Am I exaggerating when I say music is going through a critical moment in history and to my surprise Video Games can play a small but important role in reminding us of our beautiful musical heritage?
Bear with me and by the end of the video, I hope to convince you that music for games especially AAA games is of a higher standard than the vast majority of what we get in the billboard top 100 list and if understood correctly can raise the general public taste in music.
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We should not be afraid to judge music. A judge in music means only one thing: listening.
Taste in music is not like taste in chocolates or drinks. When it comes to taste in music one should remember that It is not written on stone or hidden inside the deepest cells of our brains. No, taste in music can be judged based on rules and clear concepts. To start, instead of stating “That’s what I like” we should start with the question “why?”.
Jazz, for example, puts great emphasis on the melody by punctuating its melody with semi-closures and carefully put ornaments around a note. By contrast, pop music is devoid of these qualities and is simply reduced to repeated notes and sounds kept together by the drum kit, each hit by the drum goes like a nail into a coffin. in other words, the absolute vast majority of music consumed today is cyclical in structure, the same tune, chord sequence, riff or chorus comes round again and again until it comes to a stop or fades out.
But was music always like that? No.
Cyclical music is only the product of the mass production and distribution of music. Before that, in classical music, it was rarely the case.
An idea I first became aware of after reading a quote by the philosopher and composer Theodor Adorno.
He states criticizing American pop music: “that which was once the free expression of a sincere faith has entered the world of commodities, there to be deprived of its aura. It has become a consumer product, addressed to the addictive ear, part of the ‘regression of listening’ which refuses true creativity in favor of the predictable, the effortless and the banal”
By Contrast, classical music consists of thematic and harmonic material that is developed, so that the music moves constantly onwards, extracting more and more significance from the original musical impulse. Should it on the rare occasion return to the beginning or to a previous part, it will usually be in order to present the material in a new way, or with new harmonic implications.
Through this structure, the notes work as words in a language. Each one leading to the next. You can’t with certainty predict where it’s going but by listening you notice that the structure makes sense and it keeps on moving onwards without the need to repeat the same words again and again.
In language, we don’t speak in sentences using the same one or two words again and again but for some reason, we accept that in modern music.
Musicologist and music theorist don’t like to compare music to the syntax of languages for reasons I agree with but for our limited purpose here and to make a specific point I think they will forgive me for making that comparison.
This different structure in classical music requires concentration and attention. For many people in modern times, this is precisely what detaches them from classical music; the lack of repeated structure that defines pop.
The modern ear can only listen to music comfortably if it is sustained throughout by ostinato rhythms and sounds that help the listener to keep on listening without attention and do all his other daily tasks, ignoring the noise in his ears.
Compare that with a piece of music like Prince Igor by Borodin, a musical miracle that my love for was first infused when I listened to it in Bioshock Burial at sea and later live in the Berlin Philharmonie:
(Note for Elizabeth: I’ll play the music here and from moment to moment you’ll make a comment about something happening- I want you to read the following sentences slowly and gently as if you are describing them to a 5 years old who listens to you carefully :) )
-Each note leads to the next
-The other instruments come around the Oboe, like ornaments around a beautiful column
-The music keeps on moving onwards with carefully placed half steps and whole steps.
-and if the music comes back to previous parts then it’s only to present them in a new way with harmonic implications.
-Listen to the instruments conducting a conversation with each other
Now compare that with what now considered to be music: (read these lines with slight anger and disrespect :) – I’ll play Fit but you know it by the streets )
Oh gosh, how low the bar has now become to what can be categorized as music:
-repeated notes like hits of a hammer.
-each note does not have any relationship to the next as long as they appear between two drum beats.
-Forget the lyrics, it’s another tragedy of epic proportions.
I know you’ll say I picked an easy target, but let’s look at a big hit from one of the biggest names in the industry today; Lady Gaga.
In her most famous song; Poker Face, did you notice that she stays throughout the majority of the song on one note?
and once you notice that, think: is that how melodies are supposed to be composed?
How different is that from Mr.Bean’s performance at the 2012 London Olympics ceremony?
So, let’s go to the core of the problem: classical music puts the emphasis and weight on the thematic development of a work, it becomes an arch that brings the work together under a uniting theme for the whole work.
Modern music puts emphasis on the Melody, preferably a short memorable one that can be marketed and remembered quickly because that’s the easiest way to market music and put it in ads.
We’ve accepted the new structure of the music of short bursts of repeated choruses and rhythms and let it enter into our lives in consumed music, in shopping malls, in restaurants, and in commercials …but not in video games.
At least not in the majority of AAA titles. Many of these games share classical music’s structure of putting emphasis on the thematic development of the work, and therefore the musical work that accompanies these games should be seen in its entirety.
A game like the ps4 installment of God of War has no interest in its music in pursuing short memorable melodies, but if you listen carefully to the brilliant job of Bear McCreary and the richness of the music, you’ll hear the same golden structure, where you can’t simply change any note without affecting the whole work, no part of the work can be left out without being missed. The development of the music is similar to the development of the characters it accompanies throughout the game’s journey.
