Video Game Composers: The Importance of Themes (GDC 2020)

Award-winning game music composer Winifred Phillips spoke at the Game Developers Conference in 2019.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips.  As most of us are no-doubt aware, the Game Developers Conference 2020 has been postponed.  This means that the yearly conference’s rich and diverse schedule of lectures will not be performed live next week during GDC 2020 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.  I was really looking forward to presenting my lecture, entitled “The Importance of Themes: Creating Musical Signatures for your Games.”  Having given GDC presentations every year since 2015, I consider the Game Developers Conference to be an indispensable event for both my career and my personal enrichment as a game music composer.  While the postponement is a set-back for the entire game development community, I’m glad to share some awesome news!  A portion of the GDC 2020 lecture schedule will still take place as planned – albeit from a much different venue.  Instead of in-person presentations, GDC plans to stream many of their previously scheduled GDC talks during GDC week as part of a “virtual conference.”  This means that I can share my lecture as a GDC Virtual Talk.  Best of all, all of the GDC Virtual Talks will be available for free!

Image illustrating the Game Developers Conference in 2020, from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.My virtual talk will focus on the best ways to create memorable thematic material.  Catchy melodies can help to enhance a game’s distinctive character and originality, which can subsequently lead to a more memorable gameplay experience.  In preparing my presentation, I conducted quite a bit of research.  Because of time constraints, not all of that scholarly research made it into my final presentation. I was sorry to have to cut those materials – I thought it was pretty interesting stuff! So let’s now discuss some of that extra info in this article.  We won’t be delving into the actual subject matter of my lecture, since I’ll be saving that material for my actual presentation that will be included in the slate of GDC 2020 Virtual Talks. But the general relationship between music and memory is a fascinating area of study.  If our music can help games to stick in the minds of players, then it should be useful for us to understand some expert scholarly viewpoints on the relationship between music and memory.

First, let’s take a moment to watch and listen as bassist Davide Biale runs through 40 years of top game music in 2 minutes.  Notice how many of these themes are instantly recognizable, and how evocative they can be of the games from which they came:

It’s amazing how a simple video game melody, or even just a fraction of such a melody, can immediately bring to mind a vivid mental image of gameplay.  There’s clearly a strong connection between the sound of the music and the recollections we associate with it.  In a continuing quest to understand how the human mind records past events, scientists have conducted numerous experiments meant to reveal the mechanism by which music evokes memories.  Let’s take a look at a couple of these studies.

They’re playing our song

We’ve all experienced a moment in which a piece of music starts playing, and it instantly brings back memories of a significant event in our lives.  Those music-invoked memories can be especially vivid.  In the case of a video game, a piece of game music can summon an amazingly clear recollection of the gameplay that was originally experienced while hearing that song.  Because of this, game music often acts as an ambassador for the game from which it comes, since it kindles associated memories more potently than any other stimulus, including visual cues.  An image of the scholarly journal Memory, used to illustrate an article by Winifred Phillips (award-winning video game composer).In an interesting research study published in the journal Memory, a team from the psychology and neurology departments of the University of Iowa gave us some hard evidence to support the observation that music activates memories more potently than visual stimuli.

In the study, a pool of subjects were exposed to a set of 30 famous songs.  They were also shown a set of 30 famous faces.  Afterwards, they were interviewed regarding memories that were triggered by the experience.  Uniformly, the study subjects were able to report many more vivid autobiographical memories with a much greater number of details from the music than from the visual stimulus.

Illustration for the concept of musical nostalgia and loyalty, from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.What does this mean for game publishers and developers?  Well, this may mean that exposure to an iconic musical theme from a video game is a more effective marketing tool than any visual-centric approach.  Musical nostalgia surpasses visual nostalgia.  The lure of familiar music can bring gamers back to keep playing their favorites.  Musical nostalgia can even cement the loyalty of fans as their favorite games transform into full-blown franchises.   For game composers, this is an important consideration when we’re contemplating what musical style we’ll be pursuing, and whether that style should include memorable thematic content.

