Play it again, Tron.
It's an addiction. Music frequently is. And it works subliminally. Music often does. Of course, the pictures help, too.
You can see the addicts any day in the video game arcades that have sprung up all over the map; they stand in front of the brightly colored, fast-moving screens, piloting their tiny tanks, simulated starships or little yellow dots. The air around them is full of music. A dissonant chorus of Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Berzerk and Tron: theme music, action music, the music of victory or defeat.
The music mingles with sound effects; sometimes, as in the works of many serious modern composers, it is hard to say where the music begins and the sound effects end. If a fire siren can be music in Vare se's "Ionization," and the sound of cannon can be music in the "1812 Overture," why can't the whoosh of a guided missile or the splat of an enemy being pulverized be music in a video game?
And even if it is not all music (as the theories of John Cage would suggest), some of it is certainly music. The sound is always electronic, with that special, disembodied effect that you get when a note is generated not by wood and strings or brass and breath, but by electricity.
In a well-stocked and busy game center, the music is semi-aleatory and polytonal: many different musical events happening together, more or less at random. If you listen closely, it sounds like the kind of thing that you have to buy tickets to hear in the haunts of the post-avant-garde.
Video addicts think they are drawn by the fast action, the sense of adventure, the challenge to their hand-and-eye coordination, but that's only part of the story. The music, too, works on them subliminally--like a movie soundtrack, which is its close artistic cousin. Without the noises they make, video games would be about as popular as silent movies are these days. The Fidelity Electronics Chess Challenger, for example, did not become a hot market item until a voice box was put into it and it began talking to the user. Noise makes a difference, and noise--one can argue--is music.
Video games with sound are setting new records in the entertainment industry. And whether they think about it or not, the addicts are spending their money (at least partly) on electronic music.
What kind of music are they getting? If you consider a video game arcade as a total sound environment, it is a rather complex experience--and you don't have to pay for it. Just stroll in and hang around for a while until someone gets picky about the ubiquitous "No Loitering" signs. If you take the music for any one game and analyze it, though, it is essentially a simple experience. The music usually has no harmony or counterpoint, just melody--one note at a time--and the melody tends to be no more complicated than "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"--nowhere near the complexity of the march from "Star Wars." A few sophisticated games will modify the music according to how your game is going, but most of them simply rattle it out like a music box to punctuate the action.
The typical sonata for a video game machine is composed in three movements, which we might call the Come-On (alias Overture or Title Theme), the Mickey-Mouse (or Scherzo Programmatico) and the That's All, Folks (or Finale). The Come-On, typically, is attractive, fast-moving music played while the machine is waiting for a customer, displaying its title and occasionally flashing a sample bit of the action to attract the attention of bystanders. It may also be heard, in some games, when the coin has been inserted and the play is ready to begin.
"Mickey-Mouse" is a technical term coined by the writers of Hollywood soundtracks to designate music (used particularly in animated cartoons) that describes or illustrates the action on the screen--when the hero gets hit on the head, the music goes "bonk"; when the hero runs, the music speeds up; when the hero falls down the stairs, the music falls down the stairs. Mickey-Mouse is the bread and butter of video-game music. It does not need to be very sophisticated--no more sophisticated than what is happening on the screen.
Most of the music of video games sounds as though it were written by a computer, but a few games use recognizable tunes from the public domain: "Oh, Susannah" in Kangaroo, for example, and a fragment of a Bach fugue in Looping. Other tunes sound like relatives of familiar motifs. A close cousin of the "Dragnet" theme can be heard as the Come-On for Donkey Kong, and during this game, when the little man who is trying to rescue the woman from the gorilla gets his hammer and starts bashing things, some listeners may be reminded of the familiar and beloved Woody Woodpecker leitmotif.
One of the few games whose music seems to have stylistic coherence throughout is Wizard of Wor, with sounds designed to promote a sense of dread and eeriness. It uses a cognate of the "Dragnet" motif at the beginning, played slowly in organ-like tones and pepped up with accelerating percussive sounds as the action picks up. After you lose, the motif is transformed by plagal cadences into a kind of dirge.
There are two possible kinds of That's All, Folks or finale: mournful music played when you lose or a triumphant tune for when you win. Most game designers (like most composers of symphonies) have discovered, however, that the mass audience prefers music with a happy ending. So the That's All, Folks music tends to be bright, brisk and upbeat, probably on the theory that this kind of sound will encourage you to put in another quarter. It works. Last year, it worked to the tune of $6 billion.
What's happening? If it is discussed in music histories of the future, it will probably be described as the final breakthrough in popularization of electronic music--which was, until quite recently, enjoyed by only a small, hardy band of wild-eyed enthusiasts. But in the video game phenomenon, of which music is only a small part, what we see happening is the sublimation of the tribal epic: a rite of passage for the citizens of the new electronic village.
The hero of this epic is not a demigod, as in the Homeric poems, or a member of the ruling family, as in Purcell's odes, but the customer operating a video game. Everyman has become Achilles, and anyone with a pocket full of quarters can become an Esterhazy. In the imagery of the games, the new Achilles fights against goblins, dragons, creatures from outer space--but we all know that on deeper levels, below the bright pictures on the screen, the battle is really flesh and blood against the inhuman strength and intelligence embodied in the dance of the electrons.
In this dimension, as in the old epics, the hero embodies his society. And the terms of the struggle echo the central problem of our time: the question of whether mankind can remain master of its own technology. The music for these epics, like that in epics of the past, plays a peripheral role--but it heightens the interest of the story, enhances the glory of those who win and helps to soften the pains of defeat for those who don't.
That's all, folks.