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The Purpose of Music

October 20, 2009

What is the reason for putting music into a video game? Why does anybody do it? The answer seems obvious, but trying to put it into words can be harder than it first appears. For this post, however, that’s exactly what I’m going to try to do. Remember, this is music we’re talking about, not calculus. There are no formulas, no rules written in stone, and no way to tell if you’re making the right decision. So, what exactly is the purpose of music?

Ultimately, the purpose of anything in a video game is to get a response from the player. Music is certainly no exception. Sometimes you expect an emotional response, sometimes a cognitive one. There are many things that you could get from a player, and many ways to get them. Let me do you a favor and bullet point it:

Examples of musical goals:

  • To set a mood
  • To create a sound cue
  • To evoke a feeling

Great, so lets take a look at these one by one. First off, when do you want to set a mood? Well, the answer is simple: Always. And in truth, the absence of music can sometimes be more powerful then any tunes at all (this isn’t always true, obviously). Setting a mood helps create an atmosphere, which in turn can immerse the player. In Bethesda‘s Role Playing Game, Oblivion, a mood is set when the player enters to forest, and is enticed by the expansive landscape, and encouraged by the mysterious and soft melody lingering in the woods. Granted, music alone doesn’t always set the mood, but rather a combination of different things does. For example, in The Legend Of Zelda on the 8-Bit Nintendo Entertainment System, you must progress through dungeons of increasing difficulty to complete the game. So, how can one convey that the dungeon is a dangerous place without realistic skeletons hanging from the ceiling, or a signpost saying “DANGER”? This threat is conveyed by creepy music, and dark backgrounds, usually grey. So as you can see, taking the obvious route isn’t always the best one.

Music can also be used as a sound cue, conveying vital information to the player. In Valve‘s recent zombie shooter, Left 4 Dead, music cues play an extremely important role. At points in the game, strong zombies, called “Special Infected” can storm onto the screen and attack the players at nearly any time. So how can valve make the players aware of the danger without being abrupt or pulling the player out of the experience? A different song will begin to play when these boss zombies are nearby, alerting the player in an way that isn’t obvious or abrupt. A similar effect is used in Halo 3: ODST, by Bungie. When the strongest enemies are arriving, music begins to play, getting players into a new mindset, and preparing them for the encounter. Valve and Bungie could have done other things to warn the arrival of enemies: maybe an icon could flash, or a message pop up. But the those things would have just pulled the player out of the experience and cluttered the interface. In Banjo-Kazooie, created by Rare, you enter into worlds of varying locations through a main hub. A song plays as soon as the hub world boots up, but as you approach the entrance to different worlds, the instruments will dynamically shift to account for the location of the player: For example, nearing the swamp cues tubas, nearing the tropical island cues the ocean ambiance, and nearing the desert environment cues the snake-charmer’s flute. Clever. Of course, games can serve the purpose of sound cues and setting a mood at the same time. Lots of games, from Assassin’s Creed to Zelda do this. In recent Legend of Zelda games, frightening music starts up when any enemies approach. It helps ease the player back into a fighting mood, while alerting them that danger is nearby. This a very common thing to do, but effective none the less.

Sometimes, it becomes necessary to evoke a certain feeling in the player. Sorrow, happiness, confusion, etc. When completing Nintendo‘s Super Mario Galaxy, an orchestra congratulates you by playing an epic overture. The player feels a great sense of accomplishment for this: A whole orchestra playing congratulatory music just for completing a game! That’s the kind of feeling you want to the player to experience.

Of course, these aren’t the only purposes of music. Not by a long shot. These are some great examples, but I often wonder if there are some less obvious uses for music is video games. One thought I’ve had is thins: Would playing unenjoyable music when the villain enters the scene make the player react negatively to the character  itself? Or maybe they would react negatively towards the game? These are some interesting things to consider. One thing is for certain, though. Music has a colossal impact on the entire ideas being conveyed by the game. Still don’t believe me? Check out this clip: It’s the intro to the old show, Diff’rent Stokes. Only this time, the cheerful music has been replaced by another melody. See for yourself the effect is has:

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