Tag Archives: game music

Wide Range: Game and Church Music?

Easter-time is over. I hope you collected some eggs, or feasted, or, if that’s not your thing, at least enjoyed the four-day weekend.

For me, Easter (and Christmas) mean visits with the family, which include church. Now, I won’t go into my personal stance on that too much, because it’s one of the best ways to completely derail arguments and get zealots on all sides worked up. Let’s just say I grew up Catholic, and these days consider myself neither a devout one nor an atheist. I’m just somewhere in the wide area in between, walking around towards one or the other pole over time.

Why am I saying this? Because what you grow up with forms you, and as a Catholic, you may develop a very particular and keen sense for two things: ceremony and sacral music. The first isn’t all that important right now (I might talk about it another time in relation to games, if I find a good point to start from), but the second is surprisingly important, also in relation to games. But I don’t even want to talk about that now (note to self: do talk about church music in games or influencing games at some point). That I like music, you might have gathered from earlier posts…

So why am I saying this? Well, I am lucky enough to live in a city with a cathedral. Having a cathedral with a bishop around means it’s really easy for me to get my “fix” of both ceremony and sacral music when I feel like it. The cathedral has a large pool of choirs and instrumentalists to pull from, and there’s a solemn mass with choral and sometimes orchestral accompaniment every week. That naturally leads to music from a wide range of composers being performed, from Renaissance to modern, with sprinkles of Gregorian, of course. It’s an awesome way to broaden your cultural horizon for pretty much free of charge. They publish advance programmes, and if something interesting shows up, I make a note in my calendar.

This time, I found a mass by Kentaro Sato in the programme. My japanophilia made me look him up. Wow! His work list sounds interesting. Turns out he’s a composer of both game and church music. That’s pretty cool! I like that combination. I wonder how many other composers spread a spectrum that wide. I would imagine that the prejudices on both sides are not very conducive. “Killer games” vs. “religious nut jobs” and all…

I think I know where I’ll be next Sunday morning.

That’s all. Sorry if I bored you.

8-bit Tunes And Why We Are Chasing Them

If you have a similar blog roll as I have, if your RSS feed features a lot of people like Syp or Syl, then you inadvertently have run across a lot of post that showcase the authors’ favorite game music tunes. Have you ever noticed how a lot of them seem to be from the “good olden days” of 8 or 16 bits? Why is that?

Undeniably, sound quality has gotten better over the years. Most games these days have full symphony orchestras at their disposal. So why is it that those primitive tunes are stuck in our head?

The Nostalgia Hypothesis

One plausible argument is that it’s simply music from when we were younger, and that nostalgia is playing a trick on us. While the music is objectively worse, we hold it in high regard because it subconsciously reminds us of our childhood or youth.

That is an interesting point, but in my opinion, it’s completely wrong, bollocks, utter shite, patronizing, selling that music short. Yes, game music these days has a lot more budget – and with it choices – at its disposal, but, in a way, that’s what makes it less memorable. It’s just too similar to film music.

The Uniqueness Revelation

In my opinion, there are two reasons that make this game music from the 80ies and early 90ies so memorable. Both of them have to do with the technological limits of the time.

One is that music was not saved as PCM file. That was way too large, from a data perspective. Instead, what you published with the game was a rough description that you fed into a synthesizer. Even today, you can find a niche mod tracker scene that keeps alive this concept. This meant that you were severely limited in what you could play, typically to maybe 4 notes at the same time (8 notes if you were lucky), and “notes” in that respect included percussion and sound effects in the game. (Hint if you don’t know much about music: you need three notes to even produce the major/minor chord that has been the fundamental basis of western musical harmony for at least 400 years.) This limitation leads to a focus on the fundamental melody. In contrast, a lot of film music diffuses into a barely tangible wash of harmonies that never seem to go anywhere and melts in your hand like rancid pudding; blame Wagner and what came after him for that (yes, I loathe Wagner; different topic). 8-bit melodies are great because they never lose their focus, because they can’t afford to.

However, that’s not even the most memorable thing about that music. If you listen to contemporary game music, especially big-budget, it’s almost indistinguishable from big film music. That’s not entirely a good thing, though. Except for very avant-garde 70ies music, the sound of 80ies and early 90ies consoles and other computers was completely unique: even 80ies synth music was different. In a way, the sound chips of that era, while they often tried to emulate existing instruments, created a completely new sound space, virtual instruments that had never been there before.

