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OU Game Developers Association hosts the evolution of video game music, guest doctoral student to present

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history of music in games

A flyer for the History of Music in Games presentation via the event's Engage page.

The OU Game Developers Association is hosting a presentation about how video game music has changed overtime on Tuesday.

David Soto Zambrana, a doctoral student of musical arts and ludomusicologist — the academic study of video game music — is speaking from noon to 1 p.m. at the Pitman Recital Hall on Oct. 19.

Music from popular games like Super Mario Bros. and Halo will be discussed, along with musical styles ranging from chiptune — synthesized electronic music created with sound chips from computers and related technology — to full orchestration. 

Zambrana has been playing video games since he was a child, he said.

“One of my early childhood memories is of this random kid bringing a Gameboy Color to school,” Zambrana said. “He brought Donkey Kong, and for some reason, he left and I stayed with the Gameboy, and that hooked me for life.” 

He said that video games offered him new opportunities for entertainment.

“It's a new world, a new medium for me,” Zambrana said. “All I really had (before) was books … books are movies that play in your head, but games are movies that you can actually participate in controlling.”

Zambrana’s history with music also contributes to his love for video game soundtracks. He began playing trumpet at age 11 in his local church, he said. Zambrana has also had many opportunities to hone his musical skills. He has experience in the U.S. and abroad in several roles and is now finishing his doctorate in Musical Arts-Voice Performance.

“I’ve spent most of my waking hours when I’m not in front of a game console honing my craft,” Zambrana said.

The pandemic and his classes at the time motivated him to study music in video games with his traditional experience. After campus shut down, Zambrana went home and began dedicating time to studying this topic. His class on the history of film music inspired him to do the same for video games, especially since this music is not commonly studied.

“I ran into this thing called ludomusicology, which is a term that’s been around for about (10) years,” Zambrana said. “It’s the new academic study of music in video games: how it works, why it works, how we study it (and) what kind of models we can apply to it.”

He commented on the current academic perception of video games has been changing.

“We’ve gone beyond the point of ‘Are video games art?’ and now we’re at the point of ‘How do we study video games as art?’”

Zambrana sees video game music as having several jobs, from keeping the player focused to amplifying a moment of emotional climax. He wants to highlight this music because it has not been widely discussed due to an obstacle that is not present with traditional music, he said.

“A lot of it has to do with the barrier to entry,” Zambrana said. “You don’t have to be a gamer to study music and video games, but it really helps to be immersed in a game."

Zambrana has sung in concerts for the Symphony of the Goddesses, a concert based on The Legend of Zelda video games that had a full symphony orchestra and choir soloist.

“(It was) the most electrifying concert experience à la classical music,” Zambrana said. 

To him, the audience plays a large part in video game music concerts. 

“I have really never felt anything so electrifying before in terms of audience participation ... because the people love this music,” Zambrana said.

The composers of the games Zambrana will cover used technological limitations to their advantage to create unique and catchy music. Zambrana sees the opportunity for a new classical audience in video game music listeners. 

“Video games can tell stories that no other medium can,” Zambrana said. “In the arts, we’re always talking about the transcendent experience where we finally leave our bodies and reach divinity through listening to music. Video games are inherently a transcendent experience in that you are leaving yourself, immersing yourself in another world, and having an emotional response to something that’s only really happening in your mind.”

After his presentation, Zambrana hopes listeners will be inspired to learn more about ludomusicology, try something new and recognize gaming as an emerging art form with its own unique opportunities for expression.

For more information and to register, visit the event's OU Engage page.

Editor's Note: This article was corrected at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 21 to reflect that Zambrana is working towards a Doctorate of Musical Arts-Voice Performance and that the term "ludomusicology" has been around for 10 years.

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