Just in case you might enjoy another video illustrating how game themes can stick in the mind, here’s a compilation from violinist Rob Landes that includes some of the most memorable game music from 1972 to 2018:

Let’s face the music

We’ve looked at how familiar music can bring back vivid memories.  Now let’s ask a different question: does this phenomenon have any effect on people when they’re hearing music they’ve never heard before?  Can music enhance memory, even if it’s unfamiliar?  A team of researchers from the University of London and the University of Westminster set up an interesting experiment to try to answer this question.  They brought in study subjects to watch an episode of the comedy TV show Friends.  During the show, they embedded a custom-produced advertisement.  An image illustrating a study regarding the impact of music use on memory, from the article by Winifred Phillips (award-winning game music composer).For some of the study subjects, this advertisement was presented with no musical accompaniment.  For others, the advertisement included instrumental music.  Still others saw the TV ad with a full-blown musical jingle, complete with lyrics.  After the Friends episode ended, the study participants were interviewed about their recollection of the advertisement they’d seen somewhere in the middle of the Friends show.

The results showed that the advertised product was remembered in dramatically more detail when music was used in the advertisement.  This was true, whether the music included sung lyrics or not.  The sung jingle only outpaced the background music in a significant way when study participants were asked to recall the music itself, rather than the details of the product being advertised.  In sharp contrast, the advertisement containing no music at all performed much more poorly in terms of audience recall.

Illustration for a discussion of the role music plays in helping gamers remember details, from the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips.In the context of our work as game composers, this study points out some intriguing possibilities – particularly when we’re considering where music should be implemented during gameplay.  If music assists players in remembering details, then it makes a lot of sense to include music during gameplay sequences in which memorization is crucial to success.  A tutorial springs to mind as the most obvious example.  When we’re learning how to play a new game, it becomes very important to absorb and remember what we’re learning.  Including music during a tutorial may be a good way to help players to remember the included gameplay instructions.

On the other hand, we may be interested in getting players to remember the music itself, perhaps as an iconic symbol of a game franchise.  In this case, it may actually be beneficial to include a vocal or choral theme, since vocal music with lyrics tends to stick in the mind.



So now we’ve taken a look at two scholarly research studies that have shed more light on the power of music to enhance recall.  In my presentation that will be a part of the Game Developers Conference Virtual Talks, I’ll be exploring how musical themes can make a game more memorable, and ways in which game composers can implement themes into their work.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this article, and that you’ll avail yourself of all the great educational content that GDC will be offering as a part of its Virtual Conference!


Photo of video game composer Winifred Phillips speaking at the Game Developers Conference 2019.Popular music from composer Winifred Phillips’ award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score is currently being performed live by a top 80-piece orchestra and choir as part of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which kicked off in 2019 with its Paris premiere. 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, God of War, Total War, The Sims, and LittleBigPlanet.  Phillips’ other notable projects include music for the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution (Deep Silver), and numerous virtual reality games from such accomplished developers as Supermassive Games, High Voltage Software, and Armature Studio.   She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the MIT Press. As the foremost authority on music for interactive entertainment, Winifred Phillips has given lectures at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, the Game Developers Conference, the Audio Engineering Society, and many more. Phillips’ enthusiastic fans showered her with questions during a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything session that went viral, hit the Reddit front page, received 14.9 thousand upvotes, and became one of the most popular gaming AMAs ever hosted on Reddit. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.


Video: The first Library of Congress lecture given by a video game music composer

Popular video game composer Winifred Phillips giving her Library of Congress lecture -- the first presentation by a video game composer at the Library of Congress.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey everyone!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips.  This past April, I gave a lecture on video game music composition techniques at the invitation of The Library of Congress in Washington DC. It was the first speech on game music composition given at The Library of Congress, and I was tremendously honored to be able to represent the field of video game music!  My presentation was entitled “The Interface Between Music Composition and Game Design,” and was supported by a full house in the Whittall Pavilion of the Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress. In a previous article, I posted a partial transcript of the Q&A portion from my Library of Congress session, including some of the best questions from the Q&A.  Since then, The Library of Congress has included a video of my entire presentation as a part of their permanent archival collection for future generations.  I’m very pleased to be able to share the entire video with you!

