Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Rhythm Games

Have any of my readers ever played games such as Guitar Hero, Rock Band, or Dance Dance Revolution? Last week we looked at several examples of games in which players can control music. Today, let’s talk about games with the purpose of creating music.

During the late 1990s, Dance Dance Revolution entered the arcade scene introducing the idea of a “rhythm game.” A physically interactive game, consumers are given a “dance stage” on which they can step on various sensors as they follow a list of step patterns on the screen. Console versions were also made available for people’s use in their own living rooms.

This idea of a “rhythm game” sparked the makers of Guitar Hero to develop a similar gaming idea in 2005 in which players can “play” guitar on a guitar-shaped controller as they follow “notes” that scroll by on the screen in time to the music. An expansion of this idea came with Rock Band in 2007, which also included drums and vocals. These “rhythm games” provide a new type of video game in which the music itself is the game.

Games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band provide an avenue for players to do something that they may be incapable of in real life. These games allow people to feel like skilled rock stars even if they may be tone deaf. It’s interesting that these games have created tension amongst many “real” musicians who cannot understand why people spend their time mastering a toy-version of an instrument rather than practicing the real thing. What are your thoughts on this?

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Making Music in a Game

Continuing our look at video game music this month, today let’s focus on the idea of making music in video games. Has anyone played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, released for Nintendo 64 in 1998? This particular game features an ocarina that gamers must play in order to beat the game. The ocarina is an instrument that you receive during the game and it can be played by using button presses and bending the pitch with the analogue stick. As players progress, they learn various songs they can then play on the ocarina.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is an example of a game balanced between ludo and narrative. If you are like me and unfamiliar with gaming terminology, you may be wondering what this means. Primarily, ludic games emphasize game play, like Angry Birds, Pong, and Tetris. Narrative-heavy games emphasize story elements, as Heavy Rain and The Last of Us do. Many games, like Ocarina of Time, are a balance of both elements. By making music using the ocarina, players further the plot and solve puzzles.

Ocarina of Time is one of many games that involve making music as part of the game. Other examples include Twilight Princess (players use a whistle to call a horse), Skyward Sword (players can strum a harp), and Wind Waker (players can direct patterns with a conductor’s baton).

Have you ever played a video game in which you could make music? Which one?

Join me next time as we continue looking at making music in video games by examining Guitar Hero and Rock Band!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Role of Music in Gaming

It is video game music month on Clef Notes and I would love to hear any fun anecdotes from game enthusiasts out there! Last week, we touched on arcade games as well as early consoles. Today, I would like to expand our NES discussion to include the Super NES that came on the market in Japan in 1990 and the U.S. in 1991.

With the development of the new and improved NES in the early 90s came the use of a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) system in which programmers had the option to use different instrument sounds within a game. The Super NES also contained eight stereo channels (16 channels total) which was certainly a jump from its predecessor.

With the Super NES came the use of music in various roles within gaming. While games continued to contain soundtracks that served to accompany onscreen action, several also incorporated music into the game’s plot. One example of this is Final Fantasy VI during which an actual opera takes place. This opera was composed by Nobuo Uematsu for the game. Uematsu also uses leitmotifs throughout the game (a constantly recurring musical theme that usually represents an object or character). In the video clip here you can see the opera scene from the original Super NES version of Final Fantasy VI. Notice that at this point in time, technology did not allow for the usage of a human voice so we still experience chip tune music accompanying on-screen lyrics.

Join me next time as we take a look at making music in video games, specifically The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time!

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Video Game Music History!

Do you enjoy video games and their soundtracks? Then join me this month as I explore a brief history of video game music. Last time, I began by discussing the first known coin-operated game with sound, invented in 1897, and went on to talk about arcade games of the 20th-century. Today, let’s move on to look at early consoles that people could actually take home and play.

Many of you first-generation gamers remember the Atari Corporation that began in the 1970s. Did you know, however, that their failed attempt to create an intriguing E.T. game following the release of the major motion picture caused consumers to second-guess whether purchasing consoles was even a good idea? This major videogame bust led to Atari burying over one million copies of the E.T. game in the desert!

