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Wii Music. Image: © Nintendo

The thunderous rumbling of a church organ. An epic doom. A thin divide between life and death.

Actually, it’s not really an organ. And the threat of danger isn’t exactly imminent.

It’s a 16-bit Nintendo game called Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, borrowing the essence of Bach’s looming Toccata and Fugue in D minor (with a little ragtime thrown in the mix).

It might not seem like video games owe much to ‘high culture’. In the mainstream, the medium is still regularly spoken about in terms of entertainment rather than art. But when you hook up your console and start button bashing, you’re edging closer than you might realise to the centuries-old legacies of Bach, Borodin, and countless composers in between.

I started gaming in the early 90s, when my mum bought me a Super Nintendo, so I’ve grown up with the catchy themes of the classic Mario and Donkey Kong franchises. Later, I played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on my dad’s Nintendo 64 (though I grew better at humming along to the music than defeating the enemies). You need only listen to the opening notes of these classic game soundtracks to recall their exact feel. Years on, they generate a fondness and a sense of nostalgia whenever they find their way onto your screen again.

To be successful, game music must accomplish several goals within the space of an instant. It must set the mood for the entire game, portray character and narrative alike, plus be the sort of music you can listen to for hours and hours and never tire of. So how better to do this than to take inspiration from music that was written centuries ago, but is still enjoyed by audiences today?

Video game music must accomplish several goals within the space of an instant…plus be the sort of music you can listen to for hours and hours.

Soundtracks to early 8- and 16-bit games are limited in instrumentation; and their tinny, often mono- or polyphonic melodies may seem like the least epic music of all time. But these games, like Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (itself incorporating musical horror devices similar to those found in Decap Attack and Demon’s Crest) mark an interesting journey through which game music mirrors the progression of Western ‘classical’ music. They begin with haunting elements of the baroque – the church-like organ is implied, even though the actual sound is far from that which you’d find in a real church setting. Often, the use of compound melody brings us the illusion that the music is more layered than it really is. This was useful for early games in which only a few channels of audio could sound at any time depending on the console; similarly, in the Baroque era of the 17th and 18th centuries, instruments such as solo cello or even harpsichord could be boosted in presence to this effect.

In the following century, we heard the emergence of Czech composers Smetana and Dvorak, who revolutionised the place of Eastern European music in history through their infamous settings of traditional and folk-influenced themes. The spirit of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances can be seen in this wild Kirby soundtrack, some 100-or-so years later (as can Brahms’ heavy Hungarian Dance No. 5)

Further to Europe’s East, and a little further on in musical history, we find the primitivism of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring making a cameo appearance in Contra III: The Alien Wars. Elsewhere, Final Fantasy’s show-stopping orchestral upheaval leading to a purifying solo violin…

…boasts the same effect as the stunning solo violin passages within Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade:

Before there was gaming – before there were screens – Wagner coined the term gesamtkunstwerk to describe the way his music, when combined with plot, acting, staging, lighting, and other atmospheric drivers, created a ‘total art form’. Through gaming, the concept has taken on a new life. And much in the way that Wagner’s direct musical influence can be heard in the heroic soundtracks of games like Zelda and Final Fantasy, his gesamtkunstwerk has also seen an unlikely development into interactivity. Surpassing the potential of this music to be a total artwork they can simply consume and enjoy, it enables players to become part of the music as they control the game. It’s an immersive artwork, and I doubt Wagner could have predicted such a powerful progression.

In a recent Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast, video game sound designer Damian Kastbauer explains the way game soundtracks are composed in a modular, rather than linear fashion: ‘You almost end up with a tiny little composer in the box who is telling the violins to start when the hero walks through the doorway, or a tiny little composer that signals the trumpet fanfares as soon as the dragon bursts out of the cave’. In this way, the player becomes the conductor – the person responsible, albeit unknowingly, for bringing the music to life and driving its direction.

The player becomes the conductor – the person responsible, albeit unknowingly, for bringing the music to life and driving its direction.

In Ni no Kuni (whose Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra-performed soundtrack is arguably one of gaming’s greatest soundtracks of all time), the player can move in an instant from the industrial underground kingdom of Hamelin to the folk villages of Ding Dong Dell, directing the musical themes of each to follow at will.

