Looking for game music roots, we cannot omit ambient. That genre, one of my favourites, stems from tendency of XXth century music to put less emphasis on linearity and narrative and more on immersion and spaciousness. In practice it means some genres and composers (the likes of Satie or Debussy), but also something way more interesting than music itself – modes of listening. It wasn’t about what you listen to, but how do you listen. Where once story was to be experienced through music, appeared a sonic world made for the listener to discover and submerge in. Brian Eno — creator of ambient as a codified genre — used the term „immersion” to describe his music, after all. The same thing video-games base on when it comes to provide a believable and compelling experiences.
An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence, a tint. – Brian Eno
Ambient is about space and staidness. Sounds of various textures and shapes, played consistently the same way for a few minutes. Premised to be rather frail and sort-of muted, not really putting that much attention to itself; noticeable enough to fill the silence but withdrawn enough to be forgotten about so that the listener can do some (gaming or) thinking. When it first arrived, the functionality of this style made it find its way into many spheres of our life, as it was meant by its creator. The very same Brian Eno was waiting for a plane one day and started thinking what kind of music would work for an airport’s waiting halls. His conclusion was:
It has to be interruptible […], it has to work outside the frequencies at which people speak […], and it has to able to accommodate all the noises that airports produce. – Brian Eno
That’s how the famous Music for Airports came to life, symbolically starting ambient era. That genre is peculiar in the vein of furniture music of Erik Satie, because it doesn’t need to be listened to consciously — it serves as a complement to one’s surrounding soundscape. It fills in some voids when our ears are waiting for some sounds. Once given those sounds, they don’t need to look for more and focus on what’s resonating around. Ultimately, it’s music for reading, sleeping, waiting. Anything that at some point would bore you or wouldn’t be enough to keep you from being distracted by random sounds. Nowadays it’s also music that serves an important function in video-games. More than often some sequences need murmuring sound to fill in vast, open cyber-voids and prevent our ears from being inactive so that something is always being played to us. So that we are engaged at all times with sound and visuals. And it serves beyond levelling out silences, too. In its core, ambient creates this illusory space around you, broadening your sense of reality with echoes. It gives a sense of being submerged in a place far, far bigger than what your eyes see, and some games use this for great effects.
Ambient music must able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting. – Brian Eno
There is more to it, though. Ambient, like no other genres, makes you creative and imaginative, but not in the sense of being inspired by composition’s sheer beauty. It’s an electronic genre (but not always, of course) and in those cases the amount of different sounds you can produce is massive. Every polished sound is a riddle in itself — what is this sound? What does it remind me of? How does it makes me feel? A sound can be given so many attributes — it can flat, shiny, dark and rough. Instead of receiving spaces or sequences through notes, we receive it through our own associations with those attributes. An area can sound rough and be dangerous, it can sound shiny and be safe, and so on.
It fills a niche between total lack of music and music that is being too noticeable.
It encourages to imagine sounds in a different way than „traditional” melody, because it dissolves the line between soundtrack and sound design. It’s about painting a place with sound and composing pieces that may be described as hanged between music that’s affecting you traditionally and not-so-artisitic sound design (from the perspective of music, not generally). Thanks to this, it fills a niche between total lack of music, and music that is being too noticeable (for the good of a movie or videogame it illustrates). You can have both at the same time.
And immersion was really the point: we were making music to swim in, to float in, to get lost inside. – Brian Eno
Ultimately, it’s a type of background music. A group of genres and styles made to not be too noticeable, just fly above our heads like „warm air” as Erik Satie said. It works too when we stop focusing on it, because we receive it subconsciously. This type of subliminal resonating presents a composer with a vast array of tools to manipulate the listener mood with precisely constructed sounds. Even when visiting a location and exploring it for hours, with ambient humming behind our ears we are still affected and hypnotized, in a way. It closes us of at all times in open areas and speak the distances we see and explore. And we don’t even notice, because at some point there is something more important to listen to, or the signal we hear becomes so well-known for our hearing, our brains – hardwired to skip unimportant signals like tips of our noses – put it in the background, as this side process that doesn’t require attention right now, but can be returned to later when circumastances allow. And that is great about it, because it serves many purposes and no matter how much are we focused on it, it affects us either way. I will try to clarify some of my points in the next part.