Composing Classics: A History of Video Game Music

The Strong National Museum of Play

Music sets the tone for video games. From computer-generated blips and boops to fully orchestrated scores, music provides video games with a sonic backdrop that inspires smiles, laughter, and even tears. This exhibit explores the history of video game music through 13 of its most influential composers.

Arcade game:Space Invaders Arcade Game Arcade game:Space Invaders Arcade Game (1978) by TaitoThe Strong National Museum of Play

Tomohiro Nishikado (Space Invaders 1978)

Taito’s 1978 hit arcade game Space Invaders featured one of gaming’s first continuous background soundtracks. Designer Tomohiro Nishikado created the space shooter’s musical theme—only four thumping notes played over and over—but the song sped up as descending enemy aliens got closer to a player’s bases. The heart-pounding music created a sense of urgency that kept players coming back again and again.

Theme from Space Invaders (1978) by Tomohiro NishikadoThe Strong National Museum of Play

33 1/3: Koji Kondo's Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack (2015) by Bloomsbury AcademicThe Strong National Museum of Play

Koji Kondo (Super Mario Bros. 1985)

When Koji Kondo joined Nintendo in 1984, he became the company’s first employee to focus specifically on music composition. Soon he’d create some of the most beloved and familiar songs in gaming history, including the main themes of Super Mario Bros., a bouncy tune with short repeatable segments; and The Legend of Zelda, a two-line melody he composed in a single day.

"World 1-1" from Super Mario Bros. (1985) by Shigeru MiyamotoThe Strong National Museum of Play

Famicom Disk System Metroid (1986) by NintendoThe Strong National Museum of Play

Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka (Metroid 1986)

Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka—composer, sound designer, and creator of the audio hardware for Nintendo’s Famicom and Game Boy—is best known for his wide range of game music compositions, including the minimalistic and industrial sounds of Metroid. In that action-adventure game he punctuated the music and sound effects with moments of silence, enhancing the atmosphere of isolation and suspense.

Main Theme from Metroid (1986) by Hirokazu TanakaThe Strong National Museum of Play

Amstrad CPC Wizball (1987) by Ocean SoftwareThe Strong National Museum of Play

Martin Galway (Wizball 1987)

Irish chiptune composer Martin Galway produced music for games published on early personal computers such as the Commodore 64 and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Inspired by rock and roll and electronic music, Galway used a computer’s built-in programmable sound generator chip to create memorable themes for the popular Ultima and Wing Commander franchises, and stand-alone titles such as Wizball and Rambo: First Blood Part II.

Title Theme from Wizball (1987) by Martin GalwayThe Strong National Museum of Play

Akumajō Dracula X Soundtrack (1993) by KonamiThe Strong National Museum of Play

Michiru Yamane (Castlevania: Bloodlines 1994)

Composer and pianist Michiru Yamane spent two decades at Konami as part of the company’s sound team, the Konami Kukeiha Club. Her compositions for the Castlevania series, starting with Bloodlines in 1994, combined classical music—which she felt meshed well with the series’ old-world, vampiric feel—with the rock music prevalent in the franchise’s earlier titles.

“The Sinking Old Sanctuary” from Castlevania: Bloodlines (1994) by Michiru YamaneThe Strong National Museum of Play

Chrono Trigger Original Soundtrack (1999) by Squaresoft / DigiCubeThe Strong National Museum of Play

Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger 1995)

Though now recognized as one of video gaming’s foremost composers, Yasunori Mitsuda nearly quit his position at game developer Square after being relegated only to sound effect projects. He has since composed dozens of soundtracks inspired by traditional Celtic, Japanese, and classical music, most famously for the role-playing games Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. Today, his music is widely performed by orchestras and remixed by fans.

“Corridors of Time” from Chrono Trigger (1995) by Yasunori MitsudaThe Strong National Museum of Play

"Baba Yetu" Sheet Music (2011) by Alfred Music CompanyThe Strong National Museum of Play

Christopher Tin (Civilization IV 2005)

Christopher Tin composed the main theme of Civilization IV at the behest of the game’s lead designer, Soren Johnsen. His production “Baba Yetu," a choral, Swahili version of The Lord's Prayer, became the first video game song to win a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s). In 2019, it played during the signing of a peace agreement between warring parties in Mozambique.

