Video game music: not just kid stuff
15 December 1999
In 1982, Clive Davis, president of Arista Records, wrote an editorial in Billboard refuting an industry fear that video games would drive the music industry out of business. The title was "You Can't Hum a Video Game." Although his main point was correct in that video games have not rendered recorded music obsolete, his title was dead wrong. Only three years later, Super Mario Bros. would be released, and its tunes would become ingrained on the brain of every American child to an extent few rock stars could match. Today, 66% of college students polled can hum its melody, even though many of them haven't played the game for years (Belinkie).
The video game industry earned $6.3 billion last year in the United States, compared with the $6.9 billion earned by movies over the same time period. And that was a record year for the motion picture industry. Over 115 million video game systems have been sold in the United States alone since 1985. Of course, the technology is upgraded every five years, and so only 38 million of these consoles are still having games designed for them. Still, that's an impressive figure; one out of every six U.S. households owns a Sony Playstation. And each of these systems is capable of playing hundreds of different games. Sony's video game division was responsible for 40% of the parent company's profits last year; more than any other single division, including movies and music. It is predicted that this year, video games will pull in more revenues than movies. (Beith, 58)
The Kaiser Family Foundation recently reported that children ages 2 through 18 spend an average of 20 minutes a day playing video games, and 33% of them have a video game system in their rooms (Edwards). Over the course of their childhoods, youngsters can therefore be expected each to play close to 2,000 hours of video games. Each video game has its own music. It is not then surprising that 66% of college students know the theme song to Super Mario Brothers. However, not one of the people surveyed could name the composer of this music. (In contrast, 50% of the people who knew the theme to Star Wars, a soundtrack in another industry of comparable classic status, could also identify its composer.) The man who composed the Mario Bros. music is Koji Kondo, a lifelong resident of Japan who does not speak a word of English. His music is more widely known than the tunes of many multi-platinum recording artists. Yet, you will not find his work, or any other video game music soundtrack, in American record stores. In Japan, however, arrangements of Koji Kondo's melodies are performed by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra to overflow crowds.
This is the strange world of video game music. It is a world in which eastern musicians, greatly influenced by western music, compose music for an eastern audience, which is later sold back to the west. The music is scoffed at in the United States, while in Japan video game soundtracks are among some of the top selling albums. However, American record companies and game companies are poised to turn game soundtracks into marketable commodities, in a distinctly American fashion. In this paper, I intend to take a cursory overview of this emerging genre. I will look at its history, make observations about its style, look at the challenges of creating the music, and finally examine current trends in soundtrack production.
The history of game music begins in earnest with the Nintendo Entertainment System, the first widely popular home video game machine. The original Nintendo system could produce one sine, one noise, and two pulse-wave voices, with one voice channel of 7-bit delta-modulated sample playback (Dennen, 51). This basically meant that the machine could produce four simultaneous sounds. The early games used three channels for music, and reserved the fourth for sound effects. Later, programmers figured out how to use all four channels for music, having one drop out just for the moments sound effects were needed. The tone of the notes was hardly better than that of pure sine waves. Note that the machine allowed a very primitive version of "sample playback." This means that a recorded sound could be stored in the game's memory, to be played when needed. The quality of this sound was appallingly low. Nevertheless, it allowed composers to vary the texture of their pieces.
Back in the early days, video game music was defined by its limits. "Early on, you were just thankful to get any sound out of the thing," says Mike Pummell, a composer for Acclaim software. There were numerous challenges to overcome at every turn. For instance, how can one produce a four-voice chord if the hardware only allows three voices at once? Composers figured out a way to assign one voice to play arpeggios so quickly that listeners believed they were hearing sustained chords. This not only produced the chord, but it freed up the other two voices to play other things. Tinny synthesized notes could be made to sound more impressive through "real-time waveform shaping, such as using pulse-width modulation on a square wave." This boils down to constructing mathematical equations which superimpose the effect of articulations and decays upon pure waves. Spare voices were used to double melody lines, playing a millisecond off to create a primitive echo or chorused effect. Percussion sounds were created with carefully timed bursts of static and distortion on the noise track, but often had to be omitted entirely in favor of sound effects. (Deenen, 48)
The challenge was to create the fullest sound possible with inferior equipment. Every voice had to be used to its maximum. For instance, look at the attached score to the Overworld theme of The Legend of Zelda (1986). The first track plays the melody. The second track is at once a harmony and a counter melody. The third track is a bassline, but in measures 17 and 19 it plays quick harmonic arpeggios. The quickly interweaving lines create an adventurous sound with an interesting texture. The true test of game music is whether a player can still stand a simple theme after hearing it repeated for an hour or more. Despite the fact that millions of gamers heard this piece repeated literally hundreds of times as they played Zelda, the Overworld theme is beloved by players and lauded as one of the greatest pieces of game music ever.
The limitations of the system forced composers to be creative. Nobuo Uematsu, a Japanese composer, recalls:
Uematsu makes reference to composers "belonging" to particular companies. Composing game music in the early days required an enormous amount of technical knowledge. The music had to be developed in close coordination with programmers and special sound designers dedicated to making the composer's music work in the game. Therefore, composers had to work within a company. This is much like the studio system of 1940's Hollywood. Each game company assembled teams of composers that would do all its music. Each team of composers, working together with programmers, developed its own set of tricks and techniques for getting the best sound out of the hardware. Nowadays, the technology requires less programming skills, and so many independent game composers have sprung up. However, many composers prefer to work directly for companies in order to have technical support. Nobuo Uematsu still works with Minoru Akao, his sound designer from back in the days of 8-bit Nintendo.
The NES only had three tracks, and each of their sounds were very unique. I had to focus on the melody itself and think about how each chord will move the audience. I struggled to produce originality in the same three tones, just like any composer from that period. It's amazing to listen to how each of us: Konami composers, Koichi Sugiyama, and Namco composers each had totally different creations by using the same three instruments. There was an originality in 'Game Music' back then. (Takebe)
Technology became more powerful. In 1991, Nintendo introduced the Super-NES, which produced eight 16-bit data-compressed sample-playback voices, with built-in digital delay (Dennen, 51). In other words, the machine could play eight tracks of music and sound effects at once. They were all sampled, meaning that game designers could now import their favorite synthesizer patches into the game. For the first time, the sound of the music was approximating real instruments. The Sega Genesis, Nintendo's biggest rival during this period, could produce six channels of four-operator FM sounds, one 8-bit digitized voice (replaces one FM channel), three square-wave voices, and one noise channel (51). The sound capabilities of these two systems were greatly improved compared to their predecessors, but still highly limited. Eight voices disappear quickly when they must be shared with sound effects and drum tracks. Video game composing did not change substantially.
The industry was revolutionized in 1995 with the introduction of the Sony Playstation. It allowed for 24 sampled voices, which made it possible for the first time for composers to approximate orchestral scoring. It allocated greater memory for sample storage, allowing for more realistic sounding samples and even stereo playback. Moreover, its flexible architecture allowed for three different types of music.
First off, composers could produce music via MIDI, the manufacturers' universal format for producing scores for synthesizers. The Playstation onboard synthesizer does not have any built-in patches. However, synthesizer patches can be purchased from online databases and included as needed. This kind of music is very easy to make and manipulate for interactive purposes. Programmers love it because it takes up so little memory, allowing more horsepower to be devoted to graphics. However, the sound quality is not very realistic.
The section option is to use MODs. A MOD (Digital Module) is a sound file in which each individual note of each instrument is recorded in the studio. For instance, all the possible notes a trumpet could play would be recorded. These short recordings of notes would be recalled and played as necessary to produce a trumpet line. This technique takes up more memory than synthesized music, and more of the processor's power must be devoted to playing the samples of digital audio. Skillfully applied, however, the results can sometimes sound nearly as good as a CD, without taking up nearly as much space. And unlike a CD, MODs can be altered on the fly, allowing for interactive music of high quality. The drawback of MODs is that they are fiendishly difficult to use. An experienced composer might still have to fiddle for months to get a MOD to sound right.
The third means of producing music is redbook audio. Redbook is simply digital audio of CD quality. It takes up a large amount of memory, and requires substantial processor power to play ("stealing time from the laser" is how the techies like to put it). It also allows for no interaction between the soundtrack and the player. Nevertheless, the sound is CD quality, and can be produced as easily as recording players in a studio. Moreover, the Playstation allowed composers to manipulate these sound formats in innovative ways. For instance, "One Winged Angel," the end boss theme in Final Fantasy VII, combined synthesized sound with a recorded choir.
The Playstation's competitor, the Nintendo 64, is also capable of producing 24 voices, but they are not "dynamic." This means that once a patch is allocated to a particular voice on the machine, it was very hard to change to a different patch. In addition, the Nintendo does not allow redbook audio, as it does not use CD-ROMs. "Many of my colleagues are hoping that the N64 is the LAST cartridge based system to ever be made," says Darryl Duncan, an independent game composer. "It's audio quality is very limited and gamers today demand more."
It is hard to say anything definite about game music style, because it is so varied. "Pretty much every style of music has been incorporated into a game at some point or another," says Logan Byam, the Japanese Collection Editor at the online Videogame Music Archive (www.vgmusic.com). He leafs through his CD collection and rattles off the different styles of music: "Gothic, classical, rock, baroque, Caribbean, Celtic, hip hop, plainchant, heavy metal, new age, techno, trance, dance, here's a French bistro arrangement, medieval German, classical piano, rockabilly, jazz fusion, and yes, traditional pentatonic Japanese. The list goes on, not to mention that some games have soundtracks so creative they pretty much invent their own style."
Indeed, many composers say that video game music's most attractive feature is that players have few preconceived notions as to how it should sound. "I personally have found that game musicians are more experimental when it comes to creating music," says Michael Huang, an amateur game composer and fan. "Film composers, I've found, will stick to the traditional film scoring techniques used in the industry." Adam Page, one of the top reviewers for Soundtrack Central, explains: "I enjoy game music because it typically represents a wide diversity of musical voices; not just those of Japan and America. The artists I typically listen to have the freedom and the guts to employ styles from around the world, something that certainly can't be found in the U.S. pop market."
"Game music doesn't really have an identity," agrees Mr. Pummell. "It is hard to define because it has a unique style to it. It's not pop music. It's not serious classical music. It's not serious contemporary music." At times, however, game music can be all of these, while keeping a unique identity. "People think that jazz music has no limitations, but it actually does," writes a young composer. "They are stylistic limitations, though, and thus people don't really notice that they are there. When was the last time I played a video game song for someone and they looked quizzically at me and asked, 'This is for a VIDEO GAME?' A few hours ago. But when was the last time someone wrote a jazz song and the audience didn't know it was jazz" (firstname.lastname@example.org)? Video game music pieces are united only by a common instrument (the console) and not much else.
However, some interesting observations can be made if the discussion is limited to Japanese game composers. All the major video game systems are produced in Japan, and when the industry was starting out, all the games were too. Japanese composers were the first game music pioneers, and defined what sound players came to associate with games. Although composers of other nationalities have since joined the industry, nearly all of the most popular games still come from Japan, and the Japanese composers remain the most well-known and popular. Fans seem to agree that Japanese scores are still the best. "It's not that the Americans can't produce great music. They indeed do a nice job with it," says Jon Turner, a reviewer for Soundtrack Central, a website which imports game soundtracks to the United States. "But when you're talking memorality, the Japanese fit the bill. The Americans have made decent efforts, but none of them are, in my opinion, up to the standards of the Japanese."
Super Mario Bros., released in 1985 for the original Nintendo, was the first video game to feature constant background music written by a professional composer. It established many conventions for game music, which survive to the present day. Koji Kondo provided different background music for every area Mario visited. When he was in the bright outdoors, the music was upbeat and chipper. When he was underground, the music was ominous bass riffs played in what felt like free time. In the enemy's castle, the music was frenetic, dissonant 16th note runs up and down over a slow bassline. The tracks were all done with three instruments and crude percussion sounds.
It is almost impossible to describe the Mario main theme. It is a sort of light jazz tune, but with so much energy pumped into each articulated note, one is not sure whether it invokes cheesy Vegas lounge music or a Dixieland band. It is sort of like mellow elevator music on psychedelic drugs. At times, it invokes the Tiajuana Brass with its cheerful cheesiness. Mike Pummell is full of praise for this prototypical score: "It's light, it's playful, the tracks are really well put together. And yet, it's got a unique cultural feel to it. The Japanese, invented a fun sort of music; very light and folky. It's a takeoff on 60's cartoon music, and 30's vaudeville music."
This overly-peppy, off-kilter take on Western music is very indicative of game music in general. "I've been asked to emulate the Japanese game sound a few times. It's a quirky little thing," says Pummell. "It's kind of a hodgepodge. There's rock and roll influences, orchestral influences, even some jazz. It's a mixed bag. They pulled from all kinds of influences, many of them western influences, put their own little twist on it, and then they sent it back to us. And to us, it's like: 'Wow! That's got a neat flavor to it.'"
Mr. Pummell compares the phenomenon to the way many Americans have formed their conception of the blues from English blues players, even though the blues is an American musical form. "Japanese music uses these western orchestral instruments for scores, which they adopted only a century ago," he explains. "They've turned it around and put their own little twist on it, and now they're sending it back to us. We're hearing a western orchestra playing a Japanese interpretation of what western tonality is." Moreover, Pummell asserts that this style is not just limited to games. "Their TV commercials feel like games. They have a playful gaming sound."
However, there are a few distinctly Japanese touches in the music. There are often sections in game music which sound atonal or jarring to Western ears, but the Japanese are used to such tonalities. There is also the occasional inclusion of ambient or environmental sounds.
The most famous and successful game music composer of all time is Nobuo Uematsu. Uematsu grew up in Japan, but the musicians he revered and emulated were Western. Uematsu taught himself to play piano at age 12, hoping to become the next Elton John. His other favorite musicians included Mike Oldfield, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Vangelis. He began to join a number of amateur bands as a keyboard player, and also wrote a number of songs. He decided that he enjoyed writing more than playing, and so he sent demo tapes to many music companies. One of these companies hired him to write music for the radio. Then in 1985, a friend of his working at a new software company called Squaresoft asked him if he wanted a job. He jumped at the chance, happy to have any job. (Struck)
In a later interview, Uematsu admitted, "At that time I didn't know what game music was" (Steffens). The current project Square was working on was Final Fantasy, a role playing game so called because it was the last game the company had money to make. The pressure to produce a hit was enormous. Mr. Uematsu told his boss at Square that he did not understand what type of music he supposed to compose. His boss gave him a copy of Dragon Quest and told him to play it. (Shibuya)
Earlier that year, Dragon Quest had revolutionized game music. The composer for this game was Koichi Sugiyama, a classically trained musician with experience writing orchestral pieces. He had also written film scores; in 1989, long after he had been established as a leading game composer, he did the music for a Godzilla movie. Mr. Sugiyama did something everyone had previously thought was impossible; he recreated the sound of classical music on the Nintendo. For the first time, game music aspired to be musical, and not just bearable.
