Chapter 10: Video Game Music: Influence, Reception, and Potential Future

Chapter 10: Video Game Music: Influence, Reception and Potential Future

The previous chapter discussed cultural influences on game composers, as well as some of the musical cultural references that have been made in games. This chapter examines the influence of game music on culture and the general reception of game music, in both popular culture and academia. We will explore several examples that demonstrate the popularity of game music, including symphony performances, student performances, and remix efforts. Also discussed in this chapter is the indirect evidence of positive game music reception, such as the addition of game music to the Grammy categories. The use of game controllers and past generation game systems to create and perform music is examined, as well as some of the reasons why these controllers provide effective interfaces for musical expression. The chapter concludes with the discussion surrounding current trends in video game music scholarship, and the increase in scholarship and dissertation topics about video game music in the last five to ten years. The influence of video game music cannot be denied, nor can its widespread consumption and appreciation. This chapter seeks to illuminate some of these cultural impacts, which are always changing and increasing over time.

10.1 Video Game Music Reception Overview

Video game music was not always as highly regarded as it is currently, mostly because we could not anticipate the impact it would have during the earliest generations of games. The music in very early games was often simple (such as the 4-note Space Invaders soundtrack) and created by programmers, not composers. As mentioned previously, many early video game soundtracks were programmed versions of works already in the public domain. As a result, since games wouldn’t necessarily have originally composed music, early game composers who composed original game music were not well known during this time, and many were not even credited. Game music slowly became more apparently important: more complete and individual soundtracks emerged during the 8-bit era and through the 16-bit era, and during the 32-bit era game soundtracks were regularly released on CD for individual purchase. Some of these soundtracks were so large in scope that they contained over one hundred tracks. This indicates that in this short period of time of slightly over a decade, game music had progressed from being primarily implemented to lure arcade customers, to becoming a genre of music that could be listened to on its own outside of gameplay. This was followed by the widespread advent of video game symphonies and performances. The earliest video game music concerts occurred in the late 1980s in Japan, and were mostly dedicated to Final Fantasy music, with most worldwide tours debuting during the 2000s. For example, the Music from Final Fantasy series began in 2002, Video Games Live debuted in 2005, and Play! A Video Game Symphony premiered in 2006[1]. Video game music was also beginning to emerge as a musical category worthy of earning awards during this time, with many smaller award shows including game music as a category, and some video game awards also including game music and sound. Many of these awards originated in the mid-2000s, just as the game symphonies, and some only lasted a short while, including: the Best Video Game Soundtrack award at the MTV Video Music Awards (2004-2006), the British Academy Games Awards Original Music Category (2004 onwards), the Hollywood Music in Media, containing three separate video game music categories (2014 onwards), and also the Spike Video Game Awards (now known as the Video Game Awards In 2012, video game music could officially be considered as part of the Visual Media category of the Grammy awards.[2] Currently, in 2016, it is expected that AAA video game soundtracks are released on disc or downloadable album as their own entities, many more concerts feature game music, and in gaming conferences such as the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), live orchestras are obtained to perform game music.[3] The 2016 Sony E3 (press release) including a complete orchestra, and incorporated the performance of music from their upcoming games as an integral component of the demonstration. With examples such as these in mind, it is clear that appreciation for game music expanded during the 80s and 90s and continued to do so through the 2000s, reaching the status it has achieved today. This trend is likely not to slow down, as technology for sound production becomes more accessible, making game sound and music integral even to low budget independent games. The renewed interest in retro gaming and the academic study of music is also likely to have an impact on game appreciation, as older soundtracks begin to receive renewed attention, and there is a collective looking backward. Often such study results in the discovery of soundtracks that may not have been well known previously.

10.2 Video Game Music Performances

Video game music has become an important part of symphonic performance in the last decade and a half, and the reception of video game music in the concert hall is well documented.[4] Video game music symphonies tend to be extremely well attended, and this has generated discussion surrounding the importance of video game music concerts to the public interest, and as a result, the fiscal health, of many symphonies.[5] Audience participation and involvement tends to be different at video game music concerts as well. Traditional classical music concerts generally involve attendees dressing up semi-formally or formally, and sitting in the concert hall without talking, clapping, or otherwise interacting with the musicians until the ends of pieces. Attendees at video game concerts often dress up in the costume of their favourite character, resulting in more diverse dress. The audience is encouraged to clap and cheer during pieces and some concerts even include active audience participation. This makes the concert a much more interactive experience than traditional symphony concerts, and perhaps more appealing to the younger generations that are so accustomed to interactive technology and media. Video game symphony performance became widespread and popular primarily during the 2000s, but there were a few video game music concerts that preceded this. The Orchestral Game Music Concerts began in 1991, and ran until 1996. These concerts occurred in Tokyo and including performances of music from various video games. Germany followed this in 2003 with Symphonische Spielemusikkonzert (Symphonic game music concerts), a series inspired by the Orchestral Game Music Concerts that would become the first of its kind outside of Japan. This concert was intentionally held alongside other game industry events, such as the Game Convention (GC), to encourage attendance. These early video game concerts, however, were geographically limited (Tokyo and Germany) and did not include touring or other widespread repeated performance. This would not occur until the mid-2000s, when several game music symphonies began, most of which now tour nationally or worldwide.

