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Under the Covers: Why Game Melodies Won’t Let Go
by Winifred Phillips on 03/26/14 02:08:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


The following is an excerpt from my book, A Composer's Guide to Game Music, published this month by The MIT Press. Copyright 2014, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  All rights reserved. The book is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and wherever books are sold.

Under the Covers: Why Game Melodies Won’t Let Go

Every year, thousands of American gamers gather together to attend two major conventions: the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, Washington (otherwise known as PAX) and the Music and Games Festival (a.k.a. MAGfest) in National Harbor, Maryland. Crowds of enthusiasts pack exhibit halls, challenge each other in all manner of games from console to PC to tabletop, celebrate their love of geek culture, and party into the wee hours. They also attend officially sponsored rock concerts.

The venues are often packed with sweaty music-lovers, many wearing the usual jet-black of devout rockers (although some of these black t-shirts also feature video game logos). The audience whoops, throws their hands up in the sign of the horns, and jumps and thrashes in the true tradition of a mosh pit. The music at these concerts tends to favor heavy metal, although rap occasionally makes an appearance, and even some softer acoustic ensembles and funky jazz groups have been included. The headliners at these concerts aren’t big names. They’re mostly cover bands, but high-energy performances over the years have earned them a devoted following. In fact, these rock concerts resemble many that you might find anywhere in mainstream America, barring one exception.

“Encore! Encore! Encore!” shouts the crowd. The band has already finished their set. The stage is dark, but the audience still isn’t satisfied. “Encore! Encore!” continues the chant, relentlessly. At length, the band returns to the stage, setting up for the demanded encore while the audience loudly revels in its success. The first notes of the encore performance are sounded, and someone in the crowd can be heard screaming, “Yes! Oh my God, yes! Yeah!!! Woo!!” The screen behind the band lights up to show the logo of the video game Diablo III.

This is a game music cover band. In fact, all the bands on the playlist are game music cover bands. The band currently performing the “Tristam Theme” from the Diablo series is called the OneUps, and they’ve played the PAX stage before. Video game cover bands like Powerglove, the Earthbound Papas, the Minibosses, and the Advantage are all veterans of the big shows like PAX and MAGfest, as well as some of the smaller shows (such as Nerdapalooza in Orlando, Florida, DEF-CON in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Bit Gen Gamer Fest in Baltimore, Maryland). Each band uses its unique sense of performance style to interpret the musical themes from beloved game series like MegaMan, Metroid, Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, and Final Fantasy. Even the Russian folk-inspired music of Tetris has received heavy metal cover-song treatments. Moreover, game music cover performances aren’t limited to just the gaming conventions. Relatively mainstream rock acts will occasionally record a cover version of a game track, such as when the Pixies recorded Brian Schmidt’s theme song from the NARC video game (Audio Spotlight 2012). Still, the hardcore game music cover bands remain the driving force behind the movement. Every year, new bands join the veterans on the concert lineups. Each new band adds its own game music interpretations to the many others that have been performed and will continue to be revamped and reimagined year after year.

Why do these rock bands continually celebrate video game melodies? Film and television music can point to no similar phenomenon. Although film and tv music certainly can boast of its enthusiastic fans, cover bands like these are unique to the video game community. Why is it that these bands triumphantly perform the melodies of video games, like rock anthems for a geek generation? Why do audiences return again and again to hear the same video game tunes interpreted in different ways?

We know that a musical theme expressed within the body of a video game is experienced differently than themes in passive forms of entertainment, like television and film. In a game, a musical theme accompanies an activity that the players of the game are performing. The music has essentially become the soundtrack to the personal adventures of the players. When the music swells at a pivotal moment and a recognizable melody begins, the players hear that melody just as they are engaging in an activity they enjoy. This interactive engagement alters the way in which the music is heard and remembered. According to an article for Topics in Cognitive Science written by Michelene Chi (2008), psychology professor at Arizona State University, our ability to retain experiences, process information, and successfully learn new things is directly impacted by how engaged we are at the time—therefore, interactive experiences are better than passive ones. So, does listening to a melody while actively playing a game cause us to internalize that melody more readily than hearing it while passively watching a film or television program? Is this why people develop such intense feelings about their favorite video game melodies?