When you carefully listen to the main theme song of the game and be absorbed in its changes, as a gamer, I’m sure you’ll be flying with your imagination to different areas and different situations you experienced in the game, you might be imagining putting down a giant when the music becomes intense then relax and think of your son when you hear the violin starts to play.
This only happens when you isolate your brain with the classical music structure.
Repeated pop structures kills that part in our brains, that’s why we’re not surprised when we see someone using a pop song as a phone ringtone, because like a phone ringing it’s mechanical and repeated.
You might think, wait a second! God of War’s main theme song has a recognizable chorus that is repeated.
True, but like Borodin’s Prince Igor, when the melody is visited again then only to shed new light on it and present it in a different way, extracting more and more meaning from the original impulse that has started it.
In the second time of visiting the same part of the work, we notice melodies change according to our conception of where upbeats end, where phrases begin, which new notes are ‘intruders’ and which are part of the original flow, and so on.
But most importantly, don’t listen to the God of War’s main theme song in isolation but to the whole music of the game as one piece in which the theme song is nothing but an introduction to the whole work.
I still remember when Sony started its 2016 E3 conference by playing that same music to an audience that was captured and absorbed by the strength and intensity of the art their ears and brains were experiencing.
Something I wish Nintendo had done with its Nintendo Direct videos, Zelda: breath of the wild has some of the best music out there.
The beauty of games like Zelda is that they make the player unconsciously understand why there’s a need for a long structure in music where the work comes together under one theme, because this is the only structure that can fit those games like a hand in a glove, it can move in any direction the events of the game require. Capturing the player’s emotions from anger to sorrow and pain.
The structure of the music provides the flexibility to do that and move in any necessary direction, something completely missing from pop or jazz music.
In Jazz even when the soloist tries to break from the foundations of the music and moves in different directions, his short rebellious act is still surrounded by clear boundaries, he cannot on his own move the music in a different direction.
I’ll admit that I’ll be the first to be charmed by Abdullah Ibrahim’s Mannenberg and the brilliance of its soloist, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to the freedom that classical music provides to its composer in deciding in which direction the music can move forward.
That’s why we rarely hear these forms of music in games, it doesn’t give the flexibility to the game’s creators to adapt the music freely with the game, and if it’s to be done by producing separate pieces for each different situation than you might achieve that goal but you’ll have different incoherent parts sitting together under one roof.
I’m afraid that classical music is fading away from our lives, and I’m holding on to video games because I think they still represent one of the last beacons of light where younger generations can still listen and enjoy it while unconsciously feeling why only classical music can work in a game like God of War, Zelda, Final Fantasy or Horizon.
The thematic development of the music goes hand in hand with the events of the game.
A young person in our day and age is rarely exposed to classical music and for many, it happens in video games more than any other place.
Gamers show a lot of appreciation and respect to it, something rarely seen outside of video games.
See how many videos are on YouTube discussing the music of Shadow of the Colossus.
But then again you’ll say, wait! Some of the most memorable works of music in games do not follow this structure, like that of Mario or Sonic.
Yes, but let’s not forget that most of these were composed in the 80s and the 8-bit consoles were not able to process more than 3 tones at once which is why we ended up having these simple and memorable works.
In my research for this video I noticed that some are praising these works because they are “memorable” and modern ones are less “memorable”. To me, they are missing the whole point of having music there in the first place.
Just because a work of music is memorable it doesn’t mean it’s musically good or of high value, music should be measured by the emotions and thoughts it evokes in the listener. By using this standard, God of War’s music invokes all kinds of emotions in the listener while not being that memorable. Rihanna, on the other hand, has a very memorable song called work. It fills the criteria of being “memorable” but a pollution to the ears of listeners in malls and restaurants.
Until a couple of decades ago, some songs were simple in their structure and lyrics but we didn’t mind that because they were at least evoking ideal, noble and platonic values in us. So we didn’t mind their naive melodies and lyrics.
That’s gone from the mainstream and today, I seek these ideals in the Yuna’s Theme in Final Fantasy 10 and Vide Cor Meum by Patrick Cassidy.
The next time someone criticizes music in modern games as being unmemorable unlike the old ones, what they really mean is that it lacks the repeated ostinato rhythms and sounds that help the listener to keep on listening without attention or the slightest effort.
Me in my personal life, do I listen to the music that I’m criticizing here on the video? Hell yes, and I’ll be a hypocrite if I say that I don’t enjoy Iggy Pop’s madness on a stage or Reelin’ In the Years by Steely Dan but do I expect any sophisticated thematic development in their music or in their lyrics? No, after all, Steely Dan named themselves after a sex toy in William Burroughs book Naked Lunch, so I’m not expecting anything to touch my core at an emotional level.
If I want to enjoy more sophisticated music then I turn on my PlayStation or go to the Philharmonie in Berlin.
I’m your host Elizabeth and behind the computer screen is Haitham, hope you’ve enjoyed the video.
Thanks for watching friends and see you soon.