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: Hi. This is Dan Hulsman with vgmacademy.com and this is Musicality Now.
Christopher: Welcome to the show, Dan. Thank you for joining us today.
Dan: Thank you so much for having me, Christopher. I really appreciate this opportunity to chat today.
Christopher: I was saying to you before we hit record that I’ve been admiring your work from afar for so long, I think I stumbled upon your site with a music theory guide to Final Fantasy VII. You couldn’t ask for something better suited to the nerd inside me. It’s just like music theory plus Final Fantasy VII, I was an instant convert and I’ve been a fan ever since.
Christopher: I’ve been super keen to have the chance to talk, and particularly about your work at VGM Academy and how you’re now helping other people learn video game music composing in particular. I wonder if we could take things right back to the beginning, though, and tell a bit of your story and where you’ve come from as a musician.
Dan: Sure. I could give you a synopsis here. I got into music really late, actually. I was interested in video game music pretty early, and I just sort of had that ear, the bug for it. But I didn’t do anything musical until I was in high school, really. I got really hooked on … There was a song, Crush, by Dave Matthews Band that I heard on the radio, and that sort of just blew my mind open to the world of music in general. It’s just very different from what I was hearing on the radio. Something about it was really appealing to me, and I got really hooked on that band. From there, I started playing air guitar in front of the mirror way more than anyone would care to admit, and after about a year of that, I decided to try to do a real guitar. I borrowed a junker from a friend of mine and taught myself for a year. Then I got tricked into joining the choir and had a really inspiring music teacher, and he inspired me to become a music teacher myself. That was kind of a long, hard road, because I got in so late to music, but it’s been a wild ride.
Christopher: How did the guitar learning go for you? You clearly were picking it up because you were internally motivated. You had this passion for it and this idea that you could presumably be a rock god. What did it look like to learn at that time?
Dan: I was lucky that because the internet existed at the time, I could look up guitar tabs so I didn’t have to be able to read music. I could just use my ear and the numbers to know which frets I had to play to learn all the chords and stuff like that. But I picked a very unique person to emulate, because the way that Dave Matthews writes and plays, he doesn’t use a lot of open chords, which are the easier chords to play on the guitar. He uses a lot of closed voicing. He uses a lot of rhythmic licks that are repetitive and loop a lot. On the one hand, it was sort of hard mode, but I didn’t really realize it in a way, starting out with that stuff. But on the other hand, once I could really do … I was not satisfied with playing something and not having it sound exactly like it did when he played it, so I got as close as I could, but with that insistence to play these things that people really probably shouldn’t be starting with, I developed some skills that really helped me learn more songs quicker and quicker.
Dan: There’s a song, for example, called Satellite, which is just a repetitive lick that just goes over and over again, but your hand is constantly moving all over the place up and down the fretboard while you’re singing. I just insisted. I had to know how to do that, so I did it, and in doing that I learned how to do a decent job of fingerpicking and muting strings. I just inadvertently had to learn these other skills I didn’t even realize I was doing in order to make it sound the way I wanted it to sound. So it went a lot better than it probably could have, and I haven’t stopped since. It’s been a lot of fun.
Christopher: You mentioned an inspiring teacher there. What did they do that was inspiring, or what was it about them that makes you now, a couple of decades I guess later, remember them and give them credit for steering you in this direction?
Dan: Yes. Dr Joe Hocking. First of all, he tricked me into joining the choir, which immediately earned my respect because of the way he did that. I’ll tell you about that in a second if you’d like. Just in terms of his teaching, he was an excellent teacher and musician. He got really great results out of his choir. He was very likable, but he had really high standards, and that combination of likable but having really high standards was what really drove me and propelled me from walking in at 15, not knowing how to read a single note even though I was playing guitar.
Dan: I didn’t know how to read sheet music at all, not knowing how to read any notes and never having sung before really in my life, other than whatever I was doing. If I was walking around singing in the shower … I don’t even remember singing really, beyond that. Taking me from that to a point where I was getting a lead in the musical my senior year and almost making it into all-state choir, and ultimately after a couple years of additional work in college, finally getting into the music major so I could pursue that path of music educator.
Dan: I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t had that accelerated experience, but also, if I hadn’t had someone who really tried to improve me and really pump me up and show me that I could do it even though I was starting so late … He was really big about the work and the effort versus the natural talent thing, which is also something I’m very passionate about, sort of focusing on your effort and your ability to focus on what you’re good at versus using talent as either an excuse or using talent as an “out”, or using talent as a reason to sit back on your laurels and not go as far as you could.
Christopher: Was he taking this kind of encouraging attitude to everyone, and that was just his way, or did you have a special relationship? He took an interest in you in particular, or …
Dan: Yeah. I think he did … I think he and I … because I was one of the few guys. There’s that, but I think he and I did have a bit of a special relationship. But he really did take that approach with his choirs. I first felt that from him in a group setting, and that was a really nice thing, to have someone just speak, not just about what we were doing technically but what we doing and the emotional impact of what we were doing. You don’t get those experiences unless you go out of your way in the academic setting at that age. You have to be in a choir for someone to be talking about feelings and intents, and something that happened 300 years ago that this composer wrote about that is relatable to you as a 15-year-old your sophomore year trying to get your first girlfriend. There’s connections that you won’t have unless you go out of your way to have those experiences or someone, like I said, tricks you into having those experiences.
