The album I shared with my friends last week kind of introduced this documentary, but just in case you didn’t read that: A long, long time ago, one of my old coworkers shared this documentary about video game music with me. I don’t think it’s any secret that I enjoy good video game music. It’s not just games I love, I have music from games I’ve never played just because I heard it and thought it was cool.
In the scope of video games, the opposite end of that is music that works in the game as background music but is so repetitive or whatever that when it’s the focus, is gets annoying within seconds. It’s not just about sound quality. There are bleep-and-bloopers which have been turned into great rock covers and terrible symphonic interpretations. Plenty of modern tunes get 8-bit-ified (similar to lullaby renditions or string quartet versions) as well, which, when done well, really highlight the songwriting. But not all vocal tunes translate well to instrumental covers.
I was talking to my wife recently about how when I was growing up, Looney Tunes used a lot of classical music for the background music (probably because it was public domain), but that’s where a lot of my first exposure to music came from. Later I’d be forced to learn classical music on piano, but the ones I recognized from cartoons were easier to learn, because I already knew them and I already had fond memories of them. It’s a traditional place to start, but some of that is pretty tough. I still can’t play it. As my own kid is growing up, I’m thinking about how to teach her how to play music. I’m starting with black/white, high/low and two/three (black notes) on the keyboard. As far as what songs to teach her, I figured I’d teach her songs she already knows, and which she’d enjoy learning how to play. Sometimes that might be licks from classical music she’s picked up from some kid’s show, or it might be some of the songs I sing her when she’s going to bed.
Being the youngest, I got introduced to new music during road trips. My dad would always put on The Beatles, Mason Williams, Booker T. and the MGs, the Ventures and other bands from his younger years. My siblings would put on things like They Might Be Giants or The Irish Rovers. Maybe not traditional children’s music, but still kid friendly. It wasn’t until junior high that I started really discovering my own music. And video games. It started as just wanting to listen to some of my favorite tracks from my favorite games, but it has since branched out into listening to any good music, whether it’s on the top 40 radio or in the background of some YouTube let’s play or anywhere in between. And when I was supposed to be practicing piano, I’d usually just be plunking out familiar melodies of songs – often video game soundtracks, because they were relatively simple. I was a music major when I started college, but I quit that because I felt like they were taking all the “play” out of playing music. It wasn’t fun anymore. I want music to be fun, both for myself and for my kid.
This documentary series seems to focus mostly on video game music’s influence on electronic artists, but it has influenced a whole generation of musicians like me. And it’s interesting to realize a lot of Nintendo (or at least bass player Hip Tanaka)’s music was influenced by reggae (like the Mighty Diamonds). I already knew keyboardist Koji Kondo was heavily influenced by prog bands like Deep Purple; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Friendship; and King Crimson, and how Nobuo Uematsu was thinking of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze when he was composing One-Winged Angel from Final Fantasy VII, but it’s nice to know where some of these other guys were coming from.
I don’t know if it’s coincidence or real inspiration, but I’ve always thought there was a little bit of Django Reinhardt‘s Undecided in Saria’s Song from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (especially around 55 seconds into the tune).
Anyway, there’s a lot of beauty in the simplicity of those square 8-bit sounds. I always get more creative when I have to work within constraints (Hideo Kojima talks about that a little in the last episode, although quite a few of the composers infer something similar), so it makes me appreciate the composers as more than just musicians, but technical geniuses as well. This music (and working within weird, usually self-imposed constraints) helps remind me how music can be fun.