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Tonic Pivot (The Game Music of Jurassic World Primal Ops: GDC 2023)

This article shares the discussion of tonic pivot from Winifred Phillips’ highly-rated GDC 2023 lecture, “Chaos Theory in Game Music.”

Winifred Phillips

July 17, 2023

9 Min Read

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hi! I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips. In March, I gave a presentation at the Game Developers Conference 2023 – a top industry event with lectures and panels from lots of different experts in all the varied disciplines within the field of game development. My lecture was entitled “Chaos Theory in Game Music.” It focused on my musical score for the Jurassic World Primal Ops video game, and it was rated by GDC attendees as one of the best sessions of GDC 2023! So awesome to participate once again in one of the best game audio conferences of the year!

Each year after I present at the Game Developers Conference, I include most of the content of my lecture in a series of articles. So with this article, I’m kicking off a six-part series based on my highly-rated GDC 2023 presentation! I’ll be including all of the discussion from my GDC lecture, along with lots of the illustrations and videos that were a part of my GDC talk. So let’s get started!

During the course of this article series, I’ll be sharing my process composing the musical score for Jurassic World Primal Ops – it’s the video game from Universal Games and Behaviour Interactive. Jurassic World Primal Ops came out last summer, right alongside the theatrical run of Jurassic World Dominion (the latest film from the popular Jurassic World franchise).

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Does anybody remember that famous scene from Jurassic Park that explains what Chaos Theory is? Jeff Goldblum is talking about the T-Rex, and he calls it “the essence of chaos.” Then to explain what Chaos Theory is, he talks about dripping water – to make the point that it’s nearly impossible to predict where the water’s going to go because it takes a different path every time.

Chaos Theory is a recurring theme in the Jurassic Park / Jurassic World franchise – it’s the idea that unpredictability is everywhere. You’re constantly off-balance, because you have no idea what’s coming next. In the Jurassic franchise, you never know when monsters with huge pointy teeth are going to jump out of the shadows. That’s terrifying.

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After the team at Behaviour Interactive hired me to compose the music for Jurassic World Primal Ops, we kicked things off with some great meetings to discuss musical style. We were familiar with the music of John Williams, Don Davis, Michael Giacchino, and the other composers in the film and TV franchise – so we knew that when the dinosaurs showed up, the music was always very intense. The action didn’t last long, though. If the humans didn’t get away quickly enough, they’d end up as dinosaur lunch. So the action sequences in the movies and TV shows had to be fast-moving and succinct. In contrast, the game is essentially one long action sequence – so the music would have to be very different. Nevertheless, it was vital that the music allow players to feel as though they were having an adventure in the Jurassic World. The development team and I knew we had to get the musical style right.

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In Jurassic World Primal Ops, you’re an elite dinosaur handler working for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Dinosaurs have spread out across North America, and it’s your job to capture them and bring them back to the reserve. While you’re doing that, you’re also engaging in firefights with dinosaur poachers and mercenaries – so you’re constantly in danger. The dinosaurs can eat you. The humans can murder you. To make things more interesting, once you capture the dinosaurs you can train them to fight for you – and there’s nothing like one of these 2 ton three-horned monsters to bring on the carnage. With all this in mind, I decided to push the music of Jurassic World Primal Ops as far as possible towards an unstable, dangerous, and chaotic style.

What does it mean to compose chaotic music? How can we create a musical score that can propel and sustain emotional unbalance and surprise over extended periods? In this series of articles, we’ll be taking a dive into the nuts-and-bolts of composing extremely unpredictable music. We’ll be looking at some important techniques from music theory (pictured below), and I’ll be including frequent audiovisual examples to help make things clear.

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In order to feel unstable and chaotic, music needs to violate our expectations. With that in mind, what would we be expecting to hear? For that, let’s check out the game’s user interface, starting with the game map and then transitioning into the mission menus. This is one of the few instances of classically-traditional, harmonically-diatonic music that I composed for Jurassic World Primal Ops:

As we could hear, this menu music is in very traditional major and minor modes, with the associated diatonic chords and tonal relationships. This kind of music feels very reassuring, because it’s full of classic determinate cadences – harmonic progressions that resolve exactly the way we’d expect. No surprises here. It’s essentially a musical baseline – it establishes the rules, so that we can start breaking them.

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The first chaotic technique we’re going to discuss today is the use of unconventional modulating cadences, which we’re going to be calling Tonic Pivot. This is pretty much the exact opposite of the classic determinate cadence. Instead of the chords resolving in a way that we expect, they pivot, angling us in a new direction that includes a new tonic – a new resolution tone, which gives the feeling of a new key signature. The destabilization of harmonic weight is produced by essentially hijacking the expected resolution and propelling it in a new direction.

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When executed successfully, the tonic pivot is innately unsettling, because it disobeys the rules. But we have to be careful, because we can’t just randomly shift into an unexpected chord and expect that to work. We want to subvert the rules in order to compose disturbing music, not smash the rules and end up with noise. I’m going to play an example of a combat track from Jurassic World Primal Ops that uses lots of tonic pivot, so you can hear what I mean. Tonic pivots work especially well for these kinds of tumultuous action sequences. You’ll see that I’ve identified the tonic pivot chords by circling them in red, so that we can follow along. Notice that there’s a random quality to these chords, and that this makes the tonal center shift in unpredictable ways:


Getting this right in your own compositions will involve lots of trial and error, and you’ll have to trust your ears and your instincts when you’re trying to create these effects. In my work on Jurassic World Primal Ops, I experimented with lots of different devices to help these harmonic progressions feel more natural. Here’s another example of tonic pivot in my Jurassic World Primal Ops score. Notice that these pivots include common tones that help tie them together.


In part two of this article series, I’ll broaden our discussion of chaotic techniques to include the fundamental structure of harmonies, and how our harmonic choices can feed uncertainty and trepidatious energy into our musical scores. In the meantime, you can read more about game music composition in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music. Thanks for reading!

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Winifred Phillips is a BAFTA-nominated video game composer. The music she composed for her latest video game project Jurassic World Primal Ops won both the Global Music Award and the NYX Award, and was nominated for a Society of Composers & Lyricists Award for Outstanding Score for Interactive Media, and a Game Audio Network Guild Award in the category of Music of the Year. Other recent releases include the hit PlayStation 5 launch title Sackboy: A Big Adventure (soundtrack album now available). Popular music from Phillips’ award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score was featured in the performance repertoire of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which made its Paris debut with an 80-piece orchestra and choir. As an accomplished video game composer, Phillips is best known for composing music for games in many of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: the list includes Assassin’s Creed, God of War, Total War, The Sims, and Sackboy / LittleBigPlanet. Phillips’ has received numerous awards, including an Interactive Achievement Award / D.I.C.E. Award from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, six Game Audio Network Guild Awards (including Music of the Year), and four Hollywood Music in Media Awards. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the MIT Press. As one of the foremost authorities on music for interactive entertainment, Winifred Phillips has given lectures at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, the Game Developers Conference, the Audio Engineering Society, and many more. Phillips’ enthusiastic fans showered her with questions during a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything session that went viral, hit the Reddit front page, received 14.9 thousand upvotes, and became one of the most popular gaming AMAs ever hosted on Reddit. An interview with her has been published as a part of the Routledge text, Women’s Music for the Screen: Diverse Narratives in Sound, which collects the viewpoints of the most esteemed female composers in film, television, and games. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

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