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A Composer's Guide to Game Music (Book Review)

A Composer’s Guide to Game Music (Book Review)

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Today Original Sound Version has its first ever book review! You may be wondering why a site focused on videogame music is reviewing a book. Well, this book happens to deal with the process of writing game music as its subject matter. There have been only a handful of books on the subject of composing music for games. Some of them have focused on the technical side of sound production, while others have taken on the business aspect of the job. Today we are looking at a very recent release of the book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music. This new book aims to introduce the reader and aspiring game composers to the many intricacies of composing and incorporating music into a game.

A Composer’s Guide to Game Music comes to us from author and composer Winifred Phillips. Many game music fans may recognize Phillips’s name from her work on several big name game titles. The projects that she has worked on include God of War, Little Big Planet 2, and Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. She’s also won numerous awards for her work, including five Game Audio Network Guild awards and two Hollywood Music in Media Awards. With so much experience and so many accomplishments in the game music field, we clearly have the right person to guide us through the world of game music composition. Without further ado, let’s take a deeper look at this guide.

The name Composer’s Guide is really quite literal. Phillips goes through every aspect of what is needed in order to pursue a career in the game music industry. The first few chapters are in fact devoted to why you might want to consider a career in game music and the types of tools you will need if you want to be successful. This serves as both a good overview of what the job entails and a look at what you’ll be getting yourself into if you choose to pursue this career. This isn’t just about knowing your music theory, it’s about your ability to work and improve on your own and learn how to use new tools quickly and efficiently. The work of a game composer often involves being very self reliant and knowing how to run yourself like a business. Phillips lays down the essential aspects of the job in very clear terms in these first few chapters.

The main bulk of the book focuses on theories of applying music composition techniques when writing music for an interactive medium. As a composer and music theory nerd myself, this is the portion of the book that I found the most engrossing and fascinating. I come from a classically trained music background and it was an intellectually stimulating experience to read about the music structures needed for specific types of game music. This includes topics like the best approaches to writing looping music that sets the perfect atmosphere without drawing too much attention to itself, building vertically layered music structures that respond to the actions of the players while sounding musically coherent, and ideas on how to incorporate themes and leitmotivs throughout a game’s score. This book really nails every aspect of game composition that I’ve ever been unsure of or had questions about. Everything from victory fanfares to overworld music is discussed. There have always been aspects of game music that I’ve had preconceptions of from my own analysis, but this is the first time that I’ve read a complete and concise presentation of these music writing techniques. If I were ever to select a book to help teach the music theory for writing game music, this would definitely be it.

Phillips takes the theory farther than just making the music coherent within the game experience; she also tackles how music needs to be implemented with respect to strengthening and improving aspects of a game’s overall design. In these chapters she really delves deep into the relationship between music and the player experience. This includes how certain genres and attributes of music can affect the player psychologically and how it influences the way they play a game. Most importantly, Phillips asks and encourages the reader to think about these issues, rather than just giving a completely definitive answer. The approach to these types of problems will be different depending on the composer and the game. In many cases she asks the reader to consider what type of music will encourage a player to take certain actions. She also provides many examples in her own music, and explains to the reader how she tackled some of these issues herself. These were honestly aspects of game music writing that I had not really considered that much myself. It’s actually given me a lot to think about in terms of both how I write music and, in fact, how I critique the game music written by other composers.

The remainder of A Composer’s Guide to Game Music focuses on elements to the job that are just as important as the theory and composition. This includes knowing how to set up your workflow throughout a game’s development cycle and how you are integrated, as a composer, into the development team on a game project. For obvious reasons, this relates more to the bigger budget studios, as opposed to indie development teams. Once again, Phillips manages to cover a number of elements to the job that are not often explained or explored when talking about game music. Everything from who you usually have as a point of contact within the team, what materials you should request to help you get a sense of what the game is about, and how to organize and prioritize music assets for the project is all covered in these chapters. Phillips even shares some of her experiences with different types of projects, some of which were unusual circumstances that you may run into as a composer.

There are also a few helpful chapters of the book dedicated to the technical skills, software, and business assets that you will need to be familiar with in order to carry out your job as a composer. On the technology side, this includes the usual list of DAWs, virtual instrument libraries, and some the middleware used to integrate nonlinear music into a game. These are things that often get covered in other game audio books, but it’s helpful and necessary to see them included in this book, especially if you are very new to the field of interactive audio. Phillips also presents helpful recommendations for building your own site and advertising your abilities to prospective clients. It’s all useful information that helps make the book a complete and comprehensive guide for the aspiring or existing game composer.

A Composer’s Guide to Game Music is without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read on the subject. Not only does Winifred Phillips provide information on everything you would need to know about entering the field of game music, she also shines light on the unique challenges and issues that a composer will face in the game’s industry. Outside of the theories and techniques for creating this music, there is also a wealth of information on how to function within a development team and how to meet the expectations of the job. This is a book that I highly recommend to anyone who is looking to get involved in game audio or wants to understand the process of creating music for games. I will even go as far as to say that A Composer’s Guide to Game Music should be required reading for anyone with a remote interest in the subject. The ideas and concepts are well presented and the author provides some great examples for reinforcing the information. Definitely check this book out.  A Composer’s Guide to Game Music can be purchased on Amazon or on the MIT Press website.

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