Video Game Music: An Underappreciated Art Form

A Video Games Live! Performance
A Video Games Live! Performance

The lights dim and the crowd grows silent. You can feel the anticipation in the room; it’s buzzing; it’s as if you’re about to fight the final boss and you just ran out of potions. The silence sits until, suddenly, a screen flickers to light on stage, the audience’s faces illuminated by the mysterious glow. Only one word appears, a word filled with so much promise and potential but is held with so much resentment and eagerness from the populace: Loading. Then, as if electrocuted, the music crescendos to life, the crowd screams, colorful flashes relentlessly attack the stage, and the concert hall transforms from its previous timid state into an eruption of lights, music, and adventure. This is how my first Video Games Live! experience began when I was one of those silent audience members at the unaware age of fifteen. The night was filled with so much amazing music, unforgettable performances, and jaw-dropping effects, I returned to see it again two years later. And the year after that. Each performance was just as distinguishable and thrilling as the last and, as I began packing for college, I hoped that VGL would come to a concert hall near my school so I could go see it again.

For those who have never heard of it, Video Games Live! is an interactive concert/lightshow extravaganza which showcases video game scores played by a live orchestras. It allows people to hear some of their favorite game tunes live while letting some lucky fans to play along with the music. It is a classical music concert, but the first one of its kind. Its creator, Tommy Tallarico, runs on stage and prompts the audience that this is not your average symphonic concert. “If you hear something you like, I want to hear you scream for it. I want you to scream so loud you can barely hear us.” VGL is an unforgettable concert experience with great scores like Mega Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, and Uncharted being performed at its pinnacle and portrays the music in a new light.

Building an empire to a great soundtrack in Civilization IV.
Building an empire to a great soundtrack in Civilization IV.

However, that was not the last time I encountered VGL. The next time was two years later, as I sat down in my place as third seat flute in MU-136 University Concert Band and looked at the new music on my stand. I was rendered speechless, reverted back to unaware, ecstatic fifteen-year-old I once was. On my stand staring back at me was Video Games Live! Movement II: Civilization IV and Movement III: Kingdom Hearts. I ran up to my band director in uncontrollable joy and asked what made him choose such amazing music. He said, “I never realized that video game music had so many layers until I heard these arrangements. This music is great stuff and people deserve to hear it.”

But the question is not about the sheer epicness of One-Winged Angel nor is it about the nostalgia the music elicits with gamers and fans alike. The question is how this music got from the PS2 in our childhood basements to a university level performance class. It was reviewed and chosen by someone who has never played the games before with no chance to experience the epicness of the moment where the music premiered or the nostalgia. It was chosen on a fair basis that speaks for all great video game music, cementing its position as a respectable art form and an amazing outlet of expression; it was chosen for its quality and for the fact that, overall, it’s “great stuff and people deserve to hear it.”

There is one thing that is a known fact; video game scores are great. They take both the audience member and the musician places where only the best music can take someone. And they’re difficult pieces of music, packed with crazy runs, precise technicalities and a multitude of dynamics that need to be executed in order for it to be played successfully. It takes top-tier composers and musicians to make this music as lively and electric as it is. Not any garage band can create the amazing music found on the Dragon Age title screen, which basically describes the majesty of the game. But still, although it is created by talented people and full of wonderful melodies and arrangements, it is a hidden musical art form that can only be revealed through the video gaming experience.

A touching scene from the Zanarkand ruins.
A touching scene from the Zanarkand ruins.

The music is engaging; it moves. It takes you from the solemn ruins of Zanarkand to an impossible boss battle with Sin in a key change, from battling against Mother Brain to a revolutionary reveal of a character’s true identity with a fanfare. These orchestrated musical masterpieces are what make memorable moments and illustrate momentous victories and heart crushing defeats. The way players get chills while killing monsters in Gears of War 2 is not an accident. It is not a coincidence that gamers get pumped when they hear the Pokemon battle music (which, although 8-bit, is still awesome). The music is pulling these reactions out of the player. These scores deserve to be lauded for their amazing ability to elicit emotion, transform the atmosphere, and define the empathic capacity music has always inherently possessed.

