In her book Music In Everyday Life (2000), DeNora specifies how people interpret musical meaning through semiotics, as well as the ways they relate themselves to music, and then, unconsciously construct their self-identities. These arguments remind me of the musical and non-musical semiotics that I perceived when I was playing the online game, World of Warcraft (WoW) during 2011 and 2015, while I was studying how to create music for movies and games. My composition instructor, Dr. Zhou Jiaojiao, a movie composer in Central Conservatory, told me to sensitively grab every single feature in the movie plots and games so that we could choose the proper instruments and compositional approaches: When the music you compose perfectly intertwines with pictures, audience or players might easily immerse themselves into the movies or games.

This studying experience gave me an opportunity to analyze what Russel Brower – the composer of WoW – wants the players to perceive through the music and the game. His composing strategy is using music to present the distinguished races in WoW: human, elves, orcs, goblins, etc. Every race has their own history and culture, including their distinctive looks, languages, habitus, beliefs, and of course, music. Even though I currently do not play WoW anymore, I still get goose bumps when I hear the theme music of its human’s capital, Stormwind City.

The reason why I feel excited while listening to Stormwind theme music, is that I played a role of “human priestess” in WoW, healing others with the power of “the Light” – a sort of holy energy. When I controlled my character, riding my griffin and flying into Stormwind City, the background music started to play. During the years of playing, I somehow accepted, and then identified, with such cultural setting in the game. Here, the main function of background music is to present cultural characteristics in the game, and more importantly, enhance players’ moods. As DeNora (2000) suggests, “music ‘effects’ come from the ways in which individuals orient to it, how they interpret it and how they place it within their personal musical maps, within the semiotic web of music and extra-musical associations.” (p. 61) Indeed, Stormwind theme music interprets the style of the human culture in WoW. The grand stone-made architectures are reflected by the tutti of orchestra. The human’s godly faith to the Light is similar to people’s religious beliefs in the reality, which means the choir in the theme music is essential. Those extra-musical elements, combined with the Stormwind theme music, let players associate the similar cultural semiotics to the real world.

stormwind-cathedral
The Stormwind Cathedral in World of Warcraft

However, there are more things in music beyond just foiling the game. DeNora (2000) argues that music is the way to shape ones’ subjectivity and self-identity. Similarly, the developers of WoW also composed music for the self-identity of the characters in the game, no matter whether those characters can be controlled or perceived by players or not. For example, there is another race in WoW named the Blood Elf. They have their own song Lament of the Highborne, telling the story about how their homeland was destroyed by their enemies.

Like Stormwind music, this song reflects the features of blood elves as well. Firstly, the soft harp accompaniment and female chorus create an elegant ambience, verifying the song name “highborne” because blood elves are noble elves based on the game’s background setting. Also, Lament of the Highborne is sung in Thalassian which is an artificial elf-speaking language created by the game developers. In addition, unlike human’s music in major or minor tunes, blood elves’ music doesn’t sound major or minor. Such composing method, together with Thalassian, correspond with the exotic characteristic of blood elves. Through this personality, players have more empathy for blood elves’ heartbreaking history when they engage in their activities, and gradually identify their exotic culture. The virtual world looks real to the ones who live in the reality.

 

blood-elf
A blood elf in World of Warcraft, standing in front of her capital, Silvermoon City

The Stormwind music and Lament of the Highborne are only two examples of using music to present virtual societies. This sort of composing strategy is commonly implemented in today’s media, such as movies, TV series, and games. The selection of mode, instrument, even lyrics all transmit different information so that we can perceive what the composers want us to perceive. Sometimes music gives us information hidden in it and lets us heartedly engage in, no matter if there are cultural boundaries. But at other times, it is our own life experiences and emotions that interweave our whole semiotic unit. For example, one is hardly moved by WoW music if he or she has never played it or known WoW’s semiotics before. What I learned from Dr. Zhou, as well as what I perceived in WoW, both greatly influence the way I teach. Besides for simply teaching students music, I often encourage them to find out the information behind music, and then interpret music in their own ways. Through perceiving semiotics during music learning, students might sensitively cognize the cultural elements around them, or even be able to create ones for virtual products someday.

However, students might feel extremely differently while listening to the same music because of their distinctive experiences and understandings to the world. At this time, as music educators, should we let them insist their viewpoints, or just simply correct them? All the races in WoW are all artificial. Its developers and composers can create and interpret its semiotics according to their understandings. But when it comes to the culture in the reality, things are much more complicated. When we teach students to use cultural semiotics that we are not as familiar as the “locals” in our music, will it become offensive if the locals think that our music twisted their culture?


References

Balcer2222 (2008, March 9). “World Of Warcraft Soundtrack – Stormwind (City Theme)” [YouTube]. Project: Music. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYidb1LvMs8

DeNora, T. (2000). Music in everyday life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Edward, T. P. (2013). Mists of Pandaria Ending Cinematic – Horde & Allience – Yeni Warchief belli oldu. Oyungezer. Retrieved from https://www.pinterest.com/big0586/blood-elf/

Ormi1911 (2012). Anduin. Warcraft Lore. Retrieved from https://thesanctuarybyormi.wordpress.com/

Polish and Proud (2015, January 13). “World of Warcraft – Lament of the Highborne (Lyrics)” [YouTube]. Project: Music. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQTfm6mtp7Y

Wikipedia. Russell Brower. Retrieved from Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell_Brower

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