Video game music

Missing image
Outrun (1986) is an arcade game with a famous soundtrack.

Video game music is any of the musical pieces or soundtracks from computer and video games.


Early history and the age of 8-bit machines

 Super Mario Bros for the NES (1985) and its widely known game music.
Super Mario Bros for the NES (1985) and its widely known game music.

Arcade games in the 1970s often contained music of some sort, but it was typically monotonous and so indistinct that it was easily dismissed and parodied. Often this music was simply folk songs which were transposed by the programmers, who might have known little about music. This trend continued in arcade games well into the 1980s, and in early home consoles and computers until the release of the Commodore 64 and the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Previous game systems and home computers had for the most part continued the beeps and boops of early arcade games (except for the Magnavox Odyssey, which was silent). There were some exceptions however, and arcades often generally led the industry in technological innovation. For example some early games played fully sampled soundtracks from tapes, and many games by Exidy featured fully sampled digitized soundtracks.

The capabilities of the Commodore 64 and NES (not to mention numerous other 8-bit gaming computers and consoles of 1980s) were not up to what most people today would ever consider listening to, but the ability to play multiple tones simultaneously (effectively multiple instruments) at higher quality than had usually been possible before allowed composers to be much more creative with their music.

Missing image
Sanxion (1986) loader music on C64 is one of Rob Hubbard's many hits.

On Commodore 64 it was composers such as Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway who started to compose video game music with catchy and profound melodies. Some people consider Hubbard's wildly spirited music for Monty on the Run (1985) as a beginning of profound computer game music. Martin Galway's music for Rambo II (1986) is another early milestone that relies on a strong melody. Commodore 64's SID chip was highly advanced when the computer was released in 1982 and it took years before programmers (such as Hubbard and Galway) learned to fully utilize its capabilities.

Also many melodies originally composed for the NES have been longevous, notably music from the Super Mario Bros. (1985), Legend of Zelda (1986), Castlevania (1986), Fire Emblem (1990) and Final Fantasy series (1987). The most important NES-composer was Koji Kondo, who wrote themes for Mario and Zelda.

In the field of arcade games that were often played in noisy atmosphere, the quality of music got less attention with some notable expections like music by composer Hiroshi Miyauchi who wrote soundtracks for Out Run and Afterburner.

One notable case during early perioid was Atari's Pokey sound chip, which was used in 8-bit Atari computers such as Atari XL since 1979. The chip was highly advanced - in some respects even better than Commodore 64's SID - but nobody tried to utilize its potential and the music of 8-bit Atari computers was of low quality while able composers concentrated on Commodore 64. Not until early 1990s some people who were interested in old computers started to explore the possibilities of Pokey chip and to compose music for it.

The Nintendo music as a genre

The many games made for the Nintendo Entertainment system almost all featured a similar style of music which can come closest to being defined as the "Video game genre" of music in terms of composition, as opposed to simply being called "video game music" because it is in a video game or is being played from a video game console. Some compositional features of this genre continue to influence certain music today, although because of the trend for games to emulate movies, many soundtracks shy away from this style because it is not similar to a style of music played in movies. Features of this genre are:

  • Songs almost always have main sections or "verse sections" consisting of chord progressions of four or more chords (similar to much of J-Pop and 1980's Western Pop), as opposed to the two chord progressions found in most Western Pop verses. The "chorus" of the songs also often contain four or more different chords in their chord progressions. Often many songs feature a chord progression which is extremely popular in J-Pop, which (in the key of c) could be given as: F minor, C minor, G major, C minor, with C major quickly inserted before the series repeats again. Overall, there would be generally a higher number of sections of a song then a comparable pop song, as this helps to reduce the repetative aspect of the music, which was generally played as a continuous loop. This also sets it apart from even J-Pop music or most other forms of popular music.
  • Songs feature a heavy amount of synchoronization beteween instruments, in a way that would be difficult for a human to play. For example, although the tones featured in NES music can be thought of emulating a traditional four piece rock band (triangle wave used as a bass, two pulse waves analogous to two guitars, and an affected white noise channel used for drums), and although video game music was influenced by rock or pop music at the time, composers would often go out of their way to compose complex and rapid sequences of notes. That has been compared to music composition during the baroque period, where it is believed since instruments such as the harpsichord did not allow for musical expression based on the volume of the sound, composers reacted by focusing more on musical embellishments. Composers were also limited in terms of polyphony, or the amount of notes that can be played at once. Only three notes can be played at once on the Nintendo Entertainment System. A great deal of effort was put into creating the illusion that more notes are playing.
  • The Bassline of a large percentage of songs during this period consisted of notes played in the rhythm of a quarter note followed immediately by two eighthnotes repeated endlessly. The particular note played would match the base note of the chord being played at that moment in the song.

