Meet the professor who teaches a class about video game music

Gamers unite

A piano was playing some classical melody while an operatic voice reached notes that made me shiver. Three professors were discussing the importance of wardrobe choice for a concert that they themselves would preform in. Footfalls echoed as students passed by, one of whom opened the door to the office directly in front of where I was sitting in the hallway. As soon as the door opened, I could see a professor seated behind a grand piano while conducting the student who was, presumably, practicing. This was the soundscape as I sat in front of office number 3057 in the Moore Building, waiting to interview Matthew Thompson, a Lecturer of Voice here at the University of Michigan.

Thompson is the mind behind MUSPERF 300: Video Game Music. As one might expect, he’s been playing music for as long as he can remember.

“When I went to my very first piano lesson, I was six, quite young,” he said. “My teacher at the time didn’t actually take people that young. So she started the lesson, ‘Here’s the piano’ and ‘here is how you sit at it’ and ‘here’s how you hold your hands…’ And I interrupted, ‘I’m gonna play three pieces for you!’”

He also couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t playing video games. Super Mario, Legend of Zelda, and Final Fantasy — these were the digital wonders of his childhood. One of his current favorites is Skyward Sword from the Zelda series, partly because he has played it the least out of all the Zelda games. “There are these musical notes that you have to swim around and collect. I like when Koji does things like that. Plus there’s the orchestral score. They don’t have voice acting, which means the music has to carry a lot more weight.”

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There was one video game scene in particular that he zeroed in on for a moment — the opera scene from Final Fantasy VI.

“The first time I played that scene, I was so anxious to go on stage and do the opera,” he said. “The guy says to you, ‘go over and look at the score and check your notes,’ and I was thinking, ‘I’m gonna be an opera star!’ and just marched on the stage. I didn’t know what I was doing and screwed up. The whole thing winded to a halt. Then it takes fifteen minutes to get back to that point to try again. Second time I told myself, ‘Oh I should actually read the score and not march on stage and try to wing it.’”

So when ones of the deans of music asked him to pitch a class that would appeal to non-music majors, he had the perfect solution: video game music.

The first incarnation of the class had 66 or 67 students in it. Thompson confessed, although he knew what he was doing, he was also making it up as he went along — a method that cannot truly be faulted, for nobody had taught a course like this before. But he knew he loved the material and he knew video games were popular enough to use as an outreach tool.

“Everybody plays a video game,” he said. “And almost everybody has a connection with the music. It’s drilled into you when you play the game. It’s a powerful part.”

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“I didn’t feel like I knew enough to do the class myself,” he said. “So the first incarnation, not only had I not taught it before, basically nobody had. I was making it up. There are way more resources now in the past three or so years, now there are textbooks that can theoretically be used for classes like this.”

To make up for this deficit in resources, Thompson decided to have his students hear straight from the source: the composers behind video game scores. “One way to spread the knowledge that I’m teaching this [class], and make sure I’m connecting with the right people, is to have them speak in the class, and so I had four speakers my very first time. And it was such a popular part of class that I decided I had to keep it that way.”

Some of the professionals who spoke in the class include Austin Wintory (Journey) and Martin O’Donnell (Halo).

Interdisciplinary opportunities also set this class apart. A student came up to Thompson after class and told him about a professor in the engineering school who was teaching video games. They met, realized one class was making video games that needed sound and music, and the other class was making sound and music for video games, so they collaborated and students were working together in the very first class.

If you’re still unsure whether this class is up your alley, here’s Thompson’s final word:

“First of all, it’s going to be the most awesome class you’re going to take in your career here at UM. I have been told that numerous times. And I feel like that could be a seal for the course. If you want to read that blog and see what the course is like, go to videogamemusicnerd.blogspot.com. It’s gonna be awesome. Press start.”

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