ANN ARBOR—The 5th annual North American Conference on Video Game Music will take place at the University of Michigan Jan. 13-14.
The conference welcomes keynote speakers Marty O'Donnell and William Gibbons, and brings together professionals and scholars in the fields of musicology, music theory, ethnomusicology, media studies, sound studies, composition and more to discuss all aspects of music in video games.
Matthew Thompson, assistant professor at the U-M School of Music Theatre & Dance, is a presenter and the lead organizer of the conference. He is a classically trained pianist who teaches a popular course on video game music at U-M, and is considered a leading expert on video game music.
Q: You're an accomplished pianist and a vocal coach—what made you think to use video game music as a teaching tool?
Thompson: Back in the late '90s, the Michigan Daily interviewed a bunch of U-M students to see how many people they could find that could hum the Super Mario Bros theme song, and they couldn't find anyone who didn't know the tune. It's kind of amazing if you think about how ubiquitous it is in our culture. That's also the kind of thing that people hate about video game music, how repetitive it is. But for me, a piece of music that people have heard again and again and again—I can use that teach form—which is much easier than playing a Beethoven sonata that people aren't familiar with. So five years ago, I began to teach a music appreciation course through the lens of video game music at U-M. Since then, it has become enormously popular with students from all majors.
Q: What are the specific attributes of video game music? How is it different than a song you might hear on the radio?
Thompson: When a lot of people think about game music, many still think about the bleeps and bloops of the early ones in the '70s and '80s that had simple melodies and sound effects that were made for one or two sound channels—like Oregon Trail, Pong and Pac-man. As video games got more complex, the music became more important. A linear song that you'd hear on the radio includes an intro, verse, chorus, chorus up a half step, end. Video game audio is nonlinear, which means that it changes based on what you decide to do in a game. If you open one door, you'll hear one thing, if you open another, you may hear something completely different. For every choice you make in a game, there are certain sounds to go along with it. And when you think about the fact that these games are sometimes 50 or 60 hours long these days, the way that music is made for them becomes really fascinating.
Q: How important is the music in a video game?
Thompson: The number one reason that video game music exists is to increase immersion. Early on, the programmers were the same people who composed. The beeping sound that you hear to signal you've turned on the game soon turned into simple melodies. My favorite early video game music example of interactive audio is Space Invaders. As the game got harder and you killed more invaders, the tempo of the music sped up in conjunction with the gameplay. Game audio has progressed so much since then, that now there are huge music budgets for these AAA games that are recorded by the top orchestras in the world and highly interactive, complex musical scores.