Christopher: So you have to share how he tricked you.
Dan: Yeah. I had just actually started … I had this girl that I liked, and she liked me. We were in that weird phase of … We were pretty much dating but we hadn’t out loud said that we’re boyfriend and girlfriend. We were sort of in that weird in-between where we hadn’t said it officially, but we were. I think we were backstage at a concert or an assembly or something where we were backstage in a hallway, and we were holding hands for the first time, or something. It was very new, so we were both still in that like … Beaming, like all smiles, also really uncomfortable teenage love stage.
Dan: He walks by and he just stops on a dime and pivots and turns around and walks back to us, because she was in the choir, so he had known her for a couple of years at this point. He came up to me, and he said, “Are you two dating,” and we were like, “Uhhh … yes?” He said, “Because you can’t date a girl in the choir unless you’re in the choir.” I was just so uncomfortable that I was just like, “Okay …,” and he’s like, “So come by my office tomorrow at 2:30 after school and we’ll talk about joining the choir. I was like, “All right … ” and then he just left.
Dan: That was super uncomfortable, but then I went to this meeting the next day and we talked for 15 minutes or so, and when I had left his office, I left his office feeling like I totally had this in me and I totally could sing, and I had the ability. I’m kind of feeling good about having joined the choir, and then I noticed that he had never actually heard me sing. We just talked. And I was like, “That guy played me, and he played me really well. I respect that, I’m going to give this a try, that was awesome.” That’s how I ended up in the choir, and I guess the rest is history.
Christopher: That’s tremendous. I love that. It sounds like you were conscious around that time that you had started late. You maybe had peers who had started at a younger age. How did that go from that point on for you? It sounds like you made a lot of progress in that first year of choir. Were you able to kind of shake off that discomfort of having started late, Or what was that trajectory like?
Dan: No. Yeah, that actually really sucked for a long time. I probably didn’t get over that until … Probably until I was student teaching the last year of college. Because when I got into the choir, first of all, everyone was just super excited to have another guy in. A lot of the people in a choir I was friends with, so they were excited to have me there, so that was kind of nice. Then we would sort of do the music theory separately. We’d do 20 minutes of music theory a couple of times a week, because this was like an everyday choir that I joined. And then, I would be learning by ear most of the time. I’d be sitting next to someone who could sing it and learn it, and I would learn it by ear sitting next to them.
Dan: It wasn’t til my senior year, where we were all doing these self-paced music theory books, but I didn’t even realize that I’d gone so far in the music theory that I had surpassed many of the other people, because everyone’s working at different levels and graded at whatever level they’re at … But it wasn’t until senior year where my choir teacher told me that I was past several of the people in the group who I thought were way beyond me with the music theory stuff.
Dan: But even with that, I had learned guitar, but I hadn’t learned to read music, so I ended up getting pulled into the jazz band for a little bit, for I think a year, because they needed a guitar player and I really the only one in the school that they knew of. But I couldn’t read any of the music, so that was a real struggle, and remember a couple of jerk kids making fun of me for it and giving me a hard time about not being able to keep up, because I couldn’t, so I had to literally spend time with the lead sheets saying like, “What is this crazy D with a triangle”, you know, and I had to go look it up online.
Dan: Half the time, I couldn’t find fingerings that I could actually do quickly, so I had to figure out different ways to play everything. It was really tough, and when I finally could sort of play songs, that felt really good; but even in college, because my reading was weak and my sight singing was so weak, I couldn’t get into the major and I actually wasn’t even allowed to take guitar lessons as a guitar minor for jazz because I couldn’t read music. So I thought it was a little interesting that I couldn’t learn to do music because I wasn’t good enough at music. I thought that was the really weird irony, and it wasn’t until maybe a couple of years in, I did a voice minor, because I could get into that, and then after two years I finally was able to audition to get into a music major. So kind of reset the clock a lot of ways with the university stuff, so I was in college for six years instead of four; but throughout the major too, it was tough.
Dan: Everyone was sharper on their technical skills than me, and it was not something that was unnoticed by professors. They were not super compassionate about … They didn’t know and they didn’t care how late in life you started. They just knew where you came in at and where you needed to be in order to pass the class. So it was tough. It was tough for a long time, and it wasn’t until probably I started teaching, where I found my strengths more as a teacher than as a performer, that I really started to feel more comfortable in my skin and realized, “Hey, I’m really good at this. I see my peers now struggling with this thing that I feel more naturally good at; so everyone’s good at stuff and everyone’s bad at other stuff, and that’s fine.”
Christopher: Along the way, were you ever considering not continuing with music? It sounds like you were given plenty of reasons to think, “Maybe I’ll go do physics instead,” or whatever else might have caught your fancy, but clearly you persisted, to your credit.
Dan: Yeah. Well, I had to initially pick other paths, because I wasn’t being allowed in. For two years there, there was no guarantee I was being allowed in, and I had to be a little practical. I would say not very practical, but I had to be a little practical in that I needed to have a focus, because I was in college and you need to have some sort of focus. So I came in as an art major for a little bit, and I quickly realized that that was just not for me, so I dropped that, and I ended up doing physics for a little while, actually. Because I had a really fun physics experience in high school, and I ended up doing physics because I enjoyed physics, for a semester or two until the calculus got so convoluted that I really just didn’t feel I needed to go any further.
