Is Gaming Music the New Genre for Today's Youth?

July 9, 2021, 8:47 AM · I'm feeling old!

I've recently been getting teen students who want to learn gaming music on their violins. Some of them have even demonstrated part of their favorites. So far I have only been able to stare blankly at them then ask "what is that?" And they are surprised I have never heard it before. They will rattle off song titles for me to look up, but I still feel utterly lost.

I know the theme song to Mario Brothers from the 80's, but that's about it, and needless to say, they are not impressed.

I was wondering if anyone else has had this experience? Thankfully, I haven't had any of them give up practicing their core lesson pieces for gaming music, but as a teacher I want to know what's going on in their music world.

And from what I heard, I think Bach can still run circles around this new music. :)

Replies (27)

Edited: July 9, 2021, 9:04 AM · Don't be so quick to disparage video game music! Some of it is simple, but a lot of it is as incredible as any classical music. One of my favourites from my youth was Team Fortress 2, which has a 1950's style big band score. Minecraft, Legend of Zelda, Cuphead, and Pokemon have many famous themes, too. There are loads more but since I don't play games anymore I'm also out of the loop. I guess the best move would be to volunteer at an elementary school and ask the little ones what they like.

A lot of games, especially from Japanese studios, commission orchestras and contemporary composers to make music for their games. It's honestly quite impressive.
Sometimes, though, video game music sounds a bit odd played on its own. That's because it was written with the medium in mind (seamless loops so it can play continuously alongside the game, lots of break-off points for when the scenario changes, emphasis on rhythm).

When you spend a lot of time playing a game, like I did when I was little, the music sort of becomes ingrained in your head as part of that experience—just the same way dance music used to for older folk. There's a lot of emotional attachment to the music, even if it's simple. So yeah, I think it's going to be a staple in the rep of young musicians.

Edited: July 9, 2021, 9:17 AM · Thanks Cotton. I didn't want to make a judgment based on the samples my students played. It was an area I didn't think much about because I'm not a gamer. When the first couple students talked about it, I was like "okay, that's nice you found music on your own you like", but as time goes on, I'm realizing it's a whole new world that I didn't know existed!
Edited: July 9, 2021, 9:29 AM · Gaming music sometimes derives from classical music, but not necessarily well-known music. There's a track in Civ 4, I think, that is basically a portion of DeBeriot's first violin concerto (the "Military").

Gaming music is more akin to a movie score, but the fact that it's got to be something that you can loop and listen to many, many times over many, many hours means that it needs to have a certain pleasant earworm quality.

My area has more than one community orchestra devoted solely to gaming music.

July 9, 2021, 9:44 AM · All of this new music leaves Q*Bert in the dust.
July 9, 2021, 10:19 AM · As someone that grew up playing way too many video games when he should have been practicing, I still didn't take the music very seriously, but I have to say that even the early stuff with bleeps and bloops is kind of an impressive example of making art within a very narrow set of limitations. From the very start, companies like Nintendo hired composers straight out of music school who had to learn to work within the confines of what some dinky microchips could put out, and ended up writing some really catchy tunes that can be more sophisticated than they initially appear, that also are fairly short, don't really get old, despite looping over and over for a long time, and can often reflect the action and atmosphere on the screen.

I'm not really into the violin covers part of Youtube, but I imagine there is a lot of sheet music out there at this point, as the DIY aspect of this has been going on a long time. Some people have gotten pretty sophisticated, and while the Lindsey Stirling-adjacent stuff I find pretty banal, this guy cracks me up here.

If I were a teacher and students wanted to do pop or video game music, I might hold it out as a kind of dessert, and try and convey that the training we are otherwise doing is going to make it a relative breeze to play this music, and they will be even more impressive with what they can do playing video game music if they can do convincing Bach. Another route would be exploring elements of composition, like theme and variations - the musical themes (for early video game music) are often quite simple, which could become jumping off points for eager students to try making variations and exploring bite-size bits of composition.

However, I believe that a lot of video game music at this point is written for orchestra, and can actually be somewhat indistinguishable in compositional technique from classical music, so you may just find out what your students are into and explore from there. Perhaps an enterprising teacher could build a whole early pedagogy from video game music that would be a lot more interesting than a lot of the early pedagogy as it is, but I still think that the learning repertoire at a certain point is there for a reason, and from the standpoint of benefiting the student's musical development, I wouldn't want to spend all my time reinventing the wheel.

I'm particularly partial to the Katamari Soundtrack:

Edited: July 9, 2021, 11:44 AM · I think it's great.

I personally don't play video games but a lot of my students have brought me sheet music of video game music they want to play and I'm all for it. They are always extra motivated to practice it which is wonderful.

