Thursday, July 18, 2013

Musings: Similarities between video game music and other music.

For the last few days I've been talking to a few more of my friends about my game music class.  Several of them asked what do I know about game music?  I always replied that I've played games for years, basically since birth.  And then I've read a ton about game music at this point.  And I've run this blog.  I'll know even more about game music after I've taught the course on it, I'm sure.  That's one of the blessings of teaching, you (as the teacher) get just as much (or more) out of teaching the subject as your students do!  No, I haven't written game music, but neither have people who are teaching about Beethoven symphonies written a Beethoven symphony.  Or opera, chamber music, etc...

At a cabaret performance tonight with a wide variety of numbers, I was really struck by another similarity that game music has to classical music.  Classical music is written down explicitly and performers often try to do it just as it's written down.  The reality of the pre-recording era is that players improvised and ornamented a lot, changing the music to suit themselves and the moment, but that's less of a convention now that we've heard all of the music recorded exactly as it's printed.  Game music struck me as being similar.  Unlike the jazz numbers on tonights performance, the pieces I played were very scripted to be done with certain notes, words-- and from the singers, even actions and staging-- at certain moments.  While the jazz players had agreed on a form, there was less certainty about the performance than the written down music.  I think that might be one thing I appreciate about game music: it happens in a set way (at least until very recently).  The theme for Castlevania plays in exactly the same way and loops until you leave the screen where it's playing and another theme begins, which plays in its prescribed manner.  So, even though game music doesn't exist in a transcribed form, like classical music, it's neither like improvised music, where exactly how it goes is up to the whim of the player.

Actually, now that I've said it, I have to take that back, at least in couple of senses.  First of all, if you remember my analogy from earlier about the player being the "performer" of game music, then there is a certain way in which it does happen under our control.  When I was little and would jump around with Mario in SMB for hours just to hear the sound of him jumping and hitting bricks versus hitting blocks that he could destroy, I was very much in control of the audio experience.  It was up to me how the audio unfolded, to a certain degree.  Perhaps the same is true of jazz performers and improvisers.  They practice certain shapes and patterns which they'll gravitate toward in the moment of performance, but they're unsure of which exact ones they'll do in the moment.  Likewise, game music has an uncertainty of duration, but not of audio unfolding...

And that's where I need my second caveat.  As I think more about it, games like Red Dead Redemption have various audio possibilities that are combined randomly by the audio engine based on the way you play.  So while there are still a given number of audio unfoldings possible as you play, the possibilities expand greatly.  Perhaps even as greatly as for an improvising jazz player.  In reality, there are limitations to what they can do-- particularly when they are performing with others.  Forms must be adhered to, solos orders are decided, perhaps ahead of time, keys are established...  The jazz players must be able to follow along with one another.  And similarly, the game, even though it combines the music by an audio formula with lots of options is still limited by certain parameters.

I suppose these two seemingly different trains of thought are merging in my head into a discussion I want to consider more.  What do I know about game music?  What gives me the right to teach it?  How does one become an expert in it?  You can't get a doctorate in video game music.  Most folks who are writing and researching about it pursued related fields of study and then turned their attention to after school.  Likewise, many people who've spent their careers composing, implementing, programming, and otherwise working in the field and would be the "right" people (and even the right age at this point in game history) to start teaching the subject wouldn't have the degrees or pedigree generally expected of University teachers.  It's really a double sided problem.  But here I am, presented with the question of finding a class that would appeal broadly to non-music majors.  The perfect topic to me: game music!  I'm not an expert in it in the way I am art song, opera, or chamber music.  But I have a lifetime of experience playing games, a huge background of musical study, and am now digesting all I can about game music.  I hope one day to write some game music-- that'd be a blast!  But for now, I'm at a very interesting junction.  I've got the highest level of study a person can in classical music and a large background of knowledge that comes with that.

That background leads me to ask: how is classical music, performing music live, and the music business like game music.  It's an interesting line of questioning that I'll continue to explore.  For today, suffice it to say that the genre may change, but the music business is still much the same across game music, classical music, pop music.  One of the biggest things I'm seeing is that game music is just one more medium in the huge musical world.  It's not a foreign entity.  It's kind of different; every kind of music is a little different!  But it's not foreign for a person who's studied any kind of music if you embrace it.


  1. I had an idea for a musing. Not sure how strong of an idea it is unless you have a personal connection to the question I ask, but lets see. Have you ever "recognized" certain video game sounds or songs in normal music? I find myself saying "oh man, this sounds like (insert game here)" often. I said it a couple of times on Justin Timberlake's latest album. For example, Timberlake's "Don't Hold The Wall" ( had drums that reminded me of Goron City (and maybe even those Deku Pipes from Majoras Mask) And part of "Strawberry Bubblegum" ( used a piano/harp(?) that sounded like FF6's Opera House at 1:19. That second one was a stretch, but just trying to solidify my overall question.

    Other examples:

    J. Cole's Who Dat ( introduction sounds like "You Can Hear the Cry of the Planet" from FF7.

    NoFx's The Decline ( uses similar sounds as Super Mario Kart (SNES) at the 15:30 mark. It's a little hard to hear, but you'll hear it after 30 seconds.

    Some of those are stretches, I know. There are others I hear and say "Hey, that sounds like a video game!" I hear it a lot in songs by Kanye West, Big Boi, and even Kendrick Lamar. Just wondering if you've ever experienced anything like this, and do you think there could be musicians out there taking inspiration from various video games?

  2. Hey Kevin-- I was just thinking of you and hoping you were having a great summer!

    This is a cool idea and one I want to explore more. I've already thought about discussing this in class per our earlier conversation about the wind sound effect in the college commercial. Some things, like Pac-Man Fever deliberately use sound effects from games. Probably those were lifted for free, where Wreck It Ralph probably paid to use sound effects and music. In some cases, though, sound libraries available for purchase may give creators (users) in completely different projects the same sound, with/ without folks being aware!

    I'm finishing up my summer work with terrible internet and will be back in civilization two weeks from today. Once home, I'll give these a thorough listen. Will be back with more specificity around then!

  3. Sounds good. I think it would be cool to find out that some musicians have been inspired by video game music. And then find out which video games, and most importantly, why. Could be difficult to find that out though. Would definitely be interesting!