Oxford Brookes music lecturer researches the music used to depict characters in video games

Dr Matt Lawson teaching at Oxford Brookes University

The music used in the popular video game The Lord of The Rings Online to represent good and evil characters raises moral and ethical questions about cultural appropriation, according to research by a lecturer from Oxford Brookes University.

Dr Matt Lawson, a Senior Lecturer in Music at Oxford Brookes, who has extensively researched the use of music in video games and films, says there are differences in the choice of music used in the game when protagonist characters are on screen, compared with antagonist, or non-human characters.

He will now present his findings at Ludo 2023, the 12th annual European Conference on video game music and sound, taking place at the University of Edinburgh between 23 and 25 March. 

Different music representing good and evil

Dr Lawson said: “In films created in the Western hemisphere, namely those made in Hollywood or Europe, music tends to clearly delineate good and evil in ways that have only recently come under scrutiny.

“This has happened throughout the history of cinema, where the protagonist would be accompanied by music that has similarities to that found in the western classical music canon. For example, an orchestral sound, with string instruments in scenes of love, and the use of horns for heroic moments. 

“In The Lord of the Rings, the composer Howard Shore's Celtic and homely feel for the Hobbits in the Shire, contrasts with monsters and evil enemies being represented by non-Western vocal sounds and traditional percussion.

“My current research delves into the moral and ethical questions of whether this cultural appropriation of music to depict good and evil is the only way of doing things to help audiences understand the characters and locations, and I start to discuss whether there are alternative approaches that may be more appropriate in  today's more inclusive world.”

Dr Lawson is currently writing a book, titled ‘The Music of Middle-Earth on Screen’, which focuses on music used in films, TV programmes, animations and video game adaptations of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Following Ludo 2023 which this year has the theme of ‘Sound and Music Beyond the Human’, Dr Lawson will travel to New York City in May 2023 to attend the ‘Music and Moving Image Conference’, where he will again present his expert research.

Dr Lawson added: “Video game music is seeing a real boom in terms of scholarly research on its functions, taking inspiration from film and television music studies. The fact that the annual Ludomusicology conference is in its twelfth year and continuing to grow shows that video game music studies will continue to thrive.”