Game music, like other forms of popular music, is experienced frequently while the listener is also doing something else. According to research conducted at the University of Geneva, the power of music to rekindle memories of emotional experiences from the past is due particularly to the pervasive nature of music in social life and during special activities (Scherer and Zentner 2001). Because music often becomes connected with the memory of an activity, it also acquires special significance and personal associations. For instance, a popular love song can instantly bring back memories of a first date, a rock anthem can reignite the memory of winning a particular sporting event, and a video game melody can bring back the memory of defeating a powerful boss. This may be the reason why game music cover bands exist. The relationship people experience with game music shares common ground with the place that popular music occupies in their lives. Both forms of music serve as the soundtrack to significant personal actions, and hearing the music associated with those actions has the strong potential to bring back vivid memories. Game melodies may in fact function as mnemonic ambassadors for the games from which they come, reminding players vividly of the fun they had while playing.

My book, A Composer's Guide to Game Music, explores the art of video game music from the viewpoint of a game composer, offfering guidance for musicians and composers who want to deploy their musical creativity in a dynamic and growing industry. The book is available at AmazonBarnes & Noble, and wherever books are sold. I have composed the music for such video games as Assassin's Creed Liberation, The Da Vinci Code, Speed Racer, God of War, Shrek the Third, Spore Hero, multiple games in the LittleBigPlanet franchise, and many others.  


Audio Spotlight, The. 2012. “Brian Schmidt Interview.” The Audio Spotlight. Accessed February 2, 2013.

Chi, Michelene T.H. 2008. Active-Constructive-Interactive: A Conceptual Framework for Differentiating Learning Activities. Topics in Cognitive Science 1:73–105.

Scherer, Klaus R., and Marcel R. Zentner. 2001. Emotional Effects of Music: Production

Rules. In Music and Emotion: Theory and Research, ed. P. N. Juslin and J. A. Sloboda, 361–392. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Theresa Catalano
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I'd argue that game music is being celebrated mainly for it's high quality. People love game music for the same reason they love pop music... it's memorable and catchy. Game music in the early days often embraced using memorable and catchy themes as a way to overcome technical limitations. Nowadays, we have a lot more flexibility to do whatever we want with a game's soundtrack, but isn't it interesting how the most popular game music seems to come from the era of limitations?

Memorable and catchy music will always be popular. It's something that can still work today. The music in those older games, Mega Man, Castlevania, Mario, Zelda, it should be studied by anyone who calls themselves a game music composer. They really hit upon something and did something really right, and it's something we can still do today if we try.

Kevin Fishburne
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I agree with you. As a composer I've found that music is comprised of two things, "meat" and "fluff". The meat is the raw notes (the pitch and rhythm of each track), which if good will be pleasing played on even simple instruments like a sine wave with white noise for a snare. The fluff is the tone color, which can make a song devoid of meat sound incredible. When I listen to music I try to imagine what the song would sound like played on an NES, which gives me a pretty good idea of its meat to fluff ratio.

As you mentioned, older games were forced to have nothing but substance by the poor audio hardware. There are many exceptions, but in large part modern video game music has less substance that its older counterparts.

Andreas Lindmark
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That's a very interesting approach and I love it!

I think that the "problem" nowadays is that most game music tries to emulate film music, and film music is very much not about the meat at all. Film music has a lot more in common with classical music.

Modern AAA games simply have less memorable music specifically, I think, because the composers are so locked onto the idea that the music has to sound like film music, but at the same time they lack the ability to express the "meat" underlying the "fluff".

(i assume now that a majority of film music is actually garbage)

I also think there's this thing that when you write orchestral game music you tend to focus on the sound (fluff) more than on the melody (meat) simply because if you don't focus on the fluff it does not sound like an orchestra.

By contrast, sample sets more limited, such as say what one might find on SNES or Sega Megadrive, provide a freedom in the fact that it is practically impossible to make them sound like a real orchestra. There simply is no ideal "sound" for you as a composer to chase after. There is no "real" sound available.

I wonder if there are actually three qualities:

Meat: Catchy melodies
Fluff: Sound texture (as in how interesting the sound itself is to listen to)
Authenticity: Percieved realism. How "real" the sound is.

