The Roles of Video Game Music

An article written by Christopher Hopkins

December 2007

The first sound effects of Pong in 1972 brought a new sensory interaction that when coupled with the visual image redefined the video gaming experience. Early sounds could indicate changes in the action or certain events on the screen. When Rally X introduced the use of background music, the video gaming industry learned to use the gaming systems’ audio processors to their fullest potential to create infectious musical numbers. The earliest role of music was as background fodder that amused the player as he or she completed the game’s tasks.

Video game developers and composers worked together to find new ways to incorporate musical elements into the gameplay. Crazy Climber in 1980 introduced the use of musical cues to gaming. Depending on the intensity of the screen events or the imminent danger, musical cues would sound to indicate them. These cues were early signs of the appreciation of popular music as songs like “The Pink Panther Theme” and “The Entertainer” could be heard when the situation called for them. Recognizable music became the inspiration for the arcade game Journey in 1983. Journey featured the first use of licensed music, playing Journey’s hits of the day while the player completed various small tasks. Otocky in 1987 built its gameplay entirely around music, being the first game to include player-generated music. The function of music continued to adapt itself to new gaming possibilities to engage the player.

In the early 1990’s, video games incorporated music making into the gaming objective. Wonder Boy in Monster World in 1991 became the first game to use the controller as a musical instrument. The buttons on the Genesis game pad corresponded to synthesized musical notes within the game. The main character toots on his ocarina based on the "fingerings" of the player. The tunes the player plays are essential to unlocking the boss’ lairs. Whether the player plays a tune to complete an objective or just to have fun, understanding music became a necessary component of completing games.

Video games expanded on musical elements in gameplay by making music making the entire game. In 1997, PaRappa the Rapper required players to move PaRappa by responding to the rap commands given by the masters. The music on each level offers new difficulties and challenges, and the player can only win by outperforming the in-game challengers. The Playstation game controller acts as the impulses to move PaRappa’s body. GuitarFreaks in 1998 used a controller shaped as an electric guitar to correspond with the guitar music in the game. With the controller, players are required to finger the notes on the guitar neck and simulate the strumming of strings. The guitar controller made video game music more interactive and actually created interest in learning musical instruments.

The orchestra emerged out of the background of games with Mad Maestro in 2002. As a Japanese released game, the premise of the game is to conduct an orchestra as it plays various classical works. Using the Playstation 2 controller, the player can control the volume and tempo of the orchestra by the pressure he or she puts on the buttons. The player completely directs the musical lines of the orchestra and the overall gaming experience. In development in 2007 is Wii Music for the Nintendo Wii. With the Wii remote and nunchuk, players will be able to make music with forty instruments. They will also conduct an orchestra. The game will include musical selections from classical and video game repertories. This game equates video games with the creation of music through its interaction of instrumentation and musical selections.

The Atari 2600 was one of the first home video game systems to effectively include music in video games. When it first hit shelves in 1977, it included a custom chip which was responsible for two channels of sound. The TIA was the first chip to allow programmers to control pitch, volume, and quality. The two channels included one square wave and one white noise. The square wave supports a melody while the white noise provides percussive possibilities, resembling the sound of static on an older model television set. The Atari 2600 was only capable of mono sound. Examples of the TIA pushed to its creative limits include the tanks of Combat, the rhythm of Breakout, and the haunting use of silence in Adventure.

After the video game crash of 1983, the Nintendo Entertainment System emerged as the best-selling console of 1985. As an 8-bit system, it toted a Motorola 6502 processor for mono sound. The 6502 supported five sound channels. Two of the five could manipulate pulse waves like the square wave of the TIA. With the 6502, the cycles of the pulse waves could vary much more than the TIA. The pulse wave channels also could be set to any of sixteen volume levels. The 6502 includes fluid pitch bending, allowing a degree of human expression in slides. One of the five channels was a triangle wave channel set at a fixed volume. Like the TIA, the 6502 included a white noise channel, but the 6502 added sixteen volume levels for its white noise channel. The white noise could be set to sixteen unique frequencies, giving the NES sounds similar to a drum kit. If the frequency of the white noise channel interferes with the other channels, the NES silences other channels to allow the white noise channel to sound. The last channel is capable of playing pulse-code modulation. As an early version of sound sampling, this channel took samples of outside sound sources and converted them to the NES. Examples of the 6502’s strongest music are from the games Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Mega Man 2.

