Interactive music – the importance of music in games


Repetition can be, and often is, as big of a problem with video game music as it is with video game sound in general. One of the main reasons for this, just like with the sound design, being that video games are an interactive media, which makes it difficult to compose music that will adapt to every possible outcome of gameplay. One way of scoring a game is