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Bits, Bytes, and a Bit of Beethoven

Music scholars at Freie Universität Berlin study computer game music as a genre

Jan 02, 2012

Singen mit Lara Croft und Jak: Der Erich-Fried-Chor Berlin singt den Soundtrack von Civilization IV "Baba Yetu" im Computerspielemuseum in der Karl-Marx-Allee 93 a in Berlin-Friedrichshain.
Sing-along – The Erich Fried Choir has fun singing the soundtrack of Civilization IV’s "Baba Yetu" in the Computer Game Museum, Karl-Marx-Allee 93a, in Berlin-Friedrichshain. Image Credit: Andreas Lange
Eighteen years old, blonde, and an ace at fighting the undead and other monsters: No doubt about it, Terra Branford – half human, half magical sci-fi being – has what it takes to be a hero. Not in real life, that is, but in the Final Fantasy computer role-playing game franchise. When Branford first took the stage, in 1994, fighting evil in skimpy red armor, millions of gamers and series fans all over the world were watching. And she set the tone: The main theme of the official soundtrack is “Terra’s Theme.”

The piece and its composer, Nobuo Uematsu, are now known not only among fans of video games, but also concert audiences. Last year, the young pianist Benyamin Nuss performed a selection of music exclusively from computer games in the Chamber Music Hall at the Berliner Philharmonie – to widespread critical and public acclaim.

Scholars of music have also discovered the sounds emerging from game consoles, and research in the field has been under way for several years, especially in the U.S. and Canada. In Europe, there have not been very many academic publications so far. Now, music scholars at Freie Universität are working on a publication they hope will provide an initial overview of the new genre. “Research in this field is still in its infancy. The public is only gradually coming to realize the importance of this genre – and yet, computer music has been an integral part of our culture for a long time now,” says Peter Moormann, who holds a doctorate in musicology and is the editor of the book Music and Game – Perspectives on a Popular Alliance, which is due to be published in 2012.

Moormann, born in 1979, is part of a generation that grew up playing computer games. Music plays a huge role in establishing an emotional connection between the player and the game, as Moormann knows from experience, thinking back on early Atari and Nintendo games. “You can hardly resist the power of this music: Any adult who plays Tetris today immediately recalls certain images and feelings from their childhood and adolescence that had been gone for a long time.”

In terms of musical socialization, computer music is now almost as important as top-ten hits. In fact, hardly anyone in the “Game Boy generation” can hear the melody to the Russian folksong “Korobeiniki” without thinking back to hours spent playing Tetris in the late 1980s.

In the misty early days of the Computer Age, the first games were mute. For a long time afterward, lack of memory limited the available forms of musical expression: Pong, introduced in 1972, made do with just three short beeps. The soundtrack to Space Invaders, one of the most successful games of the early 1980s, had all of four tones, which changed tempo over the course of the game. Twenty years later, the nerve-racking tinkling of the endless loop is history. The complex compositions that play in the background of today’s games are works in their own right, lasting more than an hour and played by a big orchestra, all with the intend of breathing grand feelings and life into virtual worlds.

After all, as games themselves become more complex, the music for those games also has to do more. Players can now interact with the soundtrack. During virtual fight scenes with dragons or enemy soldiers, for example, the music that plays is different from that heard during dialog or love scenes. The better the music fits the plot and action of the game, the more gripping the experience is for the user.

Gregor Herzfeld of Freie Universität is studying which musical techniques are used in computer games to evoke the right atmosphere of horror, fear, or tension. He has concluded that for the 21st century, these techniques are often astonishingly conventional: “Like in film music, many of the sounds and sound systems we see in computer games come from the Romantic repertoire,” Herzfeld says. When things get gruesome in a computer game, cello or bass is used – just like in a horror movie. Painful scenes and goodbyes are underscored on the computer, just like on the big screen, by traditional “grief instruments” such as the bassoon or oboe.

But, Herzfeld has found, there is no one single recipe for how music influences the player’s feelings in the virtual world, either: “A lot of it goes through the subconscious.” And to many musicologists, the fact that music is where the line between the real world and the virtual one is blurring even more is one of the most exciting developments in new video games.

Further Information

  • Dr. Peter Moormann, Institute for Theater Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Tel.: +49 (0)30 838-50370, Email:
  • Dr. Gregor Herzfeld, Institute for Theater Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Tel.: +49 (0)30 838-503 07, E-Mail: