Monday, January 19, 2015

Why is classic video game music better?

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about video game music. Today, I’m going to tackle one of the questions that came up in that post: why is classic video game music considered better than more recent video game music?

This is a popular question when talking about video game music, as evidenced by two video clips. First, from the game design video blog Extra Credits (10 minutes)

And second, this interview from Sami Jarroush on from the website Consequence of Sound (start at minute 12 if you don't want to watch it all).

More melody!

The main arguments both these video clips make is that the older music is simpler, more hummable, and therefore more memorable. And I think this point rings true, in most cases. Video game composers back then had almost only one tool—melody. So the composers HAD to create melodies. Some of the composers created good melodies, and those melodies are easier to remember than much of the video game music presently composed. Today, with the orchestras and technological bells and whistles, composers have the choice of creating more atmospheric music, or slower-moving music where the interest is more in texture than melody, than they did with just 8-bit technology. While the atmospheric approach is often used effectively, the lack of melody does not lead to memorable music.

But not just melody

But besides the melody issue, both videos miss another major reason these classic video game themes endure. It wasn’t just the melodies that made the music great—it was the orchestration. Even when a console can only produce three notes a time, orchestration and accompaniment matters. Try to imagine how the Super Mario or Zelda themes would sound with only the melody. The truth is the arrangements of the earlier 80s tunes, as 8-bit as they were, actually did enhance the melodies and made them more memorable. I would postulate that if the composers had written the melody without the cleverly-composed and orchestrated accompaniment, these melodies would not be as well-remembered as they are now. Case in point: Extra Credits claims that John Williams is famous for his movie music melodies, which is true. But he is just as famous for the orchestration of his melodies.

What do I mean by orchestration with only three notes at a time? First, like any good composers, they wrote melodies that fit the instrument. These melodies had mostly short, quick notes, because those sounded better coming from their synthesizers. The composers also had effective accompaniment that added to melody. While timbral options were limited, the composers made important timbral choices when they could. Timbre is affected by how high or low a pitch is, and so the range of the melodies was also very much an issue these composers considered. And those accompaniments are often pretty complicated.

I do like Sami’s point about video game music as a trigger for memory (minute 13). I think if Super Mario Brothers had been a supremely bad game, we would not remember the music. However, because it was a good game, and because the music matched what actions were happening in the game (another huge issue that I’m skipping here), the music and the game elevated each other.

Some minor notes

There were a few other minor problems I had the with videos:
  • Extra credits makes the mistake of comparing video game music to movie music. There are major differences: Movie music is meticulously crafted and timed, while video game music for the most part is built on repetitive loops and is calculated evoke feelings and moods over times, and these moods change as the player interacts with the game. Sami’s guest Danny (minute 16) explains well the distinction between movie and video music (though Sami doesn’t seem to get it).
  • Extra Credits’ analysis of the Halo theme music doesn’t actually help prove their point. Actually, the analysis does more to support the [strong melody + strong orchestration] argument than the solely strong melody argument. And I don’t think the male chorus line or string parts are actually that hummable.
  • While I think that this is probably the case, neither video proves that there aren't as many memorable melodies in video games today as the 80s. As Extra Credits mentions, the people that composed good 8-bit music continued to compose effective music when they got more resources and some still write today. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the video game audience is more fragmented, with a huge choice in what they play, and so not everyone experiences the same melodies as they did in the 80s.
Anyway, good ideas in both videos, but also some big holes. I do think Extra Credits' final point is well made, though: we do have good video game music today. But if video game composers want their music to be remembered years from now, they might put a little more effort into their melodies and accompaniments.

Next week, I’ll continue my video game music discussion and talk about Secret of Mana (1993, Super NES), and why I think that music is so effective.

Vocab: melody, atmospheric, texture, orchestration, timbre


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