Game Composers and the Importance of Themes: The Hook in Game Music (Pt. 1)

This photo includes game music composer Winifred Phillips working in her production studio. Phillips is the game music composer for The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes game, developed by Random Potion for Wild River Games. Her credits include titles from 5 of the most well-known game franchises, and she is one of the foremost authorities on video game music, having presented lectures at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), the Library of Congress in Washington DC, and the Society of Composers and Lyricists in NYC.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

So happy you’ve joined us!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  Last March, I gave a presentation at the very first online Game Developers Conference.  My talk was entitled “From Assassin’s Creed to The Dark Eye: The Importance of Themes” (I’ve included the official description of my talk at this end of this article).  This coming August, I’ll be participating as a speaker in the upcoming GDC Summer online conference.  My session this August will be a wide-ranging Ask-Me-Anything Q&A, and I’m really looking forward it!  In anticipation of that conference session, I thought it might be useful for me to share the content of my March GDC talk in a series of articles.  I’m happy to now begin a five-part article series based on my GDC 2020 presentation in March!

In my GDC 2020 presentation, I discussed musical themes, and I shared some stories about my work composing music for lots of great game projects. I’ll be sharing the same stories here.  Those projects include Assassin’s Creed Liberation (Ubisoft), God of War (Sony Interactive America), the LittleBigPlanet franchise (Sony Interactive Europe), Homefront: The Revolution (Deep Silver), Speed Racer (Warner Bros Interactive), Spore Hero (Electronic Arts), and The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes (Wild River).

But before we start digging into practical examples, let’s take a quick look at one of the best and most iconic themes in the history of music for media. I’ve included a short excerpt below. Notice how we hear a melodic phrase once, then we hear it again, and it’s exactly the same as before. So the melody is saying, “hey – you liked that? Here, have another!”

As you can see, this is everybody’s top composition for talking about musical themes. It’s the one that everybody can identify within the first few bars. That’s part of why it’s one of the best and most famous examples.

A short excerpt of notation illustrating the internally-repeating theme concept, as included in the article by award-winning game composer Winifred Phillips.

Let’s briefly consider this theme in terms of its hook. 

The Hook

An illustration of the concept of the "hook" as discussed in game music composer Winifred Phillips' article about creating memorable melodies in game composition.We all know that a hook in music is a thematic element that catches the mind. In Star Wars, it takes the form of that awesome four-bar melody.  Right away we can see one of the core design features of the ever popular Star Wars theme – it’s built around repetition.

In the Star Wars theme, we get full statements of that main melody (complete with its internal repetition), and then we get a contrast section or a bridge, and then we’re right back to another full statement of that same internally-repeating main melody.  This pattern happens five times over the course of the Star Wars theme:

So it’s no wonder we remember the theme so well. By the time we’re finished listening to it, we’ve had that melody drummed into our heads.  The music is a big part of the identity of the Star Wars franchise.  It’s the musical signature of Star Wars.  How does the idea of musical signatures apply to game music?

The Musical Signature

An iconic depiction of the mnemonic impact of musical themes, as included in the article written by video game composer Winifred Phillips.Well, in games, music has an especially important role to play.  It seems that, according to some really cool expert research from the University of Geneva, music has a special power.  Music is a super-mnemonic. It makes us remember things, and it does it better than most anything else.  Just like smells can bring back really detailed memories, music can do the same thing.  And the fact that we hear game music while we’re participating in something active and engaging means that the music has an even better chance of being remembered. Active experiences are proven to be remembered better than passive ones.

This means that game music has a unique ability to define the identity of a game, and help players remember it. However, in order for the music to remind players of the game, we have to make sure that we compose the music to be as memorable as possible.  That’s where themes come in.

A bullet list excerpted from video game composer Winifred Phillips' GDC 2020 presentation, focusing on thematic composition techniques in video game composition.Over the course of these five articles, we’ll be discussing what makes musical themes memorable, including the importance of repetition.  We’ll look at composition strategies to keep things fresh, including variation and fragmentation.  We’ll check out how musical themes hold up inside interactive constructs, and we’ll discuss some of the different kinds of gameplay that can benefit from thematic composition.  Along the way I’m going to be sharing what I’ve learned about thematic composition from a bunch of my own video game projects.

So let’s start with one of my most recent games – the latest entry in the award-winning Dark Eye video game franchise, which was just released on June 9th.

The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes

The logo for The Dark Eye RPG franchise, as included in the video game music article by composer Winifred Phillips.

I was really excited about composing the music for The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes. It’s an RPG video game based on the Dark Eye fantasy world, which is the most popular European RPG with over 35 years of fantasy lore behind it and millions of fans.

Right from the start, the developers and I focused on a 4-minute main theme track in which I would assert the game’s musical signature:

An excerpt from the theme to The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes, composed by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.