"Baba Yetu" from Civilization IV (2005) by Christopher TinThe Strong National Museum of Play

Final Fantasy VII Original Soundtrack (1997) by SquaresoftThe Strong National Museum of Play

Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy VII 1997)

Self-taught musician Nobuo Uematsu raised video game scores to the level of classical compositions worthy of being performed in concert halls. Best known for his complex and emotional themes for the Final Fantasy franchise, his most famous songs include Final Fantasy VII’s heart-pounding “One-Winged Angel,” which he called an “orchestral track with a destructive impact.”

"One-Winged Angel" from Final Fantasy VII (1997) by Nobuo UematsuThe Strong National Museum of Play

Silent Hill Vinyl Soundtrack (2017) by Konami / Mondo TeesThe Strong National Museum of Play

Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill 1999)

Akira Yamaoka’s score for Silent Hill differed from previous survival-horror soundtracks by playing nearly continuously during the game, rather than having music erupt suddenly to signify danger, which created an atmosphere of perpetual tension. Some songs contained so many non-traditional, industrial sounds that his team thought the code was faulty, until he explained how the music increased the player’s unease.

“Until Death” from Silent Hill (1999) by Akira YamaokaThe Strong National Museum of Play

Halo Original Soundtrack (2002) by BungieThe Strong National Museum of Play

Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori (Halo: Combat Evolved 2001)

Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori joined forces in 2001 to compose music for the first-person shooter Halo: Combat Evolved. They focused on a single theme that could be re-used and re-arranged, giving the game a consistent, familiar backdrop without becoming repetitive. By using music sparsely, they increased dramatic impact when it appeared. Though very few games of the era produced commercial soundtracks, Halo’s became a rousing success.

"Halo" from Halo: Combat Evolved (2001) by Marty O’Donnell and Michael SalvatoriThe Strong National Museum of Play

"Society Suite in 4 Movements: 1. Bourrée" Sheet Music (2012) by UbisoftThe Strong National Museum of Play

Winifred Phillips (Assassin's Creed III: Liberation 2012)

Since childhood, Winifred Phillips has loved both music and video games. She married those passions to compose best-selling games like God of War, LittleBigPlanet, and SimAnimals. In 2012, she scored Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, combining a baroque string orchestra with African drums and flutes to denote the dual French aristocratic and African slave ancestry of protagonist Aveline de Grandpré.

“Society Suite in 4 Movements” (Beta Version) from Assassin's Creed III: Liberation (2012) by Winifred PhillipsThe Strong National Museum of Play

Journey Vinyl Soundtrack (2015) by ThatgamecompanyThe Strong National Museum of Play

Austin Wintory (Journey 2012)

Music forms the backbone of Thatgamecompany’s art adventure Journey. Austin Wintory likened his emotional, reactive score to a cello concert with the player as the star soloist, supported by flutes, violas, and harps to represent other elements encountered in the game's world.

“Nascence” from Journey (2012) by Austin WintoryThe Strong National Museum of Play

Nintendo 3DS Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology (2017) by AtlusThe Strong National Museum of Play

Yoko Shimomura (Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology 2017)

Yoko Shimomura is one of the most highly recognized video game composers. For more than three decades, her varied musical work for Street Fighter II, Kingdom Hearts, Super Mario RPG, Final Fantasy XV, and other games have consistently evoked deeply emotional responses from players. Her signature style includes a heavy emphasis on string instruments, even during battle music that traditionally features percussion.

“An Earnest Desire of Grey” from Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology (2017) by Yoko ShimomuraThe Strong National Museum of Play

Microsoft Xbox One Mortal Kombat 11 (2019) by NetherRealm StudiosThe Strong National Museum of Play

Wilbert Roget, II (Mortal Kombat 11, 2019)
Wilbert Roget, II began creating video game music in 2008 as a staff composer for LucasArts. In 2019 he scored Mortal Kombat 11, working on a franchise that originally inspired his love of video games. His soundtrack propels play with a dark, octatonic scale and uses Middle Eastern, East Asian, and Scandinavian influences to give characters individual leitmotif themes that reflect their backstories.

Mortal Kombat 11 (2019) by NetherRealm StudiosThe Strong National Museum of Play

Final Fantasy XV Piano Collection (2017) by Square Enix MusicThe Strong National Museum of Play

Conclusion

We play video games for many reasons: engaging stories, beloved characters, enjoyable mechanics, or just to set a high score. But music is at the center of our multisensory gaming experiences. These composers provided unforgettable music backdrops that changed the way we heard video games.

Credits: Story

Composing Classics: A History of Video Game Music is produced by The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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