The Secrets Behind Video Game Music

The music in the classic table tennis sports game Pong, which was released by Atari in 1972 and became one of the first arcade games to achieve mainstream popularity, is as simple and two-dimensional as the game’s Etch A Sketch graphics. As players control vertical paddles to hit a ball back and forth back across a dotted center line, the aural accompaniment is onomatopoeic -the music is more like the blips and bleeps of sonar detection than a soundtrack composition.

In 2005, John Wall and Tommy Tallarico, two of today’s top video game composers, launched Video Games Live, a touring multimedia show that featured some of the world’s finest orchestras performing popular video game music. The idea was to bring fun back into the symphony, and to usher in a new generation of young people to concert halls. Video Games Live has visuals and interactive segments complete with costume contests, stage fog, and other rock concert accouterments. While high-brow classical music purists may scoff at the idea of the National Symphony Orchestra playing video game music, Video Games Live illustrates how far game soundtracks have evolved. In other words, video game music has come a long way since the digital audio technology of Space Invaders (1978), when four simple descending chromatic bass notes repeated in a loop to create a continuous background soundtrack.


5 The Tetris Effect

Video game music began to evolve and take influence from more serious sources with Tetris, the popular tile-matching puzzle game created by Alexey Pajitnov and released in 1984. The music in Tetris is based on a Russian folk song, “Korobeiniki.” The song, which is inspired by an 1861 poem written by Nokolay Kekrasov, tells the love story between a young peddler and a peasant girl.

There is a good chance that when you were on a Tetris bender -when all you ate for a day was a bag of Doritos and your eyes were pried open like Alex’s in A Clockwork Orange -you had no idea the music accompanying the Soviet constructivist game was based on a Russian folk song. And why would you? Or more importantly, why would it be? Tetris is a puzzle game.

“Korobeiniki” has nothing to do with matching brightly-colored bricks. The song is as random and arbitrary as the four geometric shapes (tetrominoes) that drop into the playing field. And perhaps that’s the point. The Tetris song inspired programmers and game makers to look elsewhere for musical inspiration, beyond the rudimentary blips and bleeps of other popular game soundtracks. "Korobeinki" expanded the playing field.

4 Beethoven and Video Game Music

In a 2008 interview with NPR, Tommy Tallarico said, “Video game music isn’t a passive experience, but an integral part of the foreground.” He explains the psychological and physiological responses gamers have to music, including surges of adrenaline and feelings of Zen-like calm. Tallarico even goes so far as to suggest that “if Beethoven were alive today, he’d be a video game composer.”

Suggesting that Beethoven would be a video game composer is a bold statement, and perhaps a bit overzealous and misguided. But whether or not the music from Super Mario Bros. or Final Fantasy has the same emotional resonance in listeners as the Ninth Symphony isn’t important. The point is that video game music has become intricate, complicated, and serious; the music is more akin to symphonies or film scores and less like the sonar blips of Pong.

But what, if anything, is video game music secretly meant to do? If listening to it isn’t a passive experience, the equivalent of sonic wallpaper, say, like elevator or lounge music or the acoustic mumblecore playing at a whispery volume at Starbucks, then what is its role in the foreground?

3 Control the Heart Rate

Do you play video games better with the sound on or off? According to Psychology Today, music and sound effects enhance game performance. A 2007 study found that male gamers scored almost twice as many points while playing Doom with the sound on compared to those playing with the sound off. At the same time, a 2001 study found that players had the fastest lap times in the racing game Ridge Racer V when playing with the music off.

Being that these studies cancel themselves out, the question as to whether a gamer plays better with the sound on or off depends on the gamer.

Part of the role of game music is to control a player’s heart rate. “If you remember Space Invaders,” says Tallarico, “you know, as the ships started to come down, the aliens, as they got closer and closer, the sound got faster and faster. Players would start to panic.”

Music creates another level of game-play challenge, and a good gamer will use that to his advantage. Instead of panicking as the sound gets faster and faster, he excels, rides a wave of adrenaline, and puts up a high score. On the other hand, the average gamer will watch in horror as alien invaders crush the defenses and destroy his laser canon, then he will  fish in his pocket for more quarters or hit the reset button on the home console.

2 Provide Auditory Cues and Clues


Game composer John Wall based the soundtrack of the third and fourth installments of Myst on Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Myst’s music is not only as rich and textured as the famous 1935 scenic cantata, but it is one of the first video game soundtracks designed to aid players through mysterious worlds, providing cues that function as warnings, clues for points and power-ups, and feedback for correct moves against enemies. The music in Myst is an integral part of the game’s narrative design.

When conducting a study on Twilight Princess (Legend of Zelda), a game as equally as complex as Myst, Psychology Today found that “the best players seemed to be better at paying attention to –and meaningfully integrating –both audio and visual cues effectively –thus benefitting from the richest warnings/clues/feedback.”

1 Immersion in Other Worlds

From 8-bit compositions to full orchestral arrangements, video game music creates mood, atmosphere, and tone.  It is designed to transport and immerse players in another world, the highs and lows of the music corresponding to the journey of the game.

Koji Kondo’s soundtrack for Super Mario Bros. (1985) contains only six songs. The main track, “Ground Theme,” is a simple melody, but it as iconic as Princess Toadstool or the secret 99 lives staircase. On the other hand, Nobuo Uematsu’s soundtrack for Final Fantasy is epic and sweeping. When the composer joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a single performance of the work in 2004, tickets sold out in three days. These video game soundtracks could not be any more different –it is like comparing analogue to iTunes -but both compositions succeed in submersing players in the game's virtual environments. The music is the soul of the game.

Video game music is no longer limited by its technological hardware. The infectious, melody-driven earworms that existed during the golden age of arcade video games have been replaced with cinematic scores and arrangements. Blockbuster franchises such as Grand Theft Auto and NBA 2k14 spend thousands on scoring exclusive content. And Sascha Dikiciyan (a.k.a. Sonic Mayhem), the man responsible for the music in Quake II, Borderland and Mass Effect 3, has cult status at game expos around the world as the Mozart of aggro-industrial game soundtracks.

Whatever new secrets video game music might hold in the future, one thing is for sure: Evolution is a long, strange trip.



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