History of Video Game Music

signal_cannon4Forty years ago Space Invaders revolutionized the way we played games. With just four simple notes that got faster as the aliens crept closer, video games grabbed us by the heart and compelled our attention. Now, gaming is a billion dollar industry. But how’d it get there? How did music change the history of computers?

From beeps and boops to strings and plastic guitars. Video Game Music History, today on Signal Cannon.

The history of video game music is actually a look into the history of computing itself. The earliest video games were silent. The first was Pong in 1972.

As a function of a computer, playing a tone requires energy from the CPU…the motherboard. In the early days, like in the Apple II in the late 70’s, computers had very limited processing power relative to what we have today, and memory was at an extreme premium. We’re talking programs sometimes no larger than a single kilobyte. So getting a game to display both motion and sound was at the time a really difficult programming task.

Plus the mechanisms for making sound weren’t very sophisticated. You have to remember that computers in that era were large briefcase-looking things with monochromatic tube screens, primarily for businesses to run rudimentary spreadsheet software and stuff like that. Fully loaded, the Apple II cost over 10 grand in today’s dollars, that’s with the maximum 48 kB of RAM. For comparison, you really can’t buy a thumb drive these days that isn’t multiple gigabytes, millions of times that amount of kilobytes. Personal computing was only really dawning at that point.

What those computers did have is a speaker connected directly to the CPU, which, while it could produce tone, robbed processing power from the CPU needed to display other parts of a game like color and motion graphics. The CPU was able to click the speaker at certain times in a melody or for a sound effect. But to produce anything more complicated than that required complicated coding that talked to the speaker in rhythm. Basically these early CPU’s were being asked to do multiple functions at once at a time when the technology was very limited.

Let’s not forget though, up until this time the arcade ruled gaming in the 70’s and was only really killed in the late 80’s when home consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System and its competitors took over. This time period is often called the Golden Age of Arcade Video Games and features some of the earliest examples of “chiptune” or what’s now more commonly known as 8-bit music.

In 1978, video game music took a big leap forward with the release of Space Invaders. Players pilot a space ship and try to shoot down the cloud of aliens before they reach the bottom of the screen. Revolutionary in its time and hugely influential, Space Invaders was the first game to feature continuous music, that is music and sound effects overlaid to create a more seamless player experience. Up until this point, music in video games had been restricted to only the introduction and game-over screens. What’s more, the music in Space Invaders interacted with the action onscreen. As the aliens got closer, the music got faster. Historian Andrew Schartmann wrote in his book Mario Maestro, “That seemingly pedestrian four-note loop might stir us in the most primitive of ways, but that it stirs us at all is worthy of note. By demonstrating that game sound could be more than a simple tune to fill the silence, Space Invaders moved video game music closer to the realm of art.”

In modern games, it’s commonplace for the music to match the action or the visuals. In battle, the music might be pumping and heroic, but subdued when travelling. In 2013’s SimCity, the music’s orchestration becomes richer and fuller as players make progress through the game, and even changes according to the day/night cycle. All this sophisticated composition and cueing of music has its roots almost 40 years ago in Space Invaders.

By the early eighties, video game consoles and computers started coming with dedicated sound chips to relieve the CPU of the dual load of displaying graphics and playing music. Dedicated sound cards allowed more sophisticated sound reproduction and therefor more complex music. You’ll recognize this 1985 theme immediately.

Of course, that’s the theme from the original Super Mario Bros., released on Nintendo’s NES console and composed by Koji Kondo. By breaking down the song into its parts, you can understand how the sound chip produces the music. The NES (and, consoles and computers of that era) had a particular sound as a direct result of the limitations of its sound generator. It could produce essentially five sounds, known as voices, or channels. But each had their own specific frequency profile and in combination, composers could arrange these sounds to produce the music themes. It’s actually the same concept as multitrack recording in music outside of video games, where each instrument is recorded as a separate track, and then played simultaneously to create the full band sound.