After the success of the NES, Sega Enterprises introduced their 8-bit video gaming system, the Sega Master System, in 1986. The SMS housed two chips for sound capabilities: the Texas Instruments SN76489 and the Yamaha YM2413. The SN76489 is the programmable sound generator similar to the TIA and 6502. The SN76489 has four channel mono sound; three of the four are square wave channels and the other is a white noise channel. The square wave channels can use any of three tones at any of ten octaves. The YM2413 was supported by only a few games in the SMS’ life. It allows for mono sound through nine channels of frequency modulation. Phantasy Star is an example of a SMS game that effectively used the SN76489 for FM audio.

Nintendo’s Game Boy became a hit sensation for the handheld video game market in 1986. Although the Game Boy lacked the visual power of the console gaming systems, it sported strong audio capabilities. Sound generation came from the core CPU chip, a custom 8-bit Sharp x80. The x80 supported four channels: two square waves, one pulse code modulation wave, and one white noise. Like the NES and SMS, the channels have varying volume levels. One of the square wave channels is capable of frequency sweep for sliding and bending. The PCM channel can choose from any of thirty-two programmed samples. An important audio feature of the Game Boy was its ability to output stereo sound to headphones. Without headphones, the system can only provide mono sound from its one speaker. Notable Game Boy game music include Tetris, Pokemon Red and Blue, and Metroid 2: Return of Samus.

On August 29, 1989, the U.S. saw the release of the TurboGrafx-16. While the TurboGrafx-16 slightly expanded on integrated sound generation channel techniques and PCM, its greatest contribution to game audio is the TurboGrafx-CD, the first CD-ROM add-on. The TurboGrafx-CD added CD digital audio and one adaptive PCM channel to the TurboGrafx-16. The adaptive PCM channel quantizies the sampled sound so it conforms to the system’s HuC6280 CPU chip. The ADPCM became most used for digital sound effects. The “16” refers to the 16-bit graphics chip; all other aspects of the system, including game audio, functions from an 8-bit CPU. CD digital audio, or CDDA, would become a standard for game audio in future video game generations. The TurgoGrafx-16 did not have the success of the NES, however, the game Bonk’s Adventure became a trademark of the system for its audio and gameplay.

In response to the TurboGrafx-16, Sega Enterprises released the Sega Genesis to the U.S. on August 14, 1989. The Genesis included a main and secondary sound chip. The main sound chip was the Yamaha YM2612. It provided six FM channels. Four of the six are operators. The sixth channel can output 8-bit PCM or be used as a regular FM channel. The YM2612 supports stereo panning, which many of the Genesis games use. The second sound chip is the SN76489, the same sound chip as Sega’s SMS. This chip was used primarily for backward compatibility with SMS games that could be played on the Genesis. It could also supplement the six FM channels of the YM2612. Notable game audio can be found in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Streets of Rage, and Golden Axe.

In 1991, Nintendo released the Super Nintendo, the upgraded version of the NES. The Sony SPC700 sound chip controlled registers in the SNES’ DSP to generate synthesized music and sound effects in real time. The SNES provided ADSR which greatly enhanced the timbres of the synthesized sounds.

1993 brought forth 3DO and the Atari Jaguar. The Atari Jaguar featured 16-bit stereo, CD-quality sound. The "Jerry" chip was capable of wavetable, FM, FM Sample, and AM synthesis. The video games determined how many sound channels were available. The CD-ROM peripheral, called the Atari Jaguar CD, popularized the soundtrack of Tempest 2000 with its bundled music CD. The 3DO was the first gaming system to include a music visualizer that projected a light show onto the screen when an audio CD was inserted. Because of the 3DO’s technical advances, including its support of Dolby Surround Sound, it was marketed for most of its life as an audio/video system.

By the time of the PlayStation 1 release in 1995, gaming systems had little to no limitations on sonorities. All subsequent gaming system adopted the CD medium for its storage space and audio quality. The Nintendo 64 in 1996 opted for cartridge based games over CDs and used its "Reality Signal Processor" to manage the same sound standards as CDs. The downside was the lack of storage space on the cartridges to implement that level of sound quality. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Smash Bros., and Cruis’n USA manage to display strong soundtracks on the Nintendo 64.


