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

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

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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.

 

Conclusion

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 Game Composers and the Importance of Research: The Music of Sports Scramble

Working on the music of the VR game Sports Scramble, Winifred Phillips is here shown in her professional music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey, everybody!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips.  As game composers, it’s inevitable that we’ll eventually be asked to create music in a genre with which we have little or no experience.  Some projects may throw several unfamiliar musical genres our way.  It can be a scary prospect.  I’ve worked on many projects that have required me to quickly learn new musical styles and techniques, so I thought I’d share some thoughts about how research can help us cope with these sorts of unexpected demands.  This article will explore the role of music research, including how it can initiate us into the mysteries of unfamiliar musical styles, and ways in which it can lead us in unanticipated (but not unwelcome) directions.  I’ve had lots of experience delving into diverse musical genres and doing music research for projects both big and small over the course of my career.  For this article, I’ll be describing my recent experience composing the music for the Sports Scramble VR game, developed by Armature Studio and released earlier this year for popular VR platforms such as the Oculus Quest and the Oculus Rift/Rift S.

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Video game music composer: Getting your big break (2020 edition)

This photo shows video game composer Winifred Phillips working in her music production studio on music for the God of War video game. Phillips has composed music for titles in five of the most popular franchises in gaming (Assassin's Creed, God of War, Total War, LittleBigPlanet, The Sims).

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey everyone!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  In the photo above I’m working on the project that launched my career as a game composer – God of War.  Starting a viable career in the game development industry as a composer can be an awesome task, and I’m often asked for advice about how to break into this business.  So each year I revisit the subject in an article that allows us to consider current ideas and strategies.  Along the way, we contemplate multiple viewpoints, both from expert music and game audio practitioners and by anonymous game audio folks in community forums.  An image depicting the cover of the bestselling book A Composer's Guide to Game Music, written by award-winning game composer Winifred Phillips.This can be helpful, because the common wisdom on this subject changes in subtle but appreciable ways with each passing year.  By revisiting the topic periodically, I hope that we’ll be able to obtain a deeper understanding of what it takes to land the coveted first gig as a composer of music for games.

Part of the reason I write this article each year is personal.  My own “big break” story is so extraordinarily unusual that it can’t provide much useful guidance for newcomers.  Being fortunate enough to have a famous game like God of War as your first game credit isn’t the typical entry path for a budding video game composer.  Yet, because I’m a fairly visible member of the game audio community who has written a book called A Composer’s Guide to Game Music (pictured), I’m constantly asked for advice by aspiring composers who want to start their professional careers and are having trouble getting out of the gate.  Since my own story is such a ‘bolt-of-lightning’ case study, I think it’s useful for us to study the more traditional entry paths when we’re trying to understand how aspiring game composers can get their start.  By the way, in case you’re wondering, here’s the story of how I landed my first gig – I told the story during a Society of Composers and Lyricists event in NYC, and it’s captured in this video:

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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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Video Game Composers: How Music Enhances Virtual Presence (GDC 2019)

In this article about Virtual Presence in VR written for video game composers, Winifred Phillips (video game composer) is here pictured working in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Delighted you’re here!  I’m very pleased to share that over the next two months I’ll be speaking at two fantastic events focusing on music in video games!  My two presentations will explore the unique structure and character of video game music, and how it helps to better envelop players in the worlds that game designers have created.  I thought that this article might be a good opportunity to delve into some of the ideas that form the basis of my two upcoming talks.  First, I’d like to share some details about the presentations I’ll be giving.

The Library of Congress logo, included in an article discussing popular game conferences, from the article for video game composers by Winifred Phillips (game music composer).The Library of Congress has invited me to speak this April as a part of their “Augmented Realities” video game music festival. My presentation, “The Interface Between Music Composition and Game Design,” will take place at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. I’m very excited to participate in this event, which will be the first of its kind hosted by the “Concerts from the Library” series at the Library of Congress! The “Augmented Realities” video game music festival will also include panels on video game music history and preservation presented by distinguished curators and archivists at the Library of Congress, a special documentary screening that explores the ChipTunes movement, and a live “game creation lab.” My presentation will be the concluding lecture of the festival, and I’m honored to speak at such an illustrious event!  If you find yourself in the Washington DC area on April 6th 2019, you’re very welcome to come to my lecture at the Library of Congress!  Tickets are free (first come, first served), and they’re available now via EventBrite.

The GDC logo, accompanying the discussion of networking at such famous game conferences, from the article for video game composers by Winifred Phillips (game music composer).But before my lecture at the Library of Congress, I’ll be making a trip to San Francisco for the famous Game Developers Conference that takes place this month. For the past few years I’ve been excited and honored to be selected as a Game Developers Conference speaker in the Game Audio track, and I’m happy to share that I’ll be speaking again this month in San Francisco at GDC 2019! My talk this year is entitled “How Music Enhances Virtual Presence.

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Video game music composer: Getting your big break

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

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

So happy you’ve joined us!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips (pictured above working on my career breakthrough project, God of War). Today I’ll be discussing a hot topic that we’ve previously explored, but that definitely deserves to be revisited periodically.  This is one of the most popular subjects that I’ve addressed in my previous articles here: How does a newcomer get hired as a game composer?

I’m asked this question frequently, and while I offered quite a lot of advice on this topic in my book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I’m keenly aware of how urgent the need is for updated guidance on this issue for aspiring video game composers.  Game music newcomers often feel adrift and alone in the game industry, and some good advice can be a welcome lifeline.  In my book, I described the career path that led me into the game industry and allowed me to land my first gigs, but I’m well aware that my experience was pretty unique.  With that in mind, I’ve collated some recent research and insights from some top game industry professionals in this article, in the hopes that some of these expert observations might prove helpful.  There are lots of original and provocative viewpoints presented here, so we should feel free to pick and choose the strategies and tips that will work best for us.

Also, later in the article you’ll find my presentation for the Society of Composers and Lyricists seminar, in which I answered the question about how I personally got my start in the games industry (for those who might be curious).  Finally, at the end of the article I have included a full list of links for further reading and reference.

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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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