Sound Byte: Meet the Composer Behind BioShock - Garry Schyman

Find out where you can hear Garry Schyman's works performed live and how he got into the video game music business.

Like many other composers in the video game industry, Garry Schyman has an impressive background in television and film, but he had been working in the video game industry long before projects like BioShock and Dante's Inferno came along. Find out more in the interview below, and sample some of the tracks from the BioShock soundtrack for yourself! If you're in the Los Angeles area next Monday, May 9, there will be a concert performed at California State University Northridge that will feature Garry's works from BioShock, BioShock 2, and Dante's Inferno. Tickets are free, but they will run out quickly! For one lucky Sound Byte reader, we are reserving a couple of tickets for you, so follow gs_soundbyte for the full details.

Meet composer Garry Schyman.

GameSpot: Could you start off with telling us a bit about yourself and your musical background?

Garry Schyman: Born in Chicago, I grew up in Southern California. I graduated from University of Southern California with a degree in music composition. After graduating, I immediately sought work scoring films and television. One of my first assignments was scoring a religious television series for Lutheran TV. It was a half-hour melodrama and was a blast for me because I got to hire a live band (with the budget usually not more than 15 players) and hear my music performed. But truly I was thrilled to get paid to write music and receive royalties.

GS: What was the first instrument you picked up?

Garry Schyman: I started playing the drums when I was in elementary school but eventually lost interest when my mom rented a piano for my brother and I took it over. I loved the instrument, demanded lessons, and began practicing three hours a day!

GS: Is there an instrument you wish you knew how to play?

Garry Schyman: Well I love the string instruments, and I wish I could coax some beauty out of a violin or cello. But at least I get to write for great players and hear them perform my music. I am working with an amazing violist now--Andrew Duckles--who is working on my viola concerto "Zingaro." I love meeting with him and listening to him play the music while discussing my intentions.

GS: What is your fondest memory when it comes to music?

Garry Schyman: Well, it has happened many times, and it's that moment when I come up with something that I really love musically. So it's the part of my compositional process when the idea emerges and I really love what I have discovered. That is a very heady and exciting moment for me. Sometimes I have to get up out of my chair and dance a jig.

GS: How did you get into making music for video games?

Garry Schyman: Funny thing is, I was not seeking it. The opportunities just sort of presented themselves. The first opportunity was in the mid 1990s when a friend of mine was an exec at Philips Interactive. I ended up scoring a few games for him. Because they used their proprietary CDI technology (now defunct), it permitted me to deliver stereo files; therefore I produced one of the first orchestral scores ever for a video game--"Voyeur" in 1994.

Once Philips Interactive went out of business, I left the industry for a number of years as I was busy scoring films and television (a lot of movies for television in that period). Then in 2004 my agent at the time faxed my resume to THQ, and an executive there just happened to see it sitting on the fax machine--she was my girlfriend's roommate in college. It was a lucky fluke that ended up with me scoring Destroy All Humans, which led to all of my current work.

GS: How is it different than composing for film or TV? What do you like/dislike about composing for video games?

Garry Schyman: There are similarities and differences. The most important thing that they share is that music has an emotional impact upon the viewer. Some mystical magical thing happens when you combine visual images and music, and it has a powerful effect on people--essentially that's why composers like me are hired, to bring emotion and mood and magic to their production.

They differ in several respects--implementation being the most obvious. Basically, implementation of music with film was set about 80 years ago and has essentially not changed. The music is composed to locked picture (well not always locked, unfortunately) and is then mixed with the other sound elements and is never changed after that, whereas music for games has many implementation strategies, and new ones are constantly being invented. New technology is permitting the music to become more and more interactive. This affects, to some extent anyways, how the music is composed. Because the player's actions will differ from person to person, we try to make the music as interactive as possible to have the best effect on the player.

