Video Game Orchestra Strikes Nostalgic Chord

By: CBS
By: CBS

The animation used in video games is a lot better now than it was in the beginning and so is the music used in their soundtracks.

In fact, it's opened up a whole new field of music appreciation. You don't need a Wii or an Xbox to enjoy it.

A crowd of 1,100 recently gathered in this courtyard at the Smithsonian American Art Museum to listen to a 123-piece orchestra. But it wasn't the music of Beethoven or Strauss they heard. Instead, it was arrangements for video games like "Sonic the Hedgehog." It was all part of the largest dedication ever by a major museum to the art of video games.

Joel Guttman, who plays trombone for the University of Maryland's Gamer Symphony Orchestra, said, "Games are a real hybrid of different forms of art. You can have a beautiful game with a wonderful story, but if the soundtrack isn't congruent with the game itself, then something's just going to seem off."

The Gamer Symphony Orchestra orchestra has struck a chord among its loyal followers, invoking the power of nostalgia.

"In addition to always being a fan of games, I've always been a massive fan of their music, too," said orchestra president Alex Ryan.

Ryan, who describes himself as only adequate on trumpet, is a far more serious gamer. When asked about the intensity of his gaming, if he's up until the wee hours of the morning gaming, said, "There have been many instances of that. It's - it's pretty much my pastime of choice."

Made up of mostly non-music majors, the Gamer Symphony Orchestra is more club than conservatory.

Still, for several years now, they've packed their campus concert hall with some of its biggest audiences - an accomplishment the university's School of Music director Robert Gibson says can't be ignored.

He said, "They've used some rather brilliant strategies, including inviting the composers of the video games to attend their concerts. And they've had remarkable success with very, very limited resources."

Ryan said the symphony seems to draw more of a crowd than an upper-level symphony band. Ryan said it's interesting, but not incredibly surprising. "It's stuff that people are familiar with and really want to hear and get a lot more excited about than 15-minute chorales by Bach," he said.

The Gamer Symphony Orchestra's success also represents an evolution in the very games they're playing. It's easy to see how animation has advanced over the years, but if you listen closely to the music, you'll hear just how sophisticated the soundtrack has become.

Finding that perfect balance of picture and sound is also big business, producing a new generation of popular composers like Austin Wintory. Wintory said gaming has become a forum for composers to be able to write music that "can stand up with anything else." His most recent score for the game "Journey" debuted last month on Billboard's soundtrack chart at number eight - one notch above the latest from the movie "Twilight."

"To me it's the next frontier," Wintory said. "Film was the dominant story telling medium of the 20th century. I think games - and this exhibit is evidence of that - are poised to be the 21st century's medium."

Guttman said the allure of video game music is the memory players have when they play a game. He added, "And for people who might not have played the game, it's just really beautiful music, and anyone can appreciate that."

It's an appreciation that's turning these familiar orchestral sounds into a new era of popular music.


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