10.1.1 Play! A Video Game Symphony

American concert promoter and producer Jason Michael Paul decided to create a concert series based on video game music after he curated a successful Final Fantasy-themed concert in 2004.[6] The result was Play! A Video Game Symphony. The first concert of the series was held on May27, 2006 in Rosemont Illinois. Notably, several prominent game composers were in attendance, including Koji Kondo, Nobuo Uematsu, Yasunori Mitsuda, Jeremy Soule, and many others; most of these composers offered meet and greet sessions after the concert.[7] This type of meet and greet would persist through other concert series, many of which include special tickets that can be purchased to include a short meeting with composers. The fact that there are so many concert attendees eager to meet these composers and musicians is indicative of the respect and admiration given to those who work in game sound. The Play! series continues to run today, although under the name Replay: Symphony of Heroes. Arnie Roth originally served as director of Play!, until Andy Brick succeeded him in 2010, likely due to Roth’s heavy involvement in another video game series, Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy, which will also be discussed in this chapter. Play! Is one of the first concert series to feature music from a collection of games, including everything from Final Fantasy, to Mario and Zelda, to the Elder Scrolls series. Music from all video game music eras is featured, and the result is a very diverse program. The implementation of visuals to accompany the orchestra and choir onstage became a fixture in the series, and would influence many other series of game music performance to do the same. One newspaper claimed, regarding an Ohio performance of Play!, that “the innovative production will include full orchestral scores, multi-media gaming action on three giant screens above the stage” and “a 60-person combine chorus from three Dayton region high schools.” [8] This added an extra element to the performance, as audience members can hear the music from their favourite games while watching images of gameplay and FMVs. Paul himself stated that the series helped establish the credibility of game music. Additionally, the inclusion of several generations of game music enables several generations of gamers to attend, introducing older gamers to new music, and newer generations of gamers to some of the iconic old music.

10.1.2 Video Games Live

Video Games Live was created by two American video game music composers, Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall The concert website describes the it as “and immersive concert event featuring music from the most popular video games of all time played by a live symphony orchestra.”[9] The planning and development prior to the first show took about three years, and included Tallarico and Wall’s artistic planning, as well as development of special technology that would enable communication between the concert master and orchestra, and synchronization of visuals and effects.[10] The first concert was held in Los Angeles in 2005 (one year prior to Play!) to an audience of 11,000. Each Video Games Live concert features local musicians, including video game cover bands, soloists, and local symphony orchestras. Much like Play!, Video Games Live incorporates visual effects, including clips from games. However, Video Games Live contains a substantial interactive component; at times during the concert, audience members are invited onstage to play a video game in real time while the orchestra performs its music. Video Games Live also includes a diverse selection of music, including selections from popular games of all genres, such as Final Fantasy, Halo, World of Warcraft, Sonic the Hedgehog, Zelda, and several others. Several albums have been released with music from Video Games Live, most of which were funded by Kickstarter campaigns, enabling studio recordings. These campaigns generally exceeded their funding needs, also evidence of the immense popularity of video game music.[11] The effect of this music on the population is also noted in Brazil, as the government subsidizes concerts like Video Games Live because they get youth involved in the arts.[12]

10.1.3 Final Fantasy: Distant Worlds

Music from the Final Fantasy franchise remains some of the best received and most performed of all video game music. Final Fantasy music is performed in nearly all concerts of video game music, including concerts such as Play! and Video Games Live, which contain music from many games. There have also been several concerts dedicated solely to Final Fantasy music. The first of these was 20020220 Music From Final Fantasy, which was premiered in Tokyo in 2002. Several concerts followed this, including the Tour de Japon: Music From Final Fantasy in 2004, Dear Friends: Music From Final Fantasy from 2004-2005, More Friends: Music From Final Fantasy in 2005, and Voices: Music from Final Fantasy in 2006. However, the longest running concert series featuring only music from Final Fantasy remains Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy, which began in 2007 and continues to tour through the present (2016). Arnie Roth, the past conductor of Play! A Video Game Symphony conducts the Distant Worlds series. Nobuo Uematsu frequently attended the concerts, often offering special backstage passes to meet with him and Roth. Distant Worlds is set apart from the other concert series because it contains music from only one franchise (Final Fantasy) indicating that there is significant fan dedication to the music of these games. Additionally, the series reinforces the appreciation for a singular composer. Nobuo Uematsu has an incredibly strong following; this can be observed in any of the video documentation of Distant Worlds online in which Uematsu walks onstage to loud cheers. The cheers and enthusiasm from the audience when the composer enters the state exceed that for anything else in the concert.[13] Another important event that takes place during Distant World concerts is the use of an encore or fan favourite song that is always played following the conclusion of the concert program. This was a common feature of rock and pop concerts (and the derivation of the cliché “Free Bird”), and also demonstrates the popularity of specific songs or excerpts.