But, back to the question at hand. How did this music become a part of a college curriculum if it is such underappreciated art form?

First we need to answer the question of whether or not this music is underappreciated. And the short answer is yes. If you aren’t involved with games, you have probably never heard Utada Hikaru’s “Simple and Clean” or GLaDOS’ “Still Alive.” It can even be said that the music is underappreciated in its own field. Spike hosts the Video Game Awards every December to congratulate the year’s best games and the music category was never been won by an original video game accompaniment. It always goes to Rock Band, DJ Hero or other games that use popular music instead of ones with unique scores. But this may not be the case soon. As video games are growing in popularity, so are their scores. These popularity boosts along with showcases like VGL and websites like YouTube are opening the music to a larger audience. As it rises from the underground, it is starting to get some of the appreciation it deserves by not only its fans but by others who have never played the games but are still impacted by the music.

Is video game music rising from the depths of unseen art? The answer is still unknown. Maybe this is the start of a sudden wave of appreciation for video game music. Or it could be just the rise of another trend, which will fade like the others of its kind. But one way or another, video game music is an incredible art form that may be on its way to gaining some of the praise it has been entitled to for a long time.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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50 Comments

  1. KatieFeehan

    I totally agree! Video game music is completely underrated. I mean it attracts composing legends like hans zimmer yet you would never get people asking for the call of duty soundtrack. Some game’s music is iconic. Perfect dark, Zelda the Rainbow Six series to name a few. There definitely needs to be more recognition for VG music! Great read!

    • Mary Awad

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’m in love with orchestrated masterpieces so I just love this stuff~

      • Nilson Thomas Carroll

        I’ve always preferred the original tracks to orchestral or house versions. The Final Fantasy VII theme, for instance, or the Moon theme from DuckTales just sound so much better in their native instruments than in orchestral versions to me.

        You may want to check out Anamanaguchi! : ) Great chiptune band.

  2. Yeah! It’s awesome to see someone who appreciates this genre. I’m not even a huge gamer and I love video game scores. They challenge the musician and create an atmosphere that feels like you’re actually in a game, which is pretty cool. I always used to wonder why people put so much effort into those scores, but now I don’t question it. I appreciate it, because that is a lot of hard work and care that’s put into those scores, and they really do make the games. Ugh thanks for writing this!

    • Mary Awad

      Truth be told, I’m not a huge gamer either. But how can you not want to be when you hear this music! It’s amazing. Thanks for reading~

  3. Heavy rain’s main soundtrack is perfect for procrastination and summoning all your regrets in life!

  4. Austin

    Great article. If you haven’t seen it yet, Extra Credits has a great video on Youtube about the particular strengths of the different eras of VGM and the reason for those strengths.

  5. PerkAlert

    I’ve never thought of video game music as an under appreciated art form, but it’s so true! So many people put more focus on the game, rather than everything it takes to make a good game. Oh, I’m sure there’s quite a few people who do in fact appreciate the music, but it’s not a concept that’s recognized very often. Your article does a great job examining this problem though! And I enjoyed reading about it!!

    • Mary Awad

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Going to VGL really sheds light on just how technical and amazing the music is. If you have a chance, go to one of their shows! I can’t recommend it enough!

  6. I agree that video game music does a lot to enhance the experiential aspects of the game. Resident Evil, for instance, or other horror games, could not do what they do without having a spooky soundtrack. Other games with beautiful scores take you on an emotional journey simply by having you inhabit this world and surround you with the beautiful music of it. Where would we be without the Super Mario Theme song as a society? I don’t know.

  7. Jordan

    Yay you included dragon age 😀 thanks!

  8. Art Posocco

    Like Nilson, I, too, tend to prefer the original versions of video game music, but the orchestral arrangements and live performances are great ways to expand the audience of this music and allow it to be appreciated in a wider variety of cultural spheres. There is no reason why video game scores should not be appreciated, enjoyed, studied, and awarded in the same manner as film scores or other musical compositions.

  9. Diana Martinez
    0

    I’m in love with the last of us soundtrack, but it is worth noting that Tomb Raider and Uncharted both have amazing soundtracks as well.

  10. alejandro bermudez
    0

    I always listen to the Journey soundtrack when I study. I have a friend that doesn’t play games and when she listened to this she asked me to let her download the music so she could study as well. Great soundtrack.

    • Mary Awad

      VGM is the best for studying because you can’t focus on words. You just get totally in the zone and crank everything out! It’s really great~ we have something in common!

  11. Much like film soundtracks the music often goes unnoticed and underappreciated because of the focus at hand. While playing a video game we’re so consumed by trying to win that the melodic undertones are over looked. But for the standouts Mario, final fantasy etc. the music has stood the test of time and become a part of the brand. Almost everyone, Mario fan or not can recognize the music. It’s catchy up tempo and simple. For the more extravagant ones, though, I think in order to fully appreciate and acknowledge them we’d have to reinvent our way of playing video games.

    • Mary Awad

      That’s a really interesting, awesome way to look at it. If we really wanted people to hear the music we would have to change gameplay so the gamers could focus on the music. It would have to become a more fundamental aspect of the game for it to truly get the attention it deserves. Good for you, that’s a really cool idea!

  12. angelwings5199

    That “Zelda” music though! I’m the person that prefers to play video game music in my room over Jason Derulo and Kesha. Great article!

  13. C. Lumpkin
    0

    I thoroughly enjoyed the soundtrack of Bioshock Infinite, whether it be booker and elizabeths duet or the quartet version of “god only knows” by the beech boys. It was spectacular in my opinion

    • My personal favorite is Batman Arkham City Main Theme. I remember just watching the animations cycle through while listening to it n the main menu. Good times…

      • Mary Awad

        I would stay on the Kingdom Hearts main menu forever listening to Dearly Beloved so I totally know what that’s like. You guys have good taste~

  14. I don’t know about the rest of the world. But I do consider much the soundtrack movies and developers for each industry make, they are the core of the feelings they create on me.

  15. As a Game Design and Development student this is an interesting article. I usually listen to my own music or talking to friends while playing video games, but that is because I have mainly been playing online games. The music is definitely an unappreciated aspect, but I feel that with the rise of indie games (which can have some really great music) that will change.

  16. Music has definitely taken a more prominent role this generation. Ni no Kuni’s entire score was done by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. As previously mentioned, BioShock Infinite has incredibly music, as does Journey. Even games like L.A. Noire , Red Dead Redemption, and Mafia II have make excellent use of music of certain eras to make you feel like you’re actually in the time period.

    I do increasingly take notice of how music is used in the games I buy. I actually have the soundtrack to Puppeteer. It was done by the same guy who composed the music for Donnie Brasco and Carlito’s Way.

  17. I can definitely agree that video game music is something that is unappreciated. My Dad and I listen to Mass Effect’s 1, 2, and 3’s soundtracks. Its some of the most beautiful music you will ever hear…

  18. Wonderful article! Whenever I hear people talk about music they like, I never hear anyone mention scores from video games, despite how emotional and beautiful they can be. They’re a genre all their own, especially if you’ve played the game and get that rush of nostalgia whenever you hear the music.

  19. Video games are definitely emerging as an acknowledged art form. Proof of that are the art books that accompany the games. All in all, games are like making a movie or anime. There is beauty applied to all of the senses.

  20. So, so happy that Dragon Age was mentioned – one of my absolute favorite soundtracks. Another I really like is the soundtrack to Henry Hatsworth for the DS, it’s completely over the top, but it fits the game perfectly.

    But, all time…my favorite is Katamari Damacy. The music in that game just added so much to it, I kept coming back.

  21. I would love to see a list of your favorite soundtracks and songs so that I can explore the genre more! I think a big reason these soundtracks haven’t become more popular is because instrumental music itself isn’t as popular as songs with lyrics at the moment. And I think what you said about experiencing the music in the game is true – I didn’t start appreciating the music of videogames until I started playing them more.