I define background music as a musical piece that does not display any useful information for the player to complete the game’s task. Unlike sound effects, background music is continuously playing music, whether by looping the piece or switching to a new musical piece. The musical notes are heard close enough in succession that the ear interprets them as part of a unified piece. The music is considered background because it exists to remove the silence that would otherwise be present. The music neither relates to the on-screen visuals or the tone of the game. It is music that the player hears, but to which he or she does not react. They are of a short duration, repetitive, and contain simple instrumentation. They do not detract from the gameplay, but they keep the ears listening as the hands and eyes coordinate around the game’s obstacles.

Rally-X is an example of a game with background music. As the first game with music throughout the game’s main scene, the main musical theme is unrelated to the game’s mazes, cars, or flags. One channel plays the higher melody while the other channel plays the bassline. The main music stops abruptly if the player’s car hits another car or a rock in the road. Without the background music, the gameplay would be lacking since emphasis would be placed on the silence. Logically, cars racing around never have moments of silence until they are parked. The melody line uses a few musical phrases in the piece’s form that are repeated. The soundtrack is distinctive because it is played throughout the game’s entirety. It is memorable because it is short enough for a player to memorize. It is infectious because of its simplistic and trivial composition.


I define mood as music which fits the character of the game. The music can convey mood through instrumentation, rhythm, modes, and harmony. Music that sets a mood is directly related to the severity of the in-game action. The music indicates to the player how serious to take the game’s challenges. It can be light-hearted and relaxing or tense and nervous. Unlike background music, music that functions to convey a mood signals to the player the extent of the present gaming experience. It evokes a basic emotion in the player that remains while the music plays. Multiple contrasting mood pieces in succession can manipulate the player’s emotional response to the in-game action.

Super Mario Bros. in an example of a game with music as a mood. The NES has limitations in the hardware’s sound capabilities which are worked around effectively in the game’s music. "Overworld Theme" is the first piece of music the player hears when the game begins. The piece uses two sound channels for melody and harmony and the white noise channel for a percussive brush as a rhythm section. The piece uses the two PSG channels in parallel and as a melody with a bass line. The music displays the mood through basic elements of music, including detached notes, triplets, rhythmic stresses from the white noise channel, a wide pitch range, and syncopation. As the musical piece progresses, the player cannot attempt to formulaically achieve the game’s objective. The music plays with pulse and pitch, allowing the music to float above a strict meter and controlled pitch range. The player must feel the light-hearted and whimsical mood set by the theme and express it as he or she controls Mario or Luigi through the perils of the Mushroom Kingdom.

This game has the most widely known soundtrack in the entire video game music genre. This is attributed to the 40 million copies of Super Mario Bros. sold worldwide. As a staple of video game music, the Super Mario Bros. soundtrack changes moods with the changing visual landscapes. For example, the “oom pah pah” found in the waltz of "Underworld Theme" sets the mood of motion and lilting, both which are matched by the water and waves in the visuals. "Underworld Theme" uses the low register of the PSG channels, creating a murky and deep mood. "Castle Theme" consists of an elongated melody line intertwined with rapidly and continuously moving notes that fluctuate up and down with no center. This sets the mood of uncertainty and danger. The combination of innovative gameplay and strong compositional music procedures makes Super Mario Bros. a successful representation of music which sets a mood.

Outrun uses the in-game music to match the mood of the game’s challenges. When a player places a coin into the arcade machine, he or she is given a choice of three radio stations to choose from, each with its own musical piece that will play as the player drives around. The soundtrack makes use of strong rhythm through the use of sounds that emulate drums, maraccas, and a cowbell. The melody of "Magical Sound Shower" displays an element of improvisation, presenting a carefree and unpredictable mood. The harmony is arpeggiated underneath the melody, moving up and down. The soundtrack matches the coastal and rural environments in its fun presentation. The music sounds as though a music band had a jam session. The instrumentation, improvisional elements, and rhythmic variety contribute to the the tropical mood that matches the scenery. Coupled with the Ferrari Testarossa convertible and the young woman inthe passenger seat, the game encourages the player to feel thrilled about driving on the open road. The laid-back beach music is indicative of west coast jazz of the 40s’s and 50’s in their use of instrumentation and improvisation.


