Play on: How video game music is rocking the classical world

Dadadada-daa-daa-da-duh-daa. Play the victory fanfare from the Final Fantasy series to almost any gamer and they’re likely to join in with a vocal rendition by the final note.

For video game fans, Final Fantasy VII’s One Winged Angel, The Legend of Zelda’s Overworld Theme and the Mario Ground Theme hold the same power and appreciation as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra do for classical music devotees.

Despite being initially composed on hardware with the musical range of an early Nokia mobile, the backing tunes to franchises such as Mario, Final Fantasy and Sonic have endured throughout the decades, being joined by modern compositions from titles such as Halo, BioShock and Journey in players’ playlists.

As well as driving sales of soundtracks on physical and digital formats alike, the swelling interest in game music has also incubated a growing number of live performances. Classical conductors and groups including the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra have tackled game music at events including Distant Worlds, Final Symphony and The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses, plus the upcoming Pokmon: Symphonic Evolutions and Silent Hill Live gigs.

Many orchestras are struggling today because they just can’t get the new generation of people coming to concerts,” comments Thomas Bcker, producer of Final Symphony and Nintendo music celebration Symphonic Legends, who also produced the first-ever game music concert outside of Japan in 2003.

But video game performances are a way to make them interested in orchestras again.

Not everybody who comes to video game concerts will listen to Beethoven – of course not, that’s not our goal. I know of a few examples of many, many people who have become interested in orchestral music in general and many they are now getting into listening to John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. Then they might find their way and think: ‘Oh wow,Prokofievalso sounds really interesting.’

It’s a chance for orchestras. It’s the best chance in many, many years to find a new audience.”

"One day there will be an orchestral concert where they perform Richard Strauss andStravinsky, as well as one piece by Mr Uematsu."

Thomas Bcker

Video game music, much like the titles from which it originates, has often been regarded – with no small amount of snobbery – as ‘lesser’ than its cinematic counterpart by classical listeners and performers.

This is despite tracks from The Last of Us to PaRappa The Rapper receiving national airplay on stations including Classic FM and BBC Radio 6.

Long-time Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu is even listed among Mozart, Beethoven and Elgar at number nine in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame, with other game inclusions ranging from Grant Kirkhope’s Viva Pinata and Banjo-Kazooie soundtracks (41st and 13th, respectively) to Jeremy Soule’s Elder Scrolls scores (11th).

The argument over video game’s music appreciation even sparked controversy earlier this year, when Jessica Curry’s score for indie game Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture was removed from the Classical chart. The Official Charts Company argued that because the work was a soundtrack, it had no place in the Classical rankings – despite the music from the Harry Potter film series remaining in place.

I hope that it’s changing,” Bcker says of game music’s mistreatment. Maybe because of the concert work.

"I’m aware that there are many film concerts; they just take the scores the way they were recorded in the studio and perform them live. What we are doing is using the original music and rethinking what the composers have done. What we are creating are works that you can listen to in a concert and enjoy them, even if you’ve never heard of video games before.

Our goal has always been that one day there will be an orchestral concert where they are performingRichard Strauss andStravinsky or whatever you want, as well as one piece by Mr Uematsu. It fits very nicely, if it’s programmed in a proper way.”

Audience numbers are booming for game concerts, as events pack out venues including the Royal Albert Hall – the home of the BBC Proms and countless other performances.

Bcker encourages more games publishers and firms to consider allowing their titles’ music to be adapted for concerts and recorded for other formats.

In the first place, they need great composers,” he advises. It’s also a lot about community work.

What I like about Square Enix a lot is that right from the start, many years ago, they started to sell their soundtracks so that fans could buy them and listen at home. They also created a lot of arranged albums like piano collections, vocal additions and all sorts of things, so this encouraged many fans to play the music by themselves on the piano or any sort of instrument you can imagine.

What I would suggest in the first place is that publishers should really think about music as something very important in the games. It’s obviously also a marketing tool, but if they can create such a community like Square Enix did then they also have the power to do these kinds of concerts.”

"If publishers have a community then they have the power to do game music concerts."

Thomas Bcker


Concert producer Thomas Bcker discusses the modern state of game music – and analyses what makes a soundtrack for the ages

"There are so many games, especially with indie games today that also put a lot of focus on the music and memorable melodies, that it’s hard to make one general judgement about video game music today.

"It’s true that the big blockbuster titles follow more of today’s Hollywood soundtrack traditions, so it’s more about creating soundscapes and sound design than it was in older games where it was more about finding memorable melodies. That’s a big difference.

"Something like what makes Final Fantasy so special is the epic stories. Super Mario Bros is a fantastic game and the music is also really fun, but it doesn’t have the emotional power of Final Fantasy. Mario is jumping and then you finish the game, so there’s less to tell story-wise than with Final Fantasy VII. But I don’t want to say the music is worse – it’s just a different approach."

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