Today we’re joined by Dan Hulsman founder of The VGM Academy, the leading website dedicated to composing video game music. Dan helps aspiring composers from around the world hone their composing skills and break into the VGM industry!

The VGM Academy is packed full of tutorials, resources, expert interviews, courses and workshops covering all aspects of the industry. Dan teaches everything from composing melodies, to using new technologies, through to marketing and career building.

In this conversation Dan shares:

  • The one thing more than anything else which is distinctive about video game music, which is still the case now, decades after the first game soundtracks were written.
  • The reason it can be surprisingly hard to produce an “album” version of a game’s soundtrack these days.
  • And the clever way his high school choir director tricked him into joining the choir, setting him on the path to a career in teaching music and founding VGM Academy years later.

For some in our audience, the phrase “video game music” will conjure up memories of very simplistic music barely worthy of consideration – while for others it represents a large and serious part of their love of music. Whether you find yourself in one or the other category – or somewhere in between – this conversation will enlighten your musical journey.

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Dan Hulsman, founder of the Video Game Music Academy, discusses what goes in to composing and producing both modern and vintage VGM soundtracks.



This was one of those episodes where I have a small and not-so-well-hidden agenda, which is that I grew up loving videogame music and count myself among those who feel like it’s a highly under-appreciated genre of music! So if today’s conversation encouraged you to explore game music or maybe gave you an excuse to revisit the music from videogames you’ve loved, I’ll be very happy.

Let’s recap all the interesting points Dan shared in this conversation.

Dan started learning music relatively late, taking up guitar as a teenager, inspired by a particular Dave Matthews Band song, Crush. He said that the direction that sent his guitar-learning was a bit like “playing on hard mode” as the chord voicings and fingerstyle riffs required were substantially trickier than your average introductory guitar material! He made good progress but all based on tab or his own ear, and so when later an opportunity came up to join the school jazz band he found that not reading music was a real sticking point. This continued somewhat into his college years and more than once he found himself in a Catch-22 situation of being expected to already know about the thing he was eager to be taught.

Fortunately he was encouraged onwards by a particularly special music teacher, who tricked him into joining the choir, leading to Dan reaching a strong level within a year and going on to specialise as a singer in college. Dan said he was an excellent teacher and also had a great combination of likable manner and high standards, which brought out the best in his students.

Video game music had caught Dan’s attention early on and he found himself skipping his assigned music lesson homework and instead asking the teacher to help him figure out the melodies from the videogames he was playing. I asked him what made video game music special to him back then and he was quick to say it was the melodies. Interestingly this is a trait which he says has remained pretty strong, even as other genres such as film music have lessened their emphasis on the importance of a distinctive and memorable melody, so that even today’s game soundtracks which are richly arranged with true-to-life instrument sounds are still often notable for their melodies.

Dan says that these great melodies don’t stem from magical talent on the part of the composer – in fact he was dismissive of the importance of natural ability or so-called “talent” compared with hard work and learning. And a great melody isn’t a bolt of inspiration from nowhere either. In fact it comes from practice and know-how, an understanding of what makes a melody work. He said that music theory should be seen as a tool and is most useful and most easily learned when it’s connected with application that you’re actually interested in. For example he said he learned a lot more about composing melodies by studying the Mega Man X soundtrack than he did from college classes! Dan has a great blog post about the apparent magic of inspiration, as well as a dedicated workshop on how to compose great melodies – we’ll link to both of those in the shownotes for this episode.

Dan said there’s a new challenge now that most of the constraints have been removed. In the early days the technological capabilities that video game music composers had were so limited that they were forced to write in certain ways – and perhaps that’s part of why they had to make the melodies so distinctive, for example. Now, when anybody can open up a vastly sophisticated piece of software on their computer and compose and arrange music to a professional standard that could be featured in a video game, it can actually be helpful to add some constraints back in. At VGM Academy he provides a free set of so-called “Quest Logs” which are downloadable PDFs of writing prompts you can use to inspire and guide your composing projects along videogame ideas and themes.

The emphasis on melody has stayed strong over the decades, but the sound quality isn’t the only thing which has changed in game music. He explained that there’s a movement now to adaptive game music which can dynamically adjust to match the player’s choices, so that every play-through has a unique soundtrack, assembled on-the-fly from individual elements the game’s composer has created. This means that in some cases producing a CD or album version of the soundtrack is actually a whole new endeavour, because although the game has a soundtrack, perhaps even an award-winning one, it’s never before existed in a canonical start-to-finish form!

Dan’s primary career took him into teaching elementary music but his interest in video game music combined with an entrepreneurial interest and he set up in 2014 after noticing there was a remarkable lack of good resources out there for aspiring video game music composers. The site began as a blog and has developed into the leading source for training, community and expert interviews for the game music industry. They run quarterly 21-day composing challenges which can be a great way to get involved if you’re interested, and there’s also that great free set of composing prompts, his Quest Logs, which you can find on the website at

If you’re a long-time listener of this show then you will have heard us discuss the importance of community for successful learning, particularly online. And so I think it’s fantastic that Dan’s really emphasising this in what he’s building at VGM Academy, with plenty of peer support and collaboration and feedback, and even a private Facebook group available free to anybody who’s interested in becoming part of this scene. He noted that the video game music industry isn’t elitist like the classical music world and other music scenes can be – everyone is very friendly and welcoming, whatever your background or ability level. So if you’re at all curious then I’d highly recommend checking out everything that Dan’s up to over at VGM Academy.

I’m sure that if you haven’t played video games much in recent decades you’re probably curious about some of the things we discussed in this conversation so I asked Dan for some suggestions of great game soundtracks if you’re curious to listen to some contemporary game music but aren’t ready to pick up a control pad yourself. He recommended the Journey soundtrack by Austin Wintory, Prescription For Sleep by GENTLE LOVE and the soundtrack to Final Fantasy XV which he actually had the opportunity to perform in the choir for.

I hope you found this conversation as interesting as I did and that it’s inspired you to explore the specifics of game music, whether that’s as a composer yourself, a current or former gamer, or just someone always curious to try out new kinds of musical exploration.

Thanks for listening to this episode, and I’ll see you on the next one!

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