The Evolution of Screen Music

By Etan Rosenbloom, Director & Deputy Editor, Marketing & Communications  •  September 18, 2018

There has never been a more exciting time to be a music creator in the screen music world. With technological advances opening up the sonic possibilities, and new forms of media offering new opportunities for creators, the preconceptions that once separated the music for film, TV, video games and the concert hall are beginning to dissolve. But in such a rapidly evolving music-for-media landscape, how has the role of the composer changed? And how does the art of musical storytelling change when you are writing for an immersive project, like a video game or VR experience?


These are just two of the many issues that will be addressed at Screen Music Connect, a new event series created to explore and celebrate the richly diverse world of Screen Music and the talent behind it. The first event occurs in London on Monday, September 24 (click here to get your £15 ASCAP discount tix).

We spoke with four of the panelists at the inaugural Screen Music Connect, representing the absolute pinnacle of the screen music craft and industry: Darrell Alexander (Film, TV & Games Composer Agent, CEO of COOL Music Ltd and The Chamber Orchestra of London), Olivier Derivière (BAFTA-nominated composer of 11-11: Memories Retold and Get Even), James Hannigan (Multi-award-winning composer on Harry Potter, Command & Conquer series, Dead Space 3 and others) and Richard Jacques (Ivor Novello and BAFTA-nominated composer of James Bond 007: Blood Stone, Mass Effect and many more). Here’s what they had to say about the past, present and future of music for screens.


How have you seen the lines blurring between the classical music and screen music worlds over the last few years? And does the influence go both ways?

DARRELL ALEXANDER: I think the classical music world has realised that it has an ageing audience and has worked hard at attracting a younger audience. The next generation has grown up in a digital, perhaps narrow world and seems to crave the opposite atmosphere only a live experience can provide, which is extremely healthy for the future of live music. There is so much entertainment available in so many different formats, but perhaps one of the most absorbing is the audio-visual medium of games, film and TV. They are “immersive” in their own way, and the byproduct of this is the stunning music that accompanies these art forms. It’s natural that those who immerse themselves in, say, a game, or film, will look out for opportunities to immerse themselves in the live environment. Hence more and more young people are attending live concerts of games and film music. This cross-fertilisation of genres is extremely exciting for the industry. I’m not sure the influence does go both ways with equal measure, as the classical live concert world benefits far more from the game, film & TV world. Of course, it’s exciting when the screen music world can attract “classical” stars and composers to enter into this screen world; Lang Lang and Tom Adès (composer of the new film Colette) being two examples.

James Hannigan

JAMES HANNIGAN: I tend to think these worlds increasingly intersect in meaningful ways, especially as notions of what classical music actually is alter over time – particularly now that many people first hear classical music in recorded form, on the radio and so on. In fact, I imagine this is how many will first encounter music of any kind now – or perhaps in the context of a film, TV show or video game. Concert hall music or “art music” has always exerted an influence over screen music, too, initially because its first practitioners were often drafted in from that world, bringing with them some of the language of classical, romantic and 21st century music. I think it was Bernard Herrmann who once observed that even sometimes frightening avant-garde music can be enjoyed by mainstream audiences when heard in the context of a film – so, clearly, film and other media can serve as a vehicle for forms of music many people would ordinarily never have the opportunity to listen to. It has a curiously validating effect for music of all kinds.

Add to this that a great a deal of film music over the last century has been orchestral in essence, it’s fairly easy to see why many would equate this with classical music, too. And, yes, I believe that recorded music of all kinds probably does influence so-called “art music,” too, as no composer lives or works in a vacuum!

From a creative perspective, do you think there is a meaningful distinction between classical music and other forms of orchestral music?

ALEXANDER: No, music is music to state the obvious! When I was young many years ago, I felt the lines between genres were quite distinct. You were a fan of one or two genres. However, now it feels to me as if it’s acceptable and even cool to dip into all genres of music, from country to classical to film to jazz, etc. Different genres to suit the mood you are in, which is a far healthier and more enjoyable position to be in. The younger generation seems comfortable dipping in and out of genres, which is wonderful to see. Is there a distinction between the music of, for example, Prokofiev or Stravinsky and John Williams or John Powell? No, just that the latter composers have been influenced from the masters that preceded them, and the next generation will do the same. Absorb and learn from the past and update for the present. In the same way, you can have an avante-garde “classical” composer like Luciano Berio or Boulez, and maybe they have influenced the more avante-garde film composers like Mica Levi or even Radiohead.

