Video Game Music: Much More Than Just A Soundtrack

When people who are getting to know me ask me what kind of music I like, they are more than often surprised by my response: video game music. Some, on the other hand, act as though they are not that surprised, but instead place a comment like "oh, that sort of blip-blop music from Super Mario Bros." thinking they've got it right. Don't get me wrong, the Super Mario series has great music, though the computer chips at the time could only produce these blip-like sounds, which people still seem to relate to games in general.

But honestly, isn't it a bit strange that people have seen the evolution of games and their graphics, yet think so little about the music? I'm going to let you in on a little "secret" that might come as a surprise to some of you: video game music is foreground music, not background music. Seriously, as you watch for example Spiderman, how much of the music do you really notice? Most films have music that is just there to fill some empty space that the sounds effects couldn't. Harsh, I know, but it's true. But in games on the other hand, it is completely different. Sure, games have tons of sound effects as well, but the music plays a bigger part than just filling empty voids.

As you crossed the plains of Gaia in Final Fantasy IX, what accompanied you but music? A tune that could make you feel this vast, misty world as though you were there breathing the air. Or practically any boss fight that made the adrenaline rush so much greater. Because we gamers are not only viewers but participants, we need the music much more than regular movie-goers, to keep us motivated, to make us want to go to that next town, to explore the dungeon, travel through space and whatnot.

Music is the language of the world, everyone knows that, and each and every one of us understands music. In games, and more-so RPGs than any other genre, I'd say music is the carrier of emotions and the unique feel of a setting. Hear a certain song from a game and you're back to where a particular event took place. Maybe the music's ability to mediate feelings was even more important 10-15 years ago, when graphics were not that good at showing what characters felt. Final Fantasy VI is a perfect example of this.

One thing is for sure, the music in games will never go away, although voice acting has become more frequent. Still, during most cut scenes, there is no music and the characters can talk freely without disturbing the music and vice versa. Nowadays, instead of blipping tunes, the music has been put together on much more advanced synthesizers and sometimes with the help of an orchestra, as in Xenosaga's case. Composers are not anonymous; on the other hand they are quite famous. Nobuo Uematsu can now in the 21st century take his music on the road, bringing it to different parts of the world in large concert halls. Alongside him come concerts filled with miscellaneous game music, both old and new.

It has taken game music more than 20 years to achieve this sort of status. As people have so often mistaken it for "blip-blip", they have thought nothing of it, though its composers have worked hard coming up with new tunes and writing them. But in Japan, the game music scene has always looked a bit different. There you will have no problem finding soundtracks for games in stores. Only recently (say, in the latest 6 years) have us westerners discovered that this kind of music is something to be appreciated; music that can carry itself outside of the game world in most cases. Still it is very hard to get hold of game music, import prices can be very expensive and you always need to be on the look-out so you don't buy fake copies. There are a few reliable sources where you can purchase game music online: Play Asia, Game Music, Otaku and CD Japan. So far I know of no major music store that sells game music, although it is not hard to find movie soundtracks.

Today there is a new trend in the game music business that I consider to be worrisome. As we all have seen, companies of all kinds have discovered how advertising in games can bring in lots of cash. Well, now the music industry has discovered the same thing, meaning that musicians like 50 Cent, not only get to star in their own game, but also put their music into it. A Swedish newspaper wrote a series of articles about game music at the end of 2005, the first of them claiming that game music is the kind of music that 50 Cent does, just because you now can hear it in a game and not just the radio or TV. I emailed the person responsible for the article and let him know what game music really is.

Game music is not about famous people placing already released songs into a game. It's not about wealthy artists become even richer. Wipeout 3 for example, contained songs by The Prodigy. That is a game soundtrack, but believe me, it is not game music. Game music is a series of original compositions made for a specific game, not songs snatched from an album that has sold millions of copies. Furthermore, game music is a genre of its own; its tunes ranges from classical to pop, from techno to rock, from Celtic to Asian and so on and so forth. Some songs are so hard to even place in an already given genre, but that's how game music it, it spans more wildly than any other type of music; uses different genres to make its own.

This is why I have practically stopped listening to mainstream music altogether, it doesn't do it for me anymore. In game music, I can find all kinds of emotions and sometimes several of them mixed in one single song. And I'm not the only one who love and worship the songs of these Japanese geniuses (most game music composers are still Japanese). If you've ever visited Overclocked Remix you know of what I speak. Here, fans of game music can upload their own interpretations of songs from different games. Only a few days ago I stumbled upon something that I would not have wanted to miss for the world. It is called Chrono Symphonic, made entirely by fans. It is a cinematic interpretation of the Chrono Trigger music, which was Yasunori Mitsuda's breakthrough as a composer.

There is much that can be said about game music, but surely all us gamers are touched, one way or another, by the tunes that we come across in a game. Those are the tunes that give the games soul, the tunes that keep us company throughout the story being told.

Find out more of some game music composers here: (Nobuo Uematsu) (Yasunori Mitsuda) (Noriyuki Iwadare) (Hitoshi Sakimoto) (Motoi Sakuraba) (Masaharu Iwata) (Kenji Ito) (Koji Kondo)

Great source for info on game music: