Rose-Hulman’s Ludomusicology Class Brings Video Game Music to Life

Tuesday, May 14, 2024
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Rose-Hulman Artist-in-Residence Clare Longendyke performed students’ favorite video game music as part of the college’s popular ludomusicology classes taught by Associate Professor of Music David Chapman, Ph.D.

Anyone who played the Super Mario Bros. video game from the 1980s to today is familiar with the music that accompanies Mario and Luigi as they dodge fireballs in search of the captured princess. For most gamers, the sounds from the Nintendo classic are almost as recognizable as the characters themselves. In April, that popular video game theme was heard not from a computer, but from a piano in the Rose-Hulman White Chapel. The Super Mario Bros. tune — along with close to 20 other video game themes — were performed by Artist-in-Residence Clare Longendyke, D.M. in conjunction with Associate Professor of Music David Chapman, Ph.D.’s popular ludomusicology classes.

Ludomusicology is an emerging academic field that studies video game music. Chapman’s classes in this arena have been extremely popular with Rose students. This quarter includes two sections (a total of 54 students) of the class, both of which are full. The class looks at video game music through a historical lens, starting with games in the 1960s and 1970s and working forward in history, examining each gaming era and their methods for using music in games. Students also explored how video games use special types of musical language that are only partially programmed by video game creators, but then finished by the gameplay choices of the player.

This year’s classes were unique because of the collaboration with Longendyke. As artist-in-residence, one of her tasks was to curate Rose’s Discovery Music Series. She and Chapman worked together to focus one show specifically on video game music.

“It has been a huge boon for the music program to have Clare Longendyke as our artist-in-residence this year,” said Chapman. Longendyke is not a stranger to Rose’s music program. She’s been performing in the Discovery Music Series since 2016 when she was a graduate student at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. As part of her role, she enjoys working with Chapman’s classes and digging deeper into the pedagogical side of music with students who are primarily studying non-musical fields.

“I’ve had teaching positions in the past, but they’ve typically been in a performance-based schools and programs,” said Longendyke, who has taught at institutions such as Franklin College and The University of Chicago. “At Rose, I’m having conversations and engaging with curious students on a level that does not merely focus on the performance of the music. They have questions about the preparation process, the art of performing, and the study of music that even helps me frame how I’m thinking about my work very differently.”

Performing video game music is a relatively new phenomenon that Chapman compares to the emergence of jazz and film scores in traditional concert halls.

“There was a time when ‘serious’ music was considered classical, such as Bach, Beethoven and Brams, and you wouldn’t dare bring jazz into it,” said Chapman. “That has completely changed. Jazz is now a respected art that people go to college and get a degree in. … Film music was also not taken seriously by the classical music establishment. Until recently, you wouldn’t hear a piece by John Williams outside of a ‘pops’ concert. But today, when people think of classical music, John Williams sometimes comes to mind before Bach, Beethoven and Brams.”

Early in the term, Longendyke created a survey asking the video game music students to tell her their favorites games and soundtracks, and which songs would make them jump out of their seats with excitement if they heard them performed live. From those responses, she then curated a program that she would enjoy performing. 

“The performance was a rare first opportunity for me to be less familiar with the music I was performing than my audience,” said Longendyke. “While the students have grown up hearing this music as part of their favorite video games, most of it was new for me. The fun part was that I got to make connections between the video game music and my favorite composers. During the concert, I encouraged them to listen to the music of Prokofiev, Debussy and others, saying that if they liked the style of the game piece I played, they might also like those classical composers.”

Longendyke selected several pieces of music, including themes from the following video games: Minecraft, Undertale and Undertale: Delta Rune, The Legend of Zelda, Celeste, Skyrim, Final Fantasy X and VII, The Last of Us, and the original Super Mario Bros. One of the ways video game pieces differ from other concert songs is their length. The pieces are short because video game music tends to be non-linear and responsive to player input and interaction. An example of this is how Chapman adapted the Super Mario Bros. theme by ending the piece with the “game over” sound.

“Game music tends to loop or branch, so when you move music from that style to a concert hall, you have to translate the non-linear quality into a linear performance,” said Chapman. “You can’t just play the music as it appeared in the game because there is often no ending point. These pieces are short because the original source is a short loop.”

The concert is fully integrated into the ludomusicology class experience. Leading up to the hour-long event, students did scholarly readings on the topic of video game music as performance repertoire, and they wrote response papers after the concert. Additionally, the concert included a special performance by Chapman and Longendyke playing a four-hands piano piece together.

Aria Seiler, a junior majoring in computer science, wanted to take the class because she was curious to learn about music in video games. The class is particularly relevant for her as a programmer because if she decides to go into game development, having this kind of knowledge is important.

“My favorite [thing about this class] was learning about how the audio technology of the 8- and 16-bit eras influenced their music,” said Seiler. “It’s also neat to be at the forefront of the research, rather than learning about decades-old models and algorithms.”

For Longendyke, the residency and video game concert gave her the opportunity to curate a concert that was highly specific to her audience and to collaborate with Chapman and Rose students.

“I loved the challenge of curating a performance that connected so closely to Dr. Chapman’s curriculum,” said Longendyke. “It allowed me to get to know a segment of my audience that isn’t necessarily excited about classical music, and to see if I could draw them into my world as a classical pianist through repertoire that speaks to them. That was a challenge that I will absolutely carry into future concert programs, and I may even program some of this video game music in the future. I really loved playing it.” 

Chapman is thrilled that Longendyke agreed to perform a concert of all video game music, which he feels was a powerful culmination to the ludomusicology class. He feels this class is part of a broader effort to see the discipline of musicology speak to the most meaningful parts of students’ musical lives. As an instructor, he believes that students can do the most sophisticated musicological work in this class because they already know and love the video game music that is studied in the course.

“These students are sophisticated gamers; many are coders and hardware specialists, and the experience they bring to the table is extraordinary as well,” said Chapman. “It’s a beautiful learning community and synthesis of their expertise as gamers, as Rose students and future engineers, and of our shared love of music.”