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.
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.
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.
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.
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
"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."
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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.