I define narration as music which contributes to the story telling of the game. As the music shifts or transitions, so too do the in-game events. The music shares its climaxes with the climaxes of the plot. Games which exhibit this type of music rely on a solid cinematic presentation of the game’s story and events through compelling visuals and cutscenes. The music can be at the forefront of the narration or quietly lurking amidst a flashback or revelation scene. While music as a mood evokes an emotion, narration goes a step further in its integration with the pacing of the storyline. Much like a book, the music tells a narration using the player’s imagination coupled with the game’s audio. Music that works as narration evokes a multitude of different moods in a single piece. The composition of this type of music requires the composer to insert changes in harmony, timbre, rhythm and tempo that are coordinated with the dialogue and events on the screen. This music follows cinematic storytelling procedures, that can be found in cutscenes which develop the storyline through character interaction. It does so by building to climactic material at the moment when the narration progresses.

Silent Hill tells a compelling story about the town of Silent Hill and its mysterious past through the music. Contrasting from the prior musical selections discussed, the Silent Hill soundtrack consists primarily of industrial noise and dark ambient music. If someone were to listen to all of the game’s music consecutively, he or she would perceive one long track. Overall the music conveys an eerie and haunting mood through its low register, chromaticism, and rough texture. Much of the music is almost inaudible. The music of Silent Hill ties into the game’s narration, so it cannot maintain its function outside of the game’s setting. The piece “Devil’s Lyric” is an atmospheric piece which moves forth the narration. It begins with what sounds like an electronic sound device that has its frequency knob being twisted back and forth. The sounds in the piece work together to form a rhythmic pulse, as if the player were in a factory with its gears moving in a pattern. There are no definite pitches in the sounds of this piece, but there are distinctions between lower and higher percussive sounds. The higher percussive sounds emphasize the rhythm of the game’s atmosphere. The insertion of these stresses matches the surroundings of the scene in which this music plays. The piece contains a constant hiss that sounds like air flowing out of a vent. This adds to the obscurity of the narration as well as conceals the reverbed bell sounds that ring at the piece’s conclusion. The many layers of the industrial noise constitute it as being music that is much more adaptive to the game’s environment.

“Killing Time,” one of the more traditional musical pieces in Silent Hill, reveals more about the game’s events in its construction. This piece uses a simple instrumentation of guitar, bass, and drums that repeat a musical figure throughout the piece. The guitar has a pungent attack that is plucked. Voice aahs add to the mystique accompanied by a noticeable drum beat. The vibraphone pitches have a lot of vibrato in them which matches the fluctuation of tension in the game. A crackling sound that carries throughout the piece provides a sense of decay or finitude which relates with the anxieties and anticipations of the main character. In the middle of the piece, the bass fluctuates between two pitches while letting each pitch vibrate, contributing to the uncertainty in the town of Silent Hill. As one of the earliest games of the horror genre, the Silent Hill soundtrack expresses narration in its relation to its game setting through instrumentation, rhythm, pitch, chromaticism, and sound quality.

Final Fantasy 6 consists of a soundtrack that presents the narration of the game’s characters and places. Of particular interest is the form of the music and game. In the composition of the music, composer Nobuo Uematsu incorporated elements of the opera tradition. One of the most prominent musical moments in the Final Fantasy series is the opera scene. This game marks the first apperance of an in-game opera composed for a video game. The opera consists of four sections: "Overture", "Aria", "Wedding", and "Grand Finale". In preparation for the aria scene, the character Celes dresses up as Maria, the star of the opera “The Dream Oath: Maria and Draco.” Backstage, the libretto sits on a table. The player is expected to move the chraracter toward the book to read its contents. It is essential that the player memorize the lyrics of the aria. The player then walks Celes onto the stage which is made to resemble a castle at night. It is here that Celes begins the “Aria di Mezzo Carattere” which translates to “Aria of Half Character.” At three separate instances, the game will prompt the player to choose between two lines of text. The correct choice will result in Celes continuing to sing with the chosen text. Otherwise she will be kicked out of the opera and the game’s narration cannot progress.

The music is necessary for the success of the opera and the movement toward completion of the game. The game design sets the aria in the forefront of the narration for this scene. The SNES uses its capabilities to create a synthesized representation of harp, voice, trombone, and violins. The Playstation remake of this scene sets the music to a beautifully constructed cutscene using CGI of Celes and the other opera characters. The aria begins with sparse flutters of the harp. The vocal part enters with the first verse. The music goes right into the second verse with the addition of trombone and violins. The third verse has the trombone proving harmonies as the violins double the voice. There is an interlude between the strings and trombone. The harp arpeggiates the harmony to segue into the next verse. The voice returns with the instrumentation of the third verse. The fifth verse is likewise. The interlude resumes beginning from the harp’s entrance and then concludes with a ritardando and a final cadence. The elements of opera which incorporate form, instrumentation, melody, harmony, and narration are encompassed within the “Aria di Mezzo Carattere.” The English translation of the words convey longing and sadness which is present in the low vocal range of the piece.