The age of 16-bit machines

Missing image
Shadow of the Beast (1989) on Amiga: beautiful graphics and beautiful music.
Until the appearance of the Commodore Amiga, video game music often sounded characteristically "bleepy", (although some home computer sound chips, like the Commodore 64's SID, partly ameliorated this).
Missing image
The first Amiga model already had digitized sound in 1985
This was due to the use of basic sine wave synthesis instead of FM Synthesis or digitized sound. Commodore Amiga, a popular home computer in Europe, was released in 1985 and a cheaper model Amiga 500 affordable for average users was released in 1987. Amiga was capable of playing 8-bit 22khz digital sound with its Paula-chip. This was another evolutionary step in the progress of video game music technology, but a critical one that made it much easier for developers to put music that sounds like "real music" into their games. However, it took some years before Amiga game designers learned to wholly utilize digitized sound effects in music. Also the computer music had already become a genre as such, and thus many music makers intentionally tried to produce music that sounded like what was heard on Commodore 64.

The release of a freely distributed program named Sound Tracker by Karsten Obarski in 1987 started the era of MOD-format which made it easy for anyone to produce music based on digitized samples. MOD-files were made with programs called "trackers" after Obarski's Sound Tracker. This MOD/tracker -tradition continued with PC computers in 1990s. Good examples of Amiga games using digitized instrument samples include David Whittaker's soundtrack for Shadow of the Beast, Chris Hülsbeck's soundtrack for Turrican 2 and Matt Furniss's tunes for Laser Squad. Richard Joseph also composed some theme songs featuring vocals and lyrics for games by Sensible Software most famous being Cannon Fodder (1992) with a song "War has never been so much fun" and Sensible World of Soccer (1994) with a song "Goal Scoring Superstar Hero." These songs used long vocal samples.

Amiga's rival on European markets, Atari's own 16-bit computer Atari ST had Yamaha YM2149 sound chip. Though many professional musicians used Atari ST as a MIDI device (ST had built-in midi-port), the computer's own YM2149 chip was not revolutionary. In some respects it was actually less advanced than Commodore 64's SID. Of course, this did not mean that Atari ST music was bad - numerous good tunes were written for ST. Also ST programmers learned later to get digitized sound out of ST, but since this consumed processor time, digitized sound was seldom heard on ST games.

 The  (1990) brought digitized sound to console games.
The SNES (1990) brought digitized sound to console games.

Missing image
Final Fantasy IV on Super Nintendo (1990).

In the field of game consoles, Sega Genesis (also known as Sega Mega Drive) was a huge step forward in sound quality from previous game console systems, but still had a limited variety of sounds due to its use of FM-synthesis. The SNK Neo Geo was also a big step forward (but being primarily an arcade system, most players never noticed). Nintendo's 16-bit console SNES finally brought music used in game consoles to a level of audio fidelity that most people would accept. With its SONY SPC700 chip, SNES brought digitized sound effects also to game consoles, spawning the modern age of this field of applied acoustics (or digital sound revolution), exemplified by games such as Final Fantasy series, Chrono Trigger, Castlevania IV, and ActRaiser. Amiga being popular mostly in Europe, it was SNES that brought digitized music for gamers in Japan and the USA. It was the first game console capable of producing sequenced audio which could fool an untrained ear into believing it had been recorded live. But as in the case of Amiga, many SNES games did not utilize the potential of machine's sound capabilities very well, and thus many SNES games actually did not have essentially better sounding music than for example Sega Genesis games. The quality of sequenced music on game consoles has also continued to improve on later systems, some examples being Final Fantasy VII on the Sony PlayStation, or Panzer Dragoon II on the Sega Saturn.

