How video games inspire musicians and composers

Pianist and composer Sean Chen, who won third prize at the Van Cliburn competition in 2013, describes how virtual worlds have influenced his real-life career

How video games inspire musicians and composers
Pianist Sean Chen

Role-playing video games (RPGs) were to me what novels and films were to many others growing up. These art forms not only told captivating stories and built worlds, but also stoked the imaginations of thousands of users. The great thing about art is that anyone can find something that speaks to them, and for me, that inspiration came mostly from RPGs.

The video RPGs of the 1990s and early '00s (my childhood) were much like silent films – there was no voice-acting, and the music was the standout accompaniment. The graphics were modest, placing the emphasis on world-building and story-telling.

As a child, I would try to figure out how to play video game music on the piano. In this way, RPGs indirectly motivated me to spend more time at the instrument and improve my listening skills. Playing by ear then led to improvisation, and then further to writing original compositions. The composers of video game music have cited influences from various genres of music, from Ravel to world music to hard rock. Even after all these years, I feel that video game music is still an integral part of my musical identity, influencing both the kinds of pieces I enjoy and the type of music I write.

Many musicians will know the feeling of hearing a piece for the first time and wanting to play it themselves. It’s a process of wanting to make something our own. To this day, when I sit down and play video game, there is not only a strong feeling of nostalgia, but also a sense of creation.

Transcriptions have become a big part of my repertoire. I think no artist should perform or create unless we think we have something to contribute and are comfortable with adding something from our own soul. Transcriptions are a high form of flattery – Bach transcribed pieces by the masters of his time, so it’s a longstanding tradition. The process of transcription allows you to get intimately acquainted with the original work and to get a glimpse of what it was like creating the original. Through that process, you can begin to call a work your own.

When we improvise, we are transcribing what we are thinking of in that moment. When we play by ear, we are transcribing an aural memory. When we perform on stage, we are transcribing the ideal performance we have in our head. The miracle of music-making, and of any art, then, is transcribing our own imagination into reality. My imagination was born out of these games, and has inspired me ever since.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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