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Week 1 Summary

Dr Kenny McAlpine summarises the first week of his free online short course, A Bit-by-Bit History of Video Game Music.
Now, we’ve covered quite a lot of detail in this first week, so before we move on, let’s recap on what we’ve explored so far. Although they weren’t the first company to bring video games from the arcades and into the homes of players, it was Atari’s home Pong and VCS consoles that really domesticated video gaming. Constrained by both cost and technology, the VCS offered very little scope, either for graphical or for musical expression. On the one hand, those constraints dictated the sound of early gaming, but on the other, it posed developers a challenge and they pushed back, coming up with some very creative workarounds to the limitations. Now, that period also saw the very first professional video game composers emerge.
In the UK, the launch of the ZX Spectrum in 1982 really marked the beginning of the home gaming craze. In terms of sound and music, the Spectrum was even more limited than the Atari, offering just a single channel of square wave tones, without any possibility to vary the loudness. Again, though, developers responded by developing some very innovative coding techniques that pushed the Spectrum’s beeper well beyond its limits. In particular, using a method known as pulse wave modulation, game developers were able to create sophisticated, multichannel music with percussion and effects. The Spectrum’s big rival was Commodore’s 64.
Boasting more colourful graphics, more memory, and a sound chip, the SID, that was in a completely different league to either the Atari or the Spectrum, the 64 transformed the sound of video game music. No longer was it enough to tack on a bleepy dirge to the title screen of a game. Composers like Rob Hubbard brought real musicianship to video games, creating soundtracks with catchy melodies, strong bass lines, and driving percussion. They riffed off popular music, something that was only really made possible by the synth-like capabilities of the 64’s SID chip, and in turn, that allowed game music to become an important meta-layer of narrative to support the gameplay.
Now, looking ahead to next week, we’re going to focus on how video game music changed from being a relatively fixed and linear format to something non-linear, that could adapt in real time to player input, to better reflect the gameplay, an approach that really came into its own on Nintendo’s NES. We’ll investigate how video game music started to move away from synthetic sounds to more natural and expressive sounds, first of all, by triggering samples using the Paula chip on Commodore’s Amiga, and then by streaming pre-recorded music tracks directly from CD-ROM on consoles like Sony’s PlayStation.
As technology continued to evolve, the scope of those soundtracks increased and specialist tools, audio engines, and middleware, were developed to allow music specialists to compose and implement complex and non-linear music sequences. We’ll look at how packages like FMod and WWise fused that produced sound with the adaptive features of games like Super Mario Brothers. We’ll conclude by looking at how these specialist technologies have created niches in the industry. It’s not just that there are individuals who specialise in video game sound and music, but whole production studios – a new sector of the market – have grown up to service this area of the games industry.
Before we conclude this week’s activities, could I take a moment to remind you of some of the additional resources and support materials for this course? First of all, do please download and play some of the game ROMs on software emulators. Although it’s not quite the same thing as loading the original games from tape, it will at least let you hear the music in context, and some of those games are still an awful lot of fun to play. Do also download and listen to the music tracks, and follow up on some of the links and the recommended listening that I’ve included.
Listening to some of those other tracks will help to provide a broader context to the music and to the approaches of composition that we’ve been studying. And that might shed some light on where the video game composers of the 1980s took their inspiration. Also, if you’ve enjoyed hearing about how sound evolved on these vintage platforms, then do please check out a copy of my book, Bits and Pieces. It’s published by Oxford University Press, and gives a much more detailed account of both the underlying technologies and also the musical developments of this style of music. I’ll see you all again next week.

In this video, we’ll summarise what we’ve learned in the first week, and look forward to what we’ll be exploring in next week’s activities.

Please note that my book, Bits and Pieces: A History of Chiptunes, is still in the final stages of preparation for publication, and should be available early in 2018. If you’d like to know when it’s released, or if you would like to know of any readings or public lectures that I’ll be giving around the launch, then please follow my Twitter feed, @thesonsiebogle, or drop me an email at

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Video Game Design and Development: A Bit-by-Bit History of Video Game Music: Video Game Sound and Music

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