Music Video Game Music
William Gibbons
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0227


Over the past half-century, video games have transformed from a niche hobby for technology-minded enthusiasts into a multibillion dollar media industry and a defining medium of the 21st century. Music has played a role in that history and development since almost the beginning—a crucial, if sometimes unacknowledged, aspect of the gameplay experience. Music in video games shares many functions with music in other media, such as film and television; it helps to establish mood and setting, for instance, and often provides crucial narrative information to players. Likewise, particularly since the 1990s many game composers borrow stylistic features from film genres (such as fantasy or horror), as well as compositional techniques such as leitmotifs. Yet given the degree of interactivity with players, as well as the unique technological possibilities and constraints of the medium, game music differs from that of other televisual media in many respects. Consequently, in recent years a wealth of scholarship devoted to the history and analysis of game music has emerged. (Particularly in the UK, the subfield is sometimes referred to as “ludomusicology,” from the Latin “ludus,” meaning “game” or “play.”) Because games were (and occasionally still are) regarded as unsophisticated mass-market entertainment, academic scholarship on their music was initially slow to materialize. Yet while there is essentially no scholarly research on music in video games before 2004, since that time the quantity and diversity of research has increased dramatically. Early scholarship in game music focused largely on the medium in relationship with film, followed by research outlining basic historical trends and compositional techniques. With that foundation laid, since about 2010, studies have expanded in a number of directions, including detailed explorations of music in specific time periods or game genres, hermeneutical case studies of particularly innovative or influential games, or comprehensive critical approaches to analyzing games.

General Overviews

Likely as a result of the relative newness of game-music studies as a discipline, there are relatively few substantive general overviews of the topic. Earlier efforts in particular, such as Whalen 2004 and Munday 2007, aimed at introducing analytical issues unique to game music while still remaining situated within previously existing approaches to music in media. Summers 2016, along with a number of smaller studies, continues and expands this path by developing methodologies and interpretative frameworks tailored to games but rooted in media studies. On the other hand, overviews such as Fritsch 2013 and especially Collins 2008 structure their narratives predominantly on the technological evolution of game music (the organology of game music, in a sense).

  • Collins, Karen. Game Sound: An Introduction to the History, Theory, and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design. Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT, 2008.

    Groundbreaking introduction to game music and sound effects from the 1970s to the mid-2000s, focusing largely on technological development and compositional strategies.

  • Fritsch, Melanie. “History of Video Game Music.” In Music and Game: Perspectives on a Popular Alliance. Edited by Peter Moormann, 11–40. Wiesbaden, Germany: Springer, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-531-18913-0_1

    Concise chronological narrative of game music from a technological perspective, mostly addressing arcades, consoles, and home computers but also including some background on mobile devices and game music concerts.

  • Munday, Rod. “Music in Video Games.” In Music, Sound and Multimedia: From the Live to the Virtual. Edited by Jamie Sexton, 51–67. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748625338.003.0004

    Building on film music theories, this early study argues that video game music must be understood in terms of function rather than style, and that the roles of music in games are primarily based on immersing players in believable game worlds.

  • Summers, Tim. Understanding Video Game Music. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781316337851

    Thorough introduction to game music and its relationship to other media. Useful also in its synthesis and clear explanation of scholarly approaches to game music studies.

  • Whalen, Zach. “Play Along: An Approach to Video Game Music.” Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research 4.1 (2004).

    Early study in theorizing game music as distinct from other media, focusing on issues of player immersion and flow. Though somewhat out of date, this is a helpful entry point into secondary literature, particularly for those familiar with media studies.

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