As I’ve written in part II, ambient is a genre that can serve some less artistic functions. It seemed like that in broader sense, as some of XXth century artists of various forms were often criticized for their art. Some said the art itself and its value was outgrown by the theory and concept behind it. It is not so relevant today — times when ambient was discussed with either burning love or cold scepticism are gone. We’ve grown accustomed to it and other forms of avant-garde art styles that found their way into dailiness and pop-culture. Ambient went the same road, but it was heavily supported by changed mentality of its listeners. Both in focused listen and as a scoring practice.

Ambient itself won’t make you feel anything specific, that’s why it may seem so boring. There lies its big advantage. That’s what separates it from traditional composition that can render certain emotions in the listener. All Gone (Santaolalla), Alone (Tarmia) Jodie’s Theme (Balfe) — those tracks can move the coldest hearts to feel sad, melancholic or miserable. The context of these pieces add a lot to the experience, but overall it sums up into a strong emotional response. Well, not here with ambient, because all it can pull off is mood, not emotion. It can suggest a base emotional foundation that can be built upon, but in itself, it does not go further. If it’s feelings it causes, they are fleeting and incomplete. A certain atmosphere presents itself to the player without „burdening him” with something way more intense. When a wonderful theme states something directly, ambient can merely imply. When Batman investigates the Man-Bat crime scene, David Buckley used this duduk-flute-like drone that sounds really sad. But this sound is all we get in the centre of the piece, it keeps humming with some strings in the background. As it plays, only an undertone to the tragic scene is presented. Everything else is left to the imagination through the devastated crime scene and looped recording not showing the worst of it. We can further (over)interpret the echoing sound as the echo of the tragic past, but the piece surely merges together the subtle dread of the murder and sadness that came afterwards. The scene is and what happened is incomplete, and so is the music. You only the echoes of the tragedy, with your imagination doing the rest. That’s what makes it one of the best moments of the game.

When teaching, he was hiding himself behind a curtain, so that his visual presence wasn’t distracting them from focusing on what was the most important — his voice.

That way of utilising ambient is connected with acousmatics. With this peculiar term Pierre Schaeffer described music and sounds of deliberately unknown source. It was his intention to prevent the listener from knowing what is making a sound, but only through use of actually new and unknown sounds. He wanted him to tear off all contexts and acquired associations, listening the sound with open, objective mind in completely analytical way. The sound itself is to appear in our minds as something new, without applying any sorts of pre-learned meanings. His vision sprung from Pythagoras himself. More specifically, from his way of speaking to his students. When teaching, he was hiding himself behind a curtain, so that his visual presence wasn’t distracting them from focusing on what was the most important — his voice. Their mental capacity was directed fully into hearing, as it was the wise man’s spoken knowledge, not himself, that was truly meaningful. Both him and Schaeffer two millenniums later required from the listener to start treating sonar signals as primary and to give them full attention, trying to be fully emerged in them mentally.

It all may seems abstract, but I will try to to this sort of guide how you can do such „analysis”. Acousmatic sounds direct us to many physical associations that Brian Eno spoke of, and we are supposed to use our minds to describe and imagine them more…creatively. It all boils down to perceiving the sound with all senses, to give it a form inside your mind. Let’s go!

  1. How can we imagine this drone? Oval or spikey? Full or rather wheezy? Big or small? What would be its shape if it materialised in front of us? What’s its colour and temperature. With thinking what it is (an electronic signal), describe it with all of your senses.
  2. Now, what mood does it present? Of being overwhelmed and hounded? What is brain sensing when you are hearing this sound? Does it scare you or relax you?
  3. And lastly, applying the acousmatic theory as a way of illustrating an art form with music, what could this sound be in the world of two countries inhabiting a planet cut in half with a massive wall? Sounds of space ships? Alarm sirens? Echoes resonating on the cold war wall? What is this sound relation with the game’s world? What does it imitate? What does this piece signify that I don’t see? Let’s hear a great piece by Mikko Tarmia that really can be interpreted in many ways:

We can multiply those questions and only these few show how much can we miss from this type of music. There is just as many meaning this music hold, meanings we can transfer on a game and not being less valuable than complex emotions hidden between the notes of the most memorable themes. I’d say it’s important to not judge composition’s value immediately, using the attractiveness as the base value. Music that signifies with form of the sound, and not necessarily through the combinations of those sounds, is valid, important and needed. Having that said, I am not saying any piece of ambient is automatically good. It can be made into a poor job, too, and only genre that ambient score should be compared to is ambient. I hope those three lengthy essays have given you something, both to ambient sceptics and lovers. There is no denying ambient is an important part of game music existence, as it functions in many ways along traditional compositions and should be treated as equal to each other.


Jan Szafraniec

Fasicinated by everything that is noisy, minimal and industrial. He spends most of the time writing and floating around in ambient. He's been loyally professing videogame music for a decade and won't ever stop.