As a teacher, I always try to keep in mind that the student should incorporate music into the lessons that *they* want to play. If that music happens to be commissioned recently by a rich, video game company rather than a rich, aristocratic patron centuries ago...who cares?

July 9, 2021, 11:54 AM · Then there is my daughter who thinks you can chop up Bruch Violin Concerto and make an awesome soundtrack for a video game.

July 9, 2021, 12:26 PM · I went to a concert of Holst where Mars was on the program, and there was a packed house, many in costumes. Turned out it was in some really popular game and all the gamers came out.
July 9, 2021, 12:41 PM · Presumably it's music that you're aren't supposed to pay attention to, in other words muzak. I can't see it ever packing the concert halls.
Edited: July 9, 2021, 1:17 PM · Steve, if students want to play it and many people are attending concerts given by such august institutions as the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra (among many others)...they are clearly paying attention, and packing halls.

(Sorry, don't know how to embed videos...)

Edited: July 9, 2021, 2:59 PM · Grant Kirkhope's orchestral score for Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is whimsical and epic at the same time--one of the most enjoyable ones I've heard recently. Even film composer Hans Zimmer has created tracks for video games including Call of Duty MW2 and Crysis 2.

Back in 2004 I went to hear Nobuo Uematsu's scores presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the first "Dear Friends - Music from Final Fantasy" program. Tickets sold out completely in three days--can't say that about a lot of other programs. More recently, in February 2020 before the pandemic shut everything down, I took my kids to hear "A New World: Intimate Music from Final Fantasy" at the Conrad Prebys Concert Hall in La Jolla, with an absolutely packed hall of video game music lovers.

I'd also check out the anime music by Joe Hisaishi for Miyazaki's incredible films for Studio Ghibli. I just did part of the score for "My Neighbor Totoro" with my high school ensemble back in May--the students love it!

Mozart might be my favorite composer, but there is plenty of room at the table for everything else, including music from video games and anime.

July 9, 2021, 3:55 PM · The soundtrack from Chrono Trigger is a classic, and the use of leitmotifs throughout the whole Zelda franchise would impress Wagner himself.

I tend to view video game music as part of the same tradition as film music, and incidental music for plays before that. The only difficulty with performing it live is that the need to be playable as a continuous loop makes it a little awkward for concert performance -- many of the most famous video game themes lack a final cadence, and it can be a challenge to insert one without sounding awkward.

Edited: July 9, 2021, 4:11 PM · As per Lydia's comment: I never played Civ 4, but I have played a lot of Civ 5. Civ 5 contains a mixture of standard repertoire pieces, arrangements of world music, and some original tracks. One of the original tracks is so
similar to the first movement of Bruckner's 4th in style and orchestration that I recall listening to it for over a minute before realizing it wasn't Bruckner.
Edited: July 9, 2021, 4:53 PM · Yes, Christopher Tin's score for Civilization IV, with his work "Baba Yetu" for choir and orchestra which was the first video game score to win a Grammy Award!

July 9, 2021, 8:42 PM · Sometime look at the credits for a video game. The sheer numbers of people who work on those things is incredible. It's a big industry. I had a piano student who wanted to work on game music. The arrangements can be quite complex and much of it was beyond his skill level. I tried to help him see where it could be simplified to make it playable, and then we'd talk about some of the harmony in the pieces so that he could understand a little better what he was playing. Having never heard the actual pieces myself, I couldn't say whether the arrangements he downloaded were at all accurate.
Edited: July 10, 2021, 2:19 AM · One of the most remarkable things about western classical music is its durability. Works composed up 400 years ago retain their power to awe and move us, and lend themselves to constant reinterpretation. During those 400 years the course of musical evolution has been steady and continuous and the cumulative body of work stands as one of the great monuments of western culture.

Unfortunately the tradition now seems to have run its course and been supplanted in popular appeal by transitory musical genres which owe their existence to short-lived fashion. Precisely the same could be said of the visual arts. I can't see gaming music living longer than the brief flourishing of the games it owes its existence to. Of course it's what the kids like and demand more of, but education is all about weaning them off baby food.

Edited: July 10, 2021, 2:49 AM · I think it's worth pointing out that the Wikipedia entry for "incidental music" includes types of music that are most commonly associated with contemporary media such as film, TV, radio, and yes, video games: theme music, underscores, stingers, and loops.

And why wouldn't it last, if it's well-written music? Rosamunde and L'Arlesienne flopped and disappeared from the stage rather quickly. We still play the incidental music that Schubert and Bizet wrote.