Dan: But yeah, I did have to sort of entertain that I really didn’t know which way to go, because that music teacher path for so long had been the path I wanted to do. So I did, but it was also still in the back of my mind that I wanted to try to do this, and I wanted to stay inHalfway through, they had the option of kicking you out, so yeah. I had to be practical. But I was, I guess, pretty tenacious as well.
Christopher: It sounds like it, and I think you mentioned there that video game music caught your ear fairly early on. Through this story, was that part of your brain saying, “I’m going to compose for video games one day,” or “I’m going to run the top membership site for teaching other people to compose for video games”? Or was that just-
Christopher: At the early gestation phase?
Dan: No. You know, I always was interested in writing music once I started getting into music as, again, a 15-year-old. But I did start noticing how good the music was when I was in … I can remember as early as being in third grade, my mother hired a guy to come to my house and teach piano lessons to my sisters and I, and remember he would give us this … It only lasted for maybe a couple of months before none of us wanted to continue with it, but he would come over and he would say, “Okay, did you do the homework?” I would say, “No, but,” and I would turn the TV on and I’d have played up in this game until this certain point where the song was playing, and I’d have it paused with the TV off. I’d say, “But do you hear this music going on in the background? I would really like to learn to play this. Can you teach me this?”
Dan: It came to a point where he was like, “You’re not going to do my homework, are you? You’re just going to try to learn these video game songs.” I was like, “Yes! Yes, I am. I’m sorry that I’m not sorry, but that’s really what I’m interested in.” Back then, it felt like playing. I was just playing around. But in college, I wanted to sort of explore the idea of writing for games, but there just was not really any resources out there yet. Internet sort of was barely hitting maturity, and there was a couple of books, but they were more about the historical recollection of how the early composers had to do it from a technical perspective, which was not helpful if you wanted to start at the current time. I tried to start a few times myself and just really went in absolutely wrong directions.
Dan: I remember the first time; I was like, “I’m going to try to write something for a video game.” I fired up Sibelius and pulled the full orchestra score up. Granted, I was a couple years into my music major probably at that point, but I had no excuse for pulling up an entire orchestra score, and that was like trying to go into a professional cook’s kitchen to make an omelet for the first time. It was just overwhelming and it went very terribly, but I didn’t have anyone to tell me otherwise. I didn’t have books that I had found that could speak to what I was trying to do, because a lot of the resources were about classical composition. Even film music composition was kind of taboo back then, and no one in the university would teach me composition either, for the same reasons of, “You’re supposed to be doing this other thing, and what have you composed before? You haven’t composed anything before. Well then, we can’t teach you how to compose.” That was, again, a weird irony of, “I don’t know enough to learn how to do something.”
Christopher: Gotcha, and I’m conscious that although I may be deeply nerdy about video game music, a lot of people in our audience, they might be similarly totally Ok with the state of the art in what video game music is. They might have not heard or even thought about video game music since Mario Bros in the ’80s. They might literally have never heard video game music, I imagine. I’d love if we could just paint a bit of a picture; if we cast back to when you were causing your piano teacher so much trouble, what kind of music were you playing for him? You said you were aware early on of how good it was. What was it that made it good to you at that stage, and what kind of music was it?
Dan: It was the melodies. It was the melodies, you know? To think about all the tunes, video game music or otherwise, that have stayed and have been popular. It’s always to me about the melody.
Dan: Mega Man X was the series I was really into at the time when I was harassing my music teacher in third grade, because those are really cool electronic … Inspired electric guitar imitating, because you couldn’t record music and put it into a Super Nintendo back then. The memory of the game could not hold it. There was such a limited space that you could use to save the data for the music, that you had imitations of instruments called MIDI. Those melodies for me, I could still recall them, and they’re still some of the best melodies I could think of. That’s why you could go around the world and musicians, non-musicians, gamers, non-gamers could probably hum the Super Mario Bros theme song, because it’s just so pervasive because the melody was very well written, and it had a huge impact. So for me, it’s all about the melodies, and I just happen to find that there are a lot of really great melodies.
Dan: Before we hit record, you’d mentioned the Final Fantasy VII music theory article that I wrote in that whole series of Final Fantasy as some of the best melodies in video games. Nobuo Uematsu, the Japanese composer, he taught himself. He was really big into Elton John, which obviously he is a great writer of melodies, and he’s really into prog rock, he could really write some cool chord progressions that are not super American. So there’s just these really cool things that end up in video game music that ended up resonating with me, but if I had to really pick one thing, it’s really good melodies.
Christopher: That was true back then. Would you say it’s still the defining characteristic now?
