History In the Making

I feel that giving lectures on both Western music history as well as game music history offers an interesting perspective on both. The extremely short period in which we have been playing video games, compared to our several millennia of recorded musical traditions, appears to me as a kind of microcosm of humanity’s musical development.

I doubt the students at Framnäs Folk High School had expected a lecture on computer and video game music history to begin with some thirty-odd minutes about Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman civilisations, neumes and other early European notation methods, or calculating tools like the abacus and the slide rule.

Computing machine pioneers Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace are at least more apparently – if still tangentially – related to games and gaming. Also, mentioning Alan Turing and his contributions to AI and information technology meant I could also namedrop the film Blade Runner, by way of its Turing test influenced Voight-Kampff machine.

Even if not every student in attendance at my lecture this Monday seemed to follow my train of thought, I still feel it is important not to completely isolate a subject like computer and video game music, even though it may seem to exist in its own little world. In fact – and I returned to this homemade maxim a few times in my lecture on Monday – music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and game music is no exception.

The medium of video games may be new, and just like every medium it has its own innate possibilities and limits. However, I argue that our use of and desire for music remains essentially the same as in other mediums or contexts. I should know at least a thing or two about this by now, as I’ve written and reported professionally about video game music for the past 15 years now. (That almost makes me feel old. Yikes.)

Some musicologists, like the late Gunnar Valkare, argue that music (and dance!) is not something we humans have invented, but rather an innate aspect of our humanity. It is easy when discussing or teaching music history (the big one) to forget that humankind’s recorded music history is only part of it, a part that gets comparably smaller the further back you look. The many oral traditions that were never transcribed or folded into written traditions have been lost to us.

I perceive the rapid development of music in computer and video games – from the shrill tones and noise bursts of arcade game Computer Space to the adaptivity and reactivity of contemporary game scores – as analogue to the development of Western music on a larger scale. In both cases, technological and musical development have taken turns spurring the other on.

One problem with this metaphor is that music, arguably, has been far from the most important driver of technological development in video games. Also, the same kinds of hardware and software used for games also exist in countless other contexts, of course. But the pioneering video game engineers, programmers and composers of the 1970s, 80s, 90s and 2000s still tried to push technology beyond what was considered common or possible.

Some innovations were accidents, others were clever tricks. Some were way ahead of their time. Some created soundscapes through ingenious out-of-the-box thinking. Some developed entirely new tools to realise the possibilities of the fledgling medium.

These developments have, in turn, inspired new generations of creators and developers to further the craft, art and technology of music. Like Isaac Newton, we stand on the shoulders of giants, who themselves stand on other giants’ shoulders.

Perhaps one day, some of us will be fortunate enough to carry a similar burden.

Categorised as Blog posts

Composer, arranger and songwriter for performance, recording, broadcast and interactive media.