Why does music within video games matter? 

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Video games are as popular as they’ve ever been, but what makes them so great?  

Is it the world building? The characters? The story? Could it be the setting?  

Development of game mechanics and the function of music throughout games is extensive. 

Andrea Austin, an Associate Professor in the English and Film Studies department at Laurier, shed some light on the musical composition of video games, and how it contributes to narrative.  

It’s important to understand the difference between what a score is in comparison to a soundtrack.   

“A score is original music composed for a piece of media,” said Austin. 

In contrast, a soundtrack is music sourced by a director. 

“Usually the directors or developers go off and find music they like for sections, and then they use that.” 

According to the Berklee College of Music, a score made specifically for media enhances the experience of playing the game. 

 However, music that was not written specifically for a game also serves a purpose.  

“If developers go off and find selected music for a game, then it’s less about setting the ambiance for the game than it is about punctuating certain sections with the music because it adds real emphasis.”

Andrea Austin, Associate Professor in the English and Film Studies department at Laurier

It often comes down to the budget for the game and how much they are willing to spend for the music they desire.  

“If you want to licence iconic hit music and it is well protected by copyright, it can be expensive to buy the copyrights for a game.” 

Based on this, sometimes in-house production is more cost effective. 

 “It might be cheaper to approach a musician or composer – especially if they are not as well known – and have them compose a score,” said Austin. 

 In video games, music wields an unexpected amount of power, as expanded upon by Austin. 

“Regardless of whether they go for original music or selected music, it really adds to the ambiance. For some games, it can really help with historical authenticity.”  


This can be observed in games like Skyrim, where the game’s soundtrack was written by Jeremy Soule, a composer who won a BAFTA award for it.  

One of the simplest ways to put the player into the world of a game is to use music that is reminiscent of the period portrayed.  

This is displayed in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, PGMag citing its dedication to portraying the medieval period through its use of folk music and battle hymns. 

As elaborated by Austin, ambience created by music impacts the characters in the game as well as the external world of the player.  

Austin compared Skyrim’s music to that of Grand Theft Auto’s.  

In Skyrim, the music rarely has words and is more melodic, while the Grand Theft Auto series often uses music that is more current and resonates with a younger audience. 

The Grand Theft Auto series often use hit pop or rock music to sort of give that world that gritty feeling due to the use of real world music, which gives that feeling of stealing real world cars.”  

As you sit down to play a game, make sure to pay attention to the way a soundtrack changes the overall mood of the gameplay. 

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