I define quotation as music that is borrowed from a composer that was not composed with the intention of playing in a game. I do not include licensed music in this role because video games companies choose licensed music to contribute to the game’s tone of character. With quotation music, excerpts or full pieces are programmed from their original form into computer code and inserted into a game. The reason to do so is because the game designer wants the player to recognize either the musical tradition or the theme. Game publishers today have a plethora of music to choose from that is available without copyright, especially music published before the 19th century. Music as quotation can solve the problem of keeping the player captivated when the gameplay is lacking. It can encourage the player to think intelligently if the selected music was intricately composed. Unlike the previous roles of music, quotation music is not written by a game composer for a specific game. It functions to have your mind think a certain way by interacting with the player’s ears and memory.

Tetris uses music as quotation by borrowing from a Russian folk song, a Russian Romantic composer, and a German Baroque composer. The gameplay requires the player to understand geometry enough to turn various tetrads of varying shapes so they fit into the playing space. The objective is to form a row of segments across the playing space so that the row will vanish, opening up more space for more tetrads to be inserted. In the NES version of the game licensed by Nintendo, the player can choose between Music 1, 2, or 3. Music 1 resembles the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” borrowed from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. In the Game Boy version of Tetris, the player can choose between Music A, B, or C. These three pieces are different entirely from the NES version. Music C is an arrangement of French Suite No. 3 in B Minor by Bach. Music A, the most familiar of all the Tetris tunes, is taken from an 1861 Russian folk tune titled “Korobeiniki.” After completing the last level on the Game Boy version, the player is treated to pixelated versions of Russian dancers dancing to the “Trepak” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.

All of these selections were composed at least 140 years ago. Music 1 and C were composed by respected Western composers whose works are studied academically. Music A enjoys a rich Russian heritage and is associated with the Russian lifestyle. They were placed in Tetris for logical reasons. Tetris requires the player to enter into uninterrupted concentration if he or she hopes to clear the playing space. Music that accompanies the gameplay should not startle or surprise the player. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite is identifiable by its staccato melody line and its “oom pah” bass line. It demonstrates his Romantic style and uses elements of the Romantic style to evoke a peaceful emotion. Peaceful music is appropriate for concentration. Bach’s music is cleverly constructed in the Baroque tradition that it fits in with the clever construction of the tetrads. The Russian folk tune ties in with the gameplay because the original game designer, Alexey Pajitnov, programmed the algorithm for the game with a Russian intellectual thought process. The versions of Tetris incorporate some element of the Soviet history in their title screens. St. Basil’s Cathedral is displayed in the title screen of the NES and Game Boy versions. Tetris has developed a strong connection by presenting subtle aspects of Russian culture through the gameplay and Music A and 1.

Due to the packaging of Tetris with the Game Boy handheld gaming system, the most players experienced the Game Boy version. The unique puzzle gameplay coupled with the recognizable music propelled Nintendo into the top contender in the handheld gaming market.


I define history as music which functions in two ways. It is representative of the time and place of the game’s setting. Its other effect is that it defines the setting in which it is present. This means that music which serves to shape history redefines accepted styles, social norms, and the main issues of the game’s setting. This music uses selected pieces characteristic of the game’s time and place and plays them throughout the game. Each selection has a message and emotion associated with it that is reflective of the game publisher’s perception of the game’s setting. The player interprets these carefully selected musical selections as a true testament of what the real world was like in that time and place. There is an exaggeration and distortion from the perception of the real world time and place to the game’s environment. For young players who never lived through the game’s time period or in the game’s location, hearing this music persuades them to associate the real world time and place with the standards expressed in the game’s time and place.

The Grand Theft Auto series are an example of games which incorporate music to not only present a representation of the musical trends of the games’ settings but also to establish what legacies the games’ settings had on the culture. Beginning with Grand Theft Auto 3, the in-game music came in the way of radio stations which the player can choose from when the main character enters a vehicle. Grand Theft Auto 3 includes nine radio stations, each with a different genre of music and DJ banter. These genres include soft rock, dub reggae, pop, East Coast hip hop, drum and bass, and 1980’s pop music. Most of the in-game music was composed for the game to imitate musicians and songs of the late 1990’s.

