If you’re a gamer, odds are there are plenty of sounds you’d recognize from some of your favorite games: the sound of a chest opening in a game from the Legend of Zelda™ series, the sound of one of your units completing its task in StarCraft®, or maybe even the sound of a set clearing in Candy Crush™. And even many nongamers can identify the theme songs from Super Mario Bros. ® or Tetris®.

But while film fans know that John Williams composed the score for Star Wars, or that Hans Zimmer is responsible for Inception’s brooding sonic backdrop, few people know the composers behind iconic video game music.

That changed for the audience at “Three Decades of Video Game Music,” a panel discussion at the recent PAX™ Prime gaming convention in Seattle, Washington. Attendees got a look inside the life of a games composer from four of the industry’s best:

• Danny Baranowsky, primarily known for his work on Super Meat Boy
• Jimmy Hinson, who worked on Mass Effect® 2 and Call of Duty®: Black Ops 2, among others
• Grant Kirkhope, who scored such classics as Banjo-Kazooie™ and GoldenEye 007™ for game company Rare
• Daniel Rosenfeld, better known by his composing handle, C418, who scored Minecraft

The four men offered insight into how game soundtracks became what they are today—from the early days of “chiptune” soundtracks to the modern era of full-blown orchestral scores—and what they might become as games continue to develop as an interactive art form.

The panelists seemed to know one another well, which made for a jovial dynamic on stage, with lots of discussion back and forth, and even a few playful insults.

Getting into composing for games

The composers’ backgrounds are diverse: Kirkhope is a classically trained trumpeter turned “metal head”; Rosenfeld taught himself to compose using Ableton® Live and a home PC.

All of them stumbled into composing for games, after being approached by a friend or colleague somewhere along the way who asked about their musical chops.

All but Kirkhope had begun their careers composing from home, often working odd hours and seeing the sun only when they had run out of food. Kirkhope, long a staff composer for Rare, mocked that night-owl lifestyle, saying he couldn’t be productive waking up at 4:00 p.m.

Everyone on the panel had a story or two to tell about adversity they’d encountered as composers, from Rosenfeld’s chronic writer’s block to Kirkhope’s frustration with sometimes having to simply smile and press on as his favorite elements of a score were edited out. But each was passionate about composing for games, and not one sounded ready to quit.

Adapting to the environment

Asked how he approached designing soundtracks for individual levels, Hinson encouraged composers to take the path least traveled.

“If you see a level that’s, you know, a haunted house,” Hinson said, “and you hear a theremin in it, you’re kind of like, ‘OK, that’s been done a million times. What can I do that’s going to be new and creative?’ We’re seeing a lot of games that do that—I can’t think of any off the top of my head but…”

Minecraft,” whispered its composer, Rosenfeld, to a chorus of laughter.

What were the panelists’ favorite game soundtracks? All the selections were classics. Rosenfeld called out Final Fantasy® VII; Kirkhope chose The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past; Baranowsky picked Chrono Trigger®; and Hinson chose Final Fantasy Adventure for Game Boy®. (Three of these titles are classic games from Squaresoft, now Square Enix. You can read more about the scores for their modern games in this interview with Tomb Raider composer Jason Graves).

There was some debate about whether or not “interactive” scores—scores that increase or decrease in intensity or tempo as a user moves throughout various game elements—were the way to go, or whether looping scores were adequate for most games.

But all the game composers seemed to agree that if you’re playing games with the music turned down, you’re doing it wrong.