Audio, being an ephemeral thing, is only memorable through the ways in which we organize it. Music is one of those organizations, and a pretty important one for humanity, considering the whole accompaniment of music and civilization thing going back basically forever. The most important organization to a composer, or at least to me, is the origins of where one’s musical sensibilities come from.
People probably get acquainted with music through their parents or some religious upbringing.
How do we learn to write music? What teaches us the pleasing sounds that we recreate on instruments and recordings? No theory class can tell you how to feel about sound. Only experience, listening, feeling, can do that for you. For a weird introverted girl growing up in the late 80’s & early 90’s, I basically learned how to feel music through video games.
I didn’t exactly do this on purpose. People probably get acquainted with music through their parents or some religious upbringing, if that’s a thing. My parents listened to a lot of the Beatles, bands from the 60’s, tons of the local classical radio station KING FM. I’d go with my dad and grandparents to the Seattle Opera and Symphony performances. I sang in a professional touring choir and learned music through solfege and choral part writing in secular and non-secular works. These all contributed to my musical vocabulary as a kid. They were music given to me by others.
But the music I absorbed through games was exciting. It was my music. As I played through games, I made the music happen because I was in a certain scene, or a room, or was victorious, or failed, or let the title screen idle. I felt rewarded. I’d go through sound tests and play back music from Sonic or Streets of Rage levels and remember how cool they were. I’d borrow audio cables from my dad, hook up my tape recorder, and make mix tapes directly from the console.
When I started to write music, it was because I loved game music so much. I wanted to emulate those sounds, I wanted to write something that would fit in, because that felt important to me. I didn’t want to chart on the radio, or on MTV, or be played in a concert hall. That was old people stuff. I wanted to make game music.
So it was with a weird sense of disappointment that as I presented my music to the world, the very quality I cherished was looked down on and derided. Oh, this sounds like a game. I had entered a music competition in high school and placed 3rd. The finalists’ music was played to a medium-sized classroom full of entrants and their families. The first place track was beautiful, a piano work that felt like real music. So did the second place piece. They were played by real people, recorded with microphones. They were professional-sounding compositions in the ears of everyone in that room. My piece was recorded with sounds from my Yamaha PSR-530, synthetic replications of instruments that, to my ears, sounded like the games I adored. To the ears of the parents in this room, it was lesser. It was like game music.
Nobuo Uematsu said that game music is becoming more and more like film music.
It was a hard thing to reckon with. College years were filled with trying to justify my interests and influences. I wasn’t like my professors or colleagues. I didn’t listen to tone rows with scholastic wonder. I didn’t analyze the avant garde notations that made art of the page to which the aural experience was perhaps secondary. I wrote catchy melodies, lots of arpeggios, and pulled perhaps more from the baroque era than modernity.
Ironically, even in my initial push into trying to work in video games I felt stifled by the fact that my music sounded like…video games. It was 2006 in the Western game industry. Games weren’t trying to sound like games anymore. Call of Duty was the epoch of modernity, and AAA games were rapidly moving towards dramatic orchestras and shunning the synthesizers. It was an era of articles (that still haven’t stopped) declaring wow game music isn’t all bleeps and bloops anymore! We derided bleeps and dove from bloops. That isn’t cool anymore, sorry.
In 2016’s “Beep: A Documentary History of Game Sound”, Nobuo Uematsu said that game music is becoming more and more like film music. It’s a sentiment that’s shared by a lot of Japanese game composers, many of whom have been great inspirations to me. Towards the end of 2019, I had the wonderful opportunity to have dinner in Tokyo with a number of fellow composers.
I had a difficult time keeping up with the conversation since I’m not super fluent yet, but the subjects we did manage to chat about centered around the identity of game music. A few present were familiar with my work on Celeste, and I felt really humbled as they celebrated the way in which I reflected the lineage of game music in my work. Like the way I absorbed musical knowledge, it wasn’t an intentional thing to reflect that in my work. It was just how I learned, how I knew what kind of music resonated with me and how to present it in aural form.
The turning point in this subject, though, is that early game music didn’t emerge in a bubble. The sounds they employed were necessities of the medium, but the stylistic influences are all evident in the kinds of music that they grew up listening to. Early Sega composers drew so many influences from the pop music in Japan like Yellow Magic Orchestra and Dreams Come True. Many people in the West never grew up listening to the same influences that these early Japanese game composers did, and so we’re drawn into their sounds without knowing how those sounds came about. Nobuo Uematsu didn’t create his Final Fantasy aesthetic out of nothing. He listened to bands like Deep Purple and performers like Jimi Hendrix, composers like Tchaikovsky. You can hear the origins of his Dancing Mad overture in Boston’s Foreplay.
At the end of a given year, we’re more likely to celebrate a perfect imitation of John Williams than a brilliant jazz fusion composition accompanying a game targeting younger audiences.
The diaspora of game music reflects the wonder of why I grew up enamored in its sound. It’s not just one style of music. It’s every style of music. Thanks in part to the rise of independent development enabling smaller teams, we now have a modern game industry in which music inspired by films lives alongside music inspired by indie rock, trance, heavy metal.
And yet on the celebratory side of the industry, we still place this special prestige upon the film-inspired music. Hollywood as an industry has commanded the attention of the US and the world over, created a certain prestige associated with the financial necessity to record live orchestras, to invent new techniques and new sounds with all the budget of a multi-million dollar blockbuster. Dynamic, cinematic experiences in AAA have commanded a need for game music to change from a lyrical, melody-driven medium into one driven by motivic suggestion. At the end of a given year, we’re more likely to celebrate a perfect imitation of John Williams than a brilliant jazz fusion composition accompanying a game targeting younger audiences.
Is there a place for everything in games? Absolutely. But how do we celebrate it, if not to call back to the pioneers of our industry and respect where the aesthetics and sounds came from? Will we be able to look back on the often-shunned bleeps and bloops and not see negativity, but a pioneering musical language that led to our current expression? I see so many mainstream articles, so many features, deriding the past of games, to prove to the general public that look, video games have come so far, they’re like films now, look how important and powerful we are. But ultimately, video games are not films. Game music is not film music. Interaction defines us, and it will be at the heart of everything we write going forward.
Game music isn’t always bleeps and bloops anymore, but sometimes it is, and that’s rad.
As a growing and maturing industry, we’re defining what it means to be game music every year. There will be games that are like films, but also games that are like puzzles, games that are like mystery novels, like escape rooms, like sports broadcasts. We’ll continue to compare them to every other medium, because we organize by association. There will also continue to be games that are like games, like ones that came before, and scores that carry on those origins. It’s my hope that we continue to respect that and not cast it aside, that we honor and celebrate where we came from. Game music isn’t always bleeps and bloops anymore, but sometimes it is, and that’s rad.