How does the music in a video game affect the player? That’s what a local music teacher is studying

WATERLOO — Corin Gaiotto always knew the music in video games was connected to its characters, so he was excited when he got the chance to take a class on that very subject at a local school.

“I really enjoyed the discussions we had,” said Gaiotto, who took the class with his sister Leonie.

Both teens love video games and wanted to learn more about the music.

“I just wanted to understand what made games that I enjoyed so much better than other ones,” said Leonie.

The Beckett School at Laurier offered the fully remote course called “Characters’ Themes” for the first time this past fall.

Waterloo resident Marina Gallagher taught the small class of three students, which included the Gaiotto siblings and one other teen.

“It was amazing. The camaraderie between the three of them and the level of insight on their analysis is just amazing,” said Gallagher.

Students analyzed the music in games such as “Pokemon,” “Legend of Zelda” and “Kingdom Hearts,” and how the music changed to represent a scene or character.

Music in video games is a new area of academic study, said Gallagher, but it is something she has a passion for.

Like Corin and Leonie, Gallagher, 28, has a love of both gaming and music. Her studies in music theory sparked her curiosity about the subject.

“You start to kind of think about how these themes represent characters that you see on the screen, or what makes the music unsettling or peaceful while you’re playing different games,” she said.

Gallagher is working on her PhD in music history at University of British Columbia, where she looks at the music landscape in four “Final Fantasy” games.

Gallagher, who has taught piano for 13 years, approached the Beckett School’s director, Rebekah Jordan-Miller, with the idea for her course.

The Beckett School, which has locations in Waterloo and Kitchener, has been offering music classes to people of all ages for four decades, including piano, improvisation and flute classes.

During the pandemic, the school struggled after its enrolment dropped 40 per cent, going from about 700 students to around 400.

“That was incredibly frightening. We lost instructors who just decided to teach at home,” she said.

But student numbers are on the rise again, with current registration at more than 700 students, with 50 instructors.

“I’m feeling significantly encouraged,” said Jordan Miller. “It’s within a year that we’ve seen that grow beyond the 700.”

Some of the school’s instruments and equipment come from retired musicians looking for a safe place to keep them at the end of their career. Recently, the school received two pianos (one grand and the other upright) and an organ.

Some classes are smaller, like Gallagher’s, while classes such as the adult choir see about seven to eight students.

In the winter semester, Gallagher will again teach the characters class, alongside “Music and Landscapes,” in which students learn about how “pastoral” and “anti-pastoral” music landscapes evoke emotions in the game player.

Pastoral landscapes draw from classical music and are associated with flutes, woodwinds, strings and the long extension of notes, said Gallagher.

Anti-pastoral landscapes embody darker scenes, with unusual sounds and instruments, a lack of structure and sometimes high-pitched notes. Sometimes the music contains very unusual sounds.

“There’s one I’m doing for my thesis, it sounds like someone’s hitting a rolled-up newspaper against a surface, it’s kind of like ‘thock, thock,’ and you’re like, ‘I don’t know what that is,’ ” said Gallagher.

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