Creating Video Game Music with Dan Hulsman of VGM Academy (Interview) | Easy Ear Training

Whether it’s an arcade-style action game, a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game, or the casual-yet-addictive quick game on your smartphone, there’s one thing no video game can do without: high quality music. Where does this music come from? Are the tracks we hear in games composed any differently than the songs we hear on the radio?

We all have an idea in our heads of what “video game music” is. Maybe you grew up in the 80s and imagine simple 8-bit sounds from Atari games. Or you might be a 90s kid who had the polyphonic stereo arrangements of Super Nintendo, Sega Master System and the original Playstation. Perhaps your favourite video games come from the last decade and have soundtracks which at first listen are indistinguishable from studio pop and rock albums.

vgmacademy-logo-300Dan Hulsman is the founder of Video Game Music Academy, the leading online resource for aspiring video game music (VGM) composers. With a down-to-earth practical attitude and a wealth of expertise, including from visiting pro VGM composers, the site provides tutorials and resources on topics ranging from career advice to the nitty-gritty of music theory and technology, along with the listening skills required to become a renowned video game music pro.

We invited Dan to to tell us more about what makes video game music distinctive and what it takes to become a VGM composer today.

Hi Dan, welcome to and thank you for joining us!

Q: Could you tell us a bit about your own background in music, and how it led to you composing music for video games and starting VGM Academy?

Dan Hulsman picI got into music relatively late in life. I was duped into joining my high school choir because I was dating one of the singers, and fell in love with it. After getting into singing, I began teaching myself guitar at the age of 16 and – eventually – went on to become a Music Education major with a concentration on voice at the University of Delaware.

The University of Delaware has a very fine choral program, and I had the privilege of joining their most select singing group: the University of Delaware Chorale. We were invited to sing at conventions and performed in Europe, winning international competitions and having a blast. This is where most of the rubber hit the road with regards to my musical training, because we were frequently tested on our memorization and intonation. The repertoire was extremely challenging, so your voice and ears had to be ready to go every time we met up to rehearse or you’d be left in the dust.

As for composing music for video games, I’m actually not a working composer! I’m a full-time public school music teacher in addition to my work with the Video Game Music Academy. I actually got the idea to try and become a video game music composer at three separate times in my life. Each time, I began by trying to learn more about the industry and what it takes to succeed as a game music composer and – each time – I was disappointed (and surprised) by how difficult it was to find quality, well-organized information for novice composers. Information was fragmented and vague, overly technical, and usually existed on old-school online forums.

By my third attempt at approaching the idea of composing music for games, I had been working for years in sales and marketing at some pretty big companies and had become very passionate about online business and marketing in my free time. I had created a few websites for fun, and when I saw that the video game music industry was still very behind in the times when it came to a web presence, I decided to take matters into my own hands and build the resource I wished for all along. I combined my music education experience with my business consulting experience and – voila! The Video Game Music Academy was born.

Q: Video game music can come in all varieties, especially these days when games have full-quality soundtracks rather than the simplified 8-bit arrangements of the past. What would you say are the defining constraints or challenges of composing music for video games?

Actually, you may be surprised to know that there’s a whole subculture built around continuing the tradition of composing in that 8-bit style native to video game consoles of the 80s!

“Helix Nebula” by Anamanaguchi, a band which specialises in chiptune music

The constraints are far fewer these days; until very recently, the physical limitations of the media meant that there was hardly any space for music – so you had to be clever about how you used that space. File sizes had to be very small. Now the challenges can vary greatly depending on the kind of game you’re working on. You have to always be mindful of the game’s sound effects and how they pair with the score, making certain that you don’t have too much going on within the same frequency range and avoiding clashing from any pitched sounds that occur during play.

You may be writing music for an iPhone game that may lend itself to shorter playing sessions of a few minutes at a time – or you might be composing for a big-budget epic game that has a very sophisticated, Hollywood-style orchestral score that interacts with the player as they make decisions.

”You may be writing music for an iPhone game […] or you might be composing for a big-budget epic game that has a very sophisticated, Hollywood-style orchestral score.”

Understanding the context of where your music fits in with the player’s experience has to inform your compositions. Are you scoring a cinematic cut-scene, or will your music have to loop over and over again without annoying anyone? You have to be ready to anticipate these needs and adapt to meet them.

