Cello), Sylvia Hallett (Hurdy Gurdy), and Heather Wrighton (Harp)

Here’s some more information about the game:

Creative Assembly’s Total War Battles: Kingdom is set during the chaotic turn of the 10th Century, as the world starts to emerge from the Dark Ages. Players will find themselves managing the needs of their own fiefdom and guarding against the machinations of neighboring kingdoms. Deception, spying and outright betrayal against enemies and friends alike will see the devious player rewarded. “We wanted to create a new way of playing Total War Battles. Whether that’s on the move or at work over lunch,” said Renaud Charpentier, Creative Assembly Digital Project Lead. “It shouldn’t matter where you want to play; we want to make it easy to come back again and again to your flourishing Kingdom. Then, we ramp up the complexity and challenge, adding more options to your Machiavellian schemes.”

Founded in 1987, Creative Assembly is one of the UK’s most successful and established game studios. Creator of the multi award-winning Total War strategy series, the studio has received numerous press, industry and consumer accolades, including BAFTAs and the Develop Industry Excellence awards.  Home to over 325 highly talented developers and counting, the studio continues to expand to cover a variety of triple-A console, PC and mobile projects.


Studio1_GreenWinifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose most recent project is the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution. Her credits include five of the most famous and popular franchises in video gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.