Video game music: Turning passives into players

Video game soundtracks are encouraging a new generation to play not just games, but also music.


Civil (Explore) Piano Sheet
by BMacZero » Sat Dec 29, 2012 8:34 pm
Just got this game over Christmas, and I’m trying really hard not to play it 24/7! The game and UI designs are really excellent.
And of course, the music is also amazing. I was listening to the soundtrack and the track Civil (Explore) caught my attention, so I started trying to transcribe it for piano. Thought I’d share here for any other interested pianists. This is about the second half (1:38 on). Enjoy!


Now I’m pretty suspicious that the first phrase (16 bars) is wrong, so I’d love some input on that. I’m pretty confident with the rest of it, though.
And let me know or remove this if this violates any rights to the music.
(Thread from’s forum)


“It would be nice if he would play a little classical music.”
“What do you mean?”  I ask the mother of my new piano student.
“Maybe some Mozart or Beethoven?”
“Ben Prunty IS your son’s Mozart!  And furthermore, he’s part of the new classical music!”

"Legend of Zelda: Symphony of Goddesses" comes to Portland's Keller Auditorium Sunday. Photo: Andrew Craig.

“Legend of Zelda: Symphony of Goddesses” comes to Portland’s Keller Auditorium Sunday. Photo: Andrew Craig.

My student is a Beaverton fifth grader who’s a recent convert to the video game Faster Than Light (FTL) and to the music of the game’s composer, Ben Prunty. While his mother was pleading with me to inject a little classical music (as traditionally and too narrowly defined) into his assignments, he was quietly telling me during lessons what was going on in these newsgroup communities which are in effect rebuilding classical music. These boards typically involve young people who are so passionate about the music that accompanies the video games they play that they’re doing anything they can to find out how to play that music themselves. It’s a huge phenomenon that has huge implications for the future of classical music. When I asked my student why I’ve never heard about this or why these scores have been so inaccessible, he said, “Because no one listens to ten year olds.”

My first assignment to this student was to find a copy of the music “Civil (Explore)” from FTL. He brought back the printed copy downloaded from the FTL forum above. His mom, seeing his enthusiasm for the music, has since come around to the value of this new classical music.

One of my other students, Nicholas Casali, a Legend of Zelda freak, has a much more understanding mom who bought him an entire book of Zelda tunes published by the market savvier Alfred Publishers. He’s methodically working his way through the entire book with its tricky rhythms and quirky harmonies.

Nicholas is only one of the hordes of Zelda fans, young and old (the game has been selling millions of copies for almost 30 years) who’ll be packing Portland’s Keller Auditorium (one of the biggest performing arts venues in town) this Sunday for the latest touring extravaganza, Symphony of The Goddesses. In March 2013 Nicholas attended the Oregon Symphony’s sold-out tribute to Zelda and composer Koji Kondo in the hallowed halls of the orchestra’s home, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Two years later in March 2015 he was back to hear rePlay: Symphony of Heroes, returning yet again in September 2015 to hear the OSO fete Pokemon, both to packed houses. He or other multi-generational attendees might not be going back to hear Beethoven, but with three trips to concert halls in one year, at least we’re getting a different and substantially younger audience to venture into places considered intimidating, possibly helping to overcome at least that barrier to exploring Beethoven. To underscore the “classical” connection, this performance features a four movement symphony arranged from the music written for various editions of the game, performed by a 90-piece orchestra and chorus made up of local musicians.

Last year, ArtsWatch covered how popular and seriously classical video game music has become — the soundtrack of our time.  It might be a bridge into other types of classical music or it might stand alone in its own classification with its own huge audience and fan base much like earlier classifications:  Baroque, Classical, Romantic… Hollywood film scores, Videogame soundtracks. More important than the possible seeding of new listeners for old music is the nurturing of new generations who want to play — not just listen to — classical music of our time and before.

What happened? Where did it all go right?

From Immersion to Participation

My Legend of Zelda game-loving middle-school student Nicholas and I covered the Oregon Symphony’s now annual video game concert last March. Blame Jason Michael Paul, executive producer of “rePlay: Symphony of Heroes” for the resurgence of interaction from passive concert listener to active player of the music. In fact, Paul was attempting the opposite: to extricate the music from the games by targeting a subset of gamers who are susceptible to music, hoping to create an enraptured passive listening audience. “It’s more about the music,” Paul told GameCrate last year. “I want this to appeal more to the music aficionado, and more to the gamer.”

Digitally Downloaded’s editor-in-chief reinforced what Paul and others feel about the importance of legitimizing game music: “Away from interactive gameplay, and as a relatively passive experience, game music holds up as an example of art in its own right,” Matt Sainsbury said in an article last year.

But while they’re right about the music’s value, they’re missing what I’m seeing in my teaching studio: students who do not want a passive experience, but rather a participatory one. Playing video games is different than watching TV or movies. It’s interactive, even immersive, and attracts kids (and adults) who don’t just want to sit passively being entertained — but to participate in creating their entertainment. Contrast this with Hollywood scores attached to movies with real humans and real celebrity actors. There aren’t even voiceovers in these computer-video-box games — nothing to attach to except the music and the always accessible thrill of active interaction with the game.

The Oregon Symphony performed in "rePLAY: Symphony of Heroes" last March.

The Oregon Symphony performed in “rePLAY: Symphony of Heroes” last March.