July 10, 2021, 2:49 PM · Steve wrote about "transitory musical genres which owe their existence to short-lived fashion." Some of that stuff might be good -- it might be worthy of orchestration, etc., but first of all, who pays for that? And second, one of the problems we have now is that there is simply too much music. We don't have time to listen to even a tiny fraction of it. Nobody has the means or inclination to curate it for us. I'm not sure what the solution to that is, except to let the filters of history do their work. That is how we ended up with Handel's Water Music for example.
July 10, 2021, 10:35 PM · I don’t see the popularity of gaming music as a bad omen for classical music; I see it more as an emerging market with a younger audience. Despite not being a gamer, I’ve heard some excerpts from a few game scores, and they tend to be impressive, often richly orchestrated. As the graphics of games have developed, so have the demands for sound quality and scoring. Yes, there are some themes that are very repetitive and can be a little dry taken out of context, but if you lump all gaming music together, you run the risk of missing those elements that are really well done.

There is always a certain resentment toward writing music for a more general audience, or “selling out” by writing for a setting other than the concert hall. It should remembered that some truly great composers wrote Hollywood scores and some of the players of the Golden Age played in movies. It would be foolish to dismiss them. I can’t imagine the Errol Flynn Robin Hood or Alexander Nevsky without their incredible scores, just as a couple examples. Perhaps all that is needed to enhance the credibility of this newer development is for a top tier composer or soloist or two to be featured in a game.

Taken as a form of popular music, it’s worth comparing this kind of music to other popular styles at the moment. As pop becomes more and more simplistic and over-engineered, it’s a relief to hear something that often has more meat on its bones but resonates with a wide audience.

July 11, 2021, 1:13 AM · Gaming music also keeps living composers employed.
Edited: July 13, 2021, 10:15 AM · Gaming music, for all its effectiveness and occasionally ambitious scope, has yet to reach the heights of its progenitor, film soundtracks. Both suffer from structural constraints that would prevent a Mozart or Beethoven from composing great music for the medium.

Insofar as there are objective measures of quality in music (a prerequisite to discussing the issue), neither of these genres has come close to what has been achieved in classical music in terms of sophistication of structure, and degree of development. I leave quality of melodic invention out because there are strong arguments to be made in both directions.

Which is not to say one oughtn't to like such music of course. Very good music may not appeal to one because it goes someplace one doesn't want to go, and music which is lacking in the nameable markers of quality can be a top favorite because it gives one a feeling one wants to have.

July 12, 2021, 12:51 PM · I would argue that most of today's film soundtracks are less sophisticated than gaming soundtracks on a comparable budget (with composers in the same class).

The trends in film have gone towards a much more sparing sound, almost more FX-like. Compare, for instance, John Williams' scores for the first three Star Wars movies, to the last three Star Wars movies. Williams is certainly no less talented a composer now as then, but he has changed with the desires of present directors.

There's been tremendous inventiveness in video game orchestral scores, and I'm guessing there's ever-bigger budget going towards the music, whereas the opposite is true in film.

July 12, 2021, 3:12 PM · Hi Lydia, I almost agree with you. With regard to film scoring I think of the entire history of the genre. If I were to restrict myself to the current time period it would not surprise me that film scoring is falling behind. BUT I would still hold Williams up as an exception to the trend. Thinking of the last three movies, that sparing sound nonetheless carries enough sophistication and variety to make it quite an outlier to the current genre, to the point that while many fans were disappointed that he didn't recreate his old approach, I was delighted to find that he wasn't wasting his time on what I feared would be mere potboilers.
July 13, 2021, 12:36 PM · Many years ago, as a little child, I used to play a Mickey video game which had a music I liked. I discovered later it was 8-bit Bach.

And I’m not into video games anymore, but I play sometimes with my younger cousins and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by some soundtracks. The main theme of Civilization 6 sounds quite nice!

July 13, 2021, 4:16 PM · Here's a work I think is well worth hearing in this genre, a suite of themes from Final Fantasy VI by Nobuo Uematsu, performed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. What I enjoy the most in this particular recording is the effective orchestration--the combinations of instruments for the different themes cover a wide range of orchestral color and emotional settings.

Edited: July 14, 2021, 12:45 AM · Thanks Gene, but it doesn't convince me that this genre has anything much to offer that's musically innovative. Reminds me somewhat of Eric Coates c.1926!
July 14, 2021, 8:45 AM · Frankly, I never even heard of "gaming music" until I started to read this thread a few minutes ago.

However, I will say this, when I was teaching and had a student of any age express the desire to learn a piece of music I did my best to find it and produce a "score" of the notes within their range and teach them how to play it as soon as I could.

It was amazing (to me) how many just "ate it up" and became anxious to keep playing and learn more. Very motivating.

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