Narrative and Interactive Music in Media: an Overview

So as I indicate elsewhere in this blog, I intend to address not only film scores, but also those of television and video games.  The thing about these three categories is that, while they all share similar underpinnings, they are quite different types of media.

Film is the granddaddy of them all (well, if you want to get technical, the true father was Greek Drama, but lets only consider the last 100 or so years, shall we?), so most of the music pf television and video games are based on the codes and models of it.   Specifically,  much of it is based on the “classic Hollywood sound” of the 1940s and 50s (Hermann, Korngold, etc.), which itself was influenced heavily by Romantic era classical music.  This how we can trace from Wagner to Korngold to John Williams.  But I’m not really saying much new here.

Television is a different beast.  With smaller budgets and less time, many times the scores aren’t for full orchestra, in fact it might only be a few instruments, or maybe only the composer at a synthesizer and computer.  Then there is music that is canned and recycled (come on, lets all now sing the Captain Kirk fighting whomever with a ripped shirt music…da da daa daa daa daa daa da dum da), so it is the exceptional show that has almost all newly composed music for every episode.  Some good recent examples are the scores for Battlestar Galactica (by Bear McCreary) and Lost (by Michael Giacchino).

Then there are video games.  In the almost 30 years now of the home console and computer video game market, we’ve gone from beeps and bloops to fully orchestrated and recorded music, but the truly remarkable thing is that this music has to be adaptable.  Able to change with the situation.  I would like to meditate on this for just a moment.

Think back to Super Mario Bros., until recently the top selling game of all time (thanks in no small part to being included with the Nintendo Entertainment System console).  Within just the first level of the game, one could hear some 6 different musical cues: the basic world music (the ubiquitous Mario Bros. theme music), the underworld thme after one has gone down a pipe, the “Star Theme” when one obtained the invincibilitystar, if one was running out of time there would be a short transition to a sped up version of the basic theme, the short musical tag if you died, and then the completing the level tag.  And while the quick musical transition between the sections (like the going down the pipe sound) might have been crude, the fact that the composers and programmers actually entered into the game code these various themes and transitions paved the way for more complex systems.

One of the early examples of a more complex system that figured heavily into my childhood is the iMuse engine used in many of LucasArts games in the 90s.  For me, it was its use in their classic adventure games that, while at the time I was not as musically astute, are still with me.  Music from such games as Sam & Max Hit the Road, Full Throttle, The Dig, Curse of Monkey Island, and  Grim Fandango still linger in my brain just waiting for me to start humming them at random, and in many occasions inappropriate, times.  What the iMuse did was to help to smooth out the transitions and make the switches between cues more seamless, the basic ideas that is still in use today.

If you want more info, surf over to iMuse Island, a rather detailed website about the system.  A similar system was also used in the computer game series Wing Commander, which I also played fairly obssively while growing up.

But if there was one video game score that floored me like no other it was Final Fantasy III (though actually the sixth game of the series, but was released as III in the states because numbers II, III, and V didn’t see release here until much later).  The album release of the score is three CDs long, and despite it being MIDI generated, it still holds up against many scores of today’s games.  Each of the 14 playable characters has a distinct theme, and the music itself is epic on a grand scale, with MIDI doing its best to represent an orchestral sound complete with choir and organ.  And if that wasn’t enough, composer Nobuo Uematsu even had to write an mini opera for a central plot point during the game.

To a 13-year-old, this was amazing.  Right up there with John Williams and Star Wars, why Uematsu wasn’t famous like Williams was a mystery to me back then.  I know now that among video game music fans, Uematsu is Williams.

I lament the fact that I cannot comment much on the current state of music in video games, but it is my understanding that on a level of basic technique, much hasn’t changed, the idea of writing cues that can be cut up to be transitioned between to suit a player’s actions is still there.  The major change is the switch from MIDI or more sophisticated computer software to, in many cases, digital recordings of live musicians.  Due to the large memory capacity of the media now involved, this is used more and more often.

Then there are games like the Grand Theft Auto series which use music in a very unusual way.  The gamer essentially selects the soundtrack by switching between radio stations in the stolen vehicles, and depending on what mood the player is in can determine what they listen to (Rap, Reggae, Classical, Talk, etc.).  I won’t say much more than that, but I do direct readers to an excellent recent article by Kiri Miller from the Fall 2007 issue of the journal Ethnomusicology for more on this.

I know that this isn’t very deep information, much is synthesized from my own readings of other scholars, but if one is new to musical scores in media, this might give some basics.

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