Music in Games — A Look at Why It Impacts Our Lives

When I think of the music of classics like Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda, I can immediately visualize the old Zenith brand, wood-grained, 12” TV that we had our NES hooked up to, the apartment my dad was renting, the swanky orange/brown '70's-fabulous sofa we would all pile onto. The music of Final Fantasy X takes me on a time warp to when I was 18, right out of high school, recently dumped by my first love, up against the big open world that was real life, and I knew even less than I know now.

The emotional connection I had with the music in these games left an imprint on my life, otherwise I’m sure it would take much longer for me to be able to recollect these kinds of details. The music of Super Mario Bros. inspired my 6 year old mind by enhancing this interactive experience where I am supposed to traverse crazy obstacles and defeat a fireball spewing turtle to rescue the princess. The story of FFX represented a journey with close friends, having to let them go for the greater good, while Nobuo Uematsu’s emotional score took that experience to a powerful new level of relatability for me.

What is it about these sounds that can get our blood pumping in a way that the visuals alone can’t accomplish? Something that taps into our primal nature, much like how most of us are freaked out by spiders or heights? Would Dead Space be nearly as terrifying if B.T.O.’s “Taking Care of Business” cued whenever you’re unloading round after round on a swarm of necromorphs?

Here’s an experiment to try: Watch a few seconds of this train scene from Uncharted 2 with the sound turned off. Without neglecting the support of quality sound design, there is a lot going on with the music that adds to the intensity of this scene.

I personally like to look at the science of things to help decode the mysteries of this crazy life we all share. I’ve come to realize we don’t have as concrete answers as I had hoped about why we feel these emotions in music. But in that, I like that it’s this infinite source of wonder, something that also unifies us with others that share the same tastes. One article I found on the Scientific American website talks about a study held at the University of London to research the emotional impact of music, and it mentioned how its subjects would react to visuals associated with the music. When a picture of someone smiling was coupled with happy music, they expressed feelings of happiness. When the same picture was displayed with a melancholy song to go along with the same image, they expressed that the smiling face now represented underlying sadness.

What we’ve found so far is that although there is no black and white, concrete explanation for the impact of something so subjective, we definitely know that music can transcend the moment and stay with us for the rest of our lives. It attaches a direct time-stamp of our personal history with it, inspiring us to listen again and again. Concert halls are sold out for live orchestras playing our favorites from Shadow of the Colossus to DOTA to Metal Gear Solid, and entire festivals are themed by chiptune music, a genre originated in 8-bit gaming.

It’s amazing to see where games music has been and exciting to see where it’s going. Each year shows continuous evolution within the medium, opening even more opportunities for it to inspire us just like it has been over the last decades. Innovation in gameplay also opens the doors for innovation in music, and it is going to be very, very cool to see and hear what’s next.

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