Monday, November 17, 2014

Video game music: why the big deal?

I just put this picture here and you’re already hearing some music in your head, aren’t you?

For some people video game music is a big deal. Not only do the thousands of people pay hundreds of dollars to hear a symphony orchestra play video game music live, but also there are many more (not just in Japan) who find enough pleasure in video game music to want to experience the music outside of gameplay, sometimes years after the original game releases. For example, there are online fan communities that recompose, rearrange, and share video game music. And not just amateurs are joining the fray; the professional field is growing, too—many composers, finding it hard to break into a movie music industry controlled by a few composers, are instead scoring video games.

I should mention here that not all video game music is created equal. Just like movie, popular, and art music, there is good music and bad music. Strangely, there is consensus that the best video game music comes from a period when it was simple, limited to 8- and 16-bit game systems, a claim I will attempt to address in a future blog post. The best video game music sometimes has continued to generate interest after the game itself has stopped generating revenue.

So, why is good video game music such a big deal, at least to groups of loyal fans? I’ve got some speculations below. The first three could apply to movie music, too; the last two apply more directly to games.

Video game music:

  1. Connects with emotions - Music can heighten the emotions that the video games are trying to convey, whether sad or happy, dramatic or infantile, serenity or even chaos and freneticness (much more effective in video games than movies).
  2. Associates itself with positive experiences - People enjoy playing video games, and so when they hear the music again, they associate positive feelings with the music.
  3. Builds community - While there are certainly exceptions, a video game experience is often a solo experience. Even with multiplayer games, gamers are often in a room by themselves interacting with the game in their individual way. But everyone playing experiences the music, so the music can serve as shorthand for communal game experience.
  4. Is repetitive - Because video games are often a long form of entertainment (games usually are at least several times longer than their movie counterparts), the music is often very repetitive. Certainly, modern Wagnerian-inspired movie music will have reoccurring themes, but when a gamer is playing a 30-100 hour video game, they will hear the themes many more times. Because of this, gamers have the music engrained in their memories, especially if the melodies are catchy.
  5. Signals interaction - Music is a often a crucial part of the interaction of video games, especially longer games with a story. Music can signal shifts in the story, mood, or interaction method (such as signaling combat or puzzles). Music can also help gamers be somewhat stimulated when they are doing a boring task, which happens occasionally in longer games. Because of this interactive element, people tend to pay attention to music in video games more than they might when watching a movie.
So, video game music is an important part of the experience, and especially good or effective music stays with gamers for long after they’ve put the game down. Just a final experience to reiterate my point: once I played a video game for which the music was broken. I knew that it was a well-reviewed and well-liked video game, but I had a hard time getting into it. I know the lack of music played a big role in my feelings for the game.

Why do you think video game music is a big deal?

Vocab: theme, melody


  1. 8 and 16 bit chiptunes are unique to video games. Their constraints defined the genre: limit sound, limit voices, limit duration, encourage mood, encourage melody.

  2. For the vast majority of video games that I own, whenever I play them I'm listening to a symphony performance.

    At the most recent Video Games Live performance by the NC Symphony this year, one of the best moments was when nearly the entire audience sang "Still Alive" along with the professional choir. Your point about community definitely ain't wrong.