Book: Composer’s Guide to Game Music, A (2014)

May 22, 2014 | By


ComposersGuideToGameMusic_sBook: Excellent

Author: Winifred Philips

Publisher: MIT Press

Date:  March 31, 2014

Format / ISBN:  978-0-262-02664-2

Genre: Video Game Music / Instructional




Winifred Phillips’ decision to start her composing career exclusively in video games isn’t unique, but she may be one of the most dedicated and articulate composers working today, and her latest work – a book-length intro guide to the highly specialized craft of game music – is a meticulously written tome in which every stage of her craft is contextualized with historical, philosophical, and personal examples.

It’s also a highly inspirational approach to the standard guidebook  format, and like her music, she works in her main theme of Commitment + Professionalism = Results. Phillips doesn’t pack her roughly 250 pages of prose with technical jargon, filler samples of music staffs, and multiple footnotes – this is a focused and practical intro, organized to balance the composer’s creative role with the reality of being part of an often complex system of creative figures as a game moves from concept to final product.

A longtime gamer and an avid fan of any challenging project and musical style, the classically trained Phillips starts off with a brief bio intro section – her first three gigs were for unproduced projects before she made a career breakthrough with the scores for God of War and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – prior to delving into the psychology of music, in terms of how we perceive sounds, themes, motifs, and which sounds are pleasing, unnerving, and calming.

Familiarization with music’s impact on human psychology is a vital component to any composer’s work (especially film composition), but as the book’s final third details, there’s a level of technical acumen which goes beyond film, which is why film music snobs must never belittle game composers whose work requires a crazy grasp of mathematical problem solving, especially when musical themes, motifs, and phrases are broken down into smaller components with roles and classifications quite different from the linear film and TV scoring form.

The book does have a few dry spots (for non-musicians, the classified varieties of functional music – straightforward vs. music triggered by player behaviour and chance – is dizzying), but no doubt readers will find certain sections rewarding for the candor and simplicity in which Phillips introduces, breaks down, contrasts, and distills technical concepts and procedures for even non-musicians.

She’s a natural educator sitting on a wealth of knowledge and experience, but if there’s one aspect that dominates this step-by-step examination of the gaming world from a composer’s stance and the hierarchy of the working environment between the composer and the game company, it’s an overwhelming positivity which can inspire composers, sound designers, and sound editors because of their shared roles in a project, the interactions between these creative forces, and the composer sometimes having to wear extra hats to get the job done.

Phillips also emphasizes the tough reality of needing to promote oneself, remain persistent, develop a tough skin, and gamble on pure confidence, but with a strategy, and to be ready and reactive when a contact requests work samples and a dialogue.

A Composer’s Guide to Game Music is an inspirational intro to a complex job that’s rewarding to fast-thinking problem solvers committed to balancing the business side with the creative, and it’s more than likely her book will be re-read for the process of game composition, and as a nudge to keep working towards one’s goals.

Winifred Phillips’ music credits include SimAnimals (2008), Spore Hero (2009), Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010), and Assassins Creed III: Liberation (2012). An additional interview at is also available.

A lengthy video of her speech for the Montreal International Game Summit in November of 2013 is available on YouTube.



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
IMDB  —  Composer FilmographyComposer’s Website
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