Top tips for composing music for video games

EA’s Steve Schnur is one of the most influential figures in the music video gaming industry. We learn his top tips on composing ahead of his appearance at the Game Music Connect conference.

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 19 Sep 2014
  • min read
As worldwide executive of Music and Marketing at Electronic Arts (EA), Steve Schnur is uniquely placed to offer insight into how to make music for video games.

It’s a perspective he'll be delivering as part of a key note address at this year’s Game Music Connect conference. Taking place at London’s Southbank Centre on 24 September, the event sets out to provide guidance and advice for aspiring and professional video game music composers. Steve will be joined by some of the industry’s leading lights including composers Jason Graves (Tomb Raider), Garry Schyman (BioShock series) and Jessica Curry (Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture) and be leading a debate on how best to bring your compositions from studio to game. Find out some of his top tips below…

How did you start working at EA? Have you always had a love for music and video games?

I’ve been an avid gamer since I was a kid, was in bands throughout my teens, went to school for music theory, and thought I was headed for a career as a composer or conductor until a college internship at MTV changed everything. I became part of the original programming team at MTV, and then went on to a 20-year A&R and marketing career at Elektra, Arista and Capitol Records. But by 2001, I began to sense a growing cultural shift that would lead me away from the traditional record business to the new creative frontier of video games. And I now know that the most challenging and rewarding gig I’ve ever had has been as worldwide executive of Music at EA.

What are the best ways for new composers to approach you?

For legal reasons, we can’t accept unsolicited demos. But if your music is out there, we’ll find it. Get your original work in an indie game, a short film, a unique YouTube clip, anyplace it will get heard. And along the way, you’ll learn new things about your craft.

What are the challenges of composing for games? How does it differ to scoring music for films or TV?

The primary challenge is also what most composers are most excited about exploring, and that’s the technical and creative possibilities of interactive entertainment. A good video game score should be specifically designed to fit a game’s energy, trigger an emotional response and make gameplay more intense and enjoyable. It’s a much less passive and far more dimensional approach than scoring for film or TV.

What can a good score do for a video game?

A great score in a video game can create the same iconic emotional engagement as a great score in a Hollywood blockbuster. What was once two notes from Jaws or seven notes from Star Wars can now be the theme to Sims 4 or Titanfall.

What does the future look like for music in gaming? What are the most exciting areas of growth from your perspective?

When you consider the explosive worldwide growth of high-res tablets and smartphones, software innovations like advanced VR and motion-control, and the next generation of Smart TVs, you realize that the future of gaming - and therefore game music - is absolutely limitless. That’s why I’m most excited about the rise of new composers. Together we can raise the bar for original music for generations to come.

Who are your favourite new composers?

I have huge respect for so many composers, particularly the ones I’ve been fortunate enough to work with on EA titles. They’re a combination of well-known film/television composers, and young talents on the rise. What they all have in common is their commitment to and enthusiasm for the videogame medium.

What projects are you proudest to have worked on?

To name just a few: The Medal Of Honor series. Sims 2, 3 & 4. The Dragon Age series. Our Need For Speed series. Mass Effect. Our James Bond, Lord Of The Rings, Harry Potter and Star Wars titles. The Dead Space series. Mirror’s Edge. And all the original music in our EA Sports games.

What are the up and coming projects you’re excited about?

I love Trevor Morris’ score for our upcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition. And I’m not yet allowed to announce the composer of Star Wars Battlefront, but he’s one of the very best next-generation talents I’ve worked with.

If you could impart one piece of advice to composers looking to break into composing music for video games, what would it be?

Love what you do. Take chances. Follow your creativity and always bring something new to the table. And whenever possible, create within the true emotional soul of music composition by using live musicians.

Visit the Game Music Connect website to find out more.

Check out last year’s interview with conference founder James Hannigan.