HANNIGAN: The purist in me acknowledges that there are, of course, some differences in the intention behind the creation of music for the concert hall and, say, commercial music written to picture, but I don’t think this in itself is reason enough to drive a wedge between them. It’s true that a lot of screen music is, by definition, finding some kind of secondary purpose when released in soundtrack form, but I don’t feel this makes it any less engaging or musical – or any less powerful – than classical music. The way people listen to and encounter music today has changed as a result of how music is disseminated within our society, and the classical music establishment I hope will recognise this more and more. Embracing the idea that orchestral music and soundtracks are classical music in some sense may well prove to be a good strategy for all in finding new audiences.

How is “interactive music” changing in the video game realm? What are some interesting examples you’ve heard that represent the future of interactive music?

Olivier Derivière

OLIVIER DERIVIÈRE: I think it is true to say that interactive music can change the video game realm by offering new experiences to players through music. However all of these new musical "functions" are still at an early stage. Most developers and certainly most composers use music as an illustration of what is going on in their games. It is efficient, so why would anybody to take the challenge to explore more? Yet, I have been talking with many key people in the industry that really want to push the use of music further than an illustration. It is a game changer because when music becomes part of the gameplay experience, you connect directly with players as it involves storytelling and gameplay mechanics. I have been an advocate for more than a decade to try and implement many different methods of using music in a game. One of my latest productions, Get Even is by far the most advanced and successful opportunity that I could dream of. I'm also happy to see that in the latest Spider-Man game on PS4, the music [scored by ASCAP composer John Paesano] builds and evolves the more you swing through the city; it is an excellent example, and made a huge impact on players, and coming from such a high-profile game, I hope it will help draw more developers and composers to pay attention to interactive music.

HANNIGAN: There’s so much interesting music from games – not only in soundtrack form, but in terms of the innovative ways it functions within games themselves. I’ve been involved in this area for a long time, creating fairly early examples of interactive music using live orchestral scores – one such being for the 2002 political strategy game, Republic: The Revolution. The process involved recording a symphony orchestra, segmentalising/layering elements and then playing these back within a purpose-built interactive music system. It was so long ago now, I can remember there being no widely accepted vocabulary for the techniques used, and it was (and still is) actually quite hard to explain what was actually going on. This has often been a problem for composers working in games, as the media tends only to take an interest in music that succeeds in being like music heard elsewhere, in more familiar contexts. For example: it may only be considered “valid” when it resembles film music or is made available in linear soundtrack form, but the world of game music can be far more complex and nuanced than this.

The flow of music in a game such as Republic is motivated by variables in the game, ranging from night and day to the player’s success (or lack of!) in achieving various goals, but it could really be anything else – and deciding on all that I believe is part of the art of being a composer for games. Music and game design I think should go hand-in-hand in delivering a common goal. This isn’t to suggest that, sometimes, simply having a beautiful, linear soundtrack in a game is a bad thing – especially when it exists for narrative support – but each game can be different in terms of what it needs, musically speaking.

Just lately, I’ve been extremely impressed with the work of my friend and colleague, Olivier Deriviere, who is taking the whole concept of interactive music further than ever before. Some of my other colleagues in games, such as Jessica Curry, Richard Jacques and Philip Sheppard, are all responsible for absolutely amazing scores, too, and for helping bring more public attention to games music in general. Jessica’s show on Classic FM has been a wonderful and valuable catalyst for generating wider public interest in games music.

Richard Jacques

RICHARD JACQUES: There are probably too many to list here, but there are some that most definitely stand out for me. For example, as a gamer when I was a young kid I fondly remember the game Jet Set Willy. The song “If I Was Rich Man’ (from “Fiddler on the Roof”) used to play on a loop in the background. But when the player was getting low on the number of lives left, the intervals in the scale used would diminish, creating a very dissonant, microtonal version of the song. This wasn’t only amusing to listen to, but also increased the tension on the player when they were low on lives! Other examples would be Super Mario Kart’s last lap always being slightly faster in tempo than the previous laps. I remember early on in my career, when we finally had the technology to loop a piece of CD-DA (Red Book) audio. How times have changed.

I have worked with many techniques over the years and am still creating new ones, to find technical solutions to creatively led decisions. For example I have sometimes worked with proximity-based triggers which can really help ramp up the tension as the character nears a certain room/environment. This can also help give the player audio cues as to puzzle solving/where to explore if the game is an open-world game. As an unashamed action movie junkie, I’m also obsessed with combat music in games. I don’t like games that simply have a “combat loop,” but am always striving to make the piece of music ebb and flow depending on what the player is doing and the intensity of the on-screen action. I’m getting heavily into extrapolating various metrics and analytics from the game code that we can use to drive the combat music.