10.3 Remixes and Cover Bands

Just like many other popular songs and forms of music, video game music has generated a considerably large response by other musicians, remixes and covering tracks from video games. This includes bands that are fully dedicated to playing remixes of video game music, bands formed by video game music composers that also play remixes of video game music, and other remixes, often created electronically. As we will discover below, these covers and remixes tend to be well received. Additionally, the artists’ display extreme dedication in the performance of this music, often going beyond simply covering video game songs, adding their own compositional elements.

10.2.1 Nintendocore

There are many bands dedicated to playing video game music, and these bands perform several different genres. One of the more popular genres for videogame cover bands falls under the term “Nintendocore”.[14] The term Nintendocore was originally used by Nathan Winneke, frontman of the video game cover band Horse the Band. Generally this term describes a genre that fuses aggressive rock with chiptunes and/or game music. For this text, I will define Nintendocore as a form of video game cover music that focuses primarily on retro games, and in some way fuses aggressive rock or metal with 8-bit sound or video game music from this era, and often evokes culture associated with 8-bit gaming.
Horse the Band became active in 1998 and therefore is one of the earliest Nintendocore bands; another such band titled The Advantage (named after a Nintendo joystick controller) emerged the same year. The following year The Minibosses also began releasing music. The Minibosses are one of the oldest video game cover bands and represent an excellent example of Nintendocore, especially regarding their use of cultural video game iconography. The group performs rock covers of primarily classic Nintendo game music, including Mega Man, Castlevania, and Metroid. Prior to the forming of The Minibosses, the guitarist Aaron Burke and Matt Wood played in another video game cover band, and one of the earliest, called The Jenova Project (the Jenova project refers to a research project within the video game Final Fantasy VII). The Minibosses performed originally both original pieces and video game covers, but they later begin to play only the covers. They primarily emphasize classic and retro game music, and much of their output included covers from the original NES era. Retro gaming culture can also be viewed in their music videos, which include cultural references to the NES era, such as 8-bit font and poor translations that were so ubiquitous. The Minibosses, therefore, are not only performing a specific style of music (retro game music), but also representing a specific associated culture (retro gaming culture). This makes them an excellent example of Nintendocore, reinforced with the cultural reference to retro gaming beyond the music only. This type of retro-inspired covering is significant because it indicates that listeners are looking beyond current music, demonstrating increased demand.

10.2.2 Bands dedicated to specific games or franchises

There are several video game music cover bands that are dedicated to performing or re-creating the music from very specific games. The Megas and Protomen are two such bands, and both are dedicated to the music of the Mega Man game franchise.
Protomen have been active since 2003, and have released several concept albums that are related to Mega Man. The music within the albums is inspired by the music of Mega Man, rather than including direct covers of Mega Man music. The Megas also did not simply cover tracks from Mega Man. The group, which became active in 2008, adds their own lyrics to their covers, and they even compose extra sections to the tracks. The approaches taken by The Megas and Protomen indicate that video game music can be re-visited by musicians in extremely creative and interactive ways, which is perhaps in the spirit of gaming culture.
Many other such groups exist, which perform music inspired by several other games. Metroid Metal, for example is a concept band, which has been active since about 2009. The band, which consists of several members from various bands (including Grant Henry from Stemage and Dan Taylor from Chunkstyle), has released several metal-inspired covers of music from the Metroid series. The group received a mention in the various video game publications, where their music has been described as a “collection of high-energy arrangements from Metroid.”[15] This mention is significant because it indicates such musical arrangements are worth mentioning in publications not solely dedicated to music.
Another band dedicated to a specific franchise was the The Black Mages. The group containted three members who were composers associated with Square Enix: Nobuo Uematsu, Kenichiro Fukui, and Tsuyoshi Sekito. The group primarily performed progressive rock/ power metal covers of Final Fantasy songs. The Black Mages were active from 2002 until 2010, when they disbanded. Nobuo Uematsu, from then on, performed similar rock arrangements in the band Earthbound Papas. The reason for this change was primarily due to difficulties that the group encountered due to the Square Enix association and licensing issues. Both the Black Mages and Earthbound Papas have been occasionally active at live video game music concerts. In addition to the bands mentioned, there are many others that play music covering or inspired by singular games or game franchises, and many continue to emerge. The presence of so many performance groups dedicated to game music indicates that it is a desirably genre to perform as well as listen to.

