Playlist: How Video Game Music Has Leveled Up

By Adela Skowronski |

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From pips and blips to orchestral masterpieces, video game music has come a long way from its humble beginnings. This music is now its own genre, as diverse and stylized as the games themselves, with some soundtracks — like the Super Mario Theme — even becoming ingrained into our cultural zeitgeist.

It’s almost impossible to conceive of video games without sound… yet it would be a long time before sound actually managed to integrate into this new entertainment form.

When the first video game patent was awarded to Sanders Associates in the late 1960s, video games were completely silent. These games were mostly experiments, conducted and shared among fellow computer scientists to test the creative functionality of computers. Basic coding was used to create controllable lines and dots; the results were simple games like Tennis For Two (1958) or SpaceWar! (1962).

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that an audio breakthrough for gaming occurred. Programmers began incorporating ideas from computer music pioneers, most notably computer scientist Max Mathews, who discovered how to input audio data into computer algorithms.

These first sound chips were miniscule. Computers at the time were operating with a maximum data width of only 8 bits, making it difficult to add more than a few measly sound effects. Many PSGs featured three tone channels, and one noise channel, that had to layer nonmusical computer sounds in a way that created music. One of the earliest examples of audio in video games can be heard in the 1978 game Space Invaders. In 1980, Rally-X became one of the first games to have continuous background music. This innovative combination of computer audio and player interactivity inspired a wave of creativity in the medium, opening the door to a new way of consuming (and composing) music.

Video games today are more cinematic than ever before. And that includes their music! Today’s titles boast complex, interactive musical scores that can respond to a player’s progress, use a wide variety of instruments, and become synonymous with certain franchises. Crafting music to keep players immersed has become essential, as players can spend hours wandering through stunning graphics, complicated storylines, and complex objectives. The resulting library of lush, memorable music is simply riveting.

We’ve compiled a list of some of the most memorable orchestral video game scores. From the artform’s humble beginnings to today, these scores include re-orchestrations of older tunes, as well as new music crafted with orchestras in mind.

Power up your phones, level up your listening, and let this playlist transport you into your next adventure!

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