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Play on – Why Video Game Music deserves to be in the Classic FM Hall of Fame

Carl Phillips
Classic FM, Game soundtracks, Hall of Fame 2015, music

Play on – Why Video Game Music deserves to be in the Classic FM Hall of Fame

While I apologise to our readership for what is probably going to be surmised as an “off-topic rant,” I also don’t apologise, because it is a topic close to my heart. You see, I’ve been agonising over it for weeks. Indecision has surrounded me and I’ve been unable to reach an internal consensus with the different points of view in my head. Do I go with the status quo, ensuring that familiarity and stability within the ranks remains, or do I put my faith in something new and radical? Either way, it’s time to act before it’s too late, and I’ll be damned if I miss my opportunity to make my voice heard.

I am of course talking about voting in the Classic FM Hall of Fame, which closes its public vote at the end of Saturday. For me, it has become an important yearly tradition, combining two of my favourite things – my passion for playing video games, and my love for music.  After all, music has played a large part in my life. I grew up around it thanks to my family playing various instruments, going on to train on the violin from an early age, and later teach myself to play guitar in my teens. I even studied Music at A level and in higher education after that. With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I have a strong appreciation for soundtracks, especially those for video games.

Play on – Why Video Game Music deserves to be in the Classic FM Hall of Fame

So it has delighted me to see that, over the last three years, soundtracks for games and their composers have been given the recognition they deserve for their talents. A campaign led by industry PR Mark Robins has come on leaps and bounds, with support for the movement in the millions. In fairness, the appreciation was always there by the fans – you only have to look at the sell-out concerts around the world which exclusively feature music from games to see that – but the campaign to get them into the chart was more about legitimacy. After all, if movie soundtracks could find their way into the chart, why couldn’t video games?

Naturally, this has caused concern for, for the lack of a better term, the “old guard.” Calls of the pieces being boring, unimaginative, and not right for the chart have been slung around for years, with some even going as far as to suggest that “they should go and form their own chart” elsewhere. While for now I will forgo the fact that segregation never solved anything, let’s instead focus on the fact classifying something as “classical” is a pointless endeavour, when we should be referring to the term “orchestral.” In that regard, large numbers of video game music rightly qualify.

Play on – Why Video Game Music deserves to be in the Classic FM Hall of Fame

Then there is the suggestion that, because they are pieces of music composed in modern day, none of them should qualify for voting. After all, it’s “Classic” FM. Let’s say for a moment that they are right, and declare that anything after 1900 doesn’t qualify either. The move would get rid of fan favourites such as Gershwin, Brittain, and Prokoviev, alongside other modern composers like Whitaker and Einaudi (which some would call a small victory… sorry, music in-joke there, and I apologise profusely.) In my mind, removing contemporary composers would do more harm than good, and would frankly make the chart a more boring place.

The naysayers are also ignoring an important facet of VG music being included in the chart – it becomes a gateway to the world of orchestral music. While someone may have wish nothing more than to hear the theme from Skyrim playing over the radio (and it’s a majestic thing when it happens) it also means that they get to listen to some of the genre’s most prominent pieces. Who is to say that fans of Aerith’s Theme won’t go on to enjoy The Lark Ascending? Maybe lovers of Halo’s A Capella opening and drum-driven themes will find joy in Beethoven's Symphony No. 5? To halt such a fantastic opportunity to introduce gamers to new musical horizons puzzles me greatly.

Play on – Why Video Game Music deserves to be in the Classic FM Hall of Fame

In a way, all of these thoughts are irrelevant, because Classic FM do allow video game music in the Hall of Fame, and it’s something that is fantastic for everyone involved. The station gets an increased audience (along with all that delicious revenue, mmmmm), the audience gets to hear a wide variety of orchestral pieces, and the composers of game soundtracks get recognition on a global scale. Gamers have already known the names Uematsu and Soule for decades, but three years ago they found a new audience when they were the poster boys of the initial campaign. Two years ago, British composer Grant Kirkhope received accolades for his Viva Piñata soundtrack, see his work recognised outside of the games industry for the first time. It was an important turning point not just for those composers, or even gaming soundtracks, but games in general. We were seen a truly mainstream form of entertainment outside of the shooty-shooty-bang-bang coverage that is usually the spearhead.

