17 min read

Music Has The Right to Children

I discuss some thoughts on music and what game design might be able to learn from it.

I got into games largely because of music. My Mode 7 co-founder Ian Hardingham asked me to write the soundtrack for his sword-fighting opus Determinance; that process brought me into the world of game development and I’ve never left.

I made my very first album 20 years ago. Admittedly, it contained a MIDI version of “Everything I Do” by Bryan Adams where I’d purposefully reversed all of the pitch-bend data to mangle the awful pan pipe sound which had been drafted in as a vocal substitute….but that’s by the by. In that time, I’ve formed some quite strong opinions and internalised a fair few creative ideas which I feel can be relevant to both games and music.

Brains on Games

The somewhat controversial cognitive psychologist Stephen Pinker famously characterised music as “auditory cheesecake”. More recently Daniel J Levitin’s “This is Your Brain on Music” has attempted to synthesise, in popular form, the mechanisms behind our appreciation of sonic beauty. To him, music is “a type of perceptual illusion in which our brain imposes structure and order on a sequence of sounds”.

I believe that both music and games are composed of structures which cause our brains to sit up and take notice. They carefully play with systems that the mind uses to keep us alive. The pleasure we get from learning and controlling a game can be similar to the fun we derive from mentally decoding a musical phrase; both play on the modular interoperability of the brain.

A Song Without Words

Much of the music that has influenced me contains melodies which seem lyrical but aren’t comprised of literal vocal phrases.

Here’s one of my all-time favourite dance records by the producer Ben Gold. I’ve timestamped where the main melody occurs:

To me, that melody evokes speech: it has the cadence and meter of a person describing an important or emotive experience. It sounds a bit like a leader addressing a huge audience and trying to stir them up.

“Anaphora” is a literary term which effectively means “repetition”. Here’s some Walt Whitman:

From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
The 7th drop at the start of the Ben Gold’s phrase reminds me of the “from” here, it’s the signal that the next important thing is coming and we recognise its reiteration almost instantly.

Although it’s not a completely classic example, I think there’s an element of call-and-response to this phrase as well. Asking and answering questions is a key component of speech writing and rhetoric; this compounds the overall effect of the melody.

When the filter opens up at 3:22 and you can hear the lead sound in all its glory, this phrase becomes more insistent: it builds from a low whisper to almost a scream; a harmonically rich sound that fills your perception. The crowd is roaring and the speaker raises his voice above them, riding the wave.

Then it repeats faster and faster, getting more and more intense until the build happens, the tension is released and it joins up with the simple grammar of the chord sequence from the track’s introduction. I really recommend going back and listening to the intro to see how Gold develops the theme if you have time: there’s so many little tiny details (like the “dum dum dum dada-dada-dum CHA!” drum fill which precedes each major section) which all serve to bolster this sense of narrative significance.

One true master of the non-verbal melody is the great BB King, who sadly passed away this year.

King famously called his guitar Lucille; he personified it so that he could make it sing and duet with it.

His playing in the introduction tells you all you need to know about the story of the song before he opens his mouth. When it gets to the chorus, he politely shares the stage with the guitar, rather than the other way around.

I first saw him live at quite a young age and what struck me most about the performance was that you could tell it was him on the stage from the very first note he hit: that attack and singing sustained vibrato were truly electrifying.

Mechanical Orchestra

Since John Carmack’s original utterance in the 90's, legions of sexually challenged dribbling young men have been keen to describe game narrative as “like the story in a porn movie”.

So, can a game talk to us in another way? The real “content” that a game is conveying is often non-verbal and hard to articulate. I’ll never tire of quoting pro Smash player PPMD’s assertion that a good game is like “a high-level conversation”.

The KLF famously said that you should be able to whistle the tune of any pop song in the shower the next day without difficulty. Whether it’s Mario’s jump, the way it feels to move units around in Heroes of the Storm or the fireball control motion in Street Fighter: individual game mechanics have a way of burning their apparent significance into our brain. We feel them after the effect.

