I've been playing around with Final Fantasy 4, 5, 6, 7, and 13 recently to see the audio progression from some of the earlier games to the current ones. When I study the music, often I just listen to the game soundtracks-- I'm not always playing the game again (for the 300th time). However, in picking up the controller and playing these games, I've had some interesting revelations:
Final Fantasy 13: There's a LOT of background noise in this game, gunfire/military fighting related sounds in many portions of the game. Even in some of the more secluded areas, there's just a background audio white noise that comes on-- for instance in the Vile Peaks. Furthermore, the spoken audio is really loud in relation to the music. When I listen to game audio from the soundtracks, I listen to it way louder than I could ever turn the game audio up on my home stereo system: the vocals and effects just make the audio experience way too loud before the music is overpowering.
Final Fantasy 7: This got me thinking back to my playthrough of FF7, and I thought about how I hear the music when I'm playing the game versus how I hear the music when studying it. Do these tracks play in entirety and repeat, or do I just hear the same beginning section of them over and over? Of course, this will differ from game to game, but I still have a couple old post-its from my Final Fantasy 7 playthrough, and one of them, an audio journal of my quest to get a Gold Chocobo, will help answer my query.
Late in my FF7 playthrough, I took notes on all the audio I heard as I got a Gold Chocobo. This process took 7 hours and I heard the following music. If I consistently heard way less than the whole track, I noted the length of time I heard the music:
The Great Northern Cave (now Overworld Theme)
Fighting (Battle Theme)
Electric de Chocobo (Choco Battle ~:60)
Cinco de Choco
Highwind Takes to the Skies
Costa del Sole (I bought the Villa and rested here as needed ~:10)
Good Night Until Tomorrow
North Corel (Mining Town ~:15 secs)
Gold Saucer (~:30)
Choco Races- Place Your Bets!
Fiddle de Chocobo
A Great Success (~:15 also could have heard Tango of Tears, but not this playthrough!)
Some of this music I heard many times by the nature of the quest (Choco Races, Fiddle de Chocobo, A Great Success, etc) and other tracks I heard many times because I left the TV running while I stopped to look something up, for instance, what battle combination gave a Great Chocobo (Overworld Theme, Farm Boy, Highwind Takes to the Skies). Only the Good Night Until Tomorrow I'm certain that I heard all the way through. And, I was shocked to realize that I could have never heard an audio track at all if this had been my only playthrough-- Tango of Tears-- which only plays if you lose a Chocobo Race. After years of practice, that finally didn't happen!
When you think about it, I didn't really hear a lot of music in the seven hours, just 14 tracks, probably around 20 minutes of music total that I could have heard, and much of it I never heard in entirety. The longest themes are the Battle music and the Northern Cave, each around 3 minutes. Even though several of these are longer than I noted, I certainly didn't hear them because of the short time I was on the screen where they play. For instance, in the battles to capture the Chocobos, if you're too slow, the birds run away, so it's nearly impossible to hear more than a minute of music in the battle and be successful.
What I realized from this experience is how differently I hear the music when I'm playing the games versus when I'm studying them. Sound effects, vocal levels, mixing, and interactivity of game play all effect how the player hears the audio and even the duration of and possible audio tracks that can be heard. Every game player has experienced this, though. Imagine the original Super Mario Bros-- do you really recognize that theme very well past the opening minute or so? I don't, because I was always dead by then or had gone down a pipe and reset the music!