With film and television, you compose to picture, and this is quite challenging in its own way. But it also makes it easy on the composer as you have constant feedback as to whether your music is working or not. You also have the form for the music given to you by the action onscreen. With games, you do have in-game films to score, but 90 percent of your work is not done to locked picture of any kind. So depending on how far the developer has gotten on the project, you may or may not have much to go by when you compose other than a verbal or written description of what is happening when the music is playing. Also, you may be asked to write in layers so that different layers can be brought in when something the player does triggers a change in the game (perhaps combat has started etc.). In the best case, the developer will capture gameplay and send you a movie of the gameplay that is occurring when the particular cue you are writing is playing. But this is only a guide, as you are not catching anything with the music because the gameplay will rarely be precisely the same for any two players.

GS: Atmosphere was critical in the success of BioShock, and that was established by the visuals as well as the music, original and licensed. What was it like working on that soundtrack?

Garry Schyman: It really was one of my favorite projects to work on. I was asked to try something really different than people normally expected in a video game score, and I got to experiment and use some really interesting music techniques that I never guessed would find their way into a VG score. So to answer, it was fantastic. Ken Levine really wanted something different and permitted me to do it.

GS: What techniques did you use? How did you integrate them with the gameplay?

Garry Schyman: Well this is a fairly technical question, but to answer, I used four composing techniques. First, the style of the avant-garde music in the early 20th century (a la Bartok, Prokofiev, Alban Berg, etc.). With that I combined the mid and late 20th-century technique called aleatoric, which creates very interesting eerie moods by asking the orchestra to improvise within a narrow set of parameters. In addition, I used a technique called musique concrete, which is a mid 20th-century style which makes use of real-world sounds. Finally, I wrote some fairly sad and poignant music which helped create the sense of tragedy and failure that Rapture represented.

Though all of the techniques existed before I used them, what makes the score unique, in my opinion, is how I combine these styles, which created a very interesting texture for the score.

As far as integrating music into the game, I did not do that. The audio director Emily Ridgway implemented all of the sound and music and it turn out terrifically well.

GS: What were your biggest challenges on that score? Was BioShock 2 much different? Was it easier?

Garry Schyman: Finding a new musical vocabulary is a big challenge. I was given the task of doing something very different, and it took a bit of time and a lot of experimenting to find it. Once I found the style, writing in it was a delight, and most of my cues were accepted on first pass. BioShock 2 was easier in the sense that the style had been established and I didn't have to reinvent the wheel. So it was just delightful work creating that score. Which in some respects surpasses my original in my opinion.

GS: How do you approach individual tracks for a particular game?

Garry Schyman: Well each piece of music is specifically tailored for a part of the game that the audio director has requested. So once I have developed a theme and style for the score, I work off of the direction that the audio director gives me because he or she is working at the developers' studio and they know what is required to help the project.

GS: Where do you see video game music heading into the future?

Garry Schyman: You know I wish I had a crystal ball. I am fairly certain whatever I predict will likely fall short of reality. The future always surprises us. At the moment, the rise of casual games is huge and may impact how many AAA games are made. They tend to have lower budgets and less cinematic-style scores. That said, the rise of these games could really turn into an interesting opportunity for composers. We'll see. If the budgets to produce them stay low, they will not attract the best talent to score them.

I do continue to see major AAA games being produced requiring big scores of all styles.

GS: There's not a lot of recognition for video game music in the mainstream, but that is slowly changing. Why do you think that is?

Garry Schyman: The media people who write the articles have not tended to be gamers. So they are really not tuned into how big they have become. However, there has been a slow but steady recognition of the importance of the genre. For instance, VGs are now eligible for Grammys--that's new and a big step in the right direction.

GS: What other artists in the game music industry do you admire and why?

Garry Schyman: Greg Edmonson is writing terrific stuff for Uncharted. My friend Jason Graves is always writing really interesting music. Laura Karpman is a friend and a wonderful composer.

GS: What kind of music do you listen to now?

