Well, the real reason I won’t be whistling on my way to work is because I’m unemployed! #justmilennialthings
I’m kidding, of course. Gainful employment is the statistically number one killer of blog post productivity, and that explains a lot about LTG! Many of our writers have gotten pretty steady gigs, and have to figure out the balancing act that enables them to write about the stuff they love while being able to afford to eat food besides SPAM and Top ramen.
But here I am, trashing the music of arguably the most successful game of the 21st century.
If you have been living under a rock for several years and have never played Minecraft, I’ll tell you its music is quite sparse. It often features a lot of single-note piano riffs, and slow-moving, ethereal electronic sounds, occasionally punctuated by brief percussive bits here and there. By and large, however, there’s not a lot of music at all! The soundtrack doesn’t play continuously, and players are often left to dig, fight and fall into lava in relative silence.
I’m a professional musician with highly trained and sensitive ears. And yet, if you were to pluck out on a guitar the so-called “melody” of one of Minecraft’s most recognizable songs, I’d have a hard time telling you what it came from. I’d have an even harder time reproducing that melody myself, whistling hypothetically on my hypothetical way to work.
Like many of my posts, I’m not here to talk about the individual qualities of a single game. Minecraft’s music illustrates a big trend in video games: the concept of textural music.
Hoo, boy. We’re going deep.
Music has four major qualities to it: Melody, Harmony, Rhythm and Texture. We often ignore red-headed stepchild “Texture” in the classical world because he’s not important to the recognizability of music. If I played the telltale “Dun-dun-dun-dunnnnnn” of Beethoven’s 5th on a tuba, or a piano, or a cello, or an accordion that shoots fire, you’d still know it. Same deal with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, or Chopin’s funeral march. The same goes for Mario’s theme, Zelda’s theme, Megaman, Poke’mon, any of the music from the first ten Final Fantasy games, and a tremendous amount of old video game music that people have made careers out of performing. (Link the Blind Mario Pianist)
Why is it so recognizable? Because of the melody, the harmony and the rhythm. It’s what makes that old music sound good.
But what IS texture in music? I’m sure long, boring research papers have been written on that topic, but I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version. The texture of a piece of music is the quality and color of the sound of all of the instruments lumped together. There is a certain texture at any given time in a piece, and an overall texture for the whole piece of music.
For example: the texture of a Romantic-era orchestra piece is going to have lumped together about 24 violins, 12 cellos and violas, 4 basses, 2 flutes, clarinets, oboes and bassoons, 4 french horns, 3 trumpets and trombones, a tuba, and percussion. Maybe a harp if you’re feeling French. That’s the textural elements you have to work with, which basically means that the vast majority of orchestral music from Beethoven, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Dvorak, Bruckner, etc. has a very similar texture. They have the same sounds to work with. Individually, at each moment in the music, the texture might be different (because not everyone’s playing all the time), and those differences, even though they’re impossibly subtle to a non-musician, are often what give those composers their unique sound.
Early video games suffered from the same problem. The NES had a sound card that supported 4 instruments: two square-wave lead synths, a triangle-wave bass synth, and a white nose maker (which was used for percussive sounds). Every soundtrack from every game on the GameBoy and the NES has those exact 4 instruments. So, experimenting with different textures was almost off the table. Granted, many composers did some pretty amazing stuff with those 4 instruments, but nobody ever thought to themselves when entering a new area in Poke’mon: “Wow, what a startling contrast in the tone color of those two musical pieces!”
The only alternative was to write music that was melodically, harmonically and rhythmically interesting to combat the textural sameness! All of a sudden, we understand why the gorgeous music of the early video game music was made the way it was!
Fast forward, past the SNES, to the PlayStation. It supported recorded audio! Now, all of a sudden, if you can pick it up with a microphone, you can put it in a game soundtrack. The amount of textural options went to basically infinity (and beyond)! Listen to the opening of Final Fantasy IX. It’s a symphony. It’s a long way from 3 electronic instruments and a noisemaker.
But I haven’t explained the importance of texture. Consider for a moment: your mom calls. Pretending you didn’t have caller ID, you pick up the phone, and say, “Hello?” Your mom responds, “Hi.” Not only do you know who it is from one word, you also know what kind of mood she’s in. That’s how good our ears are as humans. You have the same anatomy that enabled Mozart to dissect symphonies at will. And that means that we understand and appreciate very fine textural changes in sound. The reason Minecraft’s soundtrack doesn’t work on a guitar or a tuba is because the texture is so different that your ears can’t match it up with the original. But… as soon as you hear the actual soundtrack in its spacey glory, you not only immediately recognize it, but get wistful and long to smash some blocks and build a cubey castle. That’s the power of texture.
Early games with the textural freedom of recorded audio still paid homage to the Japanese tradition of contiguous background music, so it took a while before the trend of having a “soundtrack” was broken, even though the option to experiment with textures was on the table for quite some time. Leave it to American innovation! Hoorah!
Western game developers took the idea of textural music and ran with it. When open-world games like Elder Scrolls and Fallout started becoming more prevalent, the rise in music that was primarily textural took off. It wasn’t about creating a melody; it was about creating an environment. And, as many people will tell you, the music of BioShock, Skyrim, Dead Space (and yes, Minecraft) contributes excellently to the feeling of being there. Whether you’re on top of a snowy mountain or being assaulted by deadly zombies (sorry, “necromorphs”), the music sets the mood because it is texturally appropriate. It’s not just appropriate, actually. The people who write music for these games are completely incredible at finding and manipulating exactly the sounds they need to get the job done.
It’s just important to remember: even though you’ll never be able to sing the melody of Minecraft to a friend and have them know what the hell you’re on about, as soon as they hear the actual soundtrack, it will send them to a fantastic place and conjure up their imagination in a way that only good video game music can.