Perhaps in game design, the ideal is to create a mechanic that tricks the player’s mind into believing it is undertaking a fundamentally significant or useful process; something which has the emotional intensity of a great melody.

I always think that, in a game where you move a character, it should just be fun to move around. The core mechanic of the game is what players will return to, what they’ll think about the next day: the trick is to make it seem profound even when it isn’t.

Some of this is about feedback. Peggle’s zoom-in and Hallelujah Chorus are hilariously over-the-top, but they lend a greater importance to a simple action. I think, though, that this is something of the essence of game design: a repetitious, simple grammar that keeps asserting itself. It’s one of the reasons I’m often concerned to see designers who build systems with no idea of core mechanics: I’m not sure where the melody is going to come from.

Scratching the Surface

Have a listen to this:

Boards of Canada are an electronic outfit whose entire remit is to evoke a nostalgic, eerie sensation. They use tape machines, distortion and saturation effects, vinyl crackle, outdated sampling algorithms and out-of-tune analogue synthesizers to create a weird atmosphere: both comforting and edged with regret.

The subtle tape snippets of conversation, the breathing, the snare hit which sounds like clanking metal: everything in this track makes you feel like you’re hazily remembering a physical place. It’s simultaneously alienating and familiar.

Mattie Brice’s recent notes on patina and intimacy made me think that perhaps games could think in these terms a little more.

One thing that has been present in games for a while, but is often forgotten, is the idea of atmospheric coherence. I always bring up Command and Conquer’s installation sequence when I think in these terms: as soon as the UI starts animating around and you hear “Sound Hardware Initialised”, you know that you’re being taken to a very specific place.

It’s interesting that modern space games have chosen to put you back in the cockpit. I still feel that Wing Commander does the best job of this:

Patina - and polish - are an accumulation of very small details.

If you’re not a musician then I don’t recommend watching too much of this video, but do have a look at a little snippet of legendary drum ‘n bass producers Noisia discussing one element of one drum sound in a particular track:

If you do happen to be a musician then watch the whole thing! It’s astonishing.

This is a truly terrifying level of detail; frankly it’s not always necessary. It reminds me of Phil Fish squinting to paint a single brick in Fez: it immediately seems like madness, but if this obsession is applied with a singular aim, it can be extremely powerful.

Here’s a brilliant Noisia tune:

Listen to how, even in the very sparse introduction, the individual ride cymbals (“ching!”) are very slightly different. This helps to add to the space around the track, making it feel slightly more alive and organic.

Also, there are some cheaper tricks. The light bass growls in the intro make us feel like something big is coming, but they don’t fill the entire frequency spectrum so our brain gets used to the gaps. Then when the gaps are suddenly filled as the main bassline kicks in at 1:06, there’s quite an intense surprise. There’s lots of little tricks around that “drop” to make everything feel pacier as well, almost like the track is leaping out of the blocks to get started before it touches down as the drums start up.

So, coherence can be hugely important when aiming for a particular effect. In Day of the Tentacle, humour suffuses everything, from the animated introduction to the solutions to the puzzles. You have to be in the right mood to play: get that state right and you’ll (largely) fly through the game unimpeded; it’s something that very few adventure games have ever accomplished. There’s so many little details - from the way the fake barf peels off the ceiling, to the posters on the walls - that keep you in that state.

Making the Rules

One way that musicians can be innovative is to break established genre rules. Punk is the example which is continually brought up, and Brendan Caldwell’s series on RPS was a fascinating look at punk’s implications for game design.

Any formal transgression, though, usually establishes its own boundaries. One musician who, to me, epitomises this is Venetian Snares. Here’s Epidermis:

His pioneering breakcore is a weird evolution of jungle. Almost always in 7/8 and featuring a thunderous evolving combination of single drum hits, his style has evolved and occasionally taken some wacky side-turns (such as into orchestral collaboration) over the years, but it always fundamentally seems to return to a similar rule-set.