Dan: I just recently interviewed a composer, Grant Kirkhope, who wrote for a bunch of video games and also some of the video games I played growing up on Nintendo 64, and he actually put it in a way that I really appreciate. He said that he felt like video games were in some ways sort of like a last bastion of melodic music, because if you think about film music, superhero movies are always an easy one for people to sort of relate to and pick on. You can maybe hum the Super Mario Bros theme song, but I really encourage you to sing back to me any of the tunes from any of the Iron Man movies. Great music, but I can’t remember much of it. From a nemonic standpoint, I couldn’t hum that for someone and have them recognize it. The only real tune from all those Marvel movies, which are so successful, is the Avengers them, and to have 20, 30 movies that have such critical success but you only have one melody that’s really memorable, that’s kind of crazy. I’m not judging good or bad, it’s just for me kind of almost impressive that that happened.
Dan: So I think that right now, video games is sort of where melody is at, but I do notice more of a focus, especially with Americans, on production and technology, and the way that kind of communicates to the music is you have much less of a focus on melody and much more of a focus on the mood, the ambience, the textures, things like that; but I think also it’s a question of there’s not really a lot of good resources out there for learning melody, because it’s sort of seen as this mystical, either-you-have-it-or-you-don’t skill of writing melodies, or inspiration’s got to hit you. Hope that the notebook nearby, next to your bed when you wake up in the middle of the night with that epiphany, or you jump out of the shower or run across the room with your towel to jot it down before it’s lost forever; that, I think, is still a thing for people, and like I said, I think it’s sort of that dichotomy of this over-focus on technology plus this lack of resources for melodic writing that makes it …
Dan: I’ve seen the focus decrease on melody, but you know. It’s tough, because it’s like a double-edged sword. The technology stuff is really great because now everyone has access, which is awesome. Now a kid with a laptop can become a successful composer and make a living writing music, which is amazing. To say that that could have happened 20 years ago … It just couldn’t have happened … Using free software, nonetheless. Or very cheap software. But the other edge of the sword there is that you’ve got people who really can get into part of the music, but they don’t have direction or access to some of the other parts, so if you want to learn to write and you don’t have any classical training, that can be a tough obstacle for a lot of people.
Dan: It’s not a roadblock necessarily, but that can be a tough challenge for people to navigate, because then it limits your ability to write music that has a lot of variety and things like that if you don’t understand like the language. So I’d say that the melody writing is definitely still really big in video game music, and I notice that the music that’s really popular in gaming and gets the awards, and that kind of stuff is usually very melodic music. But there’s more and more music that’s not necessarily melodic that is there, and it exists and it’s being created more and more, and that’s great because people who can write that stuff really well can make a living doing that and there’s a place for it.
Christopher: That’s super interesting. I want to come back in a minute and talk about what it is, if not a flash of inspiration in the middle of the night that let’s you write a good melody; but first maybe we could just talk a little bit more about the specificities of video game music composing, because I’m very aware that when you and I were growing up, it had a very certain sound to it. You know, the 8-bit, even 16-bit sound palette, it sounded like “bleep bloop bloop plap plap”, and it was incredible music, but you’d have to love video games to listen to it, right?
Dan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Christopher: And in this day and age, as you say, there are kids kicking up a full orchestral score in Sibelius and fleshing that out, and it sounds like a real orchestra to a large extent, and I think the majority of games, it’s fair to say these days, would have that kind of full fidelity instrument sound, whatever ensemble it might be, but seriously good sounding music.
Christopher: What constraints are left, if it’s not the timbre and the instrumentation that defines video game music? Is there anything apart from the literal fact that it is in a video game?
Dan: Mm-mm (Negative). I’d say the lack of constraints is sometimes the challenge because of, like I said, the access; but also, there’s just so many choices now, it can be paralyzing, whereas back then you only had, “Hey. We can only stretch a square wave so far, so it’s really based on our programming ability, plus our musical ability,” and now, if I were to start today, there are thousands of sound libraries which you buy or download and install, and it plugs those sounds into your program so you can use them in your compositions. And there’s just so many choices that it can be paralyzing to someone who’s new.
Dan: I think from a technical standpoint, that’s one of the biggest challenges, that lack of limitations, because you have to sort of self- impose limitations, which is fun to do, and I have these composition quest logs which are video game-themed lists of writing prompts that I have on my website. They sort of impose some of those constraints in some ways.
Dan: From a technical standpoint, Candy Crush saga, a really popular video game on the iPhone, on mobile devices, on Facebook, that was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, so I don’t think there’s limitations really, but I think there are some technical challenges.
Dan: For example, there’s a bit of a movement now towards music that is responsive to what’s happening in the game on a much deeper level than maybe before. When we were growing up, it was, “You’re in a battle. Here’s the battle music. You’re out of the battle. Here’s the town music for whatever town you’re in.”
Dan: That’s great and that’s very pleasant, and that still exists today, but now there’s also this need for adaptive music where you have a character, and depending on the choices that you and that character make, it changes the music. Depending on which direction you go in this level, new instruments are either introduced or removed from the composition, so you’ve got this multilayered composition and you have all these pieces that have to be able to fit together, but you may not be always hearing them, or ever hearing them, depending on the choices you make as a player. From a technical standpoint, that can be a little bit more complex to conceive all those parts and figure out sort of a cohesive way where all those work together.
Dan: Then next to that, you’ve got now all these middleware programs, which are basically ways to tell the video game to take your music assets and translate them based on the actions that a player takes, so that if they decided to go uphill here, the tempo gets faster, and if they decide to go downhill here, the music gets darker.