Of particular note is the licensed music featured on the “Double Clef FM” radio station. This radio station features opera pieces from Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, and Donizetti performed by established orchestras and singers. These licensed recordings featuring singers such as Luciano Pavarotti established the Grand Theft Auto 3 soundtrack as a collection of the various genres of music. This radio station offers a juxtaposition with the gameplay because much like mafia movies, the player can choose to drive reckless and shoot people while listening to music from famous operas.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City expands the series by playing all licensed tracks from musicians of the mid 1980’s. The game features the setup of radio stations, but narrows the musical genres to those which would be found in the game’s setting of Vice City in 1986. Vice City resembles Miami, Florida, so the in-game music features seven radio stations that cover heavy metal, new wave, power ballads, pop, old school hip hop, soul, and Latin jazz. Besides these genres’ musical presence in the 1980’s, they reflect the music of Miama beach culture, especially with Latin jazz and old school hip hop. The licensed music from the game continues to be heard on select radio stations and television programs presently.

Young players who are exposed to this music hear the selections in the various areas of Vice City and associate the musical styles and messages with the social groups of the 1980’s. Mr. Mister’s recording of “Broken Wings” appears on the “Emotion 98.3” radio station. As an emotional song, “Broken Wings” was the number one song for most of December 1985. Rockstar Games inserts this selection into the game’s setting to provide an atmosphere, mood, and social history of what the times were like. The selections chosen are associated with the 1980’s and have endured beyond a decade. The series’ continued success is attributed to the effective use of the sandbox gameplay and the musical selections and genres representative of the games’ settings. Each game’s soundtrack solidifies the characteristics of its musical genres by rewriting the historical perspective through the moods and messages sent forth by the musical selections.


I define immersion as music which encourages the player to think about the challenges of the game. Through the game’s music, the player engages with the game’s surroundings to take the game’s subject material more seriously. Games which contain music of immersion offer wide shifts in emotional content which compels the player to focus much more on the game’s situations and characters. The music is ever present and integral to setting the mood of the game’s scenes. Like music of narration, music of immersion propels the storyline along through mood, interaction, and engagement with the game’s surroundings.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is an example of music of immersion. Much like other examples discussed, games with strong soundtracks are coupled with strong gameplay and strong game sales. Ocarina of Time is no exception; all major gaming review publications praised the game and its music as worthy of the top ten best games of all time. It builds upon the universe established from The Legend of Zelda for NES. Similar in plot to the NES game, Ocarina of Time extends its plot to incorporate the ocarina as a means of summoning magical spells including time travel. Twelve times throughout the game, Link learns a tune on his ocarina which will summon a magical ability. Using the gaming system’s controller, the player presses buttons that correspond to pitches on the ocarina. At the appropriate time, the player plays the proper tune accurately to advance the plot along.

This is immersive for the player because he or she participates in the memorization of the tune along with Link. The player’s decisions regarding tune choice and proper moment align with Link’s decisions. The ocarina is an ancient flute which has a mellow, bright sound as it sounds on the N64. The monophonic, short tunes immerse the player into the kingdom of Hyrule where nature is free from evils. The ocarina is present in the in-game music to portray certain expressions when characters are mentioned or appear.

The Halo series use immersion to engage the player to join the battle between the human and Covenant forces. The music in Halo is of a cinematic quality, shifting in orchestral colors and dynamics when the scene calls for it. Unlike cinema, Halo adds variety to its eighty minutes of music by having the music adapt to stimuli on-screen. Most of the game’s action consists of the absence of music, which is used just as effectively as the presence of music. When the music enters, it stirs the player emotionally to comprehend the significance of achieving the Master Chief’s objectives. The player is not aware of the stimuli to affect the music’s intensity and development, so the audio experience sounds fresh and evolving.

In the “Opening Suite” of Halo: Combat Evolved, the Gregorian monk style chant and the elongated cello suspensions express the sublime and ancient in their expansiveness and clarity of sound. The moments of silence after musical phrases act as emotional rest points which are followed by a new musical phrase. The open and dissonant harmonies contribute to the player’s anticipation of the fate of the Master Chief and the future of Halo. The cellos at the piece’s end thin out and ascend in pitch, offering glimpses of major harmonies, but ultimately returning to minor harmonies. The slow tempo of the piece allows for the player to hear the harmonies clearly and purely. The piece has two shifts in mood: from the opening drum beat into the choir chant and from the choir chant into the cellos. The composer of Halo achieves music that immerses the player through silence, instrumentation, tempo, harmony, melody, style, and adaptability.