More importantly, it has shown that pieces from games soundtracks hold up without the rest of their source material, transcending the medium and showing exactly what music is – a universal language. Final Fantasy is a series that is regularly brought up in this debate, but you only have to look at tracks like “Rose of May” and “To Zanarkand” to understand exactly why Uemastu is so heavily featured, but there are other examples. Sona Mi Areru Ec Sancituv from Panza Dragoon emotes a sense hope and determination, while Lament of the Highborne from World of Warcraft – a personal favourite of mine – reflects the feelings of loss and sadness.

Play on – Why Video Game Music deserves to be in the Classic FM Hall of Fame

If there is one thing I am sad about, it is that WildStar will not feature in the Hall of Fame countdown. Regardless of what you think of the gameplay or even the MMO genre, there is no denying that Jeff Kurtenaker’s score was the best game sountrack of 2014, bar none. Perfectly capturing the lands and races on Nexus, augmenting themes depending on the situation, and being able to stand on its own feet when taken out of the game, it’s a shame that due to a lack of commercial release the soundtrack won’t get the recognition it truly deserves.

Instead, I’ve had to go with three pieces that resonate with me that I also consider capable of transcending their source material. Here’s what I’ve picked and why:

Final Fantasy VII – Nobuo Uematsu

Yes, this will almost certainly mean Classic FM will play Aerith’s theme, despite the fact I consider the World Theme a far better piece both in terms of progression and technicality, but there’s no denying the power behind the music that accompanies FF VII’s most memorable cutscene.

Journey – Austin Wintory

The game as a whole is an artistic achievement, using its visuals and audio cues to tell an interpretive story. I can’t even hover over the icon on my PS3 without hearing the theme, and it gets me every time. The music used as your character surfs through the sandy ruins? Utterly breathtaking, and I certainly hope Wintory finds greater success in this year’s chart. He definitely deserves it.

Viva Piñata - Grant Kirkhope

There’s an air of calm and beauty in Kirkhope’s score for the sweet-based management sim, and many of its tracks wouldn’t be too out of place in an orchestral suite. Whenever I hear it I’m instantly transported to a colourful countryside… that also happens to inhabited by piñatas.

Of course, those are just my picks, but what would you consider the best orchestral pieces that the game industry has to offer? Do let us know in the comments, but if you’re reading this today we urge you to go vote in the Classic FM Hall of Fame as well! Go on, go support your favourite composers!

Add a comment5 comments
googleberry  Feb. 27, 2015 at 20:42

As a video gamer i agree with your sentiments.

On the other hand, if i were a regular classic fm listen now expecting the usual playlist traditional classics i might decide to choose another radio station because i am no longer getting what i want. So it's an interesting situation.

Quite the risk for the proprietors of the station!

Jaffo  Feb. 28, 2015 at 09:20

For a station that has a weekly show called "Saturday Night at the Movies", I'm surprised this was ever an issue; game soundtracks are essentially the same thing. The old guard can move to Radio 3 with its 24 hour dirges.

My only gripe with the campaign to get stuff into the Hall of Fame was that it championed Aerith’s Theme as I personally find it really bland.

CarlPhillips  Mar. 2, 2015 at 10:18

@googleberry: While I see your point, I think it would be an overreaction to just stop listing to the station because VGM's are getting more air time. The existing repertoire isn't going anywhere and is still rotated into the playlists regularly, but giving light to new pieces brings in new audiences.

It's why Classic FM have embraced it despite the resistance to its inclusion - they see fans of VGM as a new source of revenue. After all, there have been several "Saturday Night at the Movies" dedicated to VGM, and their current Album of the Week is Final Symphony!

@Jaffo: As I point out in the article, I agree in regards to Aerith's Theme. It's definitely not Uematsu's best work, but it's certainly his most recognised.