  22. I hold to the position that VGM is sorely lacking in terms of representation. Composers aren’t nearly accredited enough in terms of the value to the project. Even so, I couldn’t imagine playing Dragon Age without Leliana’s haunting melodic voice or adventuring in Pokemon without the route songs and special city bgm. Funny story, the first time I played Pokemon Diamond I just sat at Lake Verity for an hour or so, complete over taken by the soothing melody. If I’m honest I probably have more VGM than “actual songs” on my phone.

  23. What a story! Game scores have been the soundtrack to my life ever since I can remember. Each and every song you mentioned has it’s own little place in my life story. It is really sad that the art form isn’t getting the attention deserves. Wouldn’t it be cool if the VGA’s had a Best Soundtrack/ Score category for every genre of game? RPG, FPS, Action-Adventure, etc. That is probably a stretch. However, I would love to see the people behind those magical, musical moments get the recognition they’ve earned.

    You have also REALLY inspired me to get to Video Games Live! next time it’s in my town. What an experience that must be. And you got to play some of the songs yourself too!

    • Mary Awad

      You definitely have to! It’s a wonderful experience and all the fans there are awesome! I was screaming the whole time. The music I played was hard but soooo worth it because the whole band was like speechless after the first runthrough because the music was so good. It really is great stuff~ thanks for reading!!

  24. I got a laugh out after reading, “It is not a coincidence that gamers get pumped when they hear the Pokemon battle music (which, although 8-bit, is still awesome).” Any music from Pokemon is awesome.

    Great story! You kept my attention the whole time and shed some wonderful light on a cool, and as you said, underrated, art form! Happy to see that it’s on the rise!

  25. It is integral. Music is a fundamental part of the culture now. Video gaming can be fastidious and time consuming, and though, exciting, some couldn’t be palatable without a bit of flare. Music sets the mood, colors the ambiance. I think it’s as much an art as lights, and costume.

  26. I whole heartedly agree with this!! I think now a days I have more video game music on my computer than regular music! I just love video game sound tracks so much.

  27. Man, that’s awesome! I love the video game soundtracks! I listen to ones from Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Dragon Age for story inspiration! I’ve never been or heard of VGL until now, so thanks for spreading the word! I hope they play some of those tracks when I get to go.

    I also agree with the nostalgic 8-bit music. The first game I ever played was Super Mario World on the NES, and hearing that theme always brings back memories…

  28. True. I really never thought about how technical and precise the music in the video game industry needs to be. Unlike movies and T.V. shows where music is directly aligned with the scripted plot, in video games the music follows your movements and actions as you play through any game. You have that music that plays in the background as you are slaying monsters or shooting up an army of zombies and then it transitions seamlessly in to a cut scene or something else. So to me, those transitions are key for the music to make an impact on the overall experience in a game. Loading scenes usually get in the way of those transitions. Kudos for shedding some light into the subject.

  29. One very interesting and unique about video game music is that when you are playing a game, the music seeps into you without even knowing. When you accidentally die in a game or the duration of your play in one stage exceeds the duration of the music, the music starts all over again and repeats until you clear the mission. Then, when you try to play the game on mute, you find yourself humming the melody to yourself. The visuals of the video game, your fingers holding the controller, and the music are subconsciously linked to one another. I think video game music has its own exclusive quality as it allows you to associate the suspense of your virtual self.

  30. Interesting article! That said, it’s crucial to note the rise of independent gaming, which exposes new artists. For instance, the recent point-and-click game Kentucky Route Zero examines many myths of the American folklore and supplements it with folk tunes and atmospheric soundscapes by an artist named Ben Babbit.

    Independent gaming also serves as platform for independent musicians, as these music artists have Bandcamps and/or Soundclouds that are amplified through this multi-media collaboration!

