Video Game Music: The Great Teaching Experiment

Video Game Music: The Great Teaching Experiment

By NAfME Member Mark Laughlin


From the first beeps and bleeps of Pong in 1972 to the world’s most-subscribed massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), World of Warcraft, video games are part of our everyday lives and culture. My 2015 NAfME National Conference session highlighted the successes and failures of teaching an online video game music course to the student-at-large. It also addressed how to use video games to empower and expand your creative pedagogical prowess.

Video Games and Academia

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Digital Vision./Photodisc/Thinkstock


As music educators we are constantly re-evaluating our teaching approaches and techniques to find innovative ways to incorporate the 2014 Music Standards and technology into the curriculum. Depending on what level of academia you teach, you may have additional standards or requirements which must also be addressed. For example, your additional standards may include Writing across the Curriculum, STEM, STEAM, and/or specific student learning objectives (SLO). I wanted to create an avenue that could be used to meet these goals, while creating a unique and interactive learning environment for my students that could occur outside the classroom.

Thus, Video Game Music was born!

Why video games? First, video games by their very nature are intrinsically motivating. Games have built-in goals, objectives, achievements, and rewards. Second, games have very effective pedagogical principles that are utilized: problem-solving, decision-making, application of abstract knowledge to authentic situations, and assessment of that learning and understanding through game progression.

Virtual Music Exploration

Video Game Music offered a unique pedagogical approach by allowing faculty and students to meet in-game through various MMORPGs, and to interactively explore music of various regions within the gaming world in real-time.

Yes, you read that correctly. Online class meetings were held in-game, in real-time!

There is nothing more exciting than escorting 40 students through an untamed harsh world with the ever-looming threat of being attacked by a bear or random Orc—all the while, discussing the musical elements of a non-diegetic symphonic score set to the background of a mythical world.

The course also required weekly game play, viewing and analysis of music from various gaming zones, written assignments which emphasize analysis and synthesis of music in game-world concepts, discussion boards, exams, critical listening reports, and collaboration (peer-to-peer, faculty-to-student, and faculty-to-class).

The course had nine specified learning objectives.

Learning Objectives

Video Game Music addresses the general education component of the University strategic plan (Georgia Southwestern State University) by providing analytical, historical, and appreciative material through class discussion, listening assignments, analysis, and group collaboration.

video game


Upon successful completion of this course, the student will be able to:

  1. Demonstrate how music uniquely expresses human thought, values, and emotions through the various social, political, and historical venues of video game music.
  2. Compare and contrast musical styles from different games of historical and fantasy cultures, and compare and contrast video game music to music from other genres (film music, television, musicals, etc).
  3. Evaluate musical works in relation to the in-game societies for which they were created.
  4. Identify and explain the basic elements from which music is created.
  5. Explain how important composers and arrangers fashioned the basic elements of music into their compositions/arrangements to coincide with various game genres.
  6. Relate important pieces of music or styles of composition to parallel developments in the expanding technology of video game music.
  7. Identify the major historical, political, and literary influences of various games and how those influences are reflected in the music.
  8. Demonstrate effective analytical and communication skills through exams, music reviews, in-game class discussions, peer group collaborations, and discussion boards.
  9. Demonstrate sophisticated understanding of games as they relate to larger spheres of culture, and how they relate to social issues.


Learning Outcome and Competency

Core Area Learning Outcome: Students will understand the effect music has had on the cultural, artistic, and philosophical approaches to video games. Students will be able to discuss how music is used to heighten, and compliment visual digital storytelling.

Course Competency (Performance Measure): Students will demonstrate an understanding of the learning objectives by analyzing and critiquing a variety of game scores and arrangements, exams, discussion boards, and in-game peer collaboration.

Although this particular course addresses the National Core Music Standards 6-9, it would be relatively simple to include the National Standards 1-5.

National Standards:

  1. Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.
  2. Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music

Standards 1-2: Perform a mini-concert for your local Parent/Teacher Association featuring the music from various video games or add video game music to your spring concert. For audience participation, set up a screen and projector, and have one of your students (or parents) play the game while the ensemble provides the music! This would also provide a great opportunity for collaboration between band, chorus, and the visual arts.

National Standards:

  1. Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments.
  2. Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines.
  3. Reading and notating music.

Standards 3-5: Students would compose music for current games and/or use free software (for example, Sploder) which would allow students to create their own game. The student would compose music for the game (including sections that are to be improvised), arrange it for the ensemble, and perform it! All areas of the National Standards have now been met in a new and creative way, and your students have enjoyed every moment.

Video games are embedded in the very fabric of our society, and their enormous popularity attests to their ability to engage players, and keep them engaged. Teachers, prepare yourselves . . . gather your best armor, your sharpest sword, and your bravest friends . . . an epic teaching adventure awaits!


Further Reading:

World of Warcraft Game Guide

The Assassin’s Perspective: Teaching History with Video Games (May, 2014)

NPR: The Evolution of Video Game Music (April 13, 2008)

UCLA Game Maker

From Mega Man To final Fantasy, Live Video Game Music

Joust to the Music: Video Game Evolves Beyond the Screen


Mark Laughlin

Mark Laughlin is a two-time GRAMMY® nominated music educator, and currently serves as Associate Professor of Music at Georgia Southwestern State University where he was the recipient of the 2012-2013 President’s Excellence in University Service Award. His research and teaching strategies on improvisation have been featured at more than 35 peer-reviewed conferences including the national conferences of the National Association of Schools of Music, the College Music Society, the National Association for Music Education, Humanities Education and Research Association, Music Teachers National Association, National Group Piano and Piano Pedagogy Forum (GP3), and the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy. Dr. Laughlin has also presented at the International Conference of the College Music Society in Bangkok and Ayuthaya, Thailand, the International Conference on Multidisciplinary Research in Music Pedagogy at the University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, and the Canadian Federation of Music Teachers Association’s National Conference, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Dr. Laughlin serves on the Editorial Board for the Piano Pedagogy Forum, located at the Francis Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy, and has written articles for American Music Teacher, and the Piano Pedagogy Forum. He also has received numerous grants including The National Endowment for the Arts, MENC Teaching Improvisation: Learning & Leadership Grant (Washington, D.C.).


Mark Laughlin presented at the 2015 NAfME National Conference in Nashville, TN. Register today for the 2018 NAfME National Conference!



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