In fact, Sugiyama's music for Dragon Quest and its sequels was so popular that the Dragon Quest III soundtrack was released as an album. Moreover, the music was arranged for an orchestra and an album was made of that too. Sugiyama did all the arranging himself. He no doubt had the orchestra in mind when he was writing the pieces in the first place. The success of the Dragon Quest albums started a trend, and thereafter, all major video games were released, both in "Original Soundtrack Versions" and often arranged for orchestras.
So Uematsu, an untrained musician strongly influenced by 70's Western pop music, was given Sugiyama's classical music score as a model. However, he was specifically told not just to emulate the Dragon Quest sound, but to create something different. What Uematsu did was to compose melodies for each "song" first, and then to go back and add classical-style background parts. The result was the perfect sound for the Nintendo. It was orchestral sounding, yet highly melody-driven. It is not that previous game music titles did not have prominent melodies; rather, Uematsu's melodies were more simplistic, memorable, and lyrical. In other words, they were singable. In contrast, if you look at the attached score for The Legend of Zelda, you will notice the melody has quick, hard to sing runs, and requires a range of more than an octave and a half.
Mr. Tomo Takebe, founder of the Musical World of Final Fantasy website, proposes that Uematsu's music has been so successful because it combines eastern and western styles of instrumental music. Japanese classical music tends to focus the listener on one particular voice. Every nuance of the soloist's performance is meant to be savored. Other instruments are strictly background for a shakuhatchi or shamisen player. Takebe labels this style "solo" music. "In the Nagano Olympics, I though the Japanese Anthem did not sound very well after being played with so many instruments in harmony. Although it might have been more suited for the Western audience, it was as strange as listening to one violin playing Beethoven's 5th." To prove his point, Takebe points out that "Andrew [Lloyd] Webber... is amazingly eastern in his compositions. He always establishes a solid melody when writing a song, and he is very popular in Japan."
Western instrumental music does not focus on the solo: "Pop in an orchestral CD of Debussy, Mozart, etc. and listen," Takebe continues. "Do you hear any strong melodies that remain in our heads? Although some composers like Brahms liked having strong melody, most Western composers study chords and harmony progressions more than how a solo would sound." Moreover, western ensembles are bigger, and composers are interested in how the group will sound as a whole as opposed to highlighting one part.
Uematsu's music satisfies both these cultures by providing a strong solo melody along with a strong chord progression. "The Final Fantasy main theme would sound fantastic only with chords, or only the solo," Takebe says. He explains that this is what distinguished Uematsu's music from Kondo and Sugiyama's: "Mario did have a strong melody, but it did not have harmony. Dragon Quest did have a strong sense of harmony but it did not have standing melodies until recently. Final Fantasy had them all from the beginning."
Perhaps this bi-cultural appeal is why American players can accept Uematsu's style as part of their culture, while the composer himself sees the music as eastern: "[I remember when] I really started to get e-mails from fans all over the world," he says in an interview. "That was the most fantastic thing for me. Shocking. I can somehow get why we Japanese can like my Japanese music, but when Americans say 'That song was good, I felt in such a way.' I really feel strange. Well, we are all humans anyway" (Takebe, FF8 liner notes).
Mr. Pummell sees Uematsu's simple musical style as being indicative of Japanese culture at large: "If you look at the body of Japanese culture and video games, there's sort of a minimalistic view to it. Very simple melodies, very simple harmonies, there's always an A section, B section, A section, C section, back to the A section. They follow a rigid form. Very disciplined. If you chart it out on a piece of paper you begin to see they're really not doing anything complicated. Very nicely put together. Very few melodies. But they're good at it. They're really good."
Although both Japanese and American composers are moving away from the simple "melody-background" style, it is still the template all game music composers work from. "It trickled down to us, actually," explains Pummell. "The Japanese were developing the most advanced game content up until about 1993. American titles were really substandard on all levels. We kind of looked to the Japanese for visual technique and sound technique... The Japanese concept of what is a good game, what isn't a good game is still what we follow."
Over the years, Sugiyama and Uematsu have both continued writing game scores. Mr. Sugiyama has released 47 CDs. Several of these are recordings of the London Philharmonic playing his music, with himself at the baton. His music is still strictly in the classical Western style, and is considered more musically complex. Mr. Uematsu's music is more diverse in style; within a single game, his music can fall into an incredible number of genres. Recently, he has been learning Irish fiddling, and the influence shows in the Final Fantasy IV arranged album Celtic Moon, which was performed by a traditional Irish ensemble. Until recently, however, one could always count on his strong melodies. In the most recent Final Fantasy game, he moves away from melody-driven composing, favoring more cinematic background music. Nevertheless, there are plenty of memorable melodies in the soundtrack, including a pop single. There are 26 published CDs of Mr. Uematsu's music. The soundtracks for Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII have both reached number one on the Japanese charts (Takebe). This is incredible considering that both releases were expensive packages of four CDs bundled together!
The increasing depth and complexity of Mr. Uematsu's work is indicative of a wider trend. Japanese game music is becoming less quirky and chipper. The music has been growing less simplistic, moving towards a very Hollywood style. This is largely because of the increasing complexity of games overall; as the games have expanded in complexity, the music must expand with it. In Koji Kondo's most recent Zelda game, his classic Overworld theme is never heard, although phrases of it are toyed with in a new, much less melodic piece of music. This omission was generally lamented by longtime fans. "Some of the charm found in the old
quality soundtracks is somewhat missing [today]," says Turner sadly. "I think that's because [the composers are] trying to be more experimental."
Video game soundtracks in Japan are a major business. They can be found at almost every music store. Moreover, frequent concerts of game music by symphony orchestras attract large crowds. In Gamespot magazine, a reviewer describes the scene at a recent concert: "Bio Hazard fans young and old came to the event; waiting in line to get in were young teenagers wearing shorts and T-shirts, and businessmen wearing their suits and ties" (Kennedy).
However, the fact that game music is performed by orchestras does not mean the Japanese consider it serious music. Even the most intricate game soundtrack is still seen as pop music. "True, game music does get performed in symphony halls," says Mr. Huang, "but that's only because the concerts are sponsored by Nintendo, in order to perform music from Nintendo games." The article from Gamespot backs this up: "In addition to the amazing orchestrated renditions of Bio Hazard music, the concert was also a vehicle for Capcom to show off several new scenes from the upcoming Resident Evil 3" (Kennedy). Mr. Pummell explains: "We have a pretty wide distinction here between pop culture and culture. I think the distinction over there is even greater. Everyone excepts [game music] for what it is: pop culture, fun. When it's time to get serious, they get very serious."
In the United States, however, the public is not prepared to accept game music even as pop culture. Soundtracks are practically nonexistent. "There have been attempts in the past by game publishers to release the CDs from popular games but they rarely make any noise," says Mr. Duncan. Americans tend to have a dismissive attitude towards game music, seeing it as primitive or childish. "People have cast it that way from its early, negative stages," says Pummell. He hums a few bars of the Mario theme. "Everyone recognizes that, and that sort of became the lingering contemporary identity of game music." The stigma haunts even sophisticated game music. A budding game composer tells me: "I once played the entire ending theme from Final Fantasy VI on the piano before music class, and [the other students] thought it was amazing... until I told them it was for a video game, at which point they started ridiculing it" (email@example.com).
"In Japan, I think they tend to treat game composers like rock stars," says Pummell. He considers why game music composers are so much more respected in Japan: "There's different attitudes about the technology there... They value technology in ways that we don't. We sort of expect it... Plus, you have to look at the more limited entertainment possibilities. In a crowded society like Japan, you tend to find things to do at home. Just going out to a golf course is a four figure event."
A major reason the music is viewed differently is that in Japan, video games are played by adults as well as children. In the U.S., adult gaming usually takes place on PCs, and so console systems are seen as children's toys. On the other hand, "computers were not popular in Japan until the late 90's, and this is why video games were able to establish a wider seat in entertainment," explains Takebe. "Computers are still somewhat considered as toys for nerds, because the Japanese society does not revolve around the computer. School work, which is the leading motives for computer sales in the U.S., does not require any computers or calculators in Japan." He proposes that the reason computers have not caught on in Japan is because typing is far more difficult; the alphabet consists of 75 primary letters, 75 alternative letters, and thousands of Chinese-based characters.
Even in Japan, however, all but the biggest game composers are ignored by the fans, much like movie composers. "Many people know and love Final Fantasy music, but I doubt if 30% of them know who Nobuo is," says Takebe. "This is the greatest let down for game music composers, but game producers, programmers, and graphic engineers alike suffer from the same problem. Like pop composers who write songs for famous singers, game musicians never get publicity."
Game composers are no longer only Japanese. (In preparing this paper, I was in contact with composers from Denmark and Sweden) Redbook audio, more than any other development, has attracted new composers to video games, because they are now able to write game music just as they would CDs. "It's a growing crowd," says Mike Pummell. "When I started about three years ago, we could all fit in a room about 15' by 15'." Still, the industry is small enough so that the major composers know each other, and meet at conventions. They are a fairly close-knit community, although composers can sometimes be fiercely protective of their own programming: "We're not too keen on revealing each other's secrets to each other. We all have our own tricks, but we all get along well."
The new wave of composers has raised the musical bar. "I know a lot of people who started out as game composers in the early days," Pummell says. "They have since moved on to management type jobs. There's a better class of composers working today. It requires much less technical knowhow, so now you have room to just be a composer. You don't have to be a computer expert."
Mr. Duncan, on the other hand, has a rather different view of the technological revolution: "Someone with questionable musical skills can go buy a certain kind of synthesizer and drum machine and probably make music in a convincing way. Gone are the days of needing to be a true musician."
Mr. Duncan is certainly a true musician. He grew up listening to R&B and Urban music, teaching himself to play the piano. He attended the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago for two years, majoring in Jazz Piano. However, he says, "In my career I use only about 2% of what I learned at the conservatory."
Mr. Duncan has written for and/or produced songs with many popular artists including Michael Jackson, Anita Baker, Jeffrey Osborne, Earth Wind & Fire, Chaka Khan, R. Kelly, Amy Morris, Elisa Fiorillo, EU, Foster Sylvers, MGM, Dawnn Lewis, Alphonso Hunter and many others. He even had his own solo album on Motown records in 1987. He wrote and produced music for two major motion picture soundtracks, Police Academy 4 and Revenge of the Nerds, as well as having consulted on other motion picture soundtrack projects.
Like Pummell, Duncan entered the game business after the Playstation revolutionized composing. "I actually made a conscious decision in 1994 to exit the mainstream music industry and get into composing music for video games. I basically got kind of burnt out from the grind of the music industry and really did not want to have to 'depend' on a hit record to feed my family. I felt that at least in the game industry you immediately get paid to create music instead of praying for a hit."
After having worked two years as a Sound Designer/Composer for Electronic Arts/Tiburon, Duncan assembled his own staff and founded GameBeat, an independent game music production house. Since then, his former company Electronic Arts has several times contracted GameBeat to do music for upcoming titles. Mr. Duncan's favorite type of music is jazz, but he says, "In my career as a composer in the game industry I have had to convincingly compose Classical, Rock, Techno, Dance and Rap music."
Mr. Pummell has a similar story to tell. He studied composition at the University of Cincinnati, where he studied classical music extensively. He briefly dropped out of college to join a band. "Typical story: the band breaks up and you go back to school," he says. He continues: "After a while I ended up working in a recording studio, learning how to work the gear. There was the beginning: being a composer, being an audio engineer. A few years later, workstations started showing up. Suddenly, people had integrated disk recording and MIDI and everything in a neat little package. I followed that trend. I got film work, TV spot work. Then about three years ago, Sony invented Playstation. Suddenly, there was a gaming console out there where doing music looked interesting. Where you could do serious Redbook audio." Since then, he has composed the music for numerous console games, such as Mission Impossible, Time Crisis, Loony Toons Space Race, and "a dozen other little PC titles."
For a game music composer, every job holds unique challenges. First of all, he never knows how far along a game will be when he joins the project. "I've had games that I can actually play a test version before I start, to see how it responds," he says. "And I have games that I've scored music for that I have never seen. You can do Wipe Out Excel [a racing game] without ever playing the game. A lot of recent games are like that. Some games; RPGs; are more difficult."
"Often the composer is given what are called storyboards in the early stages of a game's developments," says Mr. Duncan. "These storyboards allow a rough view of what the game is suppose to look like as seen through the eyes of the games producers or lead artists. Primarily the type of game will dictate what type of music is needed. Clearly if it is a medieval role playing type game, it would often call for dark dramatic orchestra based music. If the game is a Car racing game then the music would need to be more fast paced and 'driving' like Techno or Rave."
Composing music for a game is often about trying to get decent results working under adverse conditions. Because designers are mainly concerned with the visual aspect of the game, they tend to leave the composer little memory to work with. "Typically, the producer or designer of the game will come to me and say, 'Here's what we want to do, here's the style of music we want, here is the voice polyphony you can work with; at least what we're estimating; and here's how much memory you have.' And within those guidelines, you're supposed to go out and conquer the world. Good case in point: for the theme song for Mission Impossible for Nintendo 64, I was given 125k. I've seen word processor files bigger than that. I had to do the entire game; all the music you hear within the game; to fit within 350k."
"It's sort of like writing for a string quartet," Pummell continues. "Imagine having only four instruments, and you're going to produce 30 minutes of music. And you're supposed to keep it interesting. That's the challenge. You have a limited number of samples to work with. And you have to pick them very carefully, because you're going to be doing a lot of music with them. Anyone can throw some sounds into a game console and get it to generate a cheesy little sense track. It's easy to do. Trust me, there's tons of that being done. What the industry needs is people who are capable of working five or six little samples into something musically interesting as a whole and relative to the game."
Pummell's workspace is a state-of-the-art recording studio. He sits at a fully digital control booth, from which he can sample musicians, record redbook tracks, or work with high-end synthesizers. He starts at 5 a.m., and gets most of his writing done by 9 a.m. The average game piece is between a minute and a half to three minutes long. Typically, Pummell produces a piece of music every day. The average game contains 10 to 15 pieces. However, large RPGs may contain dozens of pieces in all possible styles and moods.
Mr. Duncan seems to get more time to spend on each project. "The time frame a composer has is often equivalent to the games development cycle. Unfortunately, a composer can't really get a visual feel for the game until some images or artwork are available to him, but he/she can start composing with the game theme in mind. As development progresses, it will require that the music fit a specific character's personality or that the music change the scene and mood of the game. This is when the line of communication between the developers and the composers is most crucial."
Although one of Mr. Pummell's titles will eventually be heard by millions across the world, he tries not to think about his audience. "I put the audience completely out of my mind. I could care less about what the audience thinks about the music, because if you really do the music right, they're not gonna notice it. If nobody notices the music in any of your work; they don't mention it in reviews, they don't say anything about it, nobody talks to you about it; you're probably doing it right. So I really don't want to draw that much attention. The key to writing effective music is to figure out who you're writing the music for, and it's not for the audience. You're writing the music for a character in a game. You put that character in your mind, and that is your inspiration."
Every day's work varies depending on the style and requirements of the game. "I would say there's nothing regular about it," he says. For instance: "When I was doing Loony Tunes Space Race, I was going for the old Warner Bros. cartoon sound; Carl Stalling. It's very unique scoring; it has a very 1930's feel to it. And there wasn't a trumpet database in the world that would support that style of playing. Nobody plays like that anymore. So I ended up bringing in some 60-year-old trumpet players who still play like that. And so I said, 'OK guys, let's go for it. Let's play the Warner Bros. theme song.' They did it by ear; they didn't need me to score it out. I wanted to build a sample database. I didn't sample phrases; I sampled individual notes." Pummell then created a MOD using these individual trumpet notes. The end result was a nearly perfect recreation of the Warner Bros. theme that took up little memory. However, a tremendous amount of time and effort went into it.
Once the composer finishes his work, he submits it either as redbook or MIDI sequences or other code. His job does not end there. "There are many people involved in the audio development because once the composer is done with the music this music is often manipulated a great deal to get it ready in a format that will integrate it into the actual game," says Duncan. "Audio Programmers do this; Code Guys. Outside of the game producers, this is who the composer will be dealing with the most."
And even after working with the "Code Guys," the audio on the finished product may not be correct. Every composer has horror stories: "They forgot to load the envelope library into the final release of the N64 version, causing a few instruments to have a 'mushy' attack," says Pummell. "The PSX version is O.K. It pays to stay in control of your work, but that's not easy when some of the assembly takes place 4,000 miles away."
These descriptions of technical difficulties raise the question of how much the modern game composer must know about computers. "The more you know about both, the better," says Pummell. "I don't profess to be a great programmer. I'm completely self-taught in computer languages. But I know enough about computers to be able to say, 'I better not do this because it might cause problems down the line.' And I can find enough knowledgeable people in this building to help me with the code when I have questions."
The extent to which composers must be programmers ultimately depends on the degree of interactivity of the music. The distinguishing feature of game music is that it responds to the player to some extent. This can be as basic as stringing together pieces in a certain way, as Brian Schmidt, a sound designer for arcade games, explains:
Most often, there will be interactivity within each piece of music as well. For instance, most game music is looped to some extent, and so it plays continuously for as long as the player takes in a segment of the game. Some games employ more complex techniques. The tempo can be increased with the number of activities onscreen. The key can be transposed up when the player enters a battle. A composer can specify loop points and breakout points. "Loop measure 33 through 42 till the monster jumps out," explains Pummell. Instruments can be muted and brought back in as events are triggered. "Just basic little tricks," Pummell says. "Think of it as having a toolbench in the basement. Even though you have all these things available, you may not need them for a particular job. Sometimes a very simple tool will accomplish the job."
Any game can be thought of as consisting of a number of states and arcs connecting those states. A typical video game or pinball machine can have dozens or these states and connecting arcs. As a player plays a game, scoring points, hitting targets, etc., arcs are taken depending on the actions taken by the player, and the current game state changes accordingly. These changes in game states are accompanied by corresponding changes in the background music. This is done by composing a musical score for each state node and connecting arc. Scores for game states are usually full and complete musical compositions, while score for connecting arcs are typically short transition pieces that lead directly to the "next game state" music. The arcs can be as simple as a drum fill or as complex as a harmonic cadence setting up a new key and theme. When the game state changes, the music for the arc corresponding to the reason for the state change is played, usually a transition leading into the music for the next game state. (Schmidt, 274-275)
"The most difficult thing about interactive music is convincing the producer there's a benefit to it. It's not the scoring," says Pummell. Inactive music requires the composer to work closely with the game designers, which many game designers are unwilling to do. A game which utilizes interactive music is Banjo Kazooie. It contains a level with many different climates. As you walk around, the instrumentation and scoring of the main theme gradually changes. As you approach a beach, the music becomes a reggae arrangement. As you approach a snowy mountain, a chiming Christmasy set of instruments fades in. An aquatic area features a rollicking pirate sound. The melody never changes, but the style of it is constantly adjusting to the terrain. This of course, takes coordination with programmers, and requires in-house composers.
Implementing interactive music creates all sorts of little problems. One of the composers pushing the envelope of "i-muse," as interactive music is referred to in the industry, is Thomas Dolby, of 80's pop music fame. Mr. Dolby summarizes:
But while these tricks are possible on a Nintendo, they are much more difficult on a Playstation. "There's no callback routine," explains Pummell. "In other words, the game doesn't know where the music is, and the music doesn't know where the game is." He says it is possible to work around this problem, "but you have to go in and rewrite some pretty highend source code."
At the point where a game player can either stand and fight or turn and run, there are various things that you can and cannot do. You want it to make sense. If he happens to turn around conveniently right before the downbeat, it might be as simple as kicking the thing up by a minor third, adding ten percent to the tempo, enhancing the two percussion tracks with sixteenth-note tom-toms that had previously been muted, and so on. If he does it just after the first beat of the bar, do we wait until the first beat of the next bar? That's going to feel very slow; maybe it's just one second, but it'll feel like a lifetime. So is it acceptable to make this change on the second beat of the bar? That's no strict formula; you can't write a string of code that would deal with any of this. But you can create a set of higher-level tools that will allow a composer to make those kinds of decisions. (Aikin, 34)
Many composers are dissatisfied with the current state of i-muse. "The interactivity is still an issue for many, but I feel that this is a aspect that game music composers are far from perfecting," says Duncan. "There are many emerging technologies to get the music to 'seamlessly' change with the action (or lack of) on the screen. But to me this is more of an industry goal than actually wishes of the consumers." Currently, interactive music requires the creation of intricate MODs, a process which Pummel feels is simply too difficult. "Interactive music right now, from a musical standpoint and a compositional standpoint, has been a failure. It's cumbersome, it's clunky, the musical results are not always good, and it's just a glorified MIDI environment. Yes, in the right hands, it can produce good results, but it's not the answer. It just creates new problems. It's a temporary balm."
This is why Pummell and many other composers are eagerly looking forward to the next year, when the industry will make the switch over to new, more powerful consoles. These next generation systems will run DVDs, a format that allows enough storage space for massive amounts of high quality redbook audio. In the past, the problem with redbook has been that it is not interactive. That is, there is no way to transpose a CD up a key. However, Pummell believes that so much storage space will be available that composers will be able to include recordings of musicians playing in both keys, along with a "decision tree" programmed to transition from one to the other when a player performs a certain action. Thus, the future will see extensive redbook audio coupled with an increase in interactivity.
People involved in interactive music often cite film music as a model. "We want to take the experience that everybody has at the movies and make it into something that you control," says Liam Byrne. "You're playing through your own adventure. We're used to constant soundtracks in your entertainment. The more exactly the video game soundtrack matches your experience, the more involving that experience is going to be." Byrne is a "tech evangelist" for Creative Labs, a company that makes sound cards for PCs. It is his job to get people excited about sound. He explains that while the current tricks for making music interactive work well, many feel that in order to create a fully immersive experience the music is going to have to be created on the fly. The game will actually create original music based on what is going on in the player's particular game.
Mr. Dolby is exploring this area. "I felt that in order for music to enhance a real-time interactive experience [like a film score], it requires software that would... take prearranged themes and adapt them to the circumstances of a given scene: What's going on in this scene? What's the mood? Where's the dramatic and emotional tension" (Aikin, 32)?