The arrival of CD-quality sound

From the point of view of game music listeners, digitized music was not purely a positive thing. The old machines in 1980s had sound chips that produced personal sounds (see: chiptune) that were not possible to hear anywhere else (for example Atari XL is famous of its "metallic" bass-sounds). Despite sounding "bleepy" to gamers' parents, many gamers themselves liked these kinds of sounds. Amiga and SNES, though supporting digitized sound, still did not reach CD-quality and most importantly they lacked big amounts of disk/ROM-space needed for long pieces of digitized sound. Thus the music of Amiga and SNES still sounded very different compared to "ordinary" commercial music most of time. But when the CD-ROM era and sound cards supporting 16-bit/44khz samples arrived, computer and video game music started to sound more and more like ordinary commercial music. It is a matter of opinion whether this is a good or bad thing, but video game music's nature changed completely.

Missing image
The developers of IBM PC computers neglected audio capabilities (first IBM model, 1981).
Video game music can be stored in several ways. The two most common are for it to be sequenced together from stored samples, or from computer-generated tones; or for the music to be prerecorded in either a standard CD format, or some streaming audio format. Sequenced music has been around from the start. Prerecorded music had previously been prohibitively expensive to use in video games, even in arcade games. When Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles appeared in the arcades, its recorded title screen song seemed amazing. Before that, some Amiga games had already included commercial music converted for Amiga (most notably in Xenon 2 by Bomb the Bass and in Gods by Nation 12) but that music, though sounded almost "real", was made by using long and numerous 8-bit samples in MOD-files.

The first widespread use of genuinely prerecorded music came with the release of the Turbografx 16/PC Engine CD system. This console never really caught on the in the US, but was very long-lived in Japan. Other companies also released CD-based systems, which often had music saved in a standard CD format which one could listen to by putting the discs into any CD player. This Red Book audio format format had a disadvantage in that it didn't allow the consoles of the time to access other data while playing music, and it took up a lot of space. Eventually, with the release of the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation, streaming audio formats were introduced (look for the .XA files on a Saturn or PlayStation disc). They use much less disc space and can be accessed much more quickly and randomly, and can contain loops. From early times, and continuing today, much video game music comes in the form of loops, music which repeats continually without interruption. This isn't always the case, and loops saw a particular decline with the popularity of CD-based game systems. Loops are probably popular due to the open-ended nature of many games, with no fixed time limit.

Missing image
Incidental music in The Secret of the Monkey Island 2 (1991).
IBM PC compatible computers became a major format for gamers during the first half of 1990s when Commodore's and Atari's empires started to decline. It took quite much time for average PC computers to eventually have a good support for digitized sound. Originally IBM PC was not made for gaming and it did not have any sound support expect an ill-fated beeper gadget called PC speaker. Roland released a very good synthesizer module MT-32 used in PCs already in late 1980s but it was expensive and not used by many gamers. Creative's Sound Blaster cards became the most popular sound cards during the first half of 1990s. 16-bit card Sound Blaster 16 (1992) supported 44khz/16-bit sound which meant that CD quality was reached. This happened about same time as CD-ROM drives arrived to homes. The gap between video game music and "real music" started to decline fastly - though CD-ROM drives and 16-bit sound cards did not put an immediate stop for using low-quality FM-synthesis of PC's sound cards on PC games (for example, a famous Doom game still used FM-music in 1993). The eventual change for using CD music on games happened during the second half of 1990s.