Dan: It can be more complicated per technical standpoints to get your music into the game because now there are, again, more choices and more abilities; but there’s this sort of unique experience, because it’s in an interactive format where now the music can be interactive too if you want to take it there, whereas with a film, you watch the movie, and the music complements the movie and elevates the movie, but the movie is static once it’s done. Once the movie is done, that’s the movie, and a video game you can make different choices.
Dan: You can play it differently each time. You can sometimes start over with a brand new character and play a completely different story than the first time you played. There’s a lot more options now. Then from a technical standpoint, the technology had to sort of rise to meet that ability of making more choices as a player and how that can translate to the experience of the music.
Christopher: That’s fascinating, I think. I’ve only played a handful of games where the music is adaptive in that way and not in any kind of sophisticated degree, but to hear you describe it there, it kind of sounds like a new art form almost. I don’t want to be to ostentatious here, but the fact that someone has to compose music in such a way that it can be reassemble on the fly to match something else that’s going on, that’s really interesting.
Dan: Yeah. Now, to give you a perspective on how that sort of can be a bad thing, on the tail end … Or maybe not a bad thing, but a different thing. First person that comes to mind, Austin Wintory, another great composer. He was the first video game composer to be nominated for a Grammy. He is about our age too, which is also crazy, and he wrote this soundtrack for this game called Journey. It’s a beautiful soundtrack. Have you ever heard it?
Dan: It’s a beautiful soundtrack. It’s very centered on the cello, and the cello player is fantastic and the music is amazing, but here’s the thing. He wrote it to be a completely adaptive score, and he did that and that was always his intention and it was always the developer’s intention, and it went beautifully. Then they wanted to release it as an album.
Dan: Now, the trick there is that it never existed from a “point A to point B, here’s where the music starts, here’s where the music ends, and here is how it sounds between point A and point B.” That was never the same, ever, in the game. He and his team had to literally go through all of the music and rearrange it to be released in a cohesive soundtrack, and that is kind of an interesting thing because you’d think the track is done, we’d drop it in the media, but it was like the track was never a track really. It was just an amalgamation of all these musical elements that were weaved together, but now we have to arrange it into a digestible track for release on iTunes. So it was kind of a different angle.
Dan: It was very interesting to hear about that challenge from him, but that’s sort of what the other side of the interactive media that’s … Because it could live in such a different way, it’s really harder to kind of nail down what a piece is within some of these video games. I think they just did, or are doing soon, a live concert for a game called … I think it was Undertale, and they were going to attempt … And then read how it went, but they were going to attempt to play the game live and have the orchestra react to the choices in the game, within reasonable limits, and try to have that live concert plus the interactive elements, which I’m sure is going to be really stressful, but it’s also really kind of an interesting idea to try to pull off.
Christopher: It is, and in some ways it’s not a new concept if you think of the pianists who used to accompany silent movies, or there are improv comedy troops who kind of make up operettas on the fly and that kind of thing. But the combination of precomposing and connecting it with computer logic that’s going to rearrange things, and having it all adapt to what the player is doing, I just think is super cool.
Christopher: You highlighted melody as maybe the common strand that’s run through all that and characterizes video game music as being distinctive or unique, and you kind of said in a tongue-in-cheek way it’s not a flash of divine inspiration. You’ve had the chance to study some of the greats in video game music and interview some of the top names today. What have you learned from talking to them and from your own experience about what it is if it’s not a flash of divine inspiration that makes for that great melody
Dan: I think it’s work. I think that-
Christopher: Well, that doesn’t sound fun, Dan.
Dan: Well, if you enjoy it. Cooking is work, but if you enjoy cooking it’s fun work. I think that people think that it’s a process that happens magically or organically, and that might seem to be true in some instances. I could sit down and I could bang out a melody that would sound decent right now within a minute, or a short one anyways.
Dan: But what’s happening there is a lot of things. One thing is that I’ve done it a bunch of times, and I’ve also studied literally how to do it and sort of figured out for myself what I think works; but there’s a lot of processes going on under the hood, just like, to kind of use the cooking analogy again, when you see someone professionally cooking, it’s looks like everything is easy for them, but it’s not because it’s easy for them. It’s because they’ve done it and they’ve internalized a lot of what they’re doing over a long period of time.
Dan: Melody writing’s the same way. It’s something that you have to learn and you have to practice, and you have to sort of analyze what you’re doing and figure out how to do it differently and in a way that you enjoy. It’s work. You take a little idea and you develop it into a bigger idea, and you develop that into a bigger piece, and there’s steps you can take to do that. But if you perceive it as this process of “Either I have that talent or I don’t”, then you can’t walk down those steps. You don’t look for those steps because you don’t know that they exist.
Dan: I’ve literally to prove this to people, I have gone onto Twitter and I’ve said, “Give me a random letter between A and G,” and people have spit out … I’ll take the first eight letters and I will use those as my starting points for a melody, and I’ll just build a melody from those things. It’s not because I’m magical, but it’s because I know some tricks and rules. I’m not a specifically talented melody writer, but I understand, “Okay. I know that generally speaking, if you’re in the key of C you want to start on a C and end on a C,”, and generally speaking, if rhythmically you’ve got a lot of complicated rhythms, it’s going to be hard for people to remember and sing it, because it’s just really busy sounding.