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Composer Winifred Phillips answers Reddit’s questions in viral Ask-Me-Anything about video game music

Photo of popular video game composer Winifred Phillips, taken as 'proof photo' for her recent viral Reddit Ask-Me-Anything that hit the Reddit front page, receiving 14.8 thousand upvotes and garnering Reddit's gold and platinum awards.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Glad you’re here!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m the author of the book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music.  Recently my publisher The MIT Press requested that I host a question and answer session on Reddit’s famous Ask Me Anything forum, to share my knowledge about game music and spread the word about my book on that topic.  I’d be answering questions from a community consisting of thousands of gamers, developers and aspiring composers.  It sounded like fun, so last Thursday and Friday I logged onto Reddit and answered as many questions as I possibly could.  It was an awesome experience!  Over the course of those two days, my Reddit AMA went viral.  It ascended to the Reddit front page, receiving 14.8 thousand upvotes and garnering Reddit’s gold and platinum awards.  My AMA has now become one of the most engaged and popular Reddit gaming AMAs ever hosted on the Ask-Me-Anything subreddit.  I’m so grateful to the Reddit community for their amazing support and enthusiasm!!  During the course of those two days, the community posed some wonderful questions, and I thought it would be great to gather together some of those questions and answers that might interest us here.  Below you’ll find a discussion focused on the art and craft of game music composition.  The discussion covered the gamut of subjects, from elementary to expert, and I’ve arranged the discussion below under topic headings for the sake of convenience.  I hope you enjoy this excerpted Q&A from my Reddit Ask-Me-Anything!  If you’d like to read the entire AMA (which also includes lots of discussion of my past video game music projects), you’ll find the whole Reddit AMA here.

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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!!

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Resources for Video Game Music Composers: The Big List

Video game music composer Winifred Phillips creating music in her video game music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey everybody!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips.  Every year, between working in my studio creating music for some awesome games, I like to take a little time to gather together some of the top online resources and guidance available for newbies in the field of video game music.  What follows in this article is an updated and expanded collection of links on a variety of topics pertinent to our profession.  We begin with the concert tours and events where we can get inspired by seeing game music performed live.  Then we’ll move on to a discussion of online communities that can help us out when we’re trying to solve a problem.  Next, we’ll see a collection of software tools that are commonplace in our field.  Finally, we’ll check out some conferences and academic organizations where we can absorb new ideas and skills.

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Composing video game music for Virtual Reality: Comfort versus performance

In this article series for video game composers, Winifred Phillips is depicted in this photo working in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Delighted you’re here!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m happy to welcome you back to this four-part article series exploring the role of music in VR games! These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, entitled Music in Virtual Reality (I’ve included the official description of my talk at this end of this article). If you haven’t read the previous three articles, you’ll find them here:

During my GDC presentation, I focused on three important questions for VR game music composers:

  • Do we compose our music in 3D or 2D?
  • Do we structure our music to be Diegetic or Non-Diegetic?
  • Do we focus our music on enhancing player Comfort or Performance?

In the course of exploring these questions during my GDC presentation, I discussed my work on four of my own VR game projects –the Bebylon: Battle Royale arena combat game from Kite & Lightning, the Dragon Front strategy game from High Voltage Software, the Fail Factory comedy game from Armature Studio, and the Scraper: First Strike shooter/RPG from Labrodex Inc.

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Composing video game music for Virtual Reality: The role of music in VR

In this article for video game composers, Winifred Phillips is pictured working in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey everybody!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  At this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I was pleased to give a presentation entitled Music in Virtual Reality (I’ve included the official description of my talk at the end of this article). While I’ve enjoyed discussing the role of music in virtual reality in previous articles that I’ve posted here, the talk I gave at GDC gave me the opportunity to pull a lot of those ideas together and present a more concentrated exploration of the practice of music composition for VR games.  It occurred to me that such a focused discussion might be interesting to share in this forum as well. So, with that in mind, I’m excited to begin a four-part article series based on my GDC 2018 presentation!

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