Garry Schyman: I am a Mahler geek. I love his music and listen to it a lot. I am really immersed in his 6th symphony at the moment. Gorgeous music. But I also listen to 20th-century composers (Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, etc.) and of course my fellow contemporary film and game composers' scores.

GS: What are your biggest influences?

Garry Schyman: Mahler, Bartok, Prokofiev, John Williams, Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith, Witold Lutoslawski, Dimitri Shostakovich, and on and on. Really, we all stand on the backs of giants who came before us and created wonderful music. Even ethnic music and rock--I would say the only music that doesn't really speak to me is hip-hop and rap.

GS: What projects are you currently working on?

Garry Schyman: Sorry, but I am not at liberty to say. You know how supersecret this industry is!

GS: Any advice for aspiring musicians?

Garry Schyman: You know I teach "Scoring for Video Games" one day a week at USC these days in a program called Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television, and I work with aspiring students all the time. I tell everyone the truth as best as I understand it.

It's really an insane business for someone to choose. Your chances of succeeding are slim. But if you do succeed, it's enormously rewarding--just a fantastic way to make a living. If this is something you have to do and are willing to sacrifice nearly everything, then go for it. But it is a heartbreaker of a career. Sorry, that's the truth. You've got to want it more than anything.

GS: Thank you for your time!

Sound Byte is GameSpot's game music blog, which covers every aspect of music in games, including interviews with top game music composers and discussions of new or classic game soundtracks. Have a question or suggestion? Leave us a comment below or e-mail us at soundbyte@gamespot.com. For a list of previous Sound Byte features, click here. Follow us on Twitter! @gs_soundbyte

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Discussion

59 comments
julianozuca
julianozuca

Amazing interview--and tracks. It's interesting to hear names like Shostakovich among his influences...

rapid_fire915
rapid_fire915

Yeah I agree the sountrack for Bio Shock 1and2 kicksass.

XenoLair
XenoLair

Bioshock has fantastic compositions and the licensed tracks are awsome too.

ryandfa
ryandfa

Been playing Bioshock 2 while the PSN is down, and my god the ST is mind blowing, kudos to you sir!!

Illuve
Illuve

Bioshock's score has some of the best mood and and atmosphere I have ever heard... ever! I want to thank Gary for his amazing contribution to my musical education and, just plainly, my life :) also want to give a shout out to a absolute completely overlooked game that has one of the best musical scores as well and thats "Advent Rising" on the original xbox, composer: Tommy Tallarico. You both are amazing composers, thank you for sharing your talent with the rest of us.

rhysthepriest
rhysthepriest

When I first heard the screeches of the violins in Bioshock 2, I thought it was so dark and...beautiful.

berio2toru
berio2toru

Fantastic guy!!! I interviewed him last year for my MA music thesis (re-submitting now :-( sorry for the delay Garry!!!). Honest, truthful and humourous. He is becoming a legend, very sad that Dante's Infernal didn't get a good reception. Demo was great though... He felt that Dant'e's score was the best he did, and i think he's right... just ashamed that the video game was not received well. Also he looks different without his beard! lol

Scarlesspider
Scarlesspider

yeah bioshock had a mesmerizing jazzy soundtrack.

ali_manslayer
ali_manslayer

i love the soundtrack for bioshock (1 and 2) thanks a lot for this

Droogie_1
Droogie_1

dear gamespot, the changes to your website stink. i have had to refresh pages and videos multiple times just to make the info show up correctly (or to get the 'related videos' screen off of the video i am watching). aside from looking incredibly ugly, the site is also VERY buggy now. please change it back. it's starting to look as bad as IGN's site...

rafaelburigo
rafaelburigo

Wow, I didn't knot that the Bioshock soundtrack was so amazing! Instantly won my respect.

Big_Bad_Sad
Big_Bad_Sad

Welcome to Rapture sounds like it should be in a Tim Burton film.

tmaclabi
tmaclabi

Music from BioShock and Dante's Inferno are really amazing!

