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Whole Tone and Octatonic Scales (The Game Music of Jurassic World Primal Ops: GDC 2023)

This article explores the use of Whole Tone and Octatonic scales in game music (from Winifred Phillips’ highly-rated GDC 2023 lecture, “Chaos Theory in Game Music.”)

Winifred Phillips

September 19, 2023

8 Min Read

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey everyone! I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and this is the third article in my series based on my Game Developers Conference 2023 lecture, “Chaos Theory: The Music of Jurassic World Primal Ops.” In my GDC presentation, I examined the challenges of composing unpredictable and chaotic music for a high-intensity action game. This series of articles shares the substance of that GDC 2023 presentation, along with the illustrations, videos, and audio examples I included in my presentation at the conference last March.

In the first two articles of this series, we discussed the worldwide success of the popular Jurassic Park / Jurassic World franchise. We reviewed the gameplay structure of Jurassic World Primal Ops: the top-down action game released in concert with the blockbuster theatrical run of the Jurassic World Dominion movie. I shared my experience as the composer of this Jurassic World game, and what it was like composing music for such an awesome franchise.

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During our discussion in the previous two articles, we took a look at some of the best music composition techniques that can introduce tension and uncertainty into our musical structure, enhancing the experience of combat in an action-heavy game. These ideas are discussed in detail in these previous two articles:

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

Part Two: Quartal Chords and Chromatics (The Music of Jurassic World Primal Ops: GDC 2023)

In the preceding two articles, we considered how subverting traditional cadences with surprising tonic pivots can introduce unpredictability into our musical structure, and how both quartal chords and chromatics can create ambiguity in regards to key signature and tonic center. But there are other ways for us to obscure that tonic and make our music feel more tumultuous.

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As we all know, anyone who casually listens to music is well aware of the Ionian and the Aeolian modes:

The traditional major:

Winifred Phillips · The Major Scale
The traditional minor:
Winifred Phillips · The Minor Scale

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These modes are everywhere, with all those famous and well-worn intervals, chords, and progressions, so we’ve come to expect them. That’s why avoiding these modes is a great way to subvert expectations and create disconcerting music.

In the score for Jurassic World Primal Ops, when I wasn’t pushing atonality into my compositions, I was leaning heavily into the Octatonic and Whole Tone scales. So let’s take a look at how that worked, starting with the Octatonic.

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The Octatonic, or diminished scale, is an eight-tone scale that alternates whole and half tones:

Winifred Phillips · The Octatonic Scale
It has the advantage of working really well with diminished triads:

Winifred Phillips · The Diminished Chord

Diminished triads are nicely unsteady and menacing in the right context. The Octatonic became one of my go-to tools for the Jurassic World Primal Ops score. Here’s one of the most straightforward examples from a combat track: notice how the bass line runs through the entire Octatonic scale in order:

Now here’s a more complex example of the Octatonic scale in an action track. While I never ran through the scale in order, you’ll notice that the bass line is overtly Octatonic in nature, with diminished chords in the brass section – and I’ve arranged the strings in a conventional minor-mode, so this makes the whole thing feel more unstable and perilous:


While I used the Octatonic pretty frequently in this project, I also alternated it with the Whole Tone scale. This scale consists entirely of whole steps:

Winifred Phillips · The Wholetone Scale
This means it naturally feels disconnected to a key signature – because it’s just hard to determine where the tonic is.

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First, let’s check out a combat example:


As you can see, if we’re looking for an unbalanced scale with no tonal center, the Whole Tone scale is just what we need. Also, it features augmented triads:

Winifred Phillips · The Augmented Chord

Augmented triads are also harmonically ambiguous. All this is great for creating uneasy-sounding music.

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So let’s check out another example – this is music I composed for one of the tense ‘tracking’ sequences in which the player (as an expert dinosaur hunter) is attempting to locate these huge prehistoric beasts in the wild. Notice how apprehensive this Whole Tone structure feels:


Octatonic and Whole Tone scales are fantastic for when we’re pushing our music away from a classic harmonic structure and towards atonality.

In the next article of this series, we’ll be stepping away from atonality altogether and considering its close cousin, polytonality. 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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