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A Composer’s Guide to Game Music Review: A Fine Read for Composers and Gamers

I am not a music composer. At all. The extent of my musical creation has been a couple of songs on a guitar/bass and a one minute, eleven second punk anthem for a three-piece I was a member of in high school. It is for that reason I am surprised by how thoroughly I enjoyed A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, written by award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips (God of WarAssassin’s Creed III: LiberationLittleBigPlanet series). Serving as an insight for aspiring and novice game composers, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music offers a plethora of information, advice, and tips on a variety of the aspects involved in composing music for video games, including what equipment is needed, how to go about seeking work, and different methods of composing the actual soundtrack.

As someone who has never explored composing music as a career path, I found it compelling, and I can say for certain I will never approach music in a game the same way again. I have long had my own questions about how composers go about composing music—particularly how to effectively loop tracks for an indefinite period of time—and am pleased to say my questions have been laid to rest.

Of course, given that I enjoy the psychology behind most everything, one of my favorite chapters was one of the earliest, in which Phillips discusses various studies on how different types of music impact people and which genres appeal to which types of gamers. It reaches a depth I wasn’t even aware had been studied and served to hook me in. Like everything else in the book, I also feel confident in saying a knowledge of this is a necessity if you want to be a successful game composer.

Phillips Assassins Creed book

Another highlight was Phillips’s penchant for drawing comparisons and examples that are easily relatable to gamers. Much of the exposition of different composing techniques is accompanied by examples of video games that utilize the technique, from Super Mario 64 and Final Fantasy VII to some of Phillips’s own work, including God of WarSpeed Racer, and LittleBigPlanet. Given that Phillips has a diverse array of works under her belt, the reader can take comfort in knowing that Phillips is well-versed in everything she writes about. Even without knowing much about game composing, it’s obvious that Phillips knows her stuff, evidenced by both the helpful examples she uses to illustrate the subject matter and, more obviously, her decade of experience in the industry.

One note I will make for non-composing readers is the level of knowledge of composing required to fully understand the book. While one with no knowledge of composers (within and outside the gaming industry) can still come out with a basic understanding of much of the subject matter, Phillips doesn’t shy away from referencing other composers, both gaming and non-gaming (for example, composers from the Baroque Period). Likewise, many of the figures in the book illustrate what a certain technique looks like written out as sheet music, so without some knowledge of music theory or how to read music, some things will be lost. While it’s not one hundred percent essential to enjoy the book, having an idea of what those notes and bars on the page mean adds a little something extra.

As for the gaming aspect, Phillips is thorough in her description of the different genres and facets of gaming, offering the impression that the book is geared more toward composers than gamers. Given that this is about composing music for games, that’s not an altogether inaccurate assessment, though Phillips stresses very early on that a love for games is an essential quality for anyone looking to get into this field.

Phillips studio

All in all, despite being outside the book’s key demographic, the read was surprisingly enjoyable, even if it hit technical levels that were outside my interest. The depth Phillips manages to achieve in 250 pages is astounding, and the first-hand accounts she provides offer a solid idea of life as a game composer. I would go so far as to say this book could end up as required reading in some future introductory college courses on game composing. While someone who has zero interest in gaming music might get nothing out of this read, anyone with even a mild interest in the development of video games will surely be fascinated by many of the topics covered in A Composer’s Guide to Game Music. And, yes, if you’re looking to get into the game composing field, you absolutely need to check this out.

(Also, if you haven’t already, you can check out our interview with Winifred Phillips here.)