D-eagle101
D-eagle101

Remember the old games, like Zelda or Mario, that they only had bleeps and notes... btw Bioshock has a terrific music!

Rheinmetal
Rheinmetal

The music from Dante's Inferno was epic and unforgettable!

Blankgen86
Blankgen86

That was great. I had wanted to know more about him after hearing the Bioshock soundtracks. Is he scoring Bioshock Infinite? It would be really interesting to hear how he would score it, considering the game's change of environment, and era.

ziproy
ziproy

I don't really remember the music from Bioshock but Dante's Inferno was absolutely terrific. Besides the CGI cutscenes the music was the best part of that game. Still one of my favorites

darkcomedian
darkcomedian

Dante's Inferno had an incredible soundtrack.

3116porter
3116porter

bioshock by far has one of the best scores in the history of gaming

3116porter
3116porter

lol i remember staying up to 12 A.M. listening to the music in dantes infernos commercial

vinhnt1
vinhnt1

well i really love bioshock , it's much more wonderful than bioshock 2. I love the classical music , crazy splicers roaming & singing .. that's really great

Fandango_Letho
Fandango_Letho

The music of Bioshock gave it a good third of its overall atmosphere. It is simply wonderful, odd, smooth yet very... tense. Hearing a song meant for Bioshock is automaticaly recognizable.

syler4815162342
syler4815162342

I really enjoyed his musics, he should be rewarded :)

peterwantspie
peterwantspie

Cohen's Masterpiece was one of my favourite pieces of any game soundtrack for the last 10 years. Bioshock really did have the best of everything, music included. It's nice to see the composers getting a bit of the recognition they deserve! Man, I love Sound Byte.

Chavis02
Chavis02

Gary Schyman did a EPIC Job on the musics for Bioshock. :D

shinglemill
shinglemill

Great games + Great music = good times

SuicideSekt
SuicideSekt

I love the music in both Games especially Dante's Inferno. Added so much to the whole feel of the game!

MichaeltheCM
MichaeltheCM

sweet interview- i like the new format :)

Keitha313
Keitha313

What an amazing soundtrack, oh yeah Osama is dead guy!! USA USA USA... Joking!! Funny how everything I have been reading/watching over in America reverts to him i.e. WWE blehrgh

mrhagane
mrhagane

Great job Gary Schyman, i always respect music composer, in my opinion they the second most important part in film and game development. Hope ya we will se gary schyman compose again for game.

aSchizophrenic
aSchizophrenic

Bioshock is amazing, and so is the soundtrack. Kudos to Garry Schyman, I have much respect for you.

santinegrete
santinegrete

People like him make me like the game's more! Dante's Inferno in PS3 has the soundtrack as bonus, and that really makes the package sweet.

CongressManStan
CongressManStan

Playing through Bioshock 2 right now, the game is amazing and the music is just as good.

jddawg0808
jddawg0808

I can't say he's better than Kow Otani (Shadow of the Colossus), but Schyman's work in Bioshock moved me just as much as the music in Shadow of the Colossus.

Nexzy
Nexzy

Bioshock will be my best game ever!

jfoelker
jfoelker

Mozart of gaming music!!!

wellrod
wellrod

Bioshock, My favourite game - amazing music. It makes the whole experience more then what it actually is, gets you immersed.

jecht_35
jecht_35

Garry Schyman is truly a master composer, his works are both whimsical and ominous.

Pete5506
Pete5506

The music in BioShock was great, I'm loving theses Sound Byte

ReaverGod666
ReaverGod666

I'm not into classical music much, but this guys good!

VilandasUK
VilandasUK

You are amazing seriously, making such good music for Bioshock series, I love it :D

CoolSkAGuy
CoolSkAGuy

I was talking about Cohens Masterpiece. It was a true delight to listen to.

3116porter
3116porter

@CoolSkAGuy it hasn't even come out yet :l

3116porter
3116porter

both games have one of the best sound tracks known to date