Dan: It’s just all these little rules and tricks and all these ways to find balance, and that’s sort of the thing I want to push, that you can learn this. There aren’t a whole lot of resources out there to do it, but that’s what people are doing when they magically write a melody. It’s not just being channeled and pouring through them from this divine force of music that has chosen this person over that person. It’s that they have done it enough times that a lot of the things that might be slow for you are natural and quick for them.
Dan: Just like reading music. I felt like I was reading Japanese as a 15-year-old in the choir next to the people who were able to read it because they’d been doing it since sixth grade or younger than that. I still feel the same way with a piano. When I want to learn a piece on the piano, it’s a slow process. I can read the notes, but it’s a slow process, all those notes at the same time for me. But for someone who’s been doing it since they were in third grade, they can do it instantly, and that, to me, feels and looks magical, but in reality it’s practice and it’s patterns and it’s a step-by-step thing that they did, and they don’t have to slow down to do each step like I have to do.
Christopher: I think these days when, as you pointed out, any teenager can fire up Fruity Loop Studio or MuseScore and have a go at composing. There’s a lot of, not controversy, but there’s a lot of mixed opinions about the importance of music theory and the kind of classical approach to music education. How do you think about the relationship between theory and composing?
Dan: I think it’s a useful tool, and it’s a lot of useful tools and tricks. It’s a language, and if you understand the language then you can do more with it. You could have more sophisticated conversations, if you want to keep the language analogy going. It’s also something that some people can intuit, that they don’t need to articulate what they’re doing. There is some natural talent at play at times. There are people with their natural ear who can hear a complicated cluster of notes and they know all the pitches, or they can more easily … My roommate in college, he could recognize the chord progression by ear really easily, and I had to go over and pluck away at the piano to figure out what was going on. So there’s a little bit of natural talent at play, but not as much as people think.
Dan: Yeah. I think I kind of went off on a bit of tangent, but I think that music theory is super useful, and I think that it’s also super complicated and it can feel overwhelming. I think that you learn it within the context that’s enjoyable for you, otherwise you’re not going to remember any of it, because it’s complicated. It’s a lot of details.
Dan: I don’t remember anything from the harmony classes that I did in college when I didn’t enjoy the music that we were learning about. You know, Bach fugues; if you love those those, awesome. I personally, there was some Bach music that I really liked, but I personally have a really hard time, first of all remembering the names of all the classical stuff, because it’s all so similar, and instrumentation of Baroque music is all very similar. So it’s a thing where I was not being taught it within the context of something that interests me, so I’m getting this really detailed information at the same time as I’m getting it through a lens of something that I don’t really like; so I couldn’t remember it. Now, when I do a trick that I … If I want to do something different, I have to look it up and reteach myself for something like that. So I think it’s really useful, but I think it really kind of falls on deaf ears if you don’t learn it within the context that matters to you.
Dan: I made connections with the guitar stuff because I learned the music theory way later. I’ve been playing the guitar for years, but I didn’t think, “Oh, hey, you’re right. Every time I do a song that starts on G, I end up always using these same chords.” Okay, now I kind of get why it’s always those chords in these songs, and when those one of those chords that isn’t one of the chords I usually play in a song that starts on a G chord, it sounds kind of out of place or unique or interesting.
Dan: So I think that music theory is super important, but only within the context of what’s interesting to you. If you just go out there with the shamed feeling of “I should know music theory. I need to know it, otherwise I can’t do what I want to do,” that’s not going to get you very far. But if you really look at some of the music that you enjoy, and you pick it apart to see what is it that you like about it and why it works for you, that to me is far more interesting.
Dan: Let’s take it back to Mega Man X on the Super Nintendo. There’s this one level, Spark Mandrill level, in Mega Man X 1. It has one of the best “electric guitar: solos, and I have to put it in quotes because it’s not really an electric guitar. It’s someone programming as close as possible to the sound of an electric guitar that they could make at the time. But for me, that taught me more about melody than most of my college stuff, because that was such an interesting melody to me; but then I looked at why it was interesting. It wasn’t because that melody was better than the stuff I was doing in college. It’s because it motivated me to look at what was working and what wasn’t in there.
Christopher: Awesome. I feel like we’ve kind of cheated the listener out of the middle part of your story a little bit. When we left off, you were gearing up for a career teaching music, which is still your primary job, teaching elementary music I believe. But obviously, we’ve also alluded to VGM Academy, where you teach the specifics of video game composing and also some of the career and marketing side of that. How did those two worlds come together? Where did video game music become more of your childhood interest?
Dan: You know, like I said, I wanted to try video game composing in college and there just wasn’t any resources for me. I ultimately just got frustrated with that. I ended up looking back into it after college, and I was like, “Are you kidding me? There’s still really nothing out there? This is ridiculous.”
Dan: At the same time, I was really getting into online business and marketing through a book I listened to called The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. It just was a really interesting book about starting a business, and sort of flipping how people think about how they live their lives from a financial and a logistical standpoint. That opened me up to marketing and marketing podcasts, and I got really into business the same time as I went back into business; like, “You got to be kidding me. There’s nothing, so aw, forget it. I’ll just build one.”