Michael Pianta
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Yep, I came down here to make the exact same comment.

When you only have four sound channels, as on the NES (and only 3 can play music all the time as the fourth must also play sound effects) it forces the composer to focus on interesting melodies played in counterpoint. Melodic counterpoint is not exactly a mainstay of most pop music, which seems more focused on chordal harmonies (I'm self taught as a musician, so I must apologize if my terminology is all wrong).

Plus, if you wanted the song to sound like it had more going on, that meant that you had to replace one 'instrument' with a different one. 'Instrument' voices are coming and going throughout the piece, and this is a fine idea anyway, because it gives a lot of movement to the piece. It's also worth mentioning that the sounds themselves are interesting. They sometimes sound like attempts emulate real instruments but just as often sound like nothing else at all, except I suppose a synthesizer. Think of, say, commodore 64 music. Unless you were into electronic music at the time, those may well have been sounds you had simply never heard before.

Furthermore, due to memory limitations the songs are short. I don't have data, but I would bet the average NES song is less 60 seconds before it starts looping. So all of these melodies, these instruments coming and going, the movements of the piece, are happening with great rapidity. And then it repeats. And repeats. And repeats again. One can hardly imagine a more effective recipe for memorable music.

On top of all of this, when we're talking about old classic game music at least, the limited sound channels actually lend themselves to being arranged for a rock band. You've got a percussion channel, a bass channel, a lead channel and maybe a second lead channel or a channel with more ambient sounds. It is easy to see how this could be arranged for a three or four piece rock band. Comparatively, even if I wanted to play rock arrangements of movie music - maybe the Jurassic Park theme or something - it's not at all clear how I would go about doing it with such limited instruments. I'm sure it could done, but it's a much more sophisticated arranging challenge, where as any passionate teenager could come up with a rock arrangement of Castlevania music.

All of this together, combined with basic nostalgia, I think explains the appeal.

Eric Salmon
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Nobuo Uematsu (the composer for most of the Final Fantasy Music before FFX) said something similar: "When I began composing, games could only play three notes at once. I think, in many ways, this made for better music than now, when there are so few restrictions."

Do they cover much modern music at these festivals? I'd like to hear some of the game music over the last few years sans the same old synthetic strings. I'm not sure when it happened, but over the last 5-10 years nearly every movie/game that has any kind of serious moment has them.

Kevin Fishburne
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Well said, and agreed. To bring this full-circle, I think we need a Justin Bieber version of something sacred, like some dark, jazzy tune from Super Castlevania IV or perhaps a FFIV "overworld" remix. It would blow old and new minds alike.

Steven Stadnicki
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I'd argue that there's a much simpler reason: there is no such thing as 'film music'. There's music _from_ films, but by and large movie soundtrack music tends to sound a lot like 'just' music, the occasional epic theme here and there aside.

By contrast, video game music tends to use exotic instrumentation, exotic rhythms, and tends to be very strongly melodically focused, to the point where it's easy to perform a lot of video game themes solo. For better and for worse, video game music stands apart from other music to the point where a transition from one to the other is noticeable and sometimes even jarring.

Nathan Mates
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I'd say that the Imperial March from Empire Strikes Back has been played at sporting events, etc far more than any (maybe even all) videogame music. Not a complete movie soundtrack, but it's a counterexample.

On a somewhat related note, I'd say that having heard a lot of "modern classical" (composed in 1960s and up) music played in concert halls is simply unappealing. In the meantime, all of the composers who can write something interesting moved to movies/TV (first), and games (more recently). Some pieces by John Williams, Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings), etc will last far more than the "modern classical" stuff played only in concert halls. While some might call that slumming, I'd consider that a return to patronage in the arts. Mozart, etc did a lot of good work when writing for a patron - kings, emperors, etc. A patron that happens to be a company is no different.

Maria Jayne
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Could it be because gamers are more engaged with whatever activity is associated with that particular music and remember fond memories whenever they hear it?

It's also likely we will spend far longer hearing a particular piece of music in a video game because of the difficulty/time spent trying to succeed. You don't often restart a movie multiple times and hear the soundtrack repeated.