The storage media and file formats which have allowed the use of pre-recorded music have contributed to a trend towards using the music of well-known artists in video games. An early example would be Way of the Warrior on the 3DO, with music by White Zombie. A more well known example would be Trent Reznor's score for Quake. More recent games, especially sports and racing games produced in the US even more commonly use not only music composed by popular artists, but previously-released popular songs of theirs.

There have been games developed in recent years which actually use the music as a necessary component of the game. The most notable of these is the popular Dance Dance Revolution series, where players step on arrow buttons on a dance pad in time to the music. This genre is known as rhythm games.

Also in recent years, a trend towards combining the two approaches has begun. Games for the PC such as Republic: The Revolution (music composed by James Hannigan) have utilised sophisticated systems governing the flow of incidental music by stringing together short phrases based on the action on screen and the player's most recent choices. An earlier, more primitive use of this sort of technique (called iMuse) was created at LucasArts and utilised in such games as Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge on PC, Amiga, & Macintosh, and X-Wing and TIE Fighter on PC.

Microsoft's Xbox console revolutionized the industry by providing gamers with the ability to copy music from their own CDs onto the system's hard drive. This feature, called "Custom Soundtrack," allows users to play their stored music on any Xbox videogame, such as Major League Baseball 2k5 and Afterburner. The new Xbox 360 platform will also have the Custom Soundtrack feature.

Fan culture

The Final Fantasy series has some of the most popular music of any modern video game series, especially the pieces that are part of the work of Nobuo Uematsu, and it has been widely recognized for its soundtracks. Japanese game companies routinely make CD soundtracks, called OSTs (Original Soundtrack), for their games as they do with anime, and also make sheet music books for their games. Like anime soundtracks, these soundtracks and sheet music books are usually marketed exclusively in Japan. Therefore, interested non-Japanese gamers have to import the soundtracks and/or sheet music books through on- or offline firms specifically dedicated to video game soundtrack imports. There are plenty of such firms, mostly online. Those non-Japanese gamers import mainly Final Fantasy soundtracks. Some of those firms also offer anime soundtrack imports. Listening to video game music outside gaming, especially Final Fantasy music, along with anime music, is getting more and more popular among non-Japanese gamers. Final Fantasy has, in May 2005, become the first Japanese series to mass market music to the US (some soundtracks have had limited runs in speciality stores), offering its soundtracks on iTunes, and performing a series of live concerts. Video game music is performed by orchestras around the world, such as the London Symphony Orchestra or the FILMharmonic Orchestra in Prague. Final Fantasy music is enjoyed not only by gamers, but also by music lovers. The video game soundtrack market is growing and may extend to overseas markets. Many Final Fantasy fans also study musical instruments, especially the piano, and play songs from the Final Fantasy series on the piano. Video game music is a significant part of Final Fantasy fan culture.

Video game soundtracks are frequently "ripped" electronically through emulation in formats such as NSF, GBS, SID, HES, VGM, SPC, PSF, and PSF2, and can be played through e.g. Winamp in sample rates above 44.1 kilohertz. This is called upsampling (as opposed to downsampling). Modern video game music is traditionally done in classical orchestra or techno music genres. A number of video game critics are known to prefer digitized recordings of orchestrated music in games as opposed to synthesized music. An example of orchestrated classical music in video games can be heard in Super Smash Bros. Melee, with its score performed by the aptly named Orchestra Melee.

On November 17, 2003, Square Enix launched the Final Fantasy Radio on America Online. The radio station has initially featured complete tracks from Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XI: Rise of Zilart and samplings from Final Fantasy VII through Final Fantasy X. Inclusion of video game music on America Online Radio network, iTunes or on other online radio stations may contribute to the increase of realization of video games as a form of media or artwork.

Several video game music concerts have taken place. Five Orchestral Game Concerts were performed in Tokyo, Japan, from 1991 to 1996. In August 20, 2003 the first event of the European Symphonic Game Music Concert series took place at the Gewandhaus zu Leipzig in Germany, performed by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. This sold-out concert appeared to be the first of its kind ever to occur outside of Japan. A Final Fantasy concert was scheduled for the first time in the United States, and it was performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California, on May 10, 2004. The concert was a one-day sell-out: all seats were sold out on a single day.