In that way, that early game music is some sort of cultural heritage that is unique and only existed as state-of-the-art for that short moment in time, before technology caught up again. That it’s still, maybe more than ever, cited in low-budget indy games, is a testament to its uniqueness.

8 Bit Memories

Harbinger Zero did it. Syp does it regularly. If they can do it, so can I, right?

Some of these are from games that, while not completely forgotten by people who know their way around the era, are not quite as well-known to outsiders, because they’re not part of a popular franchise. You’ll also notice that there’s a large number of Game Boy tunes on this list. That’s because I owned a Game Boy, and nothing else. I only played NES (and Amiga, and later on SNES) at friends’ houses. But that is another story and shall be told another time…

More after the cut, because lots of embedded youtube videos follow

Movie and Game Music

I love music. I played the piano for many years, starting when I was 6. Stopping it when I went to university (because I didn’t have access to a piano, and didn’t want to save the money to buy an electrical one) is one of the few things I would change if I could live my life again. Needless to say, music is important to me. My friends and colleagues tell me it’s easy to recognize me when I walk by, even if they don’t see me: it’s not so much the gait, but the fact that I’m almost constantly humming or whistling when I walk.

There are some melodies that I don’t know where I got them from, or whether I made them up. They form a repertoire I use all the time; I combine them with each other, with songs I just heard, and so son. Several bits and pieces of WoW music made it into that repertoire. I never looked up their names, because to me, it forms part of the magic to not know their name and where they came from.

As you gathered from that, I generally play with sound and music on. I know many players (especially of MMO games) turn off their music, and sometimes even their sound, to play their own favorite music. I rarely do that. Music is an integral part of a game experience for me. Sometimes more than the latest and greatest graphics.

The fact that some WoW pieces made it into my repertoire means that in my book, WoW did it right, music-wise. Since I don’t know the names, I can’t point out which I like most, but I’ll at least try to listen to them and give you pointers  at the end of this post.

I wonder whether one of the reasons that Rift hasn’t “clicked” with me yet is the music. To me, it sounds too generic. “Cue generic theme no. 23, please!”, and such. I still have barely touched Scarlet Gorge, so it might be too early to judge. But at level 29, I would’ve expected some memorable music already, and most of it simply sounds like muzak to me so far.

Now, of course, you might argue that these WoW songs are ingrained my head because I played the game for 6 years. I thought so myself. But last night, I was amazed when I watched “The Fellowship of the Ring” for the first time in about 8 years. (A decent movie, I might add, as an opinion from someone who read most of what there is to be read by Tolkien. And “decent” is probably close to the best you can get when it comes to a LotR movie.) I suddenly realized that the hobbit theme song was one of those that made it into my repertoire. I’ve watched the movie in the theater once, and then maybe once or twice on DVD shortly after they were released. And still, that one song stuck with me over  8 years. To me, that’s a sign that music that “clicks” with you doesn’t need a lot of repetition. You hear it, and it stays with you.

Please, game designers, don’t disregard good music. I don’t want choirs singing faux-latin ad nauseam (Faux latin is one of my pet peeves!), I don’t want bombast all the time. If you care to get a top-notch graphics designer, pay the money to get a great movie or game musician. I agree that the basic fighting sounds you’ll hear millions of times over the course of a game are important; get good sound designer for them. But if you want to create worlds, give them a flavor. And in my option, nothing invokes feelings and images better than music.


Alright, so I went and tried to find out what some of my favorite WoW themes are. I never bought a collector’s edition (for various reasons, a different one each time), so i don’t have any soundtrack CD and need to go by what youtube tells me. These are in no particular order, because this post has been in my draft section for too long as it is, and I don’t want to spend another week ranking the music:

  • the Barrens theme (or, I guess, more generally, the “horde wilderness” theme), especially the clarinet theme
  • the human wood theme, as in Elwood Forest
  • the Tanaris, Silithus, and Ahn’Qiraj theme, especially the klezmer, and how the music slowly is deconstructed the farther you move into the temple
  • TBC: I liked a lot of the music there, but it didn’t stick with me. It was just ambient music. Decent ambient music, but still ambient music.
  • the Grizzly Hills theme
  • the Storm Peaks theme
  • Cataclysm: Why can’t I think of any new theme in there that caught me? Might this be a contributor to why I finally got tired of WoW?