10.2.3 OverClocked ReMixes

As demonstrated previously in this chapter, there are several bands dedicated to the remixing, covering, and re-working of video game music. This is influenced by the popularity of game music, and indicates that game music is an enjoyable genre to perform and remix. However, most of the bands that we have discussed thus far are singular acts dedicated to a certain kind of game music, and mostly professionals. In this section we will discuss a website that allows amateur musicians and professionals alike to re-mix or re-work game music and upload it for others to hear: OverClocked. OverClocked, which was launched in 1999, provides a unique platform for users to experience remixes and reworkings of video game music. The website describes itself as an “organization dedicated to the appreciation and promotion of video game music as an art form”.[16] The works uploaded are called “ReMixes” (rather than re-mixes or covers) because the founder, David W. Lloyd, imagined it to be a collections of reworkings and re-arrangements of existing game music, rather than alterations to master tracks (and therefore not truly remixes).[17] This website has resulted in the dissemination of a multitude of fan-made works, including more than 3000 ReMixes by more than 900 contributors. Lloyd’s intent was that the site would be a non-commercial platform, but contributor attribution is required, indicating the importance the site places on artistic integrity. Over 105 albums of these remixes have been released as of 2016.[18] An additional feature about Overclocked that is interesting is the online forums, which provide a type of “peer review” platform, as users can comment on other ReMixes; the ReMixes are generally well received even among those in the game music industry, and many composers have praised the ReMixes of their works. Some video game composers have even contributed to the database, including Jeremy Soule, who provided a remix to Final Fantasy VI, and George Sanger, who in 2002 was the first industry game composer to provide a remix. On the flipside, several ReMixers have gone on to working in the video game music industry, including Dain Olsen (Dance Dance Revolution), Jillian Aversa (Civiliation IV), Andrew Aversa (Monkey Island 2 Special Edition), Jimmy Hinson (Mass Effect 2), and Danny Baranowsky (Super Meat Boy). Therefore, OC Remix is not just an important display of the general public’s enthusiasm for game music; it has also provided a platform for independent musicians who have a passion for game music to be noticed.

10.4 Effects of Musical Placement in Video Games

Video games have, perhaps inadvertently, also proven themselves to be quite effective at promoting music that appears in game. Part of this is a result of the wide player base of video game music; more and more people are playing games, and therefore placing a song in a game increases its exposure. Additionally, a parallel has been drawn between MTV culture and video games: much like MTV succeeded the radio in being a form of artist promotion, so do video games. Holly Tessler, in “From Pac-Man to Pop Music”, states that the “parallel between the promotional function of MTV and video games is clear”, regarding the fact that video games can promote music, and music can be used to promote video games.[19] Discussed below are examples of both, including bands whose fame can be attributed in some means to video games, and situations in which music was used as a means to sell a game.

10.4.1 Poets of the Fall

Marketing music specifically in video games was not unknown in 2005, when Poets of the Fall achieved fame due to the placement of their song in the game Max Payne. However, the story surrounding Poets of the Fall is somewhat unique and represents a very specific (and game-related use) of a piece of music within a game that, perhaps unintentionally, vaulted the band to stardom. In early 2005, an album titled Signs of Life, by the then relatively unknown band Poets of the Fall, appeared on the Finnish charts at the number one position. The music itself was not remarkable, or a surprising appearance on the charts, as the style was very consistent with the trends in rock music in Finland at the time. Antti-Ville Kärjä described in her article titled “Marketing music in computer games: the case of Poets of the Fall and Max Payne 2,” that what was extremely remarkable about the band’s appearance on the chart, even considering that the band’s song was used in a video game, was “the fact that the group did not have either a recording or publishing deal with any music company.” [20] Therefore, the group achieved this chart position without any promotion (at least in the conventional sense) whatsoever. The reason for this success was primarily the use of one of the songs from the album, “Late Goodbye”, within the video game Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, both during the credits, as well as during various points of gameplay. Most of the appearances during the game are diegetic, including the tune being played on a piano, a janitor’s headphone, and being whistled by a main character. The use of a popular song in a game, even for promotion was not uncommon at this time, and therefore the fact that a song from a game achieved such success is not surprising. Kärjä describes further that, “the results of this particular combination and its relationship to conventional marketing practices within the popular music industry have proven to be somewhat extraordinary.”[21]

10.4.2 Music Video Games (the Guitar Hero Effect)

The Guitar Hero series consists of several music and rhythm based games in which players operate guitar-shaped game controllers to simulate playing songs. The first instalment of the series was released in 2005, by RedOctane and Harmonix, and shortly thereafter the series became a pop culture phenomenon and one of the most popular and widely selling video games.[22] Several cultural effects of games such as Guitar Hero have since been observed, such as renewed interest in rock music (and even classic rock music), renewed interest in children learning to play musical instruments after playing the game, and even some medical benefits in helping people recover after injury. Guitar Hero has been said to have similar effects on the promotion of music as MTV during the 1980s, and exposing players to a lot of music they would not otherwise have heard or have been interested in, such as rock music.[23] The release of games such as Guitar Hero occurred during a shift of media consumption that was very similar to the shift during the 1980s to more televised media. This shift is ongoing, as consumers continuously expect to be able to interact with their media, turning on and off YouTube videos at their leisure, following links, and interacting with games. In 2007, Guitar Hero and Rock Band made more profit combined than all digital music sales.[24] This was the first time this occurred and represented a significant shift in media consumption. The popularity of games like Guitar Hero had substantial effects beyond simply getting publicity for bands. Farhad Manjoo describes in his 2007 article “How ‘Guitar Hero’ saved guitar music”, that there are several accounts of children obtaining skills such as “sensitivity to rhythm” and “mastery over ‘independent hand usage’”, both skills of which are integral to musical instrument playing.[25] One such account was of then 8-year old Ben Eberle, who achieved significant YouTube fame after posting his well-executed Guitar Hero performance sessions online. According to Manjoo, Ben had “never thought about playing guitar before picking up the game”, and that after his involvement with Guitar Hero, Ben pursued learning real electric guitar. As of 2016, internet accounts point to his participation in several different bands as a drummer, indicating that Ben continued his musical education, and that Guitar Hero had likely exposed him to a genre of music that he might not have otherwise experienced so deeply[26] The health benefits of using Guitar Hero as physical therapy treatment were documented by North Carolina rehabilitation therapist Elizabeth Penny in 2008, who stated “Video games are a great adjunct to traditional physical therapy.”[27] Penny included games such Guitar Hero in her therapeutic arsenal, using them to improve patients on social and mental levels. Penny described the reasoning behind this: “I think it helps patients re-connect with what they enjoyed doing before they were injured.” Several similar music-based games have been released since Guitar Hero, including Karaoke themed games, Rock Band, and the dance series such as Dance Central.