I define signature as an element of music that appears in many different video games spanning different systems, game genres, and video game generations. Like a written signature, this music identifies its creator. Music as a signature is accessible either through the normal completion of a game or through an Easter Egg trick that accesses the piece. The role of signature permits the composer to leave his mark and legacy on the game. The music does not contribute to the game’s storyline or relate to the game’s menu screens. The sole reason for the music’s presence in the game is to acknowledge the composer. The only activity players can use this music for is scavenging for more of them in all games of a composer’s output.

Mario Paint contains an example of music of signature. There are a series of deep, arcade-style beeps that form a simple two phrase tune hidden in the game. The player can hear the tune by clicking the “O” at the end of “MARIO” on the title screen. The title screen music will stop and the signature music will play. Originally thought to be the first instance of this tune, another game from 1992 contained the tune months before. The connection between all games that have this tune is that Kazumi Totaka has worked on every game in which the song appears. The tune is called “Kazumi Totaka’s Song” and appears in varying segments, ranges, and arrangements in fourteen games spanning thirteen years. The tune consists of a monophonic melody line using arcade beeps. There are at most three harmonic changes in the full version of the song. This musical morsel is not the only unique musical aspect of this game; Mario Paint features a music generator which allows the player to insert noteheads onto a staff that correspond to instruments sounds from the SNES. With the music generator, the player can create and compose music, using its capabilities for melody, harmony, instrumentation, tempo, and time signature. As the music plays, it is accompanied by animation of small Mario jumping over the noteheads. Mario Paint encouraged players to have a more active involvement in music creation, especially for gaming. Besides acting as a signature in Kazumi Totaka’s projects, there is no indication as to why “Kazumi Totaka’s Song” is featured in so many Nintendo games and to how many games have the tune hidden within them.


I define education as music which is pedagogical in its appearance. The difficulty of the music ranges from the beginner to the intermediate level. Music used for education serves to either teach the player about music or how to learn a musical instrument. The music can be an original composition, a condensed version of a mainstream piece, or a combination of both. The music selections and gameplay gradually increase in difficulty together as the player progresses. A composer designs music for a pedagogical purpose so that it is able to be mastered by young and old players. The music does not have a life outside of the game’s lessons. Depending on the musical selections, the player can perform or demonstrate the pieces he or she knows for other people away from the game.

The Miracle Piano Teaching System is an example of music for education. Software Toolworks sold a MIDI keyboard that hooked up to the NES, SNES, or Sega Genesis with the appropriate adapter through the gaming system’s controller port. The game cartridge contained the information relating to lesson plans, song selection, and minigames. The music keyboard provided the MIDI instruments, the sound output, and the input buttons. These features enabled the game to make use of instrumental sounds from the MIDI keyboard rather than the gaming systems’ sounds. At the time of the game’s release, the Miracle keyboard made 128 sounds available to the player. The game contains orchestral arrangements of each musical selection for when the player has mastered the pitches and rhythms. The NES version includes forty-eight songs. Some examples of the songs are “Ode to Joy,” “Chopsticks,” “Star Wars Theme,” and “Carmen.” The songs correspond with the acquisition of piano playing skills, some including reading music, playing with two hands, using the pedal, chords, dotted eighth notes, and syncopation. All of the songs available in the game are condensed from their original versions and arranged to suit the hardware capabilities. The main function of the music in The Miracle Piano Teaching System is to aid the player as he or she develops the necessary skills for playing easy piano music.


I define gameplay as music which is integrated with the game’s premise and controls. Music of this function engages the player by being recognizable, tuneful, rhythmic, or a combination of the three. The control scheme is bulit around the music. The composition of the pieces occurred parallel to the game mechanics. Replacing or muting the soundtrack alters the gaming experience drastically, removing the connection between the player and the game. The game requires the player to press buttons to represent the pitches and rhythms of the in-game music. If the player reacts to the music too quickly or slowly, the game will evaluate him or her with a lower rating. The player must be able to detect changes in pitch and rhythm and press buttons that correspond to the music.