This game’s toy-turned-living-creature Mr Drippy is a quaint and quirky character with his own leitmotif (another Wagnerian concept, attaching a melodic theme to a character or device), reminiscent in feel to Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies:

Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi uses European classical music as an entrance into this magical world, itself inspired by European architecture – medieval villages, castles, clothing, and witchcraft. Even when the main character travels into other spaces such as Al Mamoon (a Middle Eastern-esque desert), the influences are those of the European composers employing elements of exoticism in their works; for instance, Tchaikovsky’s Arabian Dance, Borodin’s Polovitsian Dances, and Verdi’s Aida. The same spirit can be found when the player ventures into the mystical desert of Al Maajik in Fantasy Life. I can only speculate as to why games composers don’t incorporate more authentically traditional music in such scenes. Perhaps we could attribute the Westernisation of these fantasy worlds to the composers’ formal classical training, or as an appeal to a game’s target demographic. Either way, for better or worse it perpetuates the canon of games music as a predominantly Western style.

Music is often used to facilitate the player’s sense of escapism, but as you can start to see, that doesn’t mean it needs to be separated from the physical world. In the hyper-nationalistic Overwatch opening we can hear sheer Wagnerian horn power, but with a slightly American twist that evokes Aaron Copland’s renowned 20th Century Fanfare for the Common Man.

We can also compare elements of Garry Schyman’s Bioshock score to works in the contemporary classical music world.

Immediately there’s a distinct similarity to Vasks’ string quartet with its rapid and raw musical textures.

Of course, there have been many nonclassical soundtracks throughout the decades – and I think it’s simple to observe how tragically dated they’ve become. Take Street Fighter II for the Super Nintendo, which is presented as power rock with comical attempts at distorted guitar:

And, to my great sadness, the much-loved Donkey Kong Country’s guitar riff hasn’t fared much better:

Regardless of the instrumentation heard or implied within these games, it’s the style it replicates that indicates whether the score will have longevity, or will grow tacky and dated a decade on. It’s therefore safe to say that the majority of game scores which last are those influenced by classical music. The soundtrack to the Zelda franchise has consistently progressed through a fantasy world that Ravel or Hindemith themselves could have conjured.

So what does all of this mean for gamers – and for listeners? Could complex game soundtracks be help stave off the much-debated ‘death’ of classical music?

Game soundtracks have undoubtedly contributed to a revival of symphonic soundscapes, and orchestras across the world are responding to the changing nature of our listening habits. The first and second generations of video gamers are now growing older, we’re no longer waiting for our parents to buy us the latest Mario Kart for our birthday. We have our own disposable income to spend on complex games such as Call of Duty and Fallout – and we have the money to buy their soundtracks. In 2011, the London Philharmonic Orchestra debuted at #23 on the Billboard 20 charts with its album The Greatest Video Game Music, a compilation of many such scores. And similarly, Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy score made it to #9 on the Classic FM Top 10 Hall of Fame 2015 – sandwiched between Beethoven and Mozart, no less.

Live music performance is following a similar path. I recently saw the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra team up with Melbourne comedy trio Tripod for This Gaming Life. Tripod had collaborated with Journey composer Austin Wintory to create this symphonic production – this game featuring a stunning and impressionistic score echoing works by Debussy (and a little bit of Elgar). Similarly, orchestras worldwide are staging performances of the Final Fantasy soundtrack, and Bioshock composer Garry Schyman recently attended a performance of his score by the Canberra Youth Orchestra. A trend is occurring in which young gamers and concertgoers alike line up to see the creators of these soundtracks present them in the physical world. And that’s a unique experience if ever the concert hall facilitated one.

As the video game industry reaches new artistic and commercial heights, the addition of gaming music into the live orchestral sphere can only be a good thing. Watching musicians who have trained their whole lives to showcase the masters – Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Haydn – treat Final Fantasy with the same level of skill and respect, is a wonder to witness.

Does this make gaming ‘high culture’? Not necessarily – but maybe that’s not the question. Rather, it brings new listeners into the world of classical music through the cross-pollination of arts and entertainment in our global culture. Gaming has become the ultimate gateway into classical music. So next time you settle down at your PlayStation or Nintendo 3DS, be sure to pay your respects to Bach, Borodin and beyond.

Entries are now open for the 2018 KYD New Critic Award – view all the details on how to enter here.