La musique et les jeux vidéo
La musique et les jeux vidéo © Radio France  /  Leopold Tobisch

How music became an essential ingredient of video games

From a simple "beep" in the 1970s to the orchestral symphonic scores of today, video game music has become today as important as film scores.

In the multi-sensory experience that is video games (reminiscent of Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk), music is an essential part of the overall work: the music accompanies the player, creates a convincing atmosphere and, in certain cases, guides the player through the various levels. But this has not always been the case. During the development of the first video games in the 1960s - invented by physicists and software engineers - the music was not even an after-thought. 

The first sounds to accompany a video game came from giant arcade machines in the 1970S, equipped with speakers designed to draw the attention of the players. Then arrived Pong in 1975, an arcade game produced by Atari for the revolutionary home console, and the first game to make a sound: "beep". The role of video game music was changed forever, and a new era had begun.

Level 1 – the first 8-bit sounds

We are perhaps far from the grand and intricate music heard in today's video games, but the little "beeps" from Pong announce the arrival of music as a tool to create an atmosphere and ambiance. Due to a lack of space on the game consoles and cartridges, and technological constraints, the sounds were rather limited. Only capable of emitting two or three sounds at a time, many composers turned to J. S. Bach and his mastery of vocal counterpoint for inspiration and a better understanding of polyphonic writing.

These decorative sounds rapidly became an essential tool in creating the atmosphere and tension of video games. What better example than the famous Space Invaders, initially released as an arcade game in 1978 and a home console game in 1980? This unconscious yet no less prominent "music" (a descending four-note motif, d flat-b-b flat-a flat) gradually accelerates as the enemy advances, creating a palpable tension and bringing to mind the legendary music from "Jaws".

Level 2 – From 8-bit to 16-bit

In the 1980s, computer technology progressively evolved, and greater storage space was given to the sounds of a video game, generated by the improved computer chips (hence the name of this music genre: chiptune). But in this era of 8-bit and 16-bit consoles, in reference to the processing power, the music was still given very little storage space, often between 4 and 6 kilobytes (the size on average of a modern email). The memory was short, and the musical themes had to be both memorable and enjoyable, even after hundreds of repetitions.

As technology advanced, so did the desire for greater video game music and sound worlds. The first composer employed by Nintendo, Kōji Kondō focused solely on the sounds and music of video games: in 1985 he composed the unforgettable theme to Super Mario Bros, a catchy theme with tropical influences. Then followed The Legend of Zelda in 1987. Kondō's music was met with such success and popularity that he later recorded his music with the Tokyo Strings Ensemble, and even performed his music live in Tokyo in 1987, staging the first ever concert of video game music.

Though certain games with short repetitive mechanics such as Super Mario required short and memorable themes, others games with longer levels, greater stories and more ambitious settings required a richer musical soundtrack. Classically-trained composers were increasingly recruited by the video game industry for their knowledge of composition such as Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy) and the composer and conductor Kōichi Sugiyama; the latter composed in 1986 the music for the Dragon Warrior, a 16-bit "symphonic" work.

Level 3 – The arrival of the CD

The CD swarmed the public market in 1982. Despite the revolution in terms of storage capacity and sound quality, the new format was only definitively adopted by the video game industry in 1994 with consoles such as the Sega Saturn and the Playstation. Consoles were now able to integrate and reproduce the sounds of real recorded instruments. The only limitation remaining was taste and aesthetics: it was now necessary to create a music capable of enriching these fantastic and detailed worlds and their characters.

Employed by Konami, an important name in video game production, the composer Michiru Yamane created in 1997 the music for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. A graduate from one of the most prestigious music academies in Japan, the Aichi Kenritsu Art School, Yamane wrote a 44-track score to accompany the baroque-fantastic world in which the hero confronts Dracula with a whip. The music's influences are eclectic, daring, and well-studied: metal, jazz, pop, and of course classical music, notably that of J. S. Bach.

Level 4 – Music becomes a participatory experience

On the verge of the 21st century, a new parameter was added to video game music: human participation. More than a mere accompaniment to the action on-screen, certain games such as Parappa the Rapper (1996) and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) invited the player to literally "play" and participate in the music in order to advance in the game. Parappa required a rhythmic participation (pressing buttons at specific moments in order to "activate" the music), whilst Zelda required a melodic participation (performing specific melodies on the hero's ocarina in order to unlock secrets and advance).

The notion of human participation went even further in the 2000s with the release of various rhythm games such as Beatmania (1997), GuitarFreaks (1998), and Guitar Hero (2005); the latter two even required guitar-shaped controllers, allowing the player to become the musical performer. Going even further, the game Rock Band 3 allowed players to play with a real specially-adapted 6-string guitar, offering players the chance to learn the basics of the instrument by playing the game and its different levels.

Level 5 – The orchestras have arrived

By the end of the 20th century, the world of video games had become a legitimate worldwide industry, capable of attracting some of the biggest names from cinematic music and other genres, including Trent Reznor (Quake, 1996), Michael Nyman (Enemy Zero, 1997) Danny Elfman (Fable, 2004), Howard Shore (Soul of the Ultimate Nation 2006), and even Hans Zimmer (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, 2009). Furthermore, the Budapest Symphony Orchestra and the Hungarian Radio Choir were invited in 2000 to record the music composed by Jesper Kyd for the game Hitman 2. Even video game composers were able to widen their fields and began composing for the big screen, such as Michael Giacchino (Medal of Honour, then Alias, Lost, and Star Trek).

As orchestras began to dominate the music of video games, so did the music of video games begin to invade the classical concert halls. In 2005, the musician Tommy Tallrico and the composer Jack Wall organised the Video Games Live with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, performing some of the greatest works of video game music. The event was so successful that it has been touring ever since, selling out concert halls all over the world. Other classical formations such as Cologne's famous WDR Rundfunkorchester have also added video game music to their repertoire, having understood the appeal of this digital realm amongst younger generations.

In 2012, the video game music industry received its first and greatest consecration: the composer Austin Wintory won a Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media for the music to the game Journey. A meteoric rise for an art-form that is barely 40 years old...

You are listening to :