So how does minimalism go along game music? First of all, crystal pure minimalism is not common in video game music and maybe for a good reason. What is common, however, is post-minimalism – less strict type that includes both minimal approach and additional adornments to the pieces to make them more approachable. The minimal spirit and goal remain, though, to reach a goal of affecting you in a certain way. That said, before I dig more into minimal music, I want to point out this branch of music is not synonymous with looping – a lot of minimal music is based on looping, but looping does not automatically make a piece minimal.
Listening to an unchanging sound pattern in our own private soundscape at some point hypnotizes us and makes it near-impossible for us to hear anything else.
Minimal music has a great effect on our brains. Winnifred Philips – game music composer – wrote down in her book many, many observations about functioning of music in videogames. Mentioning her experiences, she talks about using minimal music for scoring a certain videogame she was working on at some point in her career. More specifically, she talks about post-minimalism. She states that this type of music worked better when she was aiming for scoring not the game itself, but the mindset she wanted the player to enter, in order to help them win with music. It is pragmatic as it intends to affect the player directly, not necessarily through the music’s connection to the game and it’s story/events. She uses the term zone to describe the mindset introduced through music, and it presents music as a way of achieving full concentration on a videogame, increasing your focus and hinting at the gameplay’s mood through gentle compositional touches. That said, she talks of post-minimalism as an effective way of scoring the player’s approach towards a challenge, not to mention this music’s natural ability to move into the background thanks to its repetitive structure I already mentioned.
Now, human mind, when absorbing the same set of sounds repeatedly for a period of time, will at some point forget about them. Obviously, it still receives them and they take up some part of our consciousness, but they fade out into the background without receiving much processing power from our brains. They still occupy it, especially the hearing sense, but as a „useless sound” which we stop thinking about. Our brains are simply given the signals they constantly search for. In that way, minimal music can theoretically improve our concentration on a certain task, as it cuts out one way of our hearing to be distracted (through background noises, for example) in a fairly simple way. Listening to an unchanging sound pattern in our own private soundscape at some point hypnotizes us and makes it near-impossible for us to hear anything else, as our hearing sense is fully occupied.
Focusing solely on a sound pattern may seem like taking the easy way out, but it doesn’t make this measure less effective, which it really is.
Minimal music is melodically simple (and that’s a huge understatement) and has an unchanging, almost monotonous feel. It may even seem boring to some and it brings up many questions about nature of music and art, but as anaemic and unemotional that music could sound, one could argue that it is in fact better for a reception of other work of art, as it pulls far less attention to itself (like a blown-out symphony). I’d argue that the hegemony of symphonic composition as an universal form of illustrating media with music is worth a good dispute, as Wagner-style score often takes the attention away from a work it illustrates, which is not theoretically correct. As far as it’s better for affecting us, it isn’t as good when it comes to balance and centring the focus on the proper thing. Example: as you hear epic scores for Bloodborne bosses, the music makes a fight a dramatic struggle and that is undeniably an amazing gaming experience. However, it forces itself upon you and pulls your attention to the music instead of letting you fully focus on the boss. The struggle is tougher and the fight more cinematic, making the ”fight with music” a part of the experience. But, if you turned off the music entirely, you’d find out the fight is easier, less menacing and less challenging. Even though From Software’s design is great here and it is what we love those fight for, you can see that music can be an obstruction as well.
Minimal music highlights music’s temporal properties.
Music – as Philips says – is a representation of passing time. Composing for videogames, she mentions how tonality can affect perception of time. Even though controlling the tempo at which the action is perceived at with music is not anything new, it presents itself all the way better with minimal music that highlights music’s temporal properties ( eg. tempo). Such music is better suited for hinting at the drama’s tempo instead of emotional weight of a scene or gameplay sequence. Achieving this through rhythmization and focusing solely on a sound pattern may seem like taking the easy way out, but it doesn’t make this measure less effective. And it really is effective because our minds are responsive to simple patterns like those of minimal music, even though it looks borderline primitive. Ticking of the clock has been with us for some time as one of the most efficient ways to raise suspense in media and no music seems to be able to match that through intricate composition. Videogames make use of such simple tools pretty often to great effects and memorable videogame moments, which I will bring up in the last part of my article.
1. Winifred Phillips, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, USA 2014.