Saturday, April 6, 2013

Behind the Scenes: Video Game Music Class

Despite the fact that I've been working on this goal for over a year, I can hardly believe it's happening: I'm teaching a video game music course in the fall.  The course is going to be a sort of general music/music appreciation class, but through the lens of video game music instead of traditional classical or popular music slants.  (Is game music popular music?)  I'm really pleased with how I've set it up-- there's development of aural skills through listening, a historical aspect as we'll trace the evolution of game audio, and a composition component as well.  The best part is, with simple computer programs like GarageBand, etc, anyone can make their own music these days without even needing to read standard music notation.

Although I've spun the composition part as creating "game music" this lead me to think: what is game music?  Couldn't a person play acoustic guitar and sing, record themselves, and call this music "game music" for a certain scene in a game?  Sounds very similar to Red Dead Redemption to me.  And forget the singing along, how about guitar playing and some synthesized instruments supporting it?  Diablo Tristram theme.  At the most basic level, drop some garageband loops together and (perhaps) put a melody over it, and you've got something like quite a bit of FF XIII.  Or make something heady-- maybe something like granular synthesis??-- that might be similar to some moments in the Twilight realm of Twilight Princess.  More atonal/synthesized compositions?  We're far away from home, earth, normal.  More traditional audio sounds?  More life like, perhaps depicting concerts, sporting events, etc.  Basically, the composition of game music is just a chance to be creative.

In lieu of formal written papers, I'm going to create a listening blog for the students to post and react to game audio and class readings of their choice.  That's very 21st century music education!  One of the things I anticipate loving about teaching game music is that I can give students a wide latitude with their readings and still get good comprehension.  One thing I've already learned from working on this blog and reading game music literature is that it's less important that the reader of most scholarly articles is experienced with music and more important they've been exposed to the game music that the article is discussing.  I supposed the same is true in the classical area, but I think about it less because many of the examples I read about are so standard they come to mind immediately.  So while I was a little lost a few months ago reading about race in the radio of Grand Theft Auto, a person who's played that game and knows the audio wouldn't have much trouble digesting that reading.  So as long as I can present students with a wide variety of readings that deal with a wide variety of games, it'll be win-win.

This class is going to be a blast...  But for now, I'm watching the enrollment and hoping to get students hooked!    

On a blog related note, I'm going to be reviving the "Playing Games" heading that I used occasionally early on in the blog to represent quick snippets of thought I have when I'm currently playing a game-- as opposed to the more researched "Analysis" segments.  Also, Video Game Music Class will become a regular series where I muse about where I am in the process of creating the course.  


  1. I'm hyped about this class! I'm considering taking it, if I have space this sounds like an interesting selection.

    Congratulations btw!

    Also question: How big will the "composition component" be? Will we be composing some things, or more just learn about the way compositions of video game music are made?

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting! Thanks also for the congrats on the course... creating, designing, and pitching a course for the university to agree to offer is no small task!

    As far as the class composition component, yes to both. Through the whole course, we'll be listening to, considering, and discussing game music compositions. However, I do want a creative component to the class as well. While I'm still finalizing the syllabus, at this point, I'm thinking I'll require two tracks, each 60-90 seconds long. These lengths are common times for game music. I could also imagine 60 seconds worth of musical sound effects for two different games, if you prefer. You can either set the music to existing visuals, create rough visuals for your own audio, or describe with words the scene and setting that your audio will support. These points are various ones that game composers may start to work on a project, so even though I'm just hoping for creativity, fun, and musical awesomeness, in a sense, this exercise would be practical as well-- if you're interested in being a game composer.

    Hope to see you in the fall! And please help me spread the word to your gamer friends about the class!

  3. Hello Matthew!

    This class sounds awesome to me! I'm in the school of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and do not see it listed in the course guide for Fall 2013... Can I still take this course? In backpacking, I put the course number in and it now appears, but I was wondering if I would be able to take this without being in the Music program.

    Thank you in advance!

    An avid video game music fan,
    Stephanie :)

  4. Hi Stephanie--

    Thanks for reading and commenting! I'm not sure what course guide you're referring to for Fall 2013. The course WILL be listed in the music guide (called Elections Across Fields) but I don't think SMTD has published that yet. If you mean a larger University wide guide-- it's no surprise to me the class isn't listed there. Creating the course was held up for a long while with some internal issues and I only got it done just over two weeks ago. My guess is that whatever course guide you're looking at is older than that.

    I'd love to have you in the class! If you love video games and you love music, the course is perfect for you. It's designed for non-music majors. Hope to see you in the fall!

  5. Hi Matthew,

    This class sounds awesome! My Youtube history is filled with various people's "top ten songs from (insert game or genre)" playlists. Unfortunately for me, I graduated from Michigan back in 2010, so I cannot take this course. Is there any chance you will be making some of this material public, either through Coursera or some other medium? I would sure love to see some of the topics discussed in this class, along with some potential readings. Great idea, and best of luck teaching it this semester!


  6. Thanks for reading and commenting, Kevin! You're not the first to ask if I'll be recording the class in some way. I definitely want to consider that, although I'm not yet sure what I'll do. If I make any more educational videos, I'll definitely continue to post them to my videogamemusicnerd YouTube account. Stay tuned to the blog for more info as I continue to build the class. Today was our last day of class, so I'm dealing with all the end of semester stuff right now before I can turn my attention to the fall. Even if I don't use Coursera or the like this time around, I know UM is interested in building some online music courses, and I do think this class would be perfect for that in the future.

  7. NICE BLOG!! I would really like to come back again right here for likewise good articles or blog posts. Thanks for sharing a nice information.

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  8. Thanks for reading and commenting. Glad to know the other side of the world is seeing this. I hope to keep you interested in the coming months.

  9. Thanks Matthew its very nice blog

  10. Hey I just found your blog. It's great!
    do you have any more information on your game music class? i'd love to hear how that went!

    Brian Schmidt

  11. Hello Brian! Thanks for writing and reading. I'm especially interested in your link as that's something I can share with both my Technology for MusEd class and my Video Game Music class. Very cool. Looking forward to seeing more of that.

    Actually, my Video Game Music class is happening in Fall 2013, so I'm still a few months away from the start date at this point. I've just sent you an email via brianschmidtstudios and would love to talk with you about being a guest speaker (perhaps via Skype?) in the class. I'm applying for some University funding to get some industry expert guest speakers now. Hope to hear more from you!

  12. Hello, Matthew!

    I am a MS music teacher... I have primarily band and choir, but I also have a section of general music (8th grade) that I like to use technology stuff.

    I love video game music! And I think my kids would too. I only know some about the genre.. not to be too geeky, but I used to be addicted to final fantasy 11. Anyway, the point is that in some ways I think video game music is using the orchestra in a new way to capture a new audience. I don't want to say it's "classical" music reinvented, although my kids might say that. It's a large and dynamic body of work that my MS kids could really engage in!!

    Anyway, I am struggling with HOW to teach it. Or what to do as a final project for the unit. Or what I hope to gain from it, other than to explore a popular art form which is musically sophisticated. There's so much potential here, but I am not yet able to connect in my mind how to translate this for 13 and 14 year olds.

    How has your class been going? Any suggestions for me? Or do you know of anyone teaching this content to educators for use in a situation like mine?



    1. Hey Kirsten! I think the class is going ok, I'm actually just about to post about how it's going so far. For more information, I know that Evan Tobias has written an article about teaching music through video games. I met him through a skype interview a few months ago and just recently found an article he wrote-- check him/it out for more!

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