Q: There’s a question today of whether aspiring musicians need to learn to play an instrument or study music theory, due to the availability and benefits of music composition software and apps. What’s your opinion on this? Does the up-and-coming VGM composer need to study music “the traditional way”?

I would imagine that trying to compose music without the ability to play an instrument would be similar to trying to write a football playbook having never played the game. Something would just be missing. At best, it’d be much more difficult.

Participating in the creation of music is a gift, and with it comes a wealth of knowledge. As for music theory, I think everyone should have at least a basic understanding of harmony and melody-writing if they want to compose for games. It provides a foundation to fall back on and can help you diagnose weaknesses in your writing while identifying strengths in the music you listen to.

→ Learn more about composing melody and harmony

”I think everyone should have at least a basic understanding of harmony and melody-writing if they want to compose for games.”

One of the biggest traps that new composers fall into is becoming hyper-focused on the technology. Yes, it’s possible to create a respectable-sounding orchestra using a laptop, some software plug-ins, and your wit. None of that matters if you can’t write interesting music.

There’s always value in education, and everyone learns differently. I had a very strong formal education which gave me a huge advantage in some areas. In contrast, I’ve met people who are largely self-taught or grew up immersed in a musical family who can blow me away when it comes to listening, playing, and improvising. I think you need to establish a base set of skills, and you can do that in different ways – but there’s no substitute for making music with other people.

Q: Are there particular traits or common practices in video game soundtracks that musicians should be aware of and could listen for?

Japanese composers have an amazing talent for melody writing. While we are much more production-focused here in the USA, you can tell that melody is the higher priority in music that comes out of Japan.

There’s a reason that the main theme from the original Super Mario Bros is one of the catchiest, most recognizable melodies in the world. That wasn’t an accident; the composer, Koji Kondo, spent a lot of time and thought crafting a memorable melody that was interesting enough to loop for long periods of time without driving the player absolutely insane. If you want a lesson in melody, listen to music by Koji Kondo, Nobuo Uematsu, and Yoko Shimoura to name a few.

Koji Kondo performing a Zelda medley with Imagine Dragons.
Listen to the main theme at 2:00 for an example of an unforgettable melody.
Q: What listening skills would you say are most essential for the modern video game music composer?

Being able to deconstruct and transcribe music written by composers you admire is a very common and very useful exercise for picking up new tricks, learning about orchestration, and really anything else about composition. The faster that process is for you, the more efficiently you can learn these nuggets of information. My college roommate, for example, could hear the chord functions of the background harmonies and identify which chord was playing in any given song. I have to pluck that stuff out at the keyboard, which means that I have an extra, time-consuming step every time I want to analyze a piece of music.

→ Learn more about active listening

Aside from being able to hear the harmonic structure of a song, it’s equally valuable to understand why certain melodic ideas appeal to you so you can use them and – occasionally – restrain yourself from over-using them. If I don’t know that I have an affinity for perfect fourths, for example, I may overuse them in my writing and later wonder why my melodies sound the same.

For these reasons, I’ve written a few lengthy analysis posts for Video Game Music Academy – like this post analyzing the Main Theme from Final Fantasy VII – to distill some of the music theory lessons that new composers can learn from without having to transcribe and analyze the music for themselves.

An example of one of Dan’s guides – highly recommended!
Q: Let’s end with a spin on the age-old question. When it comes to soundtracks: Sonic or Mario?

You’re a cruel, cruel person for asking this question! I’ll offer that I’ve played more Mario games, and the music for some of the installments like Super Mario 64 or Mario Kart 8 have amazing music. One of the Super Mario 64 tracks I love the most was used later in a new game and recorded with live musicians, and it sounds fantastic.

Having said that, people may be interested to know it has been all but confirmed that Michael Jackson worked on the soundtrack for Sonic 3 back in the days of the Sega Genesis, but ultimately pulled his name – but not his music – from the project. Allegedly, he was unhappy with the quality of the sound on the Sega Genesis console and didn’t like how the music sounded after they compressed it down to the tiny file sizes required by game cartridges at the time. You can read more about that story here.

Fantastic! Thanks again Dan, for joining us to share your insights on composing video game music.

If the ideas or music here have sparked a flame inside you and you would like to learn more about video game music just head directly over to Video Game Music Academy website. You can get regular updates via their Newsletter, Facebook page and Twitter account.


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