In the NES, the first two channels were reserved for the melody, the third was for bass, the forth was a noise track, used for percussion, and the fifth, called the delta modulation channel, was used for pre-recorded samples. Because pre-recorded sound takes up a lot of memory, the fifth track was used by composers sparingly, and not at all by Kondo for Super Mario Bros. What’s impressive is the lengths composers had to go to to get around the limitations of the hardware.

For example, the NES could only play three notes simultaneously due to its limited number of channels. In Andrew Schartmann’s 33 1/3 book about the Super Mario Bros. theme NES composer Neil Baldwin describes the difficulty in composing a simple chord, or three notes together, He says, “You had to employ techniques to trick the listener into thinking there was more going on than there actually was. If you had all three voices playing a simple triad, you had no voices left for a melody or bass part. That’s when you had to get smart: use one voice and replace the triad with a fast arpeggio, and bingo, you’ve freed up two voices while maintaining the original content.” End quote.

Mario’s actually a good barometer for the advancement of game music as it’s a franchise that’s lasted for over thirty years with Nintendo continually revisiting classic themes. By 1990 with the Super NES Super Mario Bros. 3 was sounding like this.

The 90’s were a fast-paced era for video game consoles, with Sega, Panasonic, Sony, and Atari all muscling around in the market. Technology quickly progressed, with consoles jumping from 8-bit systems to 16-bit, 32-bit and then 64-bit in about a decade. (Bits being the measure of processing power of the CPU.) Ten years after the original Nintendo with its five-channel sound chip was made available in the US, Sony in 1995 released the first PlayStation with a 24-channel sound chip that could provide CD-quality sound and support for digital effects.

In 1998 The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64 featured one of the first instances of music-making as a feature of gameplay. Koji Kondo did the score for this one too.

By this time music in gaming had pretty much hit a plateau technology-wise and moved into the contemporary era. 1999 saw the release of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, which featured licensed music from bands like Goldfinger and The Dead Kennedys. Music licensing would become the norm for sports games and racing games. Though some games like the Grand Theft Auto series are notable for featuring their own purpose-written pop soundtracks and talk radio. 1999 is also the year Dance Dance Revolution came out in North America.

In 2005, Guitar Hero debuted and has since gone on to become one of the most popular and influential game series ever, and really, crossing over into cultural phenomenon territory, with over $2 billion dollars in total sales worldwide. It’s been credited with inspiring millions of kids to pick up real instruments, (2 and half million in the UK alone) and giving significant bumps to bands featured in the game. The Washington Post in 2007 reported that “every song included in Guitar Hero III and Rock Band saw digital download sales increase between 15% and 843%. And a Brown University Study found that 76% of the players of Guitar Hero bought the music they heard in the game. The impact these series had on the video game industry, the music industry, and popular culture is huge.

So the next time you sit down to play, take a moment and perk your ears to what you hear. I’m Billy Donahoe, and this is Signal Cannon.


  • Signal Cannon is produced by me, Billy Donahoe.
  • Our theme music was written by Eric Donahoe. Show art by Julianne Waber.
  • Super Mario Galaxy was released in 2007 by Nintendo. Theme composed by Mahito Yakoda and Koji Kondo.
  • Fallout 4 was released in 2015 by Bethesda Game Studios. Theme composed by Inon Zur.
  • Space Invaders was released in 1978 by Taito Corporation.
  • Super Mario Bros. was released in 1985 by Nintendo. Theme composed by Koji Kondo.
  • Super Mario Bros. 3 was released by Nintendo in Japan in 1988 and North America in 1990. Koji Kondo composed the theme.
  • Super Mario 64 was released in 1994 by Nintendo. Composer, Koji Kondo.
  • Banjo-Kazooie was released in 1998 by Rare. Theme by Grant Kirkhope.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released by Nintendo in 1998. Composition by Koji Kondo.
  • “Superman,” was written by Goldfinger, first released on the 1997 album Hang-Ups by Mojo Records, then again as part of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater Soundtrack in 1999.
  • You can follow me on Twitter @BillyDonahoe and learn more about this episode at PressForSound.com
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