Gamasutra is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
Defining Adaptive Music
View All     RSS
April 1, 2020
arrowPress Releases
April 1, 2020
Games Press
View All     RSS

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:


Defining Adaptive Music

April 17, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next


…I know, I know: defining adaptive music sounds boring, pedantic, academic, theoretical, and of limited practical use. Yawn. Trust me, I was right there with ya. But! As it turns out, this particular exercise was a huge personal breakthrough for me in terms of my own understanding of the topic. So I thought I’d share. (Your mileage may vary.)


This article is targeted mostly to experienced game composers and audio programmers with actual practical adaptive music experience. In general, I don’t expect them to have had much spare time in their production schedules to spend on frivolous musings about the essential nature of the craft. (I know I didn’t.) On the other hand, I think they’ll find this brief journey extremely interesting. (I know I did.)

At the same time, the paper should be easily accessible to a general audience. There are no technical pre-requisites. The only real requirement is a more-than-casual curiosity about the field.


(Warning: gratuitous personal anecdote. Feel free to skip to the Purpose section.)

Some More About Me

As far as I know, I’m one of very few people with the following skill set:

  1. a formal training in classical composition (BMus from the University of Toronto)

  2. many years of indie music production experience

  3. audio programmer credits on two “next gen” console titles (“Full Auto” Xbox 360, “Full Auto 2: Battlelines” PS3)

Full Auto

As such, I like to think that I have a fairly unique and advanced understanding of adaptive music. (Especially since it has been an obsession of mine for quite a while.)

This know-it-all attitude is kind of obnoxious in the game industry, considering I haven’t actually composed music for any (shipped) titles. (Although to be perfectly fair, most game composers haven’t coded adaptive music logic for any shipped titles.) For a while, I thought that academia might be a much better fit for me. (This is way back in aught-thee and aught-four, ah recon.)

I had visions of four-month-long summers of applied research and blissful publishing, all in the name of pure knowledge; holding forth on my favorite topic to a classroom of rapt pupils; tenure; inappropriate relationships with college co-eds; and prolonged legal battles fighting for my very career.

Sadly, getting back on track for an academic career after a few years “on the outside” proved to be at lot less easy than the college co-eds. Nonetheless, the attempt led to the following very interesting encounter.

A Very Interesting Encounter

When I started getting my applications for grad school together, I met with a music theory professor at my alma mater. Preliminary investigations seemed to indicate that Prof. Mark Sallmen would be the most likely candidate to supervise a research degree in my particular area of interest.

I have to admit, I kind of expected an enthusiastic explosion of interest from the music theory community. Finally, after years of analyzing A) obscure points of interest in centuries-old music or B) the 20th century’s enthusiastic deconstruction of all traditional notions of music, along comes An Exciting New Practical Technical Composition Challenge.

In my experience thus far – including interactions with the IASPM (the International Association for the Study of Popular Music) – game music is barely an annoying bleep on the radar of the serious academic music community. Whenever I bring the topic up in those circles I just end up feeling like a flake.

But I digress (as I am wont to do).

My meeting with Prof. Sallmen would prove to be a very interesting encounter, as it led to the following humbling experience.

A Humbling Experience

I thought Prof. Sallmen would be delighted to finally have found a formally trained composer who was also a computer programmer. Now he could finally supervise some applied research in the fascinating emergent field of adaptive music theory. What he actually said was (ok, I’m paraphrasing here): “What the hell are you talking about?”

This was a very interesting moment for me because I suddenly realized that, in a very real sense, I didn’t know.

Sure I could give the usual examples that are typically used to describe adaptive music. I could compare and contrast the scoring of a linear film sequence versus a non-linear game encounter. But how was “adaptive” music different from 20th century composers’ “indeterminacy” and “aleatory” music experiments? (Sallmen’s questions.) Various jazz traditions? And so on. What was adaptive music? For all my annoying, know-it-all, deeper-interdisciplinary-perspective-than-thou attitude, I literally didn’t know what I was talking about.

Birth of an Article

Dr. Sallmen invited me to write a formal abstract introducing adaptive music as a field of study. I accepted and began my research, starting by trying to determine the exact scope of the term “adaptive music” itself.

The first thing that happened was that I started to feel a bit better, because apparently the game industry didn’t know what it was talking about either. Everywhere I looked, the term was described briefly in terms of examples. But nowhere was it actually defined.

The other thing that happened was that my little abstract feature-crept into a short paper, which eventually turned into the article that you find before you today.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

Related Jobs

Infinity Ward
Infinity Ward — Woodland Hills, California, United States

Senior Audio Engineer

Loading Comments

loader image