Some things in life come together so beautifully, it almost makes you believe a higher power created them with a companionship in mind. Things like Mac n' cheese, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, Mötley Crüe and cocaine, Aragorn and Arwen; each was fine on their own, but they only evolved into history-defining concepts when they came together.
The same can be said about electronic music and #VideoGames. The correlation between these two concepts is so natural, it almost feels stupid asking how and why it is actually so. Because even though hip-hop and rock music have tied themselves to video games on more than one occasion, there's no doubt that electronic music, and all the sub genres that encompass this umbrella term, forms the go-to sound of video games.
Two Pieces Of Cultural History Growing Up Together
In 1978 Yellow Magic Orchestra released their self-titled debut album and became one of the first bands to pull off computer-sound-themed music successfully.
The main reasons for the strong bond between electronic music and video games is undoubtedly in the origins of both. They're both the offspring of the digital revolution, sparked in the 70s, and they matured together as the world came to fully embrace everything digital. They're kinda like life-long companions, buddies who grew up as outcasts in culture town, until they eventually reached adulthood and took control of the place.
One of the first video games to incorporate sound was Pong from 1972, which was also one of the very first video games to reach mainstream popularity. There wasn't much music to Pong's bleeps and bloops though. They were more like avant-garde smashing sounds that really didn't resemble the sound a bat and ball makes in real life, but more how we wish it would sound.
Actually the use of music in games didn't become wide-spread until 1978, when Taito, a Japanese video game developer, released the all-time classic Space Invaders. Earlier, the technology for "complicated" music didn't really exist, and most game developers hadn't yet realized how much music added to the experience.
Taito managed to utilize this potential in Space Invaders, adding an extra level of depth to the gameplay. Though crude, four simple and insisting bass tones, which grew faster and more urgent as the alien ships drew closer, would cause a sense of thrilling panic in the player, causing them to make rash decisions. This music wasn't just used as an accompaniment, but as an integral part of the experience itself. It's a trick thousands of games have made use of since.
1978 was also the year that Yellow Magic Orchestra, a Japanese synthpop band, released their debut album, which was heavily inspired by digital sounds. They were the first popular band to merge the electronic sounds of video games with traditional pop melodies, and the track "Computer Games" even features a sample from a Space Invaders chiptune (which is a piece of 8-bit electronic sound stored on a chip).
Yellow Magic Orchestra pioneered a new way of making music, which in the 80s and early 90s would turn into a more familiar form of electronic music.
New Tech Pushed The Music Forward
Video game music rapidly evolved in the 80s with the implementation of a steady stream of new and better sound cards and chips. The main development in this time was the introduction of multiple sound channels, which allowed musicians to switch between mono sounds to create increasingly intricate compositions.
Just listen to the depth of this classic Final Fantasy theme from 1987, made by Nobuo Uematsu. With this kind of sound quality, video game music became better at conveying feelings, adding an extra emotive layer to gameplay.
The same can be said of the Koji Kondu's Super Mario Bros. score from 1985, which will probably go down in history as one of the greatest and most defining pieces of video game music ever created. The soundtrack only consists of a mere three minutes of original music, covering everything from the classic theme, to the psychedelic and samba-inspired star-power-song and ominous game over tunes, yet it’s totally absorbing and precise, spanning joy and pain and blissful tranquility.
From Mario To Mortal Kombat
Kondu's work on Super Mario Bros. would herald a new age for video game music in more than one way. Most importantly, the major gaming companies began hiring musicians for the sole reason of creating scores for their upcoming games. In other words, video game music had become a serious and acknowledged part of game development.
This is even more true today, when video games, like movie soundtracks before them, is a space for experimentation and play. Electronic artists like Amon Tobin, Deadmau5, Health, and Skrillex have all dabbled in creative video game work.
Another thing to note is how the Mario theme infiltrated other music genres. It really kick started a whole video game music sample scene, which wasn't limited to electronic music but also heavenly influenced hip-hop, r'n'b and even rock. Today, rap artists such as Gucci Mane (the track “Get It Back” samples the Tetris theme song,) Jay-Z ("Money, Cash, Hoes,” uses tunes from 1989 game Golden Axe) and Wiz Khalifa (“One Way” puts to use a song from Kirby’s Adventure) still find inspiration in video games. Alternative rock musician Beck did the same on this 2005-song called "Girl."
Through the late 80s video game music continued to improve as the new generations of consoles came out and gaming moved from the arcade and into the living room. The next, major breakthrough happened when games moved from the cartridge to the CD—a storage device which had the space and horsepower to support streaming music. Before that, music in video games had been "played live," so to say, as each sound sequence in a game was run through a computer chip and executed mechanically to create the desired sound.
One of the first popular CD-based consoles was the Sega CD which was hit Japanese shelves in 1991. When Mortal Kombat was released on this console in 1993, it featured the original soundtrack on CD, and the streamed music was in an entirely different league than the usual 8 and 16-bit tunes.
The Drifting Apart
From there on, the story of electronic music really breaks off from video games as it became a concept popular enough to stand on its own. It was still an integral part of a lot of video games, but as the music became a fully-fledged music genre, the correlation between the two concepts became different from this point on. Techno, dance, house, trip hop, EDM and all the other sub genres of electronic music are still forming the musical landscape we see today. But they're separated from games, so it's another story with another pop-cultural focus.
With that said, video games and electronic music are still very much intertwined. That's why we perceive them as such natural companions and why so many gamers are still into this kind of music. If you don't believe that, just browse through Twitch channels and listen to what music the streamers are playing to the most.
We don't think this preference is just a question of gamers being simple people who like repetitive, fast paced music without lyrics (some do and that's perfectly fine) but more because the two concepts originated in the same place. They were created by people who loved both, and they evolved together in their early years.
It's in their roots. As it is with hard rock and bikers. Or Yeezy sneaks and r'n'b. Or this haircut and boy band music. Every subculture has its defining music genre, and gamers, in general, like the electronic kind.
What music do you prefer to listen to when playing video games?