Epidermis opens with a classic “reese” bassline popularised by older drum ‘n bass tracks like this one:

Eventually though, the bassline strays from the familiar three-note pattern and ends up going all over the place. The drums get progressively more intense until we actually end up with a cut-up jazz drum solo at 3:34.

Here Mr Aaron Funk (that’s his real name) has very much made up his own rules, then pushed them to the absolute limit. It always seems to me that pioneering musicians really are often simply operating within strict self-defined genres, rather than randomly experimenting.

[A quick aside: Venetian Snares recently posted on social media that he has hit huge unforeseen financial problems and asks that anyone who likes his music consider purchasing some from his Bandcamp. I think supporting one of the most important musicians of our time will matter to many of you, so please think about doing so.]

In game design terms “inventing a new genre” can be one of the highest levels of aspiration. What we can potentially learn from music here is that constraints are great: experimental game design can benefit hugely from limitations and rules, even if those rules are different from anyone else’s.

These changes can come about from taking an existing genre and overemphasising the parts which the designer finds cool. Our Frozen Synapse was an attempt to make a simultaneous turn-based game which eliminated the protracted set-up phase found in older titles like Laser Squad Nemesis. Super Meat Boy distills the platformer to a series of intricate, specific challenge. A great design approach can be to find what you believe to be unnecessary, strip it away completely and then establish new rules for yourself around the “good bit”.

Experimental work doesn’t have to be abrasive or confrontational either. Plaid, whose music is often contemplative and peaceful, created their style after years of innovating within traditional techno music:

Bit Blizzard

An excellent design tactic can be is to simplify something which has niche popularity down to its core elements, then add a huge amount of polish and reward for players.

Blizzard are incredible at this: Hearthstone uses a carefully selected subset of Magic: The Gathering’s rules but then adds a vast amount of accessibility, fun and polish.

I think the reason that Chipzel is now probably the most popular chip musician in the world is somewhat similar. The chip music scene has been a lively underground movement for a long time, but I can’t think of another 8-bit musician who has broken through to the same extent as her.

Here’s her “Focus” from Super Hexagon:

This track takes the familiar GameBoy sound but combines it with a great solidity of sound design and structural awareness: effectively polish and accessibility. It has whiste-able melody; it has ordered grammar and a powerful momentum. Chipzel has taken the parts of chip music which were always generally appealing — the delightfully crunchy synthesis and the melodic sentiments — and wrapped them into a package which just works.

The technical skill required to wring this level of modern production from a GameBoy is not inconsiderable. Her kinetic performances and proactive approach to gigging have won her a lot of fans too: she didn’t just magically summon popularity from the GameBoy’s DMG chip, of course!

Danceable, fun, melodic music will always have a venue and an innate capacity to propagate itself; with games, simplicity and distillation can very often be a designer’s friend.

I truly believe that indies can adopt this approach: it’s all about how you target your efforts. Taking something which is fun, but mechanically obscure, and then figuring out how to present it to a new audience can be inherently rewarding. When we come to design things, thinking about how they can be propagated and presented without compromising their vision or creative freedom can actually be liberating.


There’s a genre of electronic music which I call “skateboarding music”. Not because it sounds like some crusty Californian indie rock three-piece, but because it’s predicated entirely on showing off impressive tricks and combinations which have never been heard before.

Here’s Autechre’s Gantz Graf and its mind-melting video:

When this came out, nobody had heard anything quite like it. There was some awareness of granular synthesis (the technique used to create the kind of fragmentary splintering drum sounds); in fact a similar trick was employed in the “annoying bit” of Fatboy Slim’s Rockafella Skank four years earlier:

Creating a coherent — though admittedly difficult and harsh — piece of music from this technique was something that hadn’t really occurred outside academia and tiresome “laptop music” circles, though. Its intensity and weirdness suddenly couple with a keen ear for musical structure and a few regulatory elements — the repeating hi-hat sound drives the track along and helps you keep pace against the odd sonic tides.

Electronic music is now in a state where this sort of technical innovation is pretty difficult to achieve: most things have now been done; computational power is such that most plausible manipulation of sound is now not only possible but instantaneous. For years, it was impossible to change the speed of a sample without also changing its pitch (timestretching); then it was only possible with slow offline processing. Now, I can do that instantly by pressing a single button within Ableton Live.

One of the holy grails is still the manipulation and extraction of individual instruments within a completed mix. For example, going into a recording of a whole orchestra playing at once and being able to pull out just the violins: that’s currently not possible. Similarly physical modelling — where software directly models the acoustic properties of a hypothetical real instrument — is still quite crude: I can imagine Ganz Graf style experiments based on those techniques.

Similarly in games, many advanced rendering and physics techniques are now well within the grasp of indie developers. Even realistic VR is coming to a form where anyone can play with it.

I still think that the “skateboarding” ideology is relevant for creative people, despite the rapid pace of technology. Even if you’ve discovered an extremely niche original technique, thinking about how it can be used to create an entire work can be fascinating. There are still many highly original, visually stylish games in development like A Light In Chorus:

In games, we’re in a time where nostalgia is very dominant: experimentation is tough but making sure your game has at least some original tech or a combination of things nobody has ever seen before can really make it stand out.

Recently, I’ve been very influenced by the sound design work of Richard Devine. His music and sounds are both nostalgic — evoking the “Autechre era” for me — and also occasionally really surprising.  Try this.

Trying to innovate technically can really help with a creative rut too: playing around is a great way to get yourself out of a feeling that your stuck with some dull creative limitations.

Music for Games

With the exception of Super Hexagon, I’ve steered clear of game soundtracks so far as the interplay between games and their scores is an entire article in itself.

Personally, I would like game soundtracks to focus more on scoring the overall game design rather than Mickey Mousing just the player’s experience. Too many soundtracks lose their ability to communicate because both their structure and melodic content (or lack thereof) are in thrall to the constant need to mimic the action.

Something which confuses me about this is that some of the most powerful movie music uses tonal juxtaposition or even simply ignores the action to focus on being interesting in its own right. If games truly want to emulate the production values of film, they have to allow composers to tread outside obvious territory.

In Ghost in the Shell, Motoko’s fight with the tank is underscored by Kenji Kawai’s ultra-sparse calming ambient, allowing the gun sounds and bright digital reverb to stab through as percussive punctuation:

If this scene were scored with abrasive clashing percussive action music, as it might well be in a game, the themes of the movie would get lost, not to mention the overriding atmosphere.

With the Frozen Synapse soundtrack, I was trying to draw in a variety of different influences. I wanted players to feel like their thoughts about the game were part of the information flowing through it, so the music would be more about facilitating those, than the action happening on screen. I think I got closest to capturing that idea in this track:

I’m not saying that’s the perfect way to approach soundtracking a game, or even to think about the player’s experience: it’s more something I don’t see a lot of people doing and I think deserves further exploration.


Talking about creativity across mediums can be a bit vague and unhelpful; also game design has a logical, architectural quality which music lacks. Having said that, I definitely believe that the two can have a conversation: I’ve certainly found that my knowledge of music production helps when I’m working on more linear single player experiences.

Ultimately, art seeks to play with the brain and to make it work in interesting ways. Whether we’re triggering fight-or-flight with an abrasive high-frequency sound or giving the player a satisfying reward for creating order in a system, we need to be thinking about the impact and outcome of our processes.

Both music and game design can be deeply personal; they can be about satisfying the whims of their creator. That’s often the best place to go for inspiration: experiencing life and other media can make you into someone who is able to compose new and invigorating experiences for others. So, while focusing on effects is important, so too introspective exploration can play its part.

A love of implicit story, of detail, of atmosphere and a curiosity about making new forms are perhaps the traits of any worthwhile artist: as the medium of games develops, so too will those working within it.

To play us out, here’s DJ Fury with Lemonade Raygun just because it’s awesome:


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