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March 13, 2024

Ask the expert: How is video game music made?


Growing up, Ryan Thompson spent most of his free time singing in his church’s choir or playing video games.

A formally trained vocal musician, music historian and avid gamer, Thompson combines his love for music and video games as an assistant professor of media and information in the Michigan State University College of Communication Arts and Sciences, where he researches and teaches courses on video game audio production.

Thompson is also organizing this year’s North American Conference on Video Game Music, which is coming to MSU for the first time March 16 to 17. Now in its 11th year, the conference features academic talks and research presentations on musicology, music theory and other research subjects related to video game music.

A person posing for a portrait in a silver room. A green Michigan State University Spartan head logo is on the wall behind them.
Ryan Thompson, assistant professor of media and information in the Michigan State University College of Communication Arts and Sciences, studies intersections between gameplay and audio – instances in which the music is used as a means to communicate gameplay information to a player. Credit: Anthony Valli, Michigan State University.

In conjunction with the conference, the MSU College of Music is hosting a video game-inspired music concert on Saturday, March 16 at 8 p.m. in Murray Hall, located in the College of Music Building, 333 West Circle Drive in East Lansing. The concert features works arranged and performed by students of Professor of Composition Ricardo Lorenz, as well as a performance from Laura Intravia, an instrumentalist, vocalist and composer known for her work in video game music. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and free for MSU students. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.

In advance of the concert and conference, Thompson explains how video game music is composed, what it can communicate and its cultural impact.

Why is music an important component of video games?

Music helps join together parts of video games that might not be cohesive otherwise. In films, when we have an editing cut and music remains constant, it shows that the cuts are connected and part of the same scene. In games, when we shift modes of engagement — say from traversal to combat, or pause the game to access a menu — but the music remains constant, the music helps keep us in the space. We call that the ‘magic circle,’ this kind of boundary of play that’s created for us, this immersive space in which we exist.

What makes composing for video games unique from composing for other mediums?

The biggest shift from other modes of music composition is that, with video games, you must wrestle at some level on how your music is implemented into the game itself.

Sometimes that can be simple. For example, you play level two’s music when level two starts. Other times, it can be more complicated and dynamic: using music to create cohesion between multiple different states at once, such as combat, fighting, traversal or exploring.

Different types of music representing different geography is another common element. For example, you might hear different music when traversing in an open field than you would when arriving to a safer town space.

What information does video game audio communicate to players?

Sometimes not every player knows everything about a given video game. One of my dissertation chapters is on a competitive esport, ‘League of Legends,’ in which not every player has access to every character, but to be competitive and to effectively play the game, you need to know something about what each character can do. And so the musicians, the composers, the sound designers of ‘League of Legends’ delve into what’s called topic theory, in which all of the healing spells, for instance, have a wind chime sound associated with them so that even if you don’t know the specific numbers, the math of what a healing spell will do, you can recognize it as a healing moment.

What video game music or sounds are the most iconic to you and why?

My head will turn every time I hear the sound of Sonic the Hedgehog collecting a golden ring. The sound effects that are just ever so slightly musical and pitched resonate more with me. The Mario and the Sonic games are especially good on this front, but more modern games do this as well.



On the music front, I will pick the opera sequence in Final Fantasy VI. There’s something to be said about emulating the human voice on Super Nintendo, which could not have a live human voice sample due to the limitations of the technology. It creates this immersive space in which something not voiced becomes believable as a human voice and captures your imagination in a wonderful way.


What impact have video games had on music listeners?

If you really love big, sweeping, grandiose orchestral scores and you want a modern 21st-century version of what that looks like, video game scores are where you’d go. If you wanted this grandiose orchestral film score in the 1980s and 1990s, you’d go listen to the music of Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. In the 21st century, video games have taken up that torch.

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