Synthetica  Apr. 4, 2015 at 18:55

While I appreciate your background and love of VG music, as a regular listener of Classic FM, I would appreciate it if all of you who seem to just vote for VG music actually showed your appreciation for non-film, non-TV, non-VG orchestral music. I know you believe that fans of Aerith's Theme would love Lark Ascending, and, I agree, but where are the votes for Lark Ascending instead of Aerith's Theme? The arguments I see from gamers in defence of Aerith's Theme is that this piece of music is associated with a very emotional part of the video game so I just don't "get it", but this argument proves my point: I shouldn't have to play a video game or watch a movie or even watch an opera to be moved by music, it should stand on its own. I'm not a gamer, so I think Aerith's Theme is pretty, but in no way deserves to be anywhere above the works of Beethoven, Dvorak, Bruch, Mendelsohn, Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Vaughan Williams, Copeland, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Part...I can keep going...basically music that stands on its own without having to see a movie or play a game, yet still elicits an emotional response. VG music gets plenty of attention and airplay on Classic FM and I'm glad, but this yearly vote is for the very best - the Hall of Fame - not to just push your agenda. I don't like listening to someone's agenda.

CarlPhillips  Apr. 5, 2015 at 10:49

Hi Synthetica,

First of all, thanks for taking the time to respond (and it's good to have a fellow listener on the site - I listen to The Morning Run every day without fail!) I hope that, like me, you're enjoying the countdown this weekend. There's already been some significant rises and falls so far, and imagine we have more surprises to come. The highlight for me so far has been Richard Harvey's Concerto Antico for Guitar. Fantastic piece.

I absolutely agree that the best music stands on its own, capable of telling a story just by hearing it, but I also think art in general is interpretive. Take the Troika movement from Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé - a piece composed for a satirical comedy about a ridiculous emperor - that is now more associated with snow and Christmas than anything else, all because of interpretation. It's also a damn fine piece of music, which is why it features in the countdown year after year.

At the time of writing, pieces from video games The Last of Us and Starcraft II have featured in the chart, and I feel both deserve their place. They are compositions that are not only emotive, but artistically impressive outside of their source material. Of course, that's just my opinion, but then again that's the thing with the Classic FM Hall of Fame - a measurement of popularity. There is no scientific way to categorically state a piece of music is the "best", only that it remains relevant. It's why the mainstays like Beethoven and Mozart - both of which continue to dominate the chart this year - will always be featured, and it is why VGM is now featured. Whether the pieces of VGM will have the staying power is a different question entirely, but I look forward to finding out.

Now, as for the whole "appreciation for [non-soundtrack] music", I can't answer that one on behalf of gamers (I'm not the ruler of them, sadly.) Personally speaking, I feel that my votes for chart mainstays wouldn't have mattered, as they were always going to feature due to the fact they are brilliant pieces. Case in point, my vote for Viva Pinata almost lost out to The Pearl Fishers from Bizet. The reason I went with Kirkhope's piece instead was because of personal bias... I previously sang The Pearl Fishers in concert (in English, admittedly, but hey) which is why it holds a special place in my heart. Meanwhile, Viva Pinata is a game I'm not a fan of, but its music transcends its source material. I can't help but think of sunny summer fields while listening to its relaxing melodies. That's why it got my vote.

As for the 'agenda' thing, it's arguable that you're pushing an 'anti-VGM agenda,' and that John Suchet is pushing a 'Beethoven agenda' but let's be honest here - people are just voting for what they enjoy listening to (just like Suchet!) All the VGM movement has done is make gamers aware that game soundtracks not only qualifies, but is capable of standing on its own feet.

As mentioned above, it's all a popularity vote, and ultimately the best pieces will remain while the flash-in-the-pans will disappear. Remember the Army Wives' "Wherever You Are"? Now that was a track that was fueled by an emotional response instead of musical merit, and disappeared from the chart completely last year as a result. I can't imagine it will reappear this year.

Anyway, I've rattled on enough. The point I'm getting at (or, as the internet kids say, "tl;dr") is that we should just enjoy the chart, discuss the music featured without telling people their opinion does not matter or is invalid, and celebrate the fact orchestral music is still as popular as ever. All VGM is doing is introducing a new generation to well-written, emotive pieces (and Einaudi... sorry, couldn't hold that in) and in the end the best pieces of VGM will stand the test of time.

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