Dolby explains a new kind of interactive music he is developing:
While some are exploring the possibilities of interactive music, others see redbook audio as a way to finally bridge the world of gaming and the world of popular music. This desire is not new. As sound technology became more sophisticated in the late 80's, a few video games were made with the music of famous pop artists as a selling point. The games did not include original music by the artists, because the limitations and difficulties of composing for games in those days necessitated programming knowledge. Instead, the games would feature popular hits adapted by audio engineers, and often would include the musicians within the game. For instance, Aerosmith was featured in a game that was set backstage at one of its shows. Michael Jackson contributed his music and likeness to a "Moonwalker" game. Motley Crue was featured in a rock and roll-themed pinball simulator. Even the group Journey had a game. Publicly, the makers of these games would boast about the group's role in designing the product. Rick Lucas, one of the producers of "Crue Ball," insisted the group had "significant input" in the game (McCullaugh). In reality, the technology was too limiting and complicated for any non-programmer to get involved in, especially a busy rock star. The pinball game, for instance, had nearly been completed before it was brought to Motley Crue for a possible tie-in. These were marketing deals, not financial ones.
As you move in the first person through a 3-D space, your aural perspective changes. If you move from a hillside into a cave, you'll get aural cues that tell you you're in a cave. Within the cave there may be different things that generate sound. There might be a trickling pool over here, a rattlesnake over there, and a dragon down there. As you move around in the space, these elements will change in your perspective... As a composer, you might take the same geographical approach. You write a theme for the rattlesnake, you write a theme for the pool. Maybe the pool has these magical Debussyesque harp arpeggios. Maybe the cave features a sort of throbbing choir sample on a C7. Now, here comes the dragon. If we give him a drone or a pulse a low A played by the strings, as we approach him, or he approaches us, we throw a new sort of light on the C7 sense of the cave by juxtaposing another element. (Aikin, 34)
That has changed in the 90's, as the emergence of CD-ROM platforms has allowed composers to write for video games just as easily as they would for CDs. As a result, an increasing number of established musicians are writing original music for games. Recently, David Bowie composed the score for a French role playing game entitled Omikron the Nomad Soul. The game company approached Bowie looking for music in the industrial, electronic style of his last two CDs. However, Bowie saw the game as a chance to explore new musical ground. "[Writing techno pieces] would have just supported the two-dimensionality of the characters," he says. "I wanted to create something that had more of an emotional engine to it. The songs needed to be moody and have real emotional clout" (Hendrickson, 24). The end result was more than 30 instrumental pieces for the game, plus enough extra material to release a CD. The resulting album, Hours..., was hailed by Rolling Stone as "his strongest album in years" (24).
The entrance of pop stars onto the game scene comes right at a time when game soundtracks are tending more and more towards rock. "I see a definite lean towards the new techno/rave dance music craze," says Duncan. "Often if a game does not require classical style mood music, techno will work! So many games use this style of music, even though it is extremely repetitious by nature, it has a mass appeal that seems to work very well in a variety of game styles."
The increasing forays of popular musicians into the world of video games inspired the creation of a new recording label in 1998. RED Interactive was founded by RED Distribution for the purpose of creating soundtracks for video games featuring high-profile artists, and then marketing the audio albums. Game companies hire RED to provide music for upcoming titles. RED would then use its connections in the music business to get pop artists to contribute previous hits and original music to the project. The soundtrack albums would then be sent to computer stores as well as to traditional music retailers. "We're becoming a bridge between the gaming world and the music world," says Mitchell Wolk, one of the founders of the label and also a self-described "hardcore gamer" (Jeffrey, 93).
These kind of soundtrack albums, featuring songs by established rock stars, are a far cry from the orchestral soundtracks written by dedicated game music composers that are popular in Japan. However, for many genres of gaming, such as racing games, fighting games, and first-person shooting games, rock soundtracks are quickly becoming de rigueur. And given that 64% of teens play video games on a regular basis, record companies are finding that they can't afford not to get involved (Reece, 135).
Recently, Atlantic Records produced the soundtrack for Road Rash 3D, which featured both exclusive and previously released music from such Atlantic artists as Sugar Ray, CIV, and the Mermen. In addition, the album included tracks not found in the game from Atlantic's up-and-coming acts such as Fat Joe, Kid Rock, and Big Wreck. "I forsee something of a new genre," says Lee Trink, product manager for Atlantic Records. "The same way that movie soundtracks have come into their own, and you can scarcely find a film without a soundtrack, is kind of what we're hoping to achieve" (Reece, 135).
"If we, as record companies, want to remain relevant and seem exciting as an industry, then we need to get more involved [with gaming]," says Tom Dolan, director of multimedia of Virgin Records. "Let's face it, these games are vibrant pieces of art. The rocks stars of [an earlier] generation are now game developers for a whole new group of kids. They want to grow up and be the next John Carmack and invent the next 'Quake' game rather than be Mick Jagger" (135). Seventeen years ago, Clive Davis reassured his fellow music executives that video games would not steal their business. Instead, the games seem to be stealing the glory of the music industry.
The extent to which game music has permeated the minds of Generation X was highlighted in a recent New York Times article entitled "From Pong to Song: Video Games Inspire Artists." It concerned a new CD, Blip, Bleep, which is a collection of 18 soundtracks to imaginary video games, produced by many top musicians and audio artists. "The musical efforts, which range from thumping electronic dance tunjes to atmosphereic sweeps of synthesizers, are utterly genuine," writes the reviewer. "Especially on the songs that incorporate samples of actual game noises, they reveal the degree to which the arcade's aural ambiance has shaped the sound of modern music" (Mirapaul).
"You Can't Hum a Video Game," wrote Mr. Davis. That statement seems to have been officially disproved, as the Recording Academy recently made changes to allow game soundtracks to win Grammy Awards beginning this year. A new category for competition has been created: "Music for Television, Film, and Other Visual Media." This category will contain the old awards for "Best Song in a Soundtrack" and "Best Instrumental Composition in a Soundtrack," as well as a new award for "Best Soundtrack Album." It remains to be seen whether any game music will be nominated for these awards, much less win them. However, the changes are the Academy's way of saying that the possibility can no longer be ruled out.
"It's a unique industry," muses Pummell. "People are really unaware of what's going on behind the scenes. The cool thing right now is it's undefined. We don't know where this is going. We don't know how big it's going to get." It seems certain, however, that cultures and styles will continue to mix and ferment in video game soundtracks. This is fine by Pummell: "I think it would be really cool to have Balinese video games. I've love to hear Balinese music in a video game."
A gamelon video game soundtrack? Perhaps this is no stranger than the London Philharmonic cutting a CD of music originally composed for three sine waves.
This paper would not have been possible without the help of several helpful sources. Tomo Takebe has been an unending fount of information on the multi-cultural aspects of the music. In addition to explaining his theories on game music in patient detail, he has provided me with translations of several key CD liner notes. Jon Turner has taken substantial time and effort to dub me music out of his own substantial collection, giving me a crash listening course in what is a remarkably varied genre. His input has greatly shaped the formation of the accompanying cassette tape. Logan Byam has also dubbed me some fascinating tracks, for which I am grateful. Finally, Mr. Darryl Duncan has taken time out of his busy schedule to help me understand the industry from a composer's point of view. He wishes to make himself a resource for any interested in learning about or entering the industry, and asks that I include his contact information. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and his website is "www.gamebeatinc.com".
Without these and many other dedicated fans, I would not have even been able to begin. It is to them that I dedicate this regrettably limited study. Let the games continue!
- M. B.
Aikin, J. and R. L. Doerschuk. "Thomas Dolby." Keyboard, March 1995, pp. 26-35.
Beith, Croal, Gutfreund, Itoi, and Totilo. "Who's Got Game?" Newsweek, September 6, 1999, pp. 58-60.
Belinkie, Matthew. Survey of 47 college students taken at the Trumbull dining hall. 12/13/99
Brandon, Alexander. (1998). "Interactive Music: Merging Quality with Effectiveness." Gamasutra [Online], 2 (13), approx. 22 paragraphs. Available: http://www.gamasutra.com/features/sound_and_music/19980327/interactive_music_quality_intro.htm [1999, December 15]
Byam, Logan (email@example.com). "Re: Fw: VGMusic research." E-mail to Matthew Belinkie (firstname.lastname@example.org). 29 November, 1999.
