After singing in his high school choir, teaching himself guitar at the age of 16, and pursuing a degree in Music Education at the University of Delaware, Dan Hulsman found himself eventually drawn to video game music composition. However, he was surprised and disappointed by the lack of resources available for aspiring video game music composers; even existing information was vague, incomplete, and presented in an outdated way.

His work experience in marketing and passion for online business and the video game music industry led him to create Video Game Music Academy (also known as VGM Academy), a leading online resource for aspiring composers that provides everything from tips and tutorials on composition to career advice from pros in the field.

Dan sat down with Musical U to share his expertise on the video game music industry, frequently-encountered challenges in composition, and what it takes to become a successful video game music composer these days. Here are the big tips we took away.

This is a summary post.
→ Read the full interview

1. Context Is Everything

Because of how rapidly music technology is advancing, the issues of physical limitations on how large your music files can be have all but been eliminated.

However, there is still the challenge of tailoring your composition to the purpose it will serve; your ultimate task as a video game music composer is to create a soundtrack that will complement the game!

Just as the music will vary depending on whether you’re creating a soundtrack for a first-person shooter, and action-adventure game, or a modern take on the classic arcade game, you also need to adjust your approach depending on the purpose of the music within the game. Is it going to play on loop? Are there in-game sound effects that you need to consider, so that your soundtrack does not clash with them?

Understanding the answers to these questions and adjusting your approach to composition accordingly is a critical part of your job.

Additionally, for novice composers, recognizing the exact purpose of the music within the game gives a useful starting point for the composition process.

2. Basic music knowledge is a definite advantage

Again, thanks to technology, composers can do more than ever with their music, tweaking their creations every which way to best fit the video game. However, understanding the mechanics is only half the battle.

The other half, of course, is writing the music itself.

This is where knowing how to play an instrument is a definite asset. Ear training and a foundation of music theory will help you create music that best suits the video game you are working on. Just as one example, a musical background gives you the ability to immediately recognize whether a soundtrack should be composed in major keys or minor keys.

You will find that having a grasp of basic harmony and melody-writing will be particularly helpful, allowing you to quickly create the music you envision, without having to agonize over every note.

3. Melody is king

This is an incredibly important element in video game music composition. When it comes to writing melodies for video game soundtracks, Dan suggests looking to the experts for inspiration: the Japanese.

A fascinating cultural difference exists in the video game world, where while the United States tends to follow a production-based approach, Japan places emphasis on melody.

Think of the most famous and recognizable themes in the video game world; what comes to mind? Probably compositions such as the Super Mario Bros., Pokemon, Zelda, and Tetris themes.

What do they all have in common? You guessed it; they are the work of Japanese composers! These video games all have catchy and memorable accompanying tunes that stay in your head long after you’ve powered off your console.

Some excellent composers to listen to for melodic inspiration are Koji Kondo (the creator of the Super Mario Bros. theme!), Nobuo Uematsu, and Yoko Shimoura.

4. Listening skills go a long way

If you’re listening to the classic composers for inspiration, try taking it one step further. A great exercise for aspiring video game composers is the following: listen to your favourite composers, and try to analyze (and even transcribe!) their music.

This is excellent ear training, and this way, you can begin to identify what melodic ideas and chord progressions work with certain genres of video games, and which ones appeal to you the most.

Understanding your habits and tendencies as a composer also has the added benefit of preventing you from over-using certain ideas, and can help you refine your approach to composing!

Putting it all together…

A great video game music composer will look at the process from all angles, while continuously considering the following:

  • What genre/style of music will go best with the video game?
  • How will the soundtrack fit in with the existing sound effects during gameplay?
  • Will this music be looped? How often will the player hear it? Is it potentially distracting or annoying?

If you are an aspiring video game music composer who is just starting out, then training your ear, learning an instrument (if you haven’t already!), and looking to the legends for inspiration are all terrific starting points for creating your own compositions. Learn more in the full interview with VGM Academy’s Dan Hulsman.

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