10.5 Chiptunes

Chiptunes involves the use of a video game console or console soundcard to create music, with the intention of replicating the characteristic sound of the console. Previously we discussed the technical specifications of the consoles, and the earlier consoles (prior to 32-bit) had unique sound cards that gave them each a distinct sound. Initially these distinct sound characteristics were merely an artefact of the technological limitations; however, in retrospect they became nostalgic for many people who had spent their youth playing these consoles. Both visuals and sound from the early consoles became cultural references to these retro systems; 8-bit and 16-bit graphics were distinct, and we can easily identify images and determine that they are derived from, for example, an old NES game. The sound is equally as distinct; the NES contained a specific set of 5 channels, and these sound channels (and their limitations) gave the NES its characteristic sound. This could also be applied to other systems; the Sega Saturn, for example incorporated FM synthesis, but due to the complicated programming, preset sounds were mostly relied upon. This led to performers hacking these consoles to produce these characteristic sounds. This is what we refer to as chiptunes, and often also coincides with the hacker performing using this console. It should be noted that it is quite simple to replicate the sounds made by the consoles by using computer software, but the use of the physical console adds another visual dimension, because not only are these nostalgic sounds being referenced, but they are being referenced with a visual aid that places the cultural reference at the foreground. There are many performers who are interested in Chiptunes, and nearly all devices can be hacked, including NES, Sega systems, and other consoles. There has also been numerous software platforms developed which allow musicians that have more limited knowledge of the technology to create chiptune music. Chiptunes music has become a culture and genre of its own, generating very diverse results. One such example is the album “Adventures in Pixels” by Ben Landis, which is a music and comic hybrid. The album combines comics that can be read while listening to chiptunes.[28] This example represents an intriguing combination of media types.

10.6 Making Other Music with Game Controllers

Chiptunes involves the use of video game music sound cards and hardware to create music, but with more and more game controllers making use of new modes of interaction, using the data from game controllers is becoming more and more accessible and desirable. Many new game controllers capture gestures, either using accelerometers or cameras. Since musical instruments are essentially gesture-driven (a performer enacts a physical gesture on a musical instrument, the result is the sound), the gestural capture paradigm is well suited for musical expression. Therefore, new game controllers have been used quite extensively as new interfaces for musical expression (NIMEs). Another element of game controllers that does make them so useful for this is that they are extremely accessible, both in cost and distribution. Additionally, as major companies generally develop these game controllers, there is often a substantial amount of research and development put into the devices, making them reliable and easing repair issues. Discussed below is a small sampling of some of the ways in which these controllers have been used as expressive musical interfaces.

10.6.1 Elaine Wong: An Interactive Music Performance System

The Nintendo Wii did not opt for HD, instead choosing to innovate player control, and did so in the creation of the WiiMote controller. Then Nintendo president Satoru Iwata stated that the one of the company’s intentions in the creation of the Wiimote was to create something that would make “gaming much more accessible, to entice “everyone” to want to “touch” the controller.[29] The controller itself looks much more like a television remote than a game controller, which is part of this desire, to represent something familiar and domestic (TV remote). This design is intentional and reinforces Iwata’s intentions of universality. The primary innovative feature of the Nintendo Wiimote is its motion sensing capabilities. The Wiimote measures, at “over two hundred signals per second and in three dimensions, the movements the player makes with it, using a combination of infrared and wireless Bluetooth channels to transmit movement data, and then map the movements onto the game space.”[30] Programmers and music technologists immediately saw the expressive potential following the release of this controller. Such controllers allowed for gestural movement to create continuous data, unlike other game controllers that primarily rely on on/off switch data (i.e., button controllers). Elaine Wong, et al. in 2008, executed one of the earliest implementations of the Wiimote as a musical instrument.[31] While using gestural controllers to control musical parameters was not novel at this time, many of these controllers were custom built by engineers or other researchers for specific performers. Wong’s concept in using the Wiimote was that it was accessible and easy to transport; unlike custom-built sensors, Wiimotes were relatively inexpensive (originally retailing at fifty USD instead several thousand) and durable. Since they are not custom built, it is also easy for several people who may want to use the technology to obtain the Wiimotes. The system built by Wong allowed for the user to control music in many ways, including conducting patterns, changing the speed of playback, turning the Wiimote and nunchuk extension into a percussive set, and allowing for manipulation of sound using the pitch and roll of the Wiimotes.[32]