Byrne, Liam. Telephone interview. 29 November, 1999.
Davis, Clive. "You Can't Hum a Video Game." Billboard, February 20, 1982, pp. 18.
Deenen, Charles. "Adventures in Programming Music & Sound Effects for Video Games." Keyboard, November, 1992, pp.46-55.
Duncan, Darryl S. (email@example.com). "Re: VG music." E-mail to Matthew Belinkie (firstname.lastname@example.org). 8 December, 1999.
Edwards, Ellen. "Plugged-In Generation; More Than Ever, Kids Are at Home With Media." The Washington Post 18 November, 1999, final ed.: A01.
Hendrickson, Matt. "Bowie's Golden Hours." Rolling Stone, September 30, 1999, pp. 24.
Huang, Michael (Klingon_stud@startrekmail.com). "Re: VGMusic Research." E-mail to Matthew Belinkie (email@example.com). 24 November, 1999.
Jeffrey, Don. "New Label to Produce Games Music." Billboard, August 1, 1998, pp. 10, 93.
Kennedy, Sam. (1999). "Bio Hazard Orchestral Concert Report." Gamespot [Online], September 1999, 7 paragraphs. Available: http://headline.gamespot.com/news/99_08/26_vg_bioconc/index.html [1999, December 15]
McCullaugh, Jim. "Electronic Arts Licenses Motley Crue for Video Game." Billboard, October 10, 1992, pp. 63.
Mirapaul, Matthew. "From Pong to Song: Video Games Inspire Artists." The New York Times 4 March, 1999. Available: http://search.nytimes.com/search/daily/bin/fastweb?getdoc+site+site+80060+0+wAAA+video%7Egame%7Emusic [1999, December 15]
Page, Adam (firstname.lastname@example.org). "Re: VGMusic Research." E-mail to Matthew Belinkie (email@example.com). 29 November, 1999.
Pummell, Michael. Telephone interview. 8 December, 1999.
Reece, Doug. "Labels Aim to Score With Video Game Soundtracks." Billboard, March 14, 1998, pp.1, 135.
Rork, Bob. "Interview with Nobuo Uematsu." Available: http://bob.newaygo.mi.us/nobuo.html [1999, December 15]
Schmidt, Brian. "Designing Sound Tracks for Coin-op Games." Proceedings: 1989 International Computer Music Conference, 1989. pp. 273-276.
Steffens, Eric. "Interview with Nobuo Uematsu." Available: http://www.tc.umn.edu/~stef0063/interview.html [1999, December 15]
Struck, Shawn. "Interview with Nobuo Uematsu." Available: http://www.angelfire.com/ny/jaxom17/interview.html [1999, December 15]
Takebe, Tomo (Tomo1657@aol.com). "Re: VGMusic." E-mail to Matthew Belinkie (firstname.lastname@example.org). 5 December, 1999.
Takebe, Tomo [translator] (1999). "Liner notes to Final Fantasy: Reunion." Available: http://FFmusic.vovoid.com/reunion.htm [1999, December 15]
Takebe, Tomo [translator] (1999). "Liner notes to Final Fantasy VIII original soundtrack." Available: http://FFmusic.vovoid.com/ost8.htm [1999, December 15]
Turner, Jon (FLOYDELTA@AOL.com). "Re: VGMusic Research." E-mail to Matthew Belinkie (email@example.com). 26 November, 1999.
firstname.lastname@example.org (1999, December 11). "Re: VG music research paper." Posted at General Message Board of the Video Game Music Archive [online]. Available: http://forums.vgmusic.com/wwwthreads.pl?action=list&Board=general [1999, December 15]
[Editor's Note: Sorry, the music from the tape mentioned below is not available
This tape is intended to be listened to after the report has been read. After the track names, I have put the name of the game the music comes from, the system or type of group that played it, and the source of the recording.
1. "Overworld BGM" (Super Mario Bros.; Nintendo; Super Mario World)
Composed by Koji Kondo
This was the first piece of real game music, and it is still what many people think of when they think of game music. This is the music played when Mario is traveling above ground, and it perfectly suits the zany visual style of the game.
2. "Super Mario Bros." (Super Mario Bros.; light jazz-fusion group; Super Mario World)
Composed by Koji Kondo; Arranged by Soichi Noriki; Sound produced by Sadao Watanabe
They are many recordings of the Mario theme song, performed by various groups of live musicians. This is the one that sounds the most "correct" to me. The music sounds like it was written for these instruments. The band has an eclectic sound. It is reminiscent of an African high life group, but there are Caribbean influences as well. That just goes to show how quirky that catchy Mario ditty is.
3. "Overworld" (The Legend of Zelda; Nintendo; The Legend of Zelda: Sound and Drama,)
Composed by Koji Kondo
There is a transcription this piece attached. This is the music a player hears as he is guiding the hero Link throughout the land of Hyrule to rescue Princess Zelda. It is impeccably scored, all four tracks deftly interweaving to form a truly memorable whole.
4. "Hyrule Field" (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time; Nintendo 64; The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Soundtrack)
Composed by Koji Kondo
In Kondo's most recent Zelda score, he didn't want to merely rearrange his old music. Instead, he came up with a bold, energetic track that toys with his old theme, but never plays it outright. The "Hollywood background music" style of the piece perfectly suits the more cinematic feel of the new game.
5. "Hyrule Field" (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time; string orchestra; The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time - Hyrule Symphony)
Composed by Koji Kondo; Arranged by Ryuichi Katsumata; Performed by Kuwafuji Joe Strings
This track is from an album of Zelda music played by a string ensemble. I think it is interesting that a Japanese composer would choose to have his work performed by a string group, which is pretty much the most Western of ensembles. This is just another example of the fascinating cultural give and take.
6. "The Legend of Zelda: Triforce of the Gods" (The Legend of Zelda; symphony orchestra; Game Music Concert)
Composed by Koji Kondo; Arranged and Conducted by Toshiko Watanabe; Performed by Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra
Here is Kondo's original Zelda theme being performed by a full orchestra. This took place at the annual Tokyo Game Music Concert, which always sells out and invariably results in a CD. Interesting scoring; it's not nearly as thick as the original version.
7. "Overture" (Dragon Quest; Nintendo; field recording)
Composed by Koichi Sugiyama
This soundtrack was and is wildly popular in Japan, although the games never caught on in the United States. Sugiyama, a classically trained composer, managed to invoke the sound of a symphony orchestra with only a few tracks.
8. "Overture" (Dragon Quest; symphony orchestra; Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite)
Composed, Arranged, and Conducted by Koichi Sugiyama; Performed by London Philharmonic Orchestra
Dragon Quest was the first game to be arranged for a symphony, and the only one I know of to be played by the London Philharmonic. The composer scored and conducted this himself.
9. "Ending" (Actraiser; Super Nintendo; field recording by Jon Turner)
Composed by Yuzo Koshiro
Actraiser deserves mention, because it was the first game to exploit the technical capabilities of the Super Nintendo to create a fairly realistic symphonic sound. In the tradition of Mr. Kondo, Mr. Koshiro obviously struggles to get the maximum mileage out of the inferior hardware, and his work pays off. This rousing piece is the end credits music. For many gamers, Actraiser was the first time they began to take game music seriously.
10. "Fillmoa" (Actraiser; Super Nintendo; field recording by Jon Turner)
Composed by Yuzo Koshiro
Although most of Actraiser was done in a classical style, Koshiro felt that the action sequences needed to have more energy. Thus, he created a series of classical-techno fusion pieces, of which this is one. Sort of the Dust Brothers do the Brandenburg concerto. A lot of today's game music is in this classical-techno style.
