Chapter 1: Introduction and Methodology Overview

This chapter describes the approach this text takes, including the topics surveyed and methodology used. By the end of the chapter, you should understand:

  • What aspects of video game music are going to be studied in this text,
  • How we will go about studying these,
  • Some of the reasons behind why video game music is such a valuable field of study.

1.1 Objectives

This text introduces the study of video game music from a variety of perspectives, taking a survey approach. It is not designed to instruct the reader on how to compose for video games, nor how to break into the video game industry. However, it could be extremely useful to composers interested in writing for video games as it provides a comprehensive history of video game music, and discusses at length many of the techniques composers use to achieve certain effects. The text is broken into three primary sections, which represent different approaches with which to study video game music:

  • The history of video game music,
  • Musical and theoretical concepts, and
  • Sociocultural impact of video game music.

All of these approaches are written to be accessible to a diverse body of learners from many disciplines, and readers are encouraged to seek out the cited references to further increase their depth of understanding.

1.2 Methodology

As mentioned above, this text takes a survey approach. It introduces the reader to the study of video game music as an academic subject. We approach the study of video game music in much of the same way that western classical music is traditionally studied. Therefore, the methodology may seem very similar in this text to the study of music history. However, the history of video game music only compromises one of the sections of the text. This text takes a more comprehensive and critical approach, including theoretical concepts and more. The methodology of each section is described in more detail below:

1.2.1 History of Video Game Music

This section details the history of video game music, from the very beginnings of arcade games through the modern period. By the end of section one, you should be able to:

  • Identify several composers and games,
  • Identify qualities of music for specific console generations,
  • Understand the influence of technology on game sound, and
  • Gain knowledge about the reception of video game music and its impact in the community.

Like western music history studies, this section focuses a lot on the composers and their specific contributions to the development of game music and sound. This section traces the history of video game music and how the utility of the sound/music has impacted the musical styles. For example, in the early days of arcade games, music was used as a means to draw customers. Today, sound and music in games is designed to be immersive as possible because that is what current consumers demand and how the technology is trending. Therefore, our historical approach will not only focus on the sound of the music and who composed it, but on the context under which it was composed. We will also study the impact of technology development on video game music. Storage space and memory, for example, contribute to the amount of information an individual game can contain and a system can access. Therefore, music programmers, who sought to use small amounts of data to create unending pieces of music, often composed (programmed) early music. Later on, more efficient machines and larger storage mediums allowed for the use of streaming audio that loops, or continues endlessly through some other means.

1.2.2 Musical and Theoretical Concepts

By the end of this section, you should understand:

  • Interactive media-specific terminology and concepts,
  • Form and function of video game music,
  • Storytelling and characterization devices, and
  • Use of sound effects and immersive sound

This section examines some of the musical and theoretical concepts that are specific to video game music, or more generally, music for interactive media. Terminology specific to all media (including film and television) is discussed as well as terminology specific to interactive media and games. This chapter also covers the use of sound and musical devices for storytelling, mood capture, and environmental design, and includes some basic music theory of video game music. This text does not cover Roman numeral or harmonic analysis. This topic will be covered later in a small supplement to this text that will be accessible primarily to those who have already studied basic music theory. In this text we will also examine how theoretical concepts have evolved between console generations as the needs of the users have changed. The evolution of the role of sound effects is also discussed, since sound effects are becoming increasingly more important in video games.

1.3 Why Study Video Game Music, Anyways?

Now that you have been introduced to the concepts we are going to cover throughout this book, you may be wondering why it is so important to study video game music. Why would one want to study a popular and generally commercial genre of music in a scholarly setting? The study of western classical music, and more recently, serious music of all cultures, has dominated the field of musicology for a considerable amount of time, with nearly all academic output focused on this genre and relatively small timespan. Even musical eras such as the Medieval and early Renaissance and late 20th century to 21st century have been neglected in traditional academic literature, with a large emphasis placed on scholarship of the baroque through the early modern periods. In fact, it is only very recently that early music studies and contemporary musical studies (21st century and current) have become commonplace in the musicological community. It is important as a scholar of music to engage with all music and not view the entire music history with a very small lens, and lens that devalues commercial music. Recently, video game music has begun to see a small impact in the academic community, with several recent dissertations focusing on video game music,[1] courses developed and run on video game music,[2] and other texts being published on the general subject. (Note: video game music as a commercial study has been around for a long time, but programs and courses that instruct in the subject tend to focus on the practical aspects of video game music, such as getting into the industry, and other technical or commercial focuses). Video game music is one of the most popular music genres of the current period. Although contemporary classical music can struggle to fill concert halls, for example, video game music concerts are very well attended, and generally by a younger demographic that is not commonly seen in classical concerts. There are entire music groups and acts that dedicate their careers to performing re-workings and remixes of video game music, such as The Black Mages and the Minibosses. Video games themselves are ubiquitous, and this is especially so with the popularity of mobile devices that contain ever-increasing storage and processing capacity. Entire video games can be stored in a singular iPhone application, making them more accessible than ever – there is no longer a need to purchase an extra expensive device to play full-length video games. Therefore, with such an impact and such a large audience, video game music might be one of the most listened to genres of music of our time. And yet the academic and reflective study of the genre is still emerging – while video game music studies courses are taught as supplemental or special studies courses, they have yet to exist within the common or core conservatory curriculum, even as suggested electives. And this is unfortunate, since the study of such can be important to aspiring composers of video game music (and other music) who hope to have a deeper understanding of musical context and meaning. The interactive nature of video game music also makes the study of it useful to many in fields including multimedia, sound design, and interaction design.

[1] See Medina-Gray, Elizabeth, “Modular Structure and Function in Early 21st Century Video Game Music,” 2014, and Sextro, Justin Daniel, “Press start: narrative integration in 16-bit video game music,” 2015.

[2] MUS 399: Sp St Video Game Music, University of Oregon, and MUSI 402 Topics in Popular Music: Video Game Music, University of Calgary, instructed by Alyssa Aska