10.6.2 Kinect via Synapse

Furthering the motion control innovation made by Nintendo with the Wiimote, Microsoft designed a camera-based motion control system, called the Kinect. This device was primarily used for dance or movement based games, and tracks users limb and body motion. A tutorial manual describes the Xbox Kinect as “a high-tech motorized sensor that detects and tracks movement, registers spoken commands via built-in microphones, and virtually renders you and your environment in various game worlds through its sophisticated video camera and software.”[33] The device’s musical potential was realized shortly after its 2011 release. Ryan Chancellor, who also worked for Harmonix on Dance Central, developed software, titled “Synapse”, which enables a user to take data derived from the Kinect and send it to several music programs, including Quartz Composer, Ableton Live, and Max/MSP.[34] Jon Bellona further developed this software into a Max/MSP application that enabled a user to easily grab the Kinect data and use it to drive musical parameters.[35] The speed with which this implementation was made, as well as the multiple users that have put in time, indicate the interest in turning the game controller into a musical device. This particular software combination has since been used in multiple music performance systems, including in University of British Columbia Laptop Orchestra concerts,[36] musical installations,[37] and in works that combine live instruments with electronic sound.[38] While there are drawbacks to using a Kinect for such situtations (including the performer needing to connect to Synapse by standing in a particular position), such a device provides an extremely intuitive interface for musical expression, especially for the incorporation of large gestural movements (and including dance).

10.6.2 Other Uses in Laptop Orchestras and Live Situations

Game controllers have been (and continue to be) used in many other performance situations, including electronic device ensembles and Laptop Orchestras. They provide excellent alternatives to keyboards or other “button-pressing” input devices traditionally used by Laptop Orchestras, which have been criticized for lacking the performance expressivity of live instrumental performances, mostly due to the lack of physical gesture. Some have argued that “‘performing’ with a laptop and making ‘successful’ art is essentially impossible.”[39] Game controllers, such as the WiiMote, the Kinect, and others that involve gestural input, can provide excellent interfaces for musical expression. As discussed above, WiiMotes make excellent expressive tools for musicians, but their ubiquity can also render them an excellent addition to an electronic device ensemble, as their ease of programming coupled with their accessibility enable easy possession and programming of multiple WiiMotes. One such example of using WiiMotes in an ensemble setting is presented by the University of British Columbia SUBCLASS (Formerly Laptop Orchestra, etc), in which all of the members used gaming controllers. Three out of the four members chose to use WiiMotes, with the fourth performer designing an interface for the Kinect.[40] Some of the less prominent gaming controllers also provide excellent interfaces for musical expression: one example of this would be the hacking of the Nintendo PowerGlove. While not considered an overly successful game controller, the PowerGlove has been hacked several times to become a music controller, with one of the more recent implementations being Nolan Moore’s gesture-based drone controller.[41] The GameTrak controller is another example; originally sold alongside Real World Golf (2006), it contains two handles that the user can pull, which are connected to a base with strings. Information regarding the length of the pull and directionality can be sent (following a simple modification) to software such as Max. Many features of the GameTrak make it an extremely expressive device for musical performance: the strings can be pulled to extremely long lengths, in many directions, and a string itself is already a very musical device, existing in several acoustic instruments. A recent performance for GameTrak that exhibits the expressivity of the device is Jeffrey Stolet’s “Lariat Rituals”.[42]

10.7 Recent Video Game Music Research

New publications are continuously emerging on the study of video game music, with more academic books being published on the topic, especially since the late 2000s. Additionally, scholars are approaching video game music as a relevant topic for study; this is evident in the body of recent dissertations on video game music, as well as the numerous conference presentations that involve video game music in some way. Such presentations have been seen at musicology conferences,[43] and also at computer music conferences such as ICMC.[44] Currently, however, a unified scholarship surrounding video game music and how to study it remains absent. The scholarship for students who may wish to examine video game music at an entry level in an academic setting, or for a wider but non-commercial audience, is largely non-existent.

10.7.1 Recent Publications

Prior to the mid 2000s, the majority of texts on video game music served more as technical manuals for composers and sound designers to either break into the business, or hone their technical skills. The study of video game music from a scholarly perspective is relatively new, and while continuously gaining traction, is not among the mainstream in studies of musicology and music history. Even ethnomusicology, which is dedicated to the study of folk and popular music, has not seen substantial discussion surrounding video game music. There has been some recent scholarship, and academic publications, however, particularly in the last ten years. Karen Collins has published several texts on the subject of video game music, with one of her earliest publication being the 2008 monograph Game Sound: an introduction to the history, theory, and practice of video game music and sound design. The text took a scholarly approach, rather than acting as a manual for those desiring to break into the industry. This was one of the first major publications to do so, and set a precedent for the future study of video game music. The text outlined the history of video game music and sound, including technological innovations as well as composer backgrounds and musical developments. The book received good reviews in general, although a recurrent criticism remained the text’s inability to be accessible to readers that are not already proficient in both music and technology.[45] Collins followed up with other publications on the subject, which also took a critical approach, including her 2013 text Playing with Sound: a theory of interacting with sound and music in video games.[46] This text examined more of the interactive components in video games, and included psychology of music as an important methodology. However, just as in Game Sound, the text remains primarily for a specific, highly educated (in a specific area) audience. The scholarship of the entry level study of video game music from an academic perspective remains a subject highly unpublished on; this is likely due to the fact that most accessible publications are from the industry perspective, and it remains a specialized academic topic, not yet entering the mainstream (subjects such as classical musical theory have done so, and there is therefore a wide body of entry-level works). As video game music is still primarily considered a “popular” genre of music, the integration of the study of it within musicological circles may be difficult, and therefore would put pressure on academic writers to pursue topics acceptable to academia, but inaccessible for introductory or undergraduate readers. Presentations on video game music topics are becoming more frequent at academic conferences, although these also tend to be very highly specialized and also for a narrow, educated audience. Most of these also tend to attempt to reconcile the study of video game music within the already-established analysis methods present in music theory or musicology[47] rather than evaluating video game music based on new (or yet indetermined) methods that may be more applicable. This is also likely due to the lack of coherent and comprehensive methods for studying music for interactive media that include interactivity as a primary evaluative component.