Within my own teaching studio, I’m witnessing students continuing the interaction they thrive on while gaming by also learning to play the music that accompanies their game or anime series. And I’ve learned that my students aren’t alone: video game music may help transform a century old culture of passive listening to music into a return to active playing music.

People are not passive by nature (unless they’re very very stoned). We go to concerts to hear pieces we love, not to hear premieres. It’s even more exciting when we’ve played some arrangement of the pieces we love. The next generations are no longer a passive audience of celebrity worshipers. No longer content attending concerts to worship the stars onstage or the dead bygone creators of their material, these fans — and Nicholas is only one — don’t even know the composers of these new classical video game scores. The stories and heroes attached to these soundtracks are animated! These participants want to be immersed, pulled in by the story, the experience, the playing. In fact, when 12-year-old Nicholas helped me cover Symphony of Heroes last March, he preferred the handful of various games fitted into chapters depicting a Joseph Campbell mythic hero struggle even to his favorite Zelda concert he’d seen two years ago. Why? “I think that I like the chapters more than just one big symphony because it makes me feel like someone’s reading me a story that I’m in,” he said (italics mine). Just like they like playing (not watching) the games themselves, my students like playing (not just listening to) the music.

Notation Nation

To play the music they love, my students need to learn something that distinguishes classical music from pop: notation. Ten years ago it was all about GarageBand and getting youngsters to create their own music, leading no doubt to the people’s musicologist, Richard Taruskin’s dismal prediction over the course of five volumes in his Oxford History of Western Music that the future of notated music was bleak. “Music software … enables you to compose without actually writing anything down,” Taruskin told Karolina Kizińska in Mea Kultura last year. “But there’s been that possibility since electronic music.” But even Taruskin recognized that “the theme that has been going through the Oxford History of Music from the beginning to the end, is that nothing was ever dethroned and replaced but the new possibilities were always being added.”

Guest conductor Susie Benchasil Seiter led the Oregon Symphony's September performance of "Pokemon: Symphonic Evolutions."

Guest conductor Susie Benchasil Seiter led the Oregon Symphony’s September performance of “Pokemon: Symphonic Evolutions.”

Just because we progressed from monks to the Gutenberg press to computer-based text editing doesn’t mean we gave up the alphabet for some other way of sharing poetry. Music notation is here to stay because it’s brilliantly efficient at disseminating and sharing aural information. And folks want to interact with creators’ music, not just create it in their hermetically sealed mayonnaise jars. Forget Garage Band — I haven’t had a student using that creating medium for years! We need creators/composers but more important— WE NEED PLAYERS! And we have them. These kids do compose, but most of all, they want to PLAY! In fact, they are eagerly PAYING to PLAY! and only in circumstances when they cannot find their beloved score are they downloading for free or attempting to recreate by ear. My students come in, fiddle around the keyboard trying to recreate Ruth B.’s “Lost Boys” or Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” or FTL’s “Civil:Explore.” With a notated score, they achieve their goal (once they learn how to decode notes) so much faster.

Getting Scores into Hands
To get numbers back into the concert halls and to sell more CDs or e-tracks or whatever of recorded music, we need to aid in getting music to the urchins trying to figure out how notation works as they configure the cross-metered (is it in 6/8 or 3/4?) “Civil (Explore)”  from FTL together with help from online friends. They’ll do anything to get hands on scores, even if this means naive attempts at notating by others willing to share their labors in order to share their own love of the music. After it became available, Nicholas bought an expensive and well arranged compilation of Zelda compositions put out by the Alfred publishing company; this after downloading free versions from Nintendo Sheet Music site. Other students of mine are still downloading sheet music arrangements from sanctioned sites. Still others are scouring the interwebz, downloading for free above mentioned naively scored arrangements when nothing else exists. Or, they’re arranging themselves, playing for me by ear their transcriptions.

The crowds at video game concerts are much younger and more diverse than typical Schnitzer symphonic shows.

The crowds at video game concerts are much younger and more diverse than typical Schnitzer symphonic shows.

There is money and recognition galore to go around. Peters or Universal Edition music publishers or any of the stodgy traditionalist composers won’t benefit unless they do something unlikely and completely change their European old world outlook, swapping another urtext edition of Boulez (for which there is an audience of exactly 12) for an urtext edition of Prunty (for which there is an audience exceeding 12 by a factor of google).

In fact, has stepped into this vaccuum, compiling and no doubt coercing music publishers like Alfred to address the demand with competently arranged themes from video games. Check out its cool top 50 video game downloaded sheet music scores for the week, along with links to purchase those scores.


It’s important that good arrangers do a credible job for these future performers of this new classical music. DIY arrangers can look up the vocabulary online, but they don’t necessarily know how to apply it. Established good arrangers can give the DIYers great role modeling and can make it easy for future performers to become active participants in this genre again with easy to read, logical scores.

There’s a boatload of money to be made here. So who’s going to listen to the ten year olds?

Portland pianist and teacher Maria Choban is OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch. Nicholas Casali provided research assistance on this story.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch! 
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch. 

One Response.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    FAIT ACCOMPLI – boatload of money is being made – ten-year-old mentalities pulling triggers on video interfaces behind the GLOBAL WAR OF TERROR – anyone else hear in the Zelda score and images a new “Ring” pointing to a new Reich – Nietzscheian proliferation of existential confirmation through combative achievement?

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