A friend of mine once remarked, “The reason music is in games is to sync up to the animations.” Simply put, I lost my shit. “You uncultured swine,” I silently thought to myself, “music is lost on you, you petty, vapid slut of culturally ignorant trash, you. You are, without doubt, the most grotesque man I have ever laid eyes upon,” I silently continued, “and were I ever given a chance, your existence would be forgotten by all who ever knew you.” Another friend of mine also remarked that music is only good when it is in the context of something else. You wot? YOU FRAKKIN’ WOT, M8?

Music might very well be the most excellent medium on the face of the earth. It’s hard to explain why nothing quite compares to music, but games take advantage of it in ways that we take for granted. Music helps set the tone, yes, but it also serves to make us play better in stressful situations. That’s assuming that the designer of the game is playing the right tunes, of course. All this might sound a little weird given that games don’t need music in the first place, so then why do games even bother utilising it?

Don’t need eyes to enjoy those orchestral swells

Where a painting is something you use to decorate space, music is how we decorate time. Despite being a shower thought post on Reddit, it perfectly captures what music is: Sounds organised in time. That definition doesn’t mean noise can’t be in there; it just says that music is some audible stuff that occurs in a pre-planned fashion. We arrange music in time signatures, analyse the recurring notes to put them into a ‘key’ and label the patterns between songs as parts of a genre. The thing is, we’re not here to talk about music, we’re here to talk about video games.

Games employ music in some different ways. Sometimes music is played as a playlist (Hearts of Iron, EVE, Rimworld), and other times music is more dynamic (FTL, DOOM, Zelda). Games can use music as the driving force of the mechanics (Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Rocksmith) but more often rely on it as a complementary element than the focus of attention. Music is undeniably present in most games… But why?

Aren’t the sounds of screaming Cacademons enough?

You would think that a medium focusing on interaction wouldn’t need to concern itself with music. It’s not that music doesn’t have a place in games, but outside of rhythm games, music doesn’t seem to add anything to the mix. Dark Souls has long periods of ambient silence but throws some epic orchestral action into the boss fights. It seems a bit odd to go so long without music and then decide to chuck some in, but if Miyazaki is doing it, you know it serves some purpose. Listening is a passive activity, but gameplay requires input from a player, so where does music fit into game design?

Feel The Groove

Designing a game involves getting into the player’s head and eliciting the desired reaction. If you want the player to feel fear, you can employ scarce resource drops, jump scares and an ominous soundtrack. That soundtrack will not only set the tone of the game but also elicit a response (subconscious or otherwise) from the player. The songs playing in the background can form the context in which you experience everything else, so the mood of that song will dictate how you react to things. When you hear an eerie backdrop of discordant notes and chords that never entirely resolve, you’ll become uneasy and start double checking corners. Your body reacts to music in extraordinary ways, and game designers are well aware of this.

Nothing like terrifying percussion to accentuate my freshly soiled pants

Our brains and bodies react to the sounds around us, which includes music. You can tell when enemies are nearby by listening to when the music kicks into gear, sure, but your heart rate is also going to increase. Your mood will alter because of the physical changes in your system, and you’ll think more positively about the game if the music fits. Congruency is a tactic that a lot of shopping centres will use too, planning out how fast a song will be to keep you in the store for more or less time. Anyway, the music that a game employs will alter how you react to the game, but how your body reacts will also influence how well you play.

Music assists in specific tasks and hinders others. If you’re playing a puzzle game and the DOOM soundtrack is playing in the background, chances are it’ll distract you. Conversely, music that is calm will steel your nerves, allowing you to focus and think more clearly. Using music to hinder or aid the player isn’t just an afterthought, and composers will spend weeks honing their songs to fit the game perfectly. Everyone loves hearing the epic music kick in when the giant boss turns up because it feels (quite literally) like the stakes have never been higher. Background music is just one part of the musical spectrum, though, and when you’re making a game, every sound matters.

Even things as simple as having unique sounding units in an RTS can have enormous impacts on how enjoyable a game is

The Sounds of Music

Music has a profound impact on our bodies, but the same can be said for sound. After all, music is just sound organised over time, so it would only make sense that sound will elicit similar responses. When you hear the blast of your shotgun tear apart hordes of demons, you’ll feel a bit more powerful than a piddly little pew sound from a laser pistol. In a sense, the sound design of a game is like making one gigantic improvised free-form symphony that goes 12 hours.

Remember how I said dissonant chords would make you feel uneasy? Discordant sounds follow the same rule. Every sound, no matter what it is, has a set of frequencies associated with it (electrical engineering talks a lot about this stuff). These frequencies will interact in a pleasing or displeasing fashion based on the rules of physics and the interpretations given from music theory. For instance, when you pluck a guitar string, a bunch of different frequencies will arise, and the combination of all these fundamental frequencies can be interpreted as a note. The same is true for kick drums, snares, and every sound on the planet. Obviously, it’s not that simple, but the idea is what matters here. So, what’s all this got to do with video games?

Pain in C#

In a game, sounds don’t play when the conductor waves his baton; they play when something happens in the game. If a sound plays in the game, it’s going to have a bunch of frequencies associated with it. A smart game designer can use this to their advantage by utilising sound as a signal to the player both consciously and subconsciously. The fact that the sound plays could signal danger, but the characteristics of that sound and how the sound blends into other sounds around it can be a potent tool. We can identify a demon from its snarls behind a corner, but do the other sounds complement its growl? Is there another force present that is working against the demon that you can take advantage of? This might sound a bit fluffy, but I can guarantee you that sound designers take this stuff very seriously.

Game designers want players to feel a very particular way when playing their game, and how music/sound provides context to the player is paramount to achieving their vision. If the cries of an NPC are drowned out by another entity, what does that tell the player? That the NPC is ignorable? If an NPC’s voice just seems to go against the music that’s playing in the background, the player will subconsciously dislike interacting with that NPC. It’s these subtleties that give credence to the idea that music can act as a mechanic as much as a device to fill out awkward silences.

Even when you game is totally insane, each sound can be utilised in a very effective way

Final Thoughts

Music’s role in games is more than just a supplement to gameplay. Background songs can help to provide atmosphere and give a sense of context to the player because of our reactions to music. The interaction between music and sound can also make for subtleties that you might not even think about but can have a surprising effect on a player’s mindset. If I could, I’d spend the next 5000 words gushing about how music is the best thing on the planet, but you’re better off going and listening to some game soundtracks. Not that Im recommending any.

Nick Ballantyne

Nick Ballantyne

Managing Editor at GameCloud
Nick lives in that part of Perth where there's nothing to do. You know, that barren hilly area with no identifying features and no internet? Yeah, that part. To compensate, he plays games, writes chiptunes, makes videos, and pokes fun at hentai because he can't take anything seriously.