On Music Theory and Game Design

Maybe you don’t know it, but in the olden days, I was a professional musician. Furthermore, I was specifically a Jazz professional musician and I even was a Music Theory teacher for more than five years before going full-time into game design. Sometimes I feel that all of that time was utterly lost, but other times I light up and find a way to apply my dusted knowledge of music theory to game design.

I’ve found myself mentoring young people lately, about the age I was when I started thinking about going full-time into game design. I’ve found that some of them have the same theoretical problems that my music students faced. I feel it’s important to tackle those problems early in a designer’s career, if not, as many of my older music students, after years of doing things in a non-efficient, unproductive manner, they’ll find that they can’t advance any more and they’ll get stuck in their professional development.

Let’s see the three ways in which you can escape those problems and put yourself in the mental framework to keep advancing your game design career!

It’s easy to do, but difficult to do it well

Music is natural to us humans. Even the most out-of-tune of us hums a song from time to time and have created a short melody. Another thing is to compose a piece, create the instrumental arrangement or even reharmonize a song. That requires a good grasp of theory and a lot of instinct and knowledge of other compositions. Something fairly similar happens with game design. I think most of us have designed a game or two when we were young. I still remember when I was 5 or 6 years and I created a “race-to-the-end” game, mostly because that was the type of games I played (Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, etc.) I designed several (unbalanced, boring) games during my childhood. Had I kept designing games through my teens, I’m pretty sure I would have discovered what I discovered on my own while playing music: patterns. These patterns are everywhere, in every piece of art. The more you consume and engage in the active creation of a type of art, the more patterns you’ll find. That’s the basis of theory.

So, in retrospect, what I recommend to young designers is to get the theory sorted out right away, but also keep designing games, always. If you have the theory but do not practice game design, you’ll get disconnected from reality and lose the critical knowledge that is in front of your eyes. If you have only practice but not theory, you’ll stumble again and again without knowing why. Instead, if you are constantly designing games while also reading game design books, papers and (hopefully to a lesser extent) YouTube videos and Blogs (like this one), you’ll get the best of both worlds.

TL;DR: Don’t neglect theory, but never, ever stop designing games.

Theory gives you the tools to analyse the past and design the future

Music theory is cold, mathematical, precise. Many musicians avoid theory for that very same reason. They argue they fear losing the “heart” while focusing too much on the “brain” of the music. Many great musicians didn’t have an iota of idea of what a Lydian scale is. But many, many more great and good musicians have deep knowledge of music theory. Music theory, in the end, is just the understanding of the patterns that generate certain “emotions” in the listener, which means that you can “manipulate” the music to generate specific emotions.

The same happens with some Game Designers. As Game Design Theory is fairly new and mostly focused on video game design, many game designers prefer to “go with the flow” while designing games. You could get away with this 20 or 30 years ago when video games were scarce and even the most horrendous game had a chance to sell. In the current competitive market, that’s not true anymore. With game design theory, we can do much more than creating better games only by applying a framework we learned in a book. Game Design theory provides the game designer with something more important: tools.

Tools to analyse old games and see their flaws, but also their ingenuity to solve problems with very limited resources. Tools to understand current trends and trying to elucidate why they are trending. Tools to see dark design patterns and avoid them. Tools to deconstruct games into their systems, mechanics and parts and present your findings in a sensible way to teammates and students. Tools to see reality and use real-world knowledge to design your games.

TL;DR: Theory provides you with something more important than fancy words; it provides you with the necessary tools to understand and design better games.

Game Design makes you a versatile person

We have all seen them. Even Shigeru Miyamoto in his 1999 GDC keynote presented the games that resulted when only the programmers designed and created the art of the games. They were awful. And we still see that kind of game. Games with good concepts, but that are artistically flawed; or games with amazing art, but can barely be considered games. That’s why learning game design is so important. Regardless of the medium, a good game designer can create an amazing experience through games’ more important communication feature: game mechanics.

Even if you only design board games, your game can be ported to a digital medium, with different levels of abstraction. But if you are a programmer you can’t (to a major extent) code a physical board game, as well as an animator can’t create animations for a physical board game (hey, that’s a cool idea!). A game designer, on the other hand, can usually go solo-dev and still create a fun, engaging game. Even if you want to (generally, you should) include more people, having the game design mostly sorted out will attract more people. People are attracted to work on games they would love to play. That’s why most game companies’ founders are usually game designers too.

TL;DR: Being a game designer will make you a more versatile professional and will allow you to easily transfer your knowledge to other mediums.


Even if it looks like I’m bashing other disciplines, that’s not the intent. Games as a medium won’t be where they are right now had not a group of talented artists, musicians, programmers, marketers, producers and many more disciplines come together for the love of games and interactive experiences. It’s just that I think that without game design, any game will have a hard time creating engaging experiences. Moreover, I think that the role of the game designer is crucial to games; It’s like the role of the music composer. They are usually the secret face behind the top hits, the ones who allow talented interpreters to deliver the most amazing experiences in the biggest stages.

Now for designers, don’t ever neglect game design theory. Even if you have designed a pretty fun game without a drop of game design knowledge, that doesn’t mean that you can repeat the trick twice. And luckily, games and game design are now a more competitive discipline than it was a few years back, which means that the best game designs will eventually find the public and will be valued and loved by players and designers alike. Never stop learning; let your curiosity lead you to new books, videos and articles. But don’t be fooled. That’s not even half of it. The more important part of the process to become a better game designer and keep advancing in your career is simple, but difficult at the same time: keep designing games, and don’t ever stop designing.