At first glance, the words ‘video games’ and ‘classical music’ don’t seem like likely bedfellows. However, as video games have become more immersive, so their soundtracks have also gained in sophistication and nuance, and now game soundtracks make regular appearances in the Classic FM chart rundown. How did this most unexpected of marriages come about? We investigate below.
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The Use Of Classical Music in Games
Many games have incorporated classical music, going all the way back to the vintage Tetris handheld game that featured Tchaikovsky’s ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ and ‘Earthworm Jim 2,’ another back-in-the-day classic that included Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Number Fourteen.
Moving forward in time, the Kingdom Hearts game franchise has used classical music in its scores, as have games including Bioshock, Resident Evil, The Evil Within, and Eternal Sonata. Sites offering a wide array of royalty-free music, including classical music, make it easier than ever before to add a quality score to videos and games, which is a fantastic tool for games developers just getting started in the industry, and for both professional or amateur designers alike.
In 2012, the video game Journey was nominated for a Grammy for its score, the first-ever such nomination for music featured in a game, which marked a decisive shift in the way that both video games, and their scores, were being perceived and enjoyed by the public. The Grammy nod indicated that the gaming and movie industries were beginning to align and, just as the score in a movie was viewed as an inherent part of the production, the role of music in video games was now being seen as being of equal importance to the overall product.
Gaming As a Gateway
Video game scores have been widely recognized as a gateway for young people in terms of exposure to classical music; for some kids, video game music may be their very first encounter with this genre. A recent study found that one in six children have discovered orchestral music by experiencing it as part of a game; although not a ‘traditional’ medium, the use of a classical score in video games has the potential to spark an interest or life-long passion. Further, the increasing prevalence of orchestral music in gaming acts as an effective leveler, helping to tear down some of the inherent class issues around different types of music and those most likely to appreciate them.
Composers Making Digital Waves
Eimear Noone is the composer of the orchestral music that makes up part of the score of the game World of Warcraft; she made history in 2020 as the conductor of the Oscars orchestra: the first woman to undertake this role. Noone has a background in the classical world, as do many of her fellow games-music composers, which helps to explain the increasing prevalence of this type of music within game scores.
Japanese conductor Nobuo Uematsu has become extremely well-known for his rousing scores used in the Final Fantasy series, while Koji Kondo’s work on The Legend of Zelda games has proved so popular that his score has been developed and expanded into a four-movement symphony for orchestra entitled, ‘Symphony of the Goddess.’
The God of War series soundtrack was created by Bear McCreary and features an Icelandic choir and Nordic instruments such as the nyckelharpa and the hurdy-gurdy; the might of the score helped to make the game one of the breakaway gaming successes of the year.
Beyond The Game
The classical music scores of video games are increasingly taking on a life of their own, with high-profile concerts, in which a selection of well-known game scores is performed, regularly selling out in major venues all across the world. Tickets for ‘Video Games in Concert’ to be held at The Royal Albert Hall in London next year are already selling fast; the music will be played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and will include those featured in World of Warcraft, Super Mario, Halo, The Legend of Zelda and Fortnite.
Video Games Live is a series of immersive events that features the music of some of the biggest-selling video games of all time performed by choirs and an orchestra, as well as live-action and interactive elements. The fusion of classical music and gaming is further evidenced by the popularity of the program ‘High Score’ on Classic FM; every single episode is dedicated to video game soundtracks and discussion.
The future is likely to be a very bright one for the ongoing collaboration between orchestral music and video games; as game scores are being taken increasingly seriously, and as the popularity of the music in its own right rises, it is probable that scoring for gaming will be seen as being on a par with creating a soundtrack for a movie, and held in the same regard, in the near future.
The opportunity that gaming scores offer the composer to write extended pieces that, in the case of a series, can be expanded into a significant body of work may well tempt more and more composers to enter the video game world.