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Sing, Sing, Pew, Pew


Julia Seeholzer once woke up in the small hours of the morning to beat the Elite Four on her brother’s Gameboy. She never saved, so he didn’t find out, but Tetris and Pokemon hooked her for life. These days, raiding on Perenolde is her obsession; she doesn’t believe you can have too many pets. Daniel Jimenez’s favorite game moment is from Star Ocean 3; he thought the second disc was just bonus material, until a sudden plot reveal changed his expectations utterly.

Some game music is out of their reach; anything involving orchestral instruments is a translation nightmare when working with Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass.

They, and the other members of Berklee’s Video Game Music Choir (VGMC), spread the gospel of great game music, a capella style.

Boston’s Berklee College of Music was founded by Lawrence Berk in 1945. He wanted to give working musicians practical instruction and believed strongly that the best way to learn was from practitioners, not academics, a policy that Berklee follows to this day. Julia and Daniel are Berklee students (Julia’s in her final year), and as avid gamers they wanted to express their second great love, gaming, through the medium of their first, music.

“Music has been there my whole life,” Daniel told me. “When the words are missing, music is there to speak.”

The Choir is Julia’s inspiration. She’d been a member of Berklee’s Video Game Music Club in her freshman year, but she wanted to create something in the spirit of Video Games Live. Choral music had been part of her life since grade school, so forming a choir to sing compositions inspired by videogames was a natural next step. Daniel joined a year later, and has since been put in charge of Art Direction and Creative Design. Julia is Musical Director of the Choir.

The VGMC has twenty five members who perform in front of an audience at least twice each term. Julia would love to take the Choir on the road, especially to a game convention, if only they had the funding. Transport and accommodation for twenty five people is a logistical challenge they haven’t been able to solve – yet! Their first album, /sing, was released on September 12th of this year and features tracks based on Portal, Civilization IV, and the Legend of Zelda, among others. Personally I have a soft spot for their World of Warcraft arrangement, but then I’m a recovering Warcraft addict.

Some game music is out of their reach; 8-bit tends towards the fast and chromatic, which is impossible to sing, and anything involving orchestral instruments is a translation nightmare when working with Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass. That makes choosing the pieces the Choir then rearranges and performs the biggest challenge they face. Love is the key, according to Julia. “Each choir member who decides to arrange something usually picks the piece because it means something to them, or the game is one of their favorites.” For Julia, Pokemon Medley was her personal challenge, and it’s still being tweaked for another performance this fall. Daniel’s Everest was his Kirby arrangement. “I had to think of a way to share the melody with all the vocal parts available, risking some of the smoothness between each of the gaps, making it less dynamic.”

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Both Julia and Daniel love Square Enix composer Motoi Sakuraba‘s work. “Hands down the most beautiful game music I have ever heard,” said Julia. “He can tell a story purely through melody.” Daniel agrees: “The delicacy and unique beauty of his themes helps you develop a strong bond with the story of a game.” Story, they feel, is the key element of a successful game experience; music, while important, has a secondary role to play. Story and music work hand-in-hand to create a unique experience, a totally immersive world in which the player is the protagonist. Music helps tell the story, but without a good story, the game fails, even if the music is great.

When music goes wrong, it doesn’t blend organically with the on-screen experience, destroying the player’s connection with the game’s story.

Julia cites Spore, which she considers the best example of gameplay interacting with music to create a comprehensive whole. In that game, when the creatures evolve and explore their environment, encountering other creatures, the music adapts, thanks to an algorithm that changes the melody as the creatures change themselves or their environment on-screen. This concept is carried through the entire game, so the music reinforces the story while at the same time signifying important changes in the on-screen relationship between creature and game world; a subtle, but important part of play. For Daniel, the apocalyptic finale of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask has stuck with him, as it probably has for many Gamecube fans. The Moon looms on the horizon and earthquakes threaten to shake the world apart, while at the same time a haunting, mysterious melody plays in the background. The action and the melody combined clearly convey one message to the player: Do something quick, or everything’s going to be destroyed!

The trick is, when music goes wrong, it doesn’t blend organically with the on-screen experience, destroying the player’s connection with the game’s story. “It’s not usually because the composer lacks talent,” Daniel said, “but because there wasn’t enough communication and interaction between the director and the composer.” For Julia, when the music doesn’t fit the mood or loops too quickly, that’s a sign that something has gone wrong. Repetitive looping just becomes boring and forgettable, and doesn’t enhance the game experience at all.

Berklee has hosted an annual Video Game Demo Derby since 2009, which members of the Choir have participated in and which Julia, as Secretary of the Video Game Music Club, helped organize. The Derby, much like its San Francisco equivalent at the Game Developers Conference, is intended to allow budding musicians a chance to perform their material for videogame veterans. In 2009, representatives from 2K Boston, 38 Studios and Berklee faculty sat in judgement, and gave immediate feedback on the presentations. Events like the Derby are vital to students, both for personal development and to get an idea of what the job market may expect of them. Many of them want to make their careers in game music, so to be able to talk to industry veterans about their work is an opportunity not to be missed.

Regardless of what language you speak and what culture you’re from, everyone has a reaction to the music they hear.

Game music is becoming a significant part of Berklee’s curriculum; they now have a Video Game Scoring Lab, and collaborate with MIT and the University of Southern California on gaming projects. None of this is lost on the Choir, even Daniel, whose major is Film Scoring. “I just enjoy collaborative works so much! So even if it is uncertain right now, my wish is to be able to do both.” Julia feels much the same way, torn between her love for gaming and a desire to perform live, in front of an audience. “I would love my career to somehow be involved in the gaming industry [but] bringing live game music to fans is something I will always enjoy.”

For the moment, both have other concerns. Julia still has to get through her final year, but she wants to go out on a high note, possibly a tour but definitely another album. Daniel wondered whether the Choir should start considering their fan base, which is growing daily. Glowing press notes from Nintendo and Blizzard brought them a lot of attention, but it also meant a wider audience than they had enjoyed at Berklee. Their fans have been asking for more, and putting in song requests; for a student club that was founded just so its members could share their love of videogames, meeting those expectations can be daunting. Like Julia, Daniel wants to take the Choir on the road, so they can reach all the people who want to hear them sing. The album is a great start, but they want to do a lot more than that.

Whatever they do, music will be part of their lives. “Maybe if I wasn’t a musician,” Julia told me, “I wouldn’t be so interested in game music. Music is the most universally relatable part of a game. Regardless of what language you speak and what culture you’re from, everyone has a reaction to the music they hear . . . good game music can bring a story to life, be catchy (maybe even singable), original, funny, dramatic, and make you want to play the game again and again.”

“A game lets you become the character itself,” Daniel said, “Being able to live your own adventure. There’s no better way to make you feel inside a good story than with the help of music.”

Adam Gauntlett can’t hold a note, but that doesn’t stop him trying.

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