With interactive music in games, I don’t believe there is a “one size fits all” approach, as every game is different. Even between different levels of a game I use different interactive music techniques and approaches. My colleagues and I are always looking to push the boundaries to create a seamless interactive experience, with the music perfectly matching the gameplay, so the audience doesn’t notice the often incredibly complex work that is going on under the hood of the game. I think VR and AR will also play a big part in the future.

Can you point to some examples of “interactive music” that predate the dawn of the video game era?

DERIVIÈRE: To me, whatever the level of "interactivity," music should be meaningful. You need structure, coherency, like any language. Music is, before anything else, a language that is being used since the dawn of time by all the cultures in the world. Of course, Western music is very different from African music, Japanese music and so on and each of them offers its own take. So, what makes them interactive is actually the composers and/or performers. Take jazz music or even baroque music. There is a lot of improvisation from the performers based on a score written by a composer, so it becomes somehow interactive for the performers. They play around the structures; improvisation is a form of interactivity. And I believe this is the same for video game music, although the performer is the gamer, not a musician.

JACQUES: One could indeed state that the early “silent” movies of the 1920s involved interactive music. Although the experience for the theater-going public was a completely passive one, the pianist, when not performing pre-composed sheet music, would usually improvise live to the film. So the pianist was “interacting” with the film and often creating the score on the fly. Games are a truly interactive experience in every sense of the word, where the player (the “audience”) is totally immersed in a fully interactive environment/experience.

Olivier, a number of games you’ve worked on (Remember Me, Get Even and the forthcoming 11-11: Memories Retold) deal with the power of memory and how we remember. Would you say that memory has an important role in the music that you composer – and how people interact with music for games?

DERIVIÈRE: I think memories make up a huge part of who we are. We are built through experiences and we stack them into our mind as we grow. The most interesting part about memories is when they are shared, because although you experience something with a family member, a friend or a stranger, you will never remember it the same way they would. It is fascinating and can be applied to gamers as well. Gamers have a huge bond with the games they enjoy, and music plays a huge part of that bond. When I was a kid I used to play on AMIGA and SNES for which the audio was not particularly good and the compositions were generally done by programmers. However, the games made such an impact on me that I loved their music. My father was telling me how bad they were, and I didn't agree...Nowadays I do think they are not the best compositions ever, and with my knowledge I should dismiss them, but no, they are part of me and I can't help but go back and listen to them with the same awe I got the first time I heard them.

Mr. Jacques, you’ve had a remarkably diverse career. How has your experience scoring games impacted your work in advertising and arranging for singers like Shirley Bassey/Joss Stone?

JACQUES: One of the many things I enjoy about my career is the diversity. I find that when I am working with different musical styles/influences and artists, it positively helps to keep my ideas fresh as a composer. I would hate to ever get “stale” as a creator; I think all composers and artists need to feel that they are progressing and moving forward. I still regularly study scores to this day! There are many similarities as well as differences between various genres, so for example when I scored my first commercial, it was very similar to scoring a cut scene (cinematic sequence) in the games world. Both of these applications involve storytelling in a very short space of time, in a linear environment. And of course having studied classical music (I’m a trombonist/pianist/percussionist in a former life), my orchestration knowledge was useful when working on projects for Shirley Bassey and Joss Stone. I had a very varied musical upbringing, playing Stravinsky and Shostakovich in symphony orchestras one minute, [while] listening to, composing and DJing electronica and a healthy dose of jazz/funk/soul. So sometimes I like to really make the orchestra “groove” or use a more rhythmic writing style. For me the key is to be open-minded and always look to add to one’s own “composer’s toolbox,” and at the same time to have your own musical voice, regardless of style and genre.

Mr. Alexander, your company COOL Music Ltd. represents composers on a wide variety of career paths. Is it usually beneficial for composers to diversify and take on projects outside their comfort zone?

Of course; you are most alive when challenged creatively in all art forms. However it has to come from a sense of desire and passion for that art form or particular project. If you chase money, or pretend to write an album to be seen to be “an artist,” it will inevitably fail. Most composers find their path, but having clarity of where that path is, is sometimes challenging!


Screen Music Connect takes will come to London on Monday, September 24. Click here for details on securing a £15 discount for ASCAP members and international affiliates who license through ASCAP.

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