Due to this video game crash, sales drastically decreased between 1983 and 1985, right around the time the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) came on the market. Hoping to improve the gaming industry following the crash, NES marketed their product as entertainment rather than a video game system. They also promised to buy back their systems from any consumer or retailer who lacked satisfaction.

With the invention of the NES came a huge leap forward in gaming technology. This new system contained five sound channels, enabling it to accommodate more complex music than what we saw with Space Invaders during my last post. Below, you can watch wave visualization videos from the NES containing the theme from Super MarioBrothers and The Legend of Zelda, both by Koji Kondo.

The music you hear in the clips above became a stylistic trend that people today can immediately relate with video game music. In fact, many modern-day games purposely use what composers call “chip tune music” in order to evoke the sounds of the early 80s. It is now an artistic choice, however, rather than a technical restraint.

Wrapping up today’s post, I wanted to mention a fun video game music fact discovered by a scholar at Ohio State University, Dana Plank-Blasko. During the early video game industry, developers rarely hired composers, so oftentimes, the music you hear was actually created by a programmer rather than a musician. Because classical music is not under a copyright, many programmers pulled from historical composers to accompany their games. One such example is the Captain Comic game released by NES in 1988. Using Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor, the programmer forgot to include the key signature and accidentals (sharps and flats) in the music, causing Bach’s beautiful work to sound completely butchered! You can hear a good example of this if you skip to 8:35 in the clip here.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Video Games and Music

Do I have any video game fanatics out there? Did you know that video game music is actually an area of musicological study that emerged within the last decade? This month I would like to step away from the highbrow topics in music history and look at something that any modern-day gamer can appreciate: video game music. We will briefly look at how the use of music in gaming has evolved from the first coin-operated games all the way to present day entertainment systems.

I must admit that I am not an expert when it comes to video games. That’s why when this topic idea came to me I immediately contacted longtime friend, musicologist, and video game music specialist, Sarah Pozderac-Chenevey. She kindly provided much of the information you will read in the coming weeks.

Did you know that the earliest known coin-operated game with sound was developed in 1897? Invented during a gambling prohibition, this game was marketed as a music machine. Though the sounds it created were more mechanical rather than musical, this new music machine allowed avid gamblers a means to satisfy their addiction while avoiding breaking the law.

Into the 20th century, arcade games became the avenue by which people could experience this early form of “gaming.” It wasn’t until the 1970s that we see the first game with continuous sound: Space Invaders. Because they were limited on space, programmers could not do much with the Space Invader soundtrack and stuck to using a lamenting tetra chord. What they did not realize when developing the game, however, was that the game sped up during gameplay as fewer items remained on the screen. As the game sped up, so did the music. Coincidentally, this added tension and suspense to the game. Watch here

Have you ever played the Space Invader arcade game? Though an early form of music in gaming, do you find the accidental increased music tempo an effective way to build suspense in the game?

Join me next time as we look at Atari and NES!

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Schubert's "Great" Symphony

Last time we discussed Schubert existing in the shadow of Beethoven’s legacy. Today I would like to discuss one of Schubert’s exceptional works and get your opinion on how it holds up next to the works of Beethoven.

Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major “Great” was never performed during the composer’s lifetime. It was not until ten years following Schubert’s death that Robert Schumann uncovered the manuscripts and insisted that it make a public appearance that very year. Though many composers felt it best to avoid composing symphonies in fear of being compared to Beethoven’s symphonic repertoire, Schumann praised the “Great” Symphony saying that in it Schubert successfully created his own approach to writing a symphony.

In his Symphony No. 9, Schubert blends the Romantic lyricism found in his lieder with Beethoven’s drama. The first movement begins with a slow, chorale introduction in the horn section before moving into an allegro. Portions of this chorale come back later in the movement.

Listen here to Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major “Great" and then let me know if you think Schubert was able to find his own voice in this piece or if he still remains in Beethoven’s shadow.