The Evolution of Video Game Music In the early 1970s, video game music wasn't exactly symphonic, but it was effective. Video game composition has become a power unto itself with its ability to guide the player. Now, it's being performed in concert halls by some of the finest orchestras in the world.

The Evolution of Video Game Music

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In May of 2004, a composer named Nobuo Uematsu joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a single performance of his most famous work. The show sold out in three days. There was almost a riot at the box office when people couldn't get tickets. What was this music? The scene from "Final Fantasy," a video game.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Now, rewind the story of video game music back to the early 1970s and you hear this.

(Soundbite of Pong)

SEABROOK: This is Pong. It was one of the first arcade games. The players hit a ball back and forth across the center line. Its sound is not exactly symphonic.

Playing all those arcade games, I never even paid attention to the music.

SEABROOK: This is Jack Wall. He's one of the top composers of video game music today. We're backstage at the Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco. Back in the 1980s Jack Wall was pumping quarters into a Pac Man machine like everyone else his age, but Wall says the music didn't really do much for him.

Mr. JACK WALL (Composer): It just sounded like sounds to me. However, you know all the tunes. It's so funny, the bleeps and the bloops, they kind of, like, invade your brain.

SEABROOK: Like what?

Mr. WALL: I don't know, like the Super Mario Bros. theme, you know?

(Soundbite of Super Mario Bros. Theme)

SEABROOK: It was catchy, it was fun, but it's not exactly serious music. I've caught up with Jack Wall and another famous game composer named Tommy Tallarico. They're in San Francisco on tour with "Video Games Live." It's a traveling show of game music and it's played by top symphony orchestras. These guys are not kids, they're in their 40s, but they're totally hip; designer T-Shirts, jeans, sneakers. Tommy Tallarico wears a black leather motorcycle jacket. He says the music for those early games may sound trivial, but it wasn't. It was there for a reason.

Mr. TOMMY TALLARICO (Composer): They did a study, actually, and if you remember in Space Invaders, you know, as the ships started to come down, the aliens…

(Soundbite of Space Invaders Music)

Mr. TALLARICO: And as they got closer and closer, the sound got faster and faster. Now, what the game programmer did was that they took the person's heart rate, and people would start - as they're getting closer and closer, people would start to panic. Now they'd do the same studies without the sound, and the people wouldn't panic as much. It goes to show and prove how significant audio and music are. It's not a passive, you know, linear medium, you know, like film or television, but when you're interactive like that, it brings it to a such a higher level for the senses.

(Soundbite of Space Invaders Music)

SEABROOK: This is the purpose of all great music, Tallarico says, to change your heart rate, to move you, make you feel. At this point, though, video game music was still very limited by the computers the games were played on. PCs and game systems weren't powerful enough to handle much more than simple electronic melodies. The processing power they did have was dedicated mostly to the game. The music was background. Still, composers started drawing from more serious influences. Take Tetris.

(Soundbite of Tetris Music)

SEABROOK: This simple puzzle game swept the country in the early '90s. Its music comes from a Russian folk song.

(Soundbite of Tetris Music)

SEABROOK: Then came a quantum leap in technology; the CD-ROM. Suddenly, games could have detailed video, whole animated scenes, and music, real music.

(Soundbite of Myst Music)

SEABROOK: This is Myst. It came out in 1993. Jack Wall says it was the first time he realized the power of music in video games.

Mr. WALL: It was a funny game because it was the first time you ever played a game and had no idea what you were supposed to do. I don't know if you remember playing it, but you put the CD-ROM in, you hit start, and you hear the main theme. And it's…

(Soundbite of Myst Theme)

Mr. WALL: And you have no idea what to do. And then you'd come to it - something new and suddenly this mysterious piece of music - and it was kind of like a clue. It was, like, oh, I need to do something here. So it kind of led you through this world and the music very much is so important to that.

(Soundbite of Myst Music)

SEABROOK: This music is complex, it's sophisticated, and it's a powerful part of the game's design. From here on, video game is more and more symphonic. Jack Wall went on to score the third and fourth installments of the Myst series. A major influence, Karl Orff's "Carmina Burana."

(Soundbite of song "Carmina Burana")

SEABROOK: Now, this is Wall's theme for Myst 3.

(Soundbite of Myst 3 Music)

SEABROOK: Game music had gone from bleeps and bloops to this.

(Soundbite of Myst 3 Music)

SEABROOK: Much more like writing a film score, says composer Tommy Tallarico, only better.

Mr. TALLARICO: In a film, even the great John Williams has to at some point sit down with George Lucas and George Lucas has to say, okay, John, at 52 seconds, the music has to do this because Darth Vader walks through the door. And then at two minutes it has to do this because the Death Star blows up. Whereas a game designer will come to me and they'll say, you know what? Here's the situation, we have a 100 guys on horseback with swords all coming to attack you, write me a three-minute piece of music.

Now my barriers are broken down. Now ideas are in my head and I can start to create. You know, video game music isn't passive, it's not background music, we're foreground music, you know. And it's for this reason why I've always said that if Beethoven were alive today, he'd be a video game composer.

Mr. JOSHUA BELL (Violinist): Well, that's quite a statement to say that about Beethoven. I would not go so far.

SEABROOK: This is Joshua Bell. He's a concert violinist and self-described video game addict.

Mr. BELL: Beethoven changed the world as we know it, and I doubt he would've done that through video games, but if it's done well it can be elevated to something that can have an impact on one's emotions, so I guess you would call that theory as music. I would have a hard time putting it on the level of a Beethoven symphony.

SEABROOK: Joshua Bell says game music is much more cinematic and interesting today. And he'd like to play on a video game score someday. He may get that chance.

(Soundbite of Orchestra)

SEABROOK: Here at the Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco, musicians take the stage. The piccolos pipe through the scales, the harpist practices arpeggios, the violas tune and retune. These are world class musicians and they're seated for a dress rehearsal of "Video Games Live." Kay Stern is the concertmaster of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. They last played "Madame Butterfly." Tonight she's playing the theme from "Bioshock."

Ms. KAY STERN (Concertmaster): Okay, so here's the solo, I just got, like, two minutes ago.

(Soundbite of Bioshock Solo)

Ms. STERN: Like that.

SEABROOK: So is video game music serious music?

Ms. STERN: Absolutely. It's creating drama, and telling a story, and making things more exciting, and it's as much of a picture as you're seeing visually. In fact, many times even in Wagner operas, the music tells a lot more about what's going on emotionally than the words do.

SEABROOK: The cellists are across the podium. I asked their names.

Mr. EMIL MILAND (Cellist): Emil Miland.

Ms. NINA FLYER (Cellist): Nina Flyer.

SEABROOK: Could I hear a little bit of something? Say, "Bioshock?"

Mr. MILAND: "Bioshock." Nina, right there.

Ms. FLYER: Okay, okay. Right there? Okay.

Mr. MILAND: Here we go. Here we go.

Ms. FLYER: Okay.

Mr. MILAND: Two, three, four…

(Soundbite of Bioshock music)

SEABROOK: Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall say they love this; taking video game music to the world's great orchestras.

Mr. WALL: People come up to me at the end of the first rehearsal and say, you know what? I really love what you do. Thank you so much for coming here, this is so much fun.

Mr. TALLARICO: And when are you coming back?

Mr. WALL: Yeah, when are you coming back?

Mr. TALLARICO: Yeah, we'll get people, like, you know, come up to us saying, you know, I've been playing the oboe for 40 years and no one's ever shouted out after my oboe solo, you know, so it's - you know, they do that for Stravinsky and Mozart and Beethoven, you know. And they should, but that's the thing is that, you know, people think of symphony performance - shh, shh, everyone, be quiet. People in tuxedos are about to come onstage, and shh, and then we golf clap afterwards, and you know. And with our show, we, right from the start, we tell the crowd, look, it's okay to shout out, it's okay to scream in clear and (unintelligible), it's okay to have fun. And you know what? The musicians of course feed off that energy.

(Soundbite of Orchestra Playing Tetris Music)

Mr. TALLARICO: It's like their field day, you know? The one day a year where they can kind of loosen their collars a little bit and have fun and they're playing to a whole brand new audience, which is great for everyone.

(Soundbite of Orchestra Playing Tetris Music)

SEABROOK: So Tallarico and Wall, it doesn't matter if the purists ever take video game music seriously. The musicians love it, the audiences love it. They're doing more than 50 shows this year: New York City's Beacon Theater, the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow, Scotland, Taiwan's Panchiao Stadium in Taipei. Serious musicians are beginning to catch on. This summer the Berkeley College of Music will run an intensive course in composing music for video games. The Thorton School of Music at the University of Southern California teaches classes in game composition.

And who knows, some time soon at a symphony near you, you may find on that evening's program Beethoven, Bach, and Bioshock.

(Soundbite of Bioshock Music)

SEABROOK: Our feature was produced by Phil Harrell. You can hear a range of classic video game music plus new compositions on our website,

(Soundbite of Bioshock Music)

SEABROOK: The parting words tonight come from someone who never played a video game but might've appreciated them, the American writer Henry Miller. In his book, "The Air Conditioned Nightmare," he writes, no one asks you to throw Mozart out the window. Keep Mozart. Cherish him. Keep Moses too, and Buddha, and Lao Tzu, and Christ. Keep them in your heart. But make room for the others, the coming ones, the ones who are already scratching on the window panes.

(Soundbite of Bioshock Music)

SEABROOK: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

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