10.7.2 Theses and Dissertations on Game Music

Recently more scholarship surrounding game music has emerged, including researchers electing to write entire dissertations and theses on subjects involving game music in some way. This can especially be observed beginning in approximately 2012 (and owing to the duration of writing a dissertation, indicates that this increase in scholarship began surrounding the academic publications, especially Karen Collin’s Game Sound, distributed after 2008). The study of video game music did exist before this time, but the amount of dedicated dissertations has greatly increased and continues to do so. One of the earliest of these dissertations is David Lawrence Newcomb’s “The Fundamentals of Video Game Music Genre”, completed in 2012. Newcomb’s dissertation focuses on the development of video game music as a distinct genre, stating that the purpose of the document is that it “will discuss the historical transformation of video game sound from its earlier years through an era, as proposed by the author, when game music became its own genre.”[48] The dissertation primarily claims that video game music became a genre of its own between 1985 and 1995. Newcomb’s manuscript, therefore, speaks not only for the scholastic representation of video game music, but also for the eventual reputability of video game music as music. Several dissertations have followed since then, using different methodologies and subject matter. Elizabeth Medina-Gray, in her 2014 dissertation “Modular Structure and Function in Early 21st-century Game Music,” helped to cement video game study as a valid genre in academic music theory, and focuses specifically on the modularity of recent game music, which is a result of using more adaptive musical processes.[49] Therefore, this dissertation not only studies game music using music theory methodology, but studies an element of game music that is very specific to music for interactive media, rather than trying to fit analyze game music using existing framework. Other recent dissertations include “The Benefits of Playing Music Video Games” by Amanda Pasinski in 2014, “Press Start: Narrative Integration in 16-bit Video Game Music” by Justin Daniel Sextro in 2015, and many others. Pasinski and Sextro’s examples represent different ends of the spectrum with regards to academic field and methodology: while Sextro takes primarily a theoretical (musicological) approach of the music itself, Pasinski’s dissertation is in psychology, and looks at the psychological and cognitive effects of playing music video games. Therefore, the breadth of topics, even among the four theses briefly referenced in this section, indicates that the field has a lot of potential for study and remains an area of music theory and musicology that is both relevant, and somewhat untapped. Entries like Pasinski’s also demonstrate that studies surrounding video game music and sound are relevant in disciplines even outside music.

10.8 Conclusion

Video games have had a tremendous impact on our media consumption, and represent one of the highest-consumed forms of entertainment media, surpassing even Hollywood.[50] It is therefore not surprising that the music within video games would be widely consumed. The impact of video game music reaches far beyond the console, and it is apparent that this music is one of the most important genres of music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. There are several possible results of video game music’s receptive audience, an audience, which also gives promise to new music, a genre for which support, especially of the classical, has not always been very high. Many orchestras can benefit from the large audiences that video game music concerts draw, and the younger demographic results in audience members that will potentially become long-term customers. While most of these attendees will come for the video game music concerts, there are also other concerts advertised on the bill, and concert attendance may encourage these attendees to buy tickets to other performances. Adding a piece of video game music to a concert can draw a large audience that also may discover they like other pieces as well. In general, performing video game music can therefore be very lucrative for orchestras and performing groups, and revive interest in live music. There is also an iconic element to some of the examples discussed in this text; consoles and game controllers both represent specific cultural phenomena (surrounding gaming) that are very specific to the post-digital age. Video gaming culture has had a profound effect on music consumption, and this effect extends even to the creation of music. As our generation is one that interfaces with electronic devices, and especially games, using game console sound cards and game controllers to create music allows us to make music that is representative distinctly of our time. Cultural references to gaming are especially prominent among nostalgic mediums, such as chiptunes; while it would be possible to create the same music without a console, the visual element of the console and the specific actions required to create the music are important. The blowing on the cartridge is an iconic gesture that all Nintendo games recognize and identify with, for example, and it is gestures and elements such as these that demonstrate just how embedded into our culture video gaming is.