To make it memorable, I restated that theme in six variations.  As game composers, we want that hook to grab hold and stick in the mind. So, while The Dark Eye Book of Heroes main theme develops its ideas and includes bridge sections and secondary melodies, the main hook keeps on coming back. Let’s see how that worked:

As you could hear, it’s an overt strategy designed to ensure that a melody is remembered. To experience the recurring thematic material in context, here’s the main theme of The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes in its entirety:

 

Conclusion

So now we’ve considered the importance of a musical hook.  We’ve looked at how repetition can solidify the connection between a dynamic melodic hook and the identity of the project it accompanies.  We’ve considered the power of game music as a particularly effective mnemonic device.  Finally, we’ve considered these concepts in connection with practical examples from Star Wars and my own recent project, The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes.  In the next article of this series, we’ll be considering more subtle uses of themes in video game scores.  Along the way, I’ll be sharing some behind-the-scenes stories of the thematic composition process for two of my projects – Assassin’s Creed Liberation, and Homefront: The Revolution.  Until then, thanks for reading!


 

From Assassin’s Creed to The Dark Eye: The Importance of Themes

An image depicting the official logos of the game projects included in the GDC 2020 presentation, "From Assassin's Creed to The Dark Eye: The Importance of Themes." This presentation was delivered by video game composer Winifred Phillips during the GDC 2020 online conference in March.

(Game Developers Conference Session Description)

Through an exploration of her work composing music for games such as Assassin’s Creed Liberation, God of War, LittleBigPlanet and the upcoming RPG The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes, composer Winifred Phillips will examine the potential of thematic music to enable a game to stand out as special and unique.

By employing musical themes, a composer can infuse a game with a strong sense of character and originality.

According to research, music heard during activities is remembered vividly. Coupling this with the innately memorable nature of themes allows a game composer to create an indelible musical signature for any game. This talk will examine composition techniques that extend the life and utility of themes. Variation, development, figures, fragmentation, and motifs will be explored, along with examples of themes in combat, menus, cutscenes, and stingers. Finally, dynamic music construction will be considered, including workarounds to enable effective themes within interactive systems.

Takeaway

Using examples from several games, Phillips will discuss specific composition techniques designed to enhance the utility of thematic content. Attendees will learn how themes may be incorporated into specific game music asset types. Also included in the discussion: composition adjustments required by interactive music constructs.

Intended Audience

This session will present inspirational ideas for composers seeking to create distinctive musical signatures for their game projects. Discussion of thematic use within different types of game music assets may be helpful for audio developers engaged in preparing music design documents. The talk will be approachable for all levels.

 
 
 

Photo of video game composer Winifred Phillips in her game composers production studio.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: 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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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:

Continue reading

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!

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

VR for the Game Music Composer: Audio for VR Platforms

In this article written for video game composers, Winifred Phillips (video game composer) is here pictured working in her music production studio on the music for the Scraper: First Strike game, developed for popular VR gaming platforms (PSVR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive).

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hello there!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips.  Lately, I’ve been very busy in my production studio composing music for a lot of awesome virtual reality games, including the upcoming Scraper: First Strike first person VR shooter (pictured above) that’s coming out next Wednesday (November 21st) for the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Windows Mixed Reality Devices, and will be released on December 18th for the Playstation VR.  My work on this project has definitely stoked my interest in everything VR!  Since the game will be released very soon, here’s a trailer video released by the developers Labrodex Studios, featuring some of the music I composed for the game:

Continue reading

Video Game Music Composers: New VR Headphone Tech (2018)

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

In this article for and about the craft of video game composers, Winifred Phillips is pictured in this photo from her lecture on Virtual Reality given at the popular Game Developers Conference in 2018.Hey, everyone!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips, and my work has included the musical scores for top games on all sorts of popular gaming platforms, from handhelds and mobile, all the way up to the latest consoles and PCs.  Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of video game music composition for virtual reality.  I had the pleasure of presenting a lecture on Music in Virtual Reality (pictured left) at the most recent Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

My experience as a composer for VR includes many VR games, including the Scraper: First Strike shooter (set to be released for the PSVR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive in December 2018), and the recently released VR experience The Haunted Graveyard, which is now available on Steam and in VR Arcades around the world.  Since we’re in the Halloween season, and this VR experience is designed specifically for your Halloween pleasure, here’s a trailer that features my music from The Haunted Graveyard:

By virtue of all the experiences I’ve had recently creating music for VR, I’ve become keenly aware of the importance of sound fidelity in VR.  If the experience doesn’t sound real, it loses the chance to actually feel like a fully-convincing, thoroughly awesome virtual reality experience.  With that in mind, I’ve been writing periodic articles about new technologies in connection with headphones for VR.

Continue reading