11. Excerpt from "Peaceful World ~ Ending" (Actraiser; symphony orchestra; Symphonic Suite from Actraiser)
Composed and Arranged by Yuzo Koshiro; Orchestrated and Conducted by Kaoru Wada; Performed by the Shinsei Nihon Symphony Orchestra
The orchestrated version of track number nine.
12. More Mario jazz!
Because it's that good. The section with the minor guitar riffs is the Underworld theme.
13. "Prelude" (Final Fantasy; Nintendo; All Sounds of Final Fantasy I & II)
Composed by Nobuo Uematsu
This classic theme has recurred in every Final Fantasy game. It is reportedly the first piece of game music Uematsu ever composed. It is also one of his most beloved creations ever. It is ridiculously simple, but, like many of Uematsu's pieces, that's its strength.
This music appears at the beginning of Final Fantasy games. Therefore, it is fitting that this is our transition into the fascinating and vast...
Side B: The Music of Final Fantasy
2. "Prelude" (Final Fantasy VII; Playstation; Final Fantasy VII Original Soundtrack)
Composed by Nobuo Uematsu; Sound Programmed by Minoru Akao; Sound Engineered by Eiji Nakamura; M. A. and Recording Engineer: Kenzi Nakashima
A more recent version of the Prelude, with added instrumentation.
3. "Prologue" (Final Fantasy; Nintendo; field recording)
Composed by Nobuo Uematsu
This is the main theme to the original Final Fantasy, as it sounded on Nintendo. Compare the attached score of Final Fantasy's Main Theme to the score of Zelda's theme. The Zelda theme is harmonically complex, full of chromatic runs and interlocking parts. The Final Fantasy theme looks elementary in comparison. The melody is simple, and the other parts carry out a basic counterpoint. While Kondo struggles to utilize every moment of every voice, Uematsu does not even use the fourth part. What makes Uematsu's theme a classic is his gift for melody. The piece doesn't need complexity or ornamentation; it immediately sticks in the listener's head. This tune is very indicative of Uematsu's style: come up with a catchy tune, and then write some simple supporting parts.
4. Recording of gameplay (Final Fantasy; Nintendo; field recording)
Composed by Nobuo Uematsu
To let the listener hear several of Uematsu's different pieces and get a sense of how they might function in an actual game, I've recorded my friend Jeremy Taylor playing the game. The first theme is the Overworld music Jeremy hears walking around the open countryside. Then, he suddenly encounters a pack of monsters. The music switches to the Battle theme, and the sound effects of combat can be heard. Eventually, Jeremy defeats the foes, and the Victory Fanfare plays.
5. Chocobo themes: "Electric de Chocobo," "Waltz de Chocobo," and "Cinco de Chocobo" (Final Fantasy VII; Playstation; Final Fantasy VII Original Soundtrack)
Composed by Nobuo Uematsu; Sound Programmed by Minoru Akao; Sound Engineered by Eiji Nakamura
I've included three different variations on the same melody (a melody which has appeared in each Final Fantasy game since II), to give the listener an idea of the variety of styles within a single game. "Electric" is a breezy rock arrangement, "Waltz" is a waltz; and "Cinco" is a jazz rendition. Each of the versions is in a different time signature. A Chocobo, by the way, is a large bird you must catch and ride.
6. "Chocobo" (Final Fantasy IV; Celtic orchestra; Final Fantasy IV: Celtic Moon)
Composed by Nobuo Uematsu; Arranged and Sound Produced by Marie Bhreatnach
In the past few years, Uematsu has become fond of Irish music. He had his score for Final Fantasy IV arranged and performed in Dublin, by a traditional ensemble. This piece has the same melody as the previous track, but it is in a radically different style.
7. Overture from "Opera" (Final Fantasy VI; Super Nintendo; Final Fantasy VI: Original Sound Version)
Composed by Nobuo Uematsu; Sound Programmed by Minoru Akao; Sound Engineered by Eiji Nakamura
One of Uematsu's most impressive achievements is the opera from Final Fantasy VI. You actually had to guide one of your characters through singing in a 20-minute long opera. Uematsu stretched the limits of the Super Nintendo to create a symphonic sound, even using crude samples to "sing" each vocal part.
8. Excerpt from "The Dream Oath 'Maria and Draku'" (Final Fantasy VI; orchestra and singers; Game Music Concert 4 by Symphony Orchestra)
Composed by Nobuo Uematsu; Arranged and Conducted by Kousuke Onozaki; Performed by Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra; Mezzo-Soprano: Wakao Aoki; Tenor: Tetsuya Ohno; Baritone: Hiroshi Kuroda
The same piece as above, only with a live orchestra and real opera singers. The Japanese libretto is the titles that appear on the screen during Uematsu's music.
9. "A One-Winged Angel" (Final Fantasy VII; Playstation; Final Fantasy VII Original Soundtrack)
Composed by Nobuo Uematsu; Sound Programmed by Minoru Akao; Sound Engineered by Eiji Nakamura; M. A. and recording Engineer: Kenzi Nagashima; Sopranos: Matsue Fukushi and Minae Fujisaki; Altos: Kazuko Nakano and Saki Ono; Tenors: Toru Raibei and Daisuke Hara; Basses: Toshizumi Sakai and Masashi Hamauzu
All the music in Final Fantasy VII is synthesized... until this piece. This is the music that plays while the player is fighting the final enemy. For this track, Uematsu and the Square audio engineers did an early experiment with redbook audio: combining a recorded choir singing words from "Carmina Burana" with synthesized instruments. The resulting piece made this final battle truly memorable, and the positive response it got convinced the Square team to use more extensive redbook audio in their next outing...
10. "Eyes on Me" (Final Fantasy VIII; Playstation; Final Fantasy VIII Original Soundtrack)
Composed by Nobuo Uematsu; Lyrics by Kato Someya; Arranged by Shirou Hanaguchi; Sung by Faye Wong
This track is not from a special arranged version of the soundtrack. This music actually is heard during Final Fantasy VIII, while the player is watching a pre-animated movie. It is the love theme between the two main characters, and its melody is heard throughout the game at emotional moments. This track was released as a single in Japan, and it did quite well.
Uematsu has said he's best at composing 70's-style ballads, and this certain seems to prove him right. The sound is very Western pop, and it is sung in English (in Japan, English is considered a very "cool" language). However, there are eastern touches. The piece begins with a solo plucked string instrument, which could be a shamisen. In the middle, there is an eastern-sounding flute which plays a short solo. Most interestingly, the words do not rhyme. Japan has no tradition of rhyming poetry. This track clearly demonstrates Uematsu's knack for melody, as well as his mixed eastern and western influences.
11. Excerpt from "Ending Theme" (Final Fantasy VIII; Playstation; Final Fantasy VIII Original Soundtrack)
Composed by Nobuo Uematsu
You've just played Final Fantasy VIII for 70-100 hours, and you've finally won it. As "Eyes On Me" wells up, you see the two main characters finally declare their love for each other. And then, you hear this music: the Final Fantasy Prologue, now gloriously scored for full orchestra. This piece of music has been in every Final Fantasy game since the beginning, but has not yet been heard in this installment. Many gamers I've talked to said that hearing this piece brought them to tears. They remember hearing it thirteen years ago in Final Fantasy I, and hearing it played so grandly brings Final Fantasy VIII to a perfect close. I'm sure no one was more pleased with this stirring track than Uematsu, who originally wrote this theme for three simple voices, and now is hearing it played by orchestras.
Copyright 1999, Matthew Belinkie
Paper reformatted from RTF to HTML by Mike Newman
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