Dan: I ended up sort of combining two interests of online business and this video game music. I was still a teacher at heart even though I wasn’t working as a teacher at the time, and I started this website. I looked actually earlier, because I just wanted to make sure I remembered. I started the website … I launched it originally in 2014, so it’s not super old but it’s not super young from a website perspective. It started as basically a blog with an email newsletter, and from there it’s grown. It’s now got a membership sites for people who want to go a little deeper and get a little bit more access to industry experts, and now I’ve got a Facebook group with over 1800, 1900 people in it who really come together every three months to write a bunch of music, and a Discord server. If you’re a gamer you might know what that is; it’s a chat server for people who like to play games. All sorts of stuff.
Dan: I started that as just the blog, and coming out with resources like that analysis of the Final Fantasy VII theme, and giving more value through email and things like that; and growing those social media accounts until now where it’s like … Now I’ve got, because I’ve built it up over such a period of time that now I have a little bit more leverage to get interviews with people and to get these opportunities for people to get their questions answered directly by a composer who’s been doing this professionally for 15 years, who is not me.
Dan: “I’m not a working composer.” I have done a lot of work to understand the composition process and remove a lot of the mental roadblocks, and I am a teacher at heart, but within the context of the website I’m a teacher and a community leader, and I like to make connections and I like to give people opportunities to get empowered. But yeah, it’s been a crazy journey.
Dan: It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve got right now 300 people. We’re in the middle of a 21-day challenge and the idea is just to write at least two to four bars of new music every day for 21 days, to make it a habit. I’ve got 300 composers right now working through that and sharing their stuff online and giving each other positive feedback, and they’re just getting used to the idea of putting their music out there, some of them for the first time. It’s really fun and exciting, and I hope that continues.
Christopher: Fantastic. Yeah, I’ve heard such good things from those on those challenges and in your members area about what you provide there. I’m curious to know, was it all just easy for you, given you had the genuine passion and you had teaching experience? Was it a walk in the park to be like, “Now I’ll write a tutorial on this game music,” or “Now I’ll put together a workshop on this”? From my perspective, it’s a very different student audience you have between online with adults versus in the classroom with a group of kids.
Dan: Yes and no. Some of it’s the same, and some of it’s different. Yes, adult learning … Teaching adults, there’s this thing called imposter syndrome where you feel like you’re not qualified, and this is a very common thing. People feel like they’re not qualified to do something that they are qualified to do, and it’s just like a perspective thing of you just have to know more than the person you’re teaching in order for you to be able to teach them something. I struggle with that sometimes, because again, I’m not a working composer, but as long as I’m transparent about that and I sort of stay in my lane of like, “Here are the things that I’m good at: business, I’m good at marketing, and I’m good at the fundamentals of writing music and understanding what’s going on in music,” then I feel okay.
Dan: But there are parts that are tricky, like writing that article was fun, but it took a long time because I was sort of a perfectionist about it at the time; but then after I was done, writing the next one felt harder because it’s like, “Well, it has to be at least that big or bigger, otherwise what am I doing?” So I have things like that. There are stupid human things that get in the way, just like with anything.
Dan: But parts of it are easier for me. I’m getting really into the marketing stuff, so if I want to spend some time really upping the ante on my social media stuff, I know how to do that. I don’t need help putting together a website that talks to another program and it runs my email newsletter, and it talks to another program that handles my credit card processing. I don’t need anyone to help me do that, because I know how to do all that stuff, just because I had nerded it out on that stuff for years in my free time. Which is obviously a really cool thing to nerd out on.
Dan: But there are parts of it that are hard, and then there are parts of it that are easier. Me enjoying the music and me really being passionate about, not just the music but this community of sort of underserved people, professionally speaking anyways, that is something that is really exciting to me, so that makes it a lot easier. If I was trying to just do something because I saw a need, but I didn’t really have an interest, then that would probably make it a lot harder. If you were running a show that wasn’t about music and was about travel, and you didn’t like travel, it might be a lot harder for you to do these interviews. It would definitely be a lot harder, right, because it’s not something you’re interested in talking about every day; but you got to have that interest, otherwise you’re not going to be able handle the challenges and the lack of motivation times which happen to everyone.
Christopher: Cool. Well, I know firsthand how challenging effective online education and nurturing a really friendly, supportive community can be, so I just wholeheartedly applaud you for what you’ve been able to do with VGM Academy so far. I feel like we’ve kind of mentioned a few things, but I’d love if you could just give a more full rundown of what’s on offer at vgmacademy.com, and both your free stuff and your paid stuff.
Dan: Sure. Yeah. The main things I would say people should look into is if they have any interest in writing music, I would say start by writing and just getting in the mix with this challenge, which is like a very low pressure writing. Literally, if you wanted to scratch a few bars of music on a napkin at lunchtime, that counts. Literally just getting music out of your head and on the paper or in a computer. This challenge, 21 days of VGM that we do, if you go to vgmacademy.com/21days, you can opt in. We’re a week into the challenge right now, but you can still jump in late, no big deal, or sign up for the next one. That’s a really cool place to get started with writing if you want to actually put pen to paper, or digital pen to digital paper.