Parappa the Rapper is an example of a game with music that comprises the gameplay. The main premise is that PaRappa wants to win the affection of a flower girl named Sunny Funny. He acquires raps and advice from some adults to win her heart. The player must instill PaRappa with the skill of rapping. For each level, the buttons to press in sequence appear at the top of the screen. The sequence appears shortly before the player is expected to complete it. The game considers the sequence and timing of the button presses. The buttons bar works like a sing along bouncing ball; when the PaRappa head passes by a button symbol, the player should press the corresponding button on the game controller. Each button pressed correctly makes PaRappa rap one or more words of a line. The lyrics of the song appear at the bottom of the screen. There is a running score and a rap rating that determine if the player moves on to the next level. The audio breathes life into the cartoonish and paper-thin characters and scenery of the in-game visuals. PaRappa and his teachers rap the lyrics of the songs while completing various tasks. The lyrics teach PaRappa skills necessary to win Sunny Funny’s affection.

“PaRappa’s Rap with MC King Kong Mushi” is the song of the game’s final level. As the song progresses, MC King Kong Mushi riles up the crowd so that PaRappa can take the floor with his rap skills. PaRappa wants to impress Sunny Funny who is present in the crowd. The song maintains the use of lyric and musical repetition from the previous songs in the game. In the game, the sequences of buttons that match the song are two lines long. The player cannot rely on the adult rapper to instruct PaRappa when and what to rap. A large audience makes noise in the song and in the visuals. Unlike gangsta rap, the game develops its storyline through silly and uplifting rap songs. The song uses rhythm and syncopation to animate the lyrics and the characters. The song begins with MC King Kong Mushi exciting the crowd out of time, similar to an entrance of a live rap act. The Playstation 1 allows for CD quality music; this is imperative for PaRappa the Rapper’s innovative gameplay because the music creates the experience. The vocals, instruments, rhythms, and visual style would not be possible using synthesized sounds of earlier gaming systems.

If the player does not complete the sequence in time properly, PaRappa will rap according to when the player presses each button. This permits the player to make PaRappa rap on different beats than what the game expects. If the player achieves a “Cool” rating early in any song, the instructor will allow PaRappa to freestyle. The player earns points in freestyle by pressing buttons and creating rap rhythms without the prompt of the buttons bar. No other role of music exhibits such manipulation of an aspect of music as it plays in real time.


I define concert music as music that is arranged to be performed live. It can use the exact same instrumentations from the game only if the sounds were recorded acoustically. If the game audio is derived from the hardware sound chip, then the audio would be an acoustic arrangement to be considered concert music. The game audio can play alongside the acoustic version and still be appropriate for performance. No in-game music demonstrates this role while it is paired with the game. The connection between the game audio and concert music is the audience’s awareness of the original source of the musical piece. Game audio is arranged to suit performance for the same reasons as other musical genres: to gain exposure to a wider audience, get an emotional response, and present the value of the music in a formal setting.

The two world tours that perform video game music in a concert setting are Video Games Live and Play! A Video Game Symphony. Both tours feature a full orchestra. There is a syncronization between the orchestra and the projected video footage of the respective games in the Video Games Live tour. The pieces chosen for these tours retain their spirit in the orchestral versions; some gain colors and vibrancy not capable on their original hardware.

“Super Mario Brothers,” performed by the Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra, is an example of a piece that breathes new life in a performance rendition. As a medley of the "Overworld", "Underworld", and "Underwater" themes, the piece uses wood block to stress the pulse, xylophone for melody doubling and tremelo, and glockenspiel to transition into musical sections and provide motion to the music. The shifts from pizzicato to arco in the strings and from full strings to full brass capture the climaxes of the original NES version. For the "Underworld" theme, the low brass and low pitched timpani create the original piece’s dark mood through the interplay of sound and silence. People can hear this type of music at the live performances or on recordings that the orchestras produce. Concert music has liberties relating to tempo, expression, and dynamics that programmable music does not. The advantage of programmable music is that only one machine is needed to perform a piece, in contrast with various players for concert music.

The interest in performing video game music outside of the video games has produced a market for selling arrangements of the music to bands and orchestras. The Mississippi State University Marching Band devoted an entire halftime show to a medley of video game themes. They used an arrangement of the themes from Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Halo: Combat Evolved, and Mortal Kombat for marching band.

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