From the Arcade to the Grammys: The Evolution of Video Game Music

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The gaming industry has made a tradition of grousing about the lack of a Grammy category for Best Video Game Score. But the need for affirmation seems unnecessary; even if you don't play video games, escaping their sound is near impossible. Top 40 pop is filled with bloopy, chiptune-ish sounds—the natural result of a generation putting in more hours at the Nintendo than listening to the local FM station. Academia embraces it with courses in game music composition. Go to the symphony and you risk hearing Sonic the Hedgehog.

And this year's Grammy Awards show doles out a morsel of recognition. Composer Christopher Tin's "Baba Yetu," originally written for the video game Civilization IV, has been nominated for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s). It's the first time music written for a game has been nominated for anything at the Grammys.


And a well-deserved first it is. Hip hop has rightly been credited with an impressive number of musical innovations, but game music has quietly kept pace. Both genres blur the line between sound effects and music. Samples of movie dialogue and other sound fragments mix with hip hop beats; game audio is equal parts music, explosions, buzzes, and aural miscellany. Loops have been around since the 1960s, but their true purpose was found in hip hop and game music.

Even at its most basic, game music has always had a quirky appeal. Perhaps it's a stretch to even call it music, but the rhythmic bleep-BLOOP of Pong, one of the earliest video games, is both ever-changing and meditative. But if you haven't kept up with game music, you might wonder how it evolved from that to Tin's "Baba Yetu," a rousing choral work written as a Swahili version of the Lord's Prayer.


The history of game music is in part the story of how knotty, musical concepts that were once the domain of avant-gardists became the everyday soundscape of teenagers. Composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Witold Lutoslawski experimented in the mid-20th century with nonlinear compositions, writing music to be played in random sequences and eliminating the notion of beginning, middle, and end. It didn't really catch on. But it's an idea that has found its place in game music, which is nonlinear by necessity. Players' choices require branching narratives, and the music has to adapt to changes in action and emotion.

"You're never 100 percent sure what will be happening on screen at any time," says Danny Baranowsky, who scored the music for the recent hit Super Meat Boy. "It's important to score so that every second of the track could potentially fit the action on the screen."

Mozart developed a musical dice game called Musikalisches Würfelspiel in which chance determined how a minuet was performed. Such games were popular in their day, but the fad died and interactive music suffered a centuries-long lull. Then came Koji Kondo, Nintendo's main in-house composer in the 1980s. His score for Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a highlight of early game music interactivity. In what's probably the best use of an ocarina since the Troggs, players get ahead by performing songs on the controller, shaped like the ancient instrument. It paved the way for the slew of Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and DJ Hero games.


Kondo is best known for Super Mario Bros., arguably the most iconic music in game history. A quarter-century after it's release, it's a rare soul under 45 who doesn't recognize the bouncy, preternaturally catchy melody. Kondo's scores are all the more impressive because he wrote them in the 8-bit era of games. Music has long been defined in part by the limits of technology, and 8-bit music is all limitations—hence the beeping, sing-song tone.


Technology marched on; 8-bit gave way to 16-bit, to 32-bit, and so on. If 1980s game music was about limitations, Nobuo Uematsu, the main composer of the Final Fantasy series, showed what could be done once some were lifted. Since 1989, he's been the superstar of game music and probably the first game composer subject to a tribute album.


As musical capabilities increased, big names signed on. Trent Reznor's Quake and Hans Zimmer's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 are some of the results. Conversely, game composers crossed over. Michael Giacchino made his name with the Medal of Honor series, and went on to do the music for TV's Alias and Lost and the last Star Trek movie.

Of course, old-school purists long for the beeps of yore. A common complaint is that the new soundtracks are all so much bombast: If not sweeping orchestral strings, there are crunching electric guitars or thumping electronica beats. Or all three at once.

But game music continues to surprise, like the extremely peaceful 2009 game Flower, with its super-mellow piano, acoustic guitar and chimes. The score for last year's Red Dead Redemption also upends convention by echoing the spaghetti Western soundtracks of the 1960s.


Composers Bill Elm and Woody Jackson brought in harmonica great Tommy Morgan (veteran of Ennio Morricone scores). Instruments include the jaw harp, cello, timpani, and in a game music first (I assume), ultrasound. Jackson recorded the heartbeat of his unborn daughter and used it for percussion.

Even now, game composers have to figure out ways around certain stumbling blocks. In this case, Elm and Jackson wrote the entire score in the key of A minor and at 130 beats per minute, to make all the sequences fit together. Koji Kondo should be proud: Even working within these limitations, they created one of the most evocative soundtracks of last year—in both games or movies. In a more just world, perhaps, it would win a Grammy.

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William Weir is a writer living in New Haven, Conn. His articles have appeared in Slate and other publications.

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