[1] http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/press-release/2006-04-17/koji-kondo-to-attend-chicago-world-premiere
[2] http://www.ifc.com/2011/04/grammys-to-start-recognizing-v
[3] Examples include the God Of War stage demo, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPcuMRTkEdQ
[4] see videos such as https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ja5h3Y2KDHc, which includes Nobuo Uematsu playing the flute, and this video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rD0p7EfMa9U, titled “We Love Video Game Music.”
[5] http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-videogames-are-saving-the-symphony-orchestra-1444696737
[6] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/02/AR2006080201889_pf.html
[7] http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/press-release/2006-04-11/nobuo-uematsu-to-attend-chicago-world-premiere

[8] https://daytonperformingarts.org/content.jsp?articleId=2430

[9] Official Website, Video Games Live, www.videogameslive.com
[10] http://www.post-gazette.com/lifestyle/2009/07/07/PSO-presents-Video-Games-Live-to-turn-on-new-generation/stories/200907070111
[11] https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1916334303/video-games-live-level-4-lets-do-it-again/description
[12] http://www.post-gazette.com/lifestyle/2009/07/07/PSO-presents-Video-Games-Live-to-turn-on-new-generation/stories/200907070111
[13] see, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGxiDK7Ql3o, also many other videos continue to be added from Distant Worlds concerts.
[14] http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2006/2/14/nintendo-rock-nostalgia-or-sound-of/
[15] http://www.verbicidemagazine.com/2010/01/28/metroid-metal-super-metroid-ending/, also Nintendo Power, December 2005.
[16] From the Overclocked remix website, www.ocremix.org/info/AboutUs
[17] Bandit, Cat (2014-01-30), “To OC or Not to OC, That Is the ReMix”, Hyper, Next Publishing Pty Ltd (published March 2014) (245), pp. 6–10.
[18] https://ocremix.org/albums/
[19] Tessler, Holly. “The new MTV? Electronic Arts and ‘playing’music,” in From Pac-Man to Popular Music: Interactive Audio in Games and New Media, ed. by Karen Collins (Farnham, GB: Ashgate, 2013), 16.
[20] Kärjä, Antti-Ville, “Marketing music through computer games: the case of Poets of the Fall and Max Payne 2”, in From Pac-Man to Popular Music: Interactive Audio in Games and New Media, ed. by Karen Collins (Farnham, GB: Ashgate, 2013), 27.
[21] Kärjä 28.
[22] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/15/fashion/15guitar.html?_r=0
[23] http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/gaming/rocktastic-how-guitar-hero-brought-stardom-to-the-masses-1669257.html
[24] http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/gaming/rocktastic-how-guitar-hero-brought-stardom-to-the-masses-1669257.html
[25] http://web.archive.org/web/20080811141022/http://machinist.salon.com/feature/2007/08/15/guitar_hero/
[26] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUzNcheoY6U
[27] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2008/sep/24/you-dont-have-to-be-a-quick-fingered-15-year-old-t/
[28] http://kotaku.com/5911255/this-chiptune-album-is-also-a-graphic-novel
[29] Jones, Steven E., and George K. Thiruvathukal. Codename Revolution: The Nintendo Wii Platform (MIT Press, 2012), 64.
[30] Codename Revolution 69.
[31] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/221593093_Designing_Wii_controller_a_powerful_musical_instrument_in_an_interactive_music_performance_system
[32] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xocu565c-zI
[33] Loguidice, Bill, and Christina Loguidice. My Xbox: Xbox 360, Kinect, and Xbox LIVE, (Que Publishing, 2012).
[34] http://synapsekinect.tumblr.com/
[35] http://jpbellona.com/kinect/
[36] see video from Bang Festival concert, April 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMh8zyBNozw
[37] https://naithan.com/code-and-other-projects/avast/
[38] Aska, Alyssa, Sharp-edged, for clarinet and Kinect, 2014.
[39] Ostertag, B. 2002. Human bodies, computer music. Leonardo Music Journal 12: 11–14
[40] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMh8zyBNozw
[41] http://www.theverge.com/circuitbreaker/2016/6/7/11874170/nintendo-power-glove-control-drones-gesture-hack
[42] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=quA3WxWCdzI
[43] see “Medievalisms in Fantasy-Genre Video Gaming,” Stephanie Lind, MusCan 2016,
http://muscan.org/en/conference/conference-2016/642-conference-2016-friday-3-june
[44] Hamilton, R., “The Procedural Sounds and Music of ECHO::Canyon” In Proceedings of the International Computer Music Association Conference, Athens, Greece, 2014.
[45] Nyre, Lars. “Sound Studies is Still Tuning In,” in New Media & Society vol 12, no. 8 (December 2010), 1388-1393.
[46] Collins, Karen. Playing with sound: a theory of interacting with sound and music in video games. (MIT Press, 2013).
[47] for example, Stephanie Lind’s “Medievalisms in Fantasy-Genre Video Gaming”, presented June 3, 2016 at the Canadian University Music Society conference, link above.
[48] Newcomb, David Lawrence. The Fundamentals of the Video Game Music Genre. (James Madison University, 2012).
[49] Medina-Gray, Elizabeth. Modular structure and function in early 21st-century video game music, (Yale University 2014).
[50] http://sparksheet.com/playing-new-fans-music-gaming-industrys-next-marketing-channel/