For a long time, fans (mostly in Japan) have transcribed video game music from its original format into MIDI format. Recent years have also seen the development of a scene of musicians (with levels of talent ranging from none to excellent) who remake and/or remix older video game music, usually with modern levels of fidelity. There are several websites (listed below) which serve this community.

Video game music timeline

  • 1982: Commodore 64 is released
  • 1983: Exidy releases Crossbow, the first game to feature fully digitized sound and music. (Previously some games used prerecorded cassettes for music)
  • 1984: The recording company known as "Yen" released the first album with gamemusic ever. Video Game Music, contained music from various Namco games, including that from Pole Position, Xevious, Pac-Man, New Rally X, and many other titles. This compilation of original Namco arcade music, was released on LP (YLR-20003) and CT (YLC-20003).
  • 1985: Yen, the world's first company to release a gamemusic album was discontinued, after only two different releases. The sequel to Video Game Music was released by Alfa.
  • 1986: Game Music Organization was formed as Yen's successor. Abbreviated to G.M.O., it was the first big label / recording company to only release gamemusic. They released plenty of albums for plenty of Japanese developers, almost all entitled like this: (company) Game Music (vol. #). Example: Sega Game Music Vol. 1.
  • 1987: The cheap model of Commodore Amiga home computer, Amiga 500 is released. It contains a sound chip that supports digital 8-bit/32khz sound.
  • 1989: Game Music Organization is put to an end, Scitron becomes its successor. Scitron was put under Pony Canyon, instead of Alfa, as Game Music Organization was. Scitron didn't keep all the companies Game Music Organization had controll over: Falcom and Konami went to King Records, Namco used Victor more and more, and plenty of smaller development houses used King Records instead. Before, the gamemusic industry was centered around Game Music Organization only, now it was started to spread out. DATAM, Polystar's label for gamemusic was also established now. KOEI created the world's first in-house gamemusic recording company.
  • 1990: The Super Famicom / Super Nintendo Entertainment System is the first console to sport applied acoustics audio.
  • 1994: Mortal Kombat II released with the DCS soundsystem, the highest quality sound effects and music in the arcade environment at the time.

Known video game musicians

Video games noted for their music

See following:

Popular sound formats by system

Note that these are named for file extensions given to music files extracted from games using either specialized software tools, or using emulators. An exception is MOD, which is a format used by various tracker programs on Amiga and PC (old Amiga MODs can be played with ordinary PC MOD-players). It is important to remember that sound emulation is seldom 100% accurate. Emulation gives a good picture of what those machines actually sound like but occasionally there may be notable differences between emulated and authentic sound.

Related music genres

See also

External links

Articles, essays and news about video game music

Composer-related links

Internet radio featuring game music

  • Kohina ( - oldschool game/demo music radio
  • VGmusic Radio (
  • ( - OverClocked Remix video game music remix radio
  • SLAY Radio (C64 remixes) (
  • GamingFM (
  • VGAmp ( - Mostly RPG music, with lots of remixes from the OneUps

Sources of video game music

Dedicated to particular series

Emulator format music

  • ASMA ( 8-bit Atari computers music archive - players and tunes
  • A Game Music Index ( - NSF (8-bit Nintendo format music), SPC (Super Nintendo format music) and SID (Commodore 64 format music).
  • The High Voltage SID Collection ( - Commodore 64 music.
  • UNEXOTICA - Amiga game music database ( - Lots of Amiga game music packed in LHA -files, use Deliplayer (with Windows) for listening.
  • Neill Corlett's PSF Central ( - information related to PSF, Portable Sound Format.
  • 8-bit Music Section ( - VGM format site, dedicated to 8-bit Sega music.
  • SNESAmp  ( Official SPC700 sound format site, dedicated to Super Nintendo music in SPC format.
  • Zophar's Domain ( Contains video game music in various emulator sound formats including Sega Genesis/Megadrive and PC Engine

General archives


  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools