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Music in Video Games

From 8-bit to Symphonies

By Michael Miklewski
On October 21, 2011

Whether it is at home, in your college dorm room, a friend's house, or on a portable game system, video games are played all over the world. Discussion of video games tends to focus on game play and graphics, but much like movies, the music is a vital part of the experience. The sound track of a game assists a player in emerging him or herself in a game, and can even play a direct role in game play.


In the early days of video games, music was characterized by musical loops on primitive synthesizers, due to lack of technical capabilities of games like "Korobeiniki," better known as the "Tetris song." Earlier innovators like Koji Kondo started composing more complex tracks for Nintendo video games using the simplistic 8-bit sound. Kondo composed some of the most memorable music in video games, composing for both "Super Mario Brothers" and the "Legend of Zelda," including the "Super Mario Brothers" theme song. Kondo still works actively in producing, composing, and supervising music development for Nintendo, working on releases as recent as "The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword," which will be released on November 20.


Early video games like those composed by Koji Kondo influence unique electronic music sub-genres like Chiptune and Bitpop. Chiptune uses synthesized sounds from vintage computer parts to compose music, whereas Bitpop uses sounds generated from components of 8-bit video game systems. Kesha is heavily influenced by the sound of Bitpop and other music in early video games, and is evident in her single "Tik Tok."


Modern video game music ranges from original orchestral symphonies to popular hits. The music used relies heavily on what type of game and the situations within the game. Often in shooters like the "Halo" series, the music portrays different moods. Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori, composers for the "Halo" series, use softer subtle pieces to convey feelings of fear and magnitude, while using genres like heavy metal for fast and intense action. O'Donnell and Salvatori worked together to create the unique "Halo" sound, which incorporates Gregorian chant, percussion, and orchestral strings. The compositions from the "Halo" series were released as an album, the "Halo Original Soundtrack."


Other modern games use music as the main game play element, often referred to as rhythm games. These rhythm games use a mixture of original tracks and well known songs for use in game play. The game series "Just Dance" tracks players' motions as they dance along and give awards based on the accuracy of the dance. The games feature music from Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Vampire Weekend, among others. There is even a spin-off game devoted entirely to the music works of Michael Jackson, "Michael Jackson: The Experience."


Games like "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" use controllers shaped like instruments to give the gamer a sensation that they are playing the song. These games have been criticized by the music community for giving the player the feeling that they are playing music without using the instrument. Games like "Power Gig: Rise of the Sixth String" and "Rock Band 3" give the player the option to use a real guitar. Continuing the trend, the recently released game "Rocksmith" was designed to teach guitar.


Early and modern video games use music to give the user specific types of moods, as well as to provide some type of entertainment. While some video games are integrating more recent music, some creators of video games prefer to keep it "old school," with classic 8-bit music. With whatever the creators choose to do, music provides an important role in the interaction of video games.

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