  31. I don’t agree with the underappreciated comment, because I look at it and I think “underappreciated by who?” Is there some mainstream that needs to validate this music outside of the gamers who turned video-games into a multi-million (billion?) dollar industry? Are you talking about the Grammies? Christopher Tin won one back in 2011 for the title song to that “great soundtrack” you mentioned on Civilzation IV (which otherwise mostly consists of historical pieces of music, rather than original compositions for the game). This past March, the second (not even the first!) scholarly book on video game music was published (William Cheng’s “Soundplay”). You mentioned YouTube, where plenty of video-game music is racking up millions of hits (just search for “Video Game Pianist”, sit back, and enjoy). I don’t buy the narrative you’re making here — video game music is already wildly popular and appreciated and even worshipped. Just not by everyone. But no art form out there is for everyone.

    Also, if I might push the conversation in a more positive direction, what about the amazing fact that video game music is NOT like concert or score music. Forget Video Games Live, and think about how awesome it is that some of these games are programmed to generate music from thousands of random sound files, essentially composing a new piece each time you sit down and play. Or composing that piece based not just off pre-existing soundfiles but also on your own input. Incredible, and that’s just the tip.

    • Ryan Westhoff

      I also agree that it isn’t that unappreciated. Many people, even outside of gaming know, know the Tetris theme, Mario Bros. theme, Zelda theme, etc. Gaming is a huge part of our culture and I think a lot of that has to do with the music.

  32. Ryan Westhoff

    I really liked the way that you talked about older video game music and new video game music. It just shows how important music has been for the gamers experience throughout the lifespan of video games. Have you played games like Flower or a game where your actions interact and somewhat create the music? Flower isn’t the best game, but I really enjoyed how they made the music part of the gameplay in that game.

  33. I’ve been utterly blown away by a lot of video game music, these days. It can’t be taken lightly for much longer, with talents like Cliff Martinez and Hans Zimmer making the jump from Hollywood to scoring AAA titles. And some of the music coming out of the indie game scene exhibits the powerful lineage of raw talent that Nintendo and Sony once brought to bear upon a fledgling industry.

    Great insight :).

  34. As with most mediums, the lines between them are blurring more over time. Pop music has started to take cues from 8-bit music production. I think these are small steps like the ons you mentioned in the article to having video game music accepted by a wider audience.

  35. I’m not sure if it’s exactly under-appreciated, or if it’s much like a film score and just blends into the entire experience of the game. I know that I’ve had multiple conversations with friends about the scores of games like Bastion, where the music plays such a vital role in the game.

  36. Amanda

    I think the art of video game music is that it’s not the first thing you notice. First you see the flashy graphics, then you see the characters and the environment, then you see the story, and then slowly, as the magic of these things wear off, the magic of the music takes its place.

    The beauty of music is that it brings a sense of nostalgia. Video games generally only reach to 2 of the senses- sight and sound (sometimes touch with vibrating controllers or instruments, etc.) Often nostalgia comes from our other senses beyond sight- taste, smell, touch, and sound. To this day, if I hear a track from Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, I am transported back to RV trips up north, playing Zelda with my sisters inside the RV on rainy days, summer memories of my friends sitting and watching me play as Wolf Link. Sight doesn’t really do that for me.

    Though this is more personal in relation to my own experience, I feel like music in video games IS very appreciated. We often just don’t realize how much we value it until someone asks us to turn down the volume of our game, or until we suddenly encounter someone’s phone ringtone from a video game and can instantly recognize where it’s from.

    There will always be some who value the music more than others, and those are generally people who are music buffs. But regardless of whether or not someone had the entire LoZ soundtrack on their iPod growing up, they will still instantly recognize the theme music the send they hear it, and smile with remembrance.

  37. I love to listen to the Mass Effect soundtracks while working. I think video game music is still vastly underrated but that seems to be slowly changing. Journey’s soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy in 2012, and game music is starting to be sold separately or even included with the game itself. Not to mention the full 3.5hr Skyrim soundtrack has almost three million views on Youtube since being posted a year ago. It seems people are finally starting to pay attention, slowly but surely.

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