Ludomusicology: The Study of Game Music

By Will Keffler

This semester, a new upper division course in Ludomusicology is being offered in The Dana School of Music. Ludomusicology is a fairly new field of study, but, put simply, it’s the study of video game music.

Steven Reale, Youngstown State University’s associate professor of music theory, will be instructing Ludomusicology and for a good reason. In 2014, Reale hosted the first North American Conference on video game music at YSU, and most recently, Reale was awarded the UK Ludomusicology Research Group’s 2016 Prize for Excellence in Game Audio Research.

According to Randall Goldberg, assistant professor of music history at YSU, Reale is one of the foremost experts in this newfound field, and because of his scholarly contributions to the field, he has essentially earned the right to pass on his research and teach this seminar-style class here at YSU.

In many video games, the music can go unnoticed, but in others, the soundtrack to a game can be used to enhance the plotline and evoke greater emotions players.

“Generally speaking, it’s fair to say that video game music’s closest relative would be film or television music,” Reale said. “There is a story, and that story is being amplified with some a score, and that score is going to help tell the story.”

Many video games with linear plots will have one set score that gamers can expect, but what sets a game’s music apart from its relative, film music, is the option of varying plots.

“There are levels players can complete in many different ways, and they have different cues that are associated with the player’s decisions,” Reale said. “Games have situations where the score has to respond on the fly to some indeterminate decision on the part of the player. The composer has to be able to anticipate a whole host of different decisions, and what ends up happening is that the music might be different every time the game is played.”

Reale’s love for video games began early in his childhood with his first Atari 2600, and later grew with Nintendo’s unveiling of the Nintendo Entertainment System.

“One draws inspiration from something that they’re interested in and excited about, and I have been a lifelong gamer,” Reale said. “I’m also a musician, so it was natural to want to be able to focus my attentions on the realm of Ludomusicology.”

Along with Reale, many of the students enrolled in the class also share the same passions for both music and video games. Emma Donkin, a music composition major at YSU, said choosing the class was an easy decision.

“I grew up playing The Legend of Zelda and have always enjoyed the music in games,” Donkin said. “Videogames are something that I enjoy playing with friends and family, and once I’m done here at YSU, my career goal is to create music for films and video games.”

Donkin also mentioned that Reale’s class would be a refreshing change of subject compared to other music classes.

“A lot of our musical theory is rooted in counterpoint and different traditional theoretical practices that apply mostly to classical music,” Donkin said. “This is something entirely different that promises to be exciting.”