Dan: Aside from that, we have a membership community which we call the Members Network, and you can get there if you go to vgmacademy.com. There’s a link there. Or you can go to members.vgmacademy.com and it’ll bounce you over. In there is a little bit more access to me for getting feedback, a little bit more focused community about getting feedback on compositions. We do biweekly, we call them round tables, where we get on a Zoom call, which is a video call, with a bunch of people, and we listen to four members’ tracks and we give feedback live. It’s really useful for people who have hit a stumbling block or they really want to know how they can affect this one thing a little bit differently or improve the mix in their music. It’s nice because it’s not just me. You get the access of the whole community’s knowledge, which is great.
Dan: But then we also monthly do an industry expert Q&A where we bring in someone like Austin Wintory or Grant Kirkhope, like I mentioned earlier, and these are big names in the industry, but they come in for an hour or an hour and a half and they answer questions that are not from me, but from members. I take all the member questions and I organize them and then I pose the questions, but they not my questions at all. They’re all from members. So those are the big things. There’s some course content in there about writing melodies which obviously I’m very passionate about, and some other stuff. I’m starting to put out some networking courses and marketing courses, and starting to build those [out within that membership community.
Dan: But yeah. I try to just make it a good community, because like I said earlier, there’s a private Facebook group. If you go and request access and promise to not be a jerkface, I’ll let you in, and that’s a great place to just … No spam, no self-promotion. You can go in there and ask questions and get help and not get bombarded with people saying, “Listen to my track!” “Listen to my track.” “Listen to my track.”
Dan: The Twitter account is very active. The Instagram account is pretty active right now. If you want to connect with other people, join this challenge. Join the membership community. If you’d like to jump in the private Facebook group, they’re all fun places to meet people and everyone’s really super supportive and really super kind.
Dan: That’s kind of a nice thing about the gaming industry. There’s not really a lot of elitism that you might run into in classical music, where there’s sort of this exclusivity. People in the gaming industry seem to greet people with open arms, which is awesome. If you know nothing, show up. You’re just as welcome as someone who’s been doing it for 10 years.
Christopher: Terrific. I feel like that gives some really great pointers for anyone who’s curious about composing video game music, and I wonder if we could make some suggestions for those who aren’t really thinking about direction but are super curious having had this conversation about video game music in general. You kindly did an interview for us at Easyeartraining.com a few years back, and I ended with the mean question of whether Mario or Sonic had better music. I won’t ask you that, but I would love if you could run down a few of your favorite soundtracks maybe, or some recommendations you’d have for listeners or viewers of this show who are just like, “Oh, I wonder what video game music’s like, given that it has great melodies and it’s not the kind of 8-bit Chiptune stuff we used to know”?
Dan: Yeah. I don’t remember what I said, but answer would be Mario. But let’s see. I’ve got some interesting answers. I think that soundtrack to Journey, if you like orchestral music that is very beautiful and very transient sounding. I think that the soundtrack to Journey by Austin Wintory is a fantastic listen for anyone who likes melodic focus or instrumental music.
Dan: If you want to get a little bit more specific, this is a fun one that I like a lot: there’s a group called … They’re called GENTLE LOVE, and they release lullaby versions with really good, almost jazzy piano and saxophone arrangements. They’re fantastic players, just these two people, a saxophone player and a piano player, and they’ve released these beautiful lullaby versions of really retro game music.
Dan: I have two sons. One of them is four, but when he was a little baby he was constantly getting rocked to sleep to this beautiful saxophone music that was from Final Fantasy games that I played as a kid. It’s just sort of a really interesting window to see that music, hear it being so beautifully played, and having it be so beautifully arranged. You know, a lot of those loops are like a minute long, but they’ve been grown into these two to six minute arrangements. That’s a really fun one, and GENTLE LOVE, their series is called Prescription for Sleep. Those are the albums. There’s like six or seven albums now, video game music arranged as piano and saxophone lullabies.
Dan: There’s just so much good stuff out there. It’s tough. It’s still tough. Final Fantasy is always a sweet spot for me. It’s what I grew up on. I actually sang on the soundtrack for Final Fantasy XV, which is a globally released, AAA video game. The music for that’s really cool. Really big orchestra, like you’re fighting the big, scary monster stuff and at the same time the next track might be like you’re sitting at a shack on the seaside village. It’s a lot of variety within there. I’d say those are some good places. Journey, Prescription for Sleep; it’s available on iTunes, through the Materia Collective label; and the soundtrack to Final Fantasy XV.
Christopher: Terrific. Thank you. Well, we’ll have links to all of those as well as to VideoGameMusicAcademy.com and your social media and so on in the show notes for this episode.
Christopher: Huge thank you, Dan. It’s been just as much fun as I knew it would be to get to talk with you and nerd out on some of this stuff. And just, yeah. Huge thank you and keep up the good work, because I’m sorry to say I feel like it’s still an underserved area, apart from VideoGameMusicAcademy.com, which just highlights the importance of the work you’re doing for that industry and for those who are aspiring to be part of it.
Dan: Oh, thank you. I appreciate that, and I will keep trying to serve them, but you’re right. It’s still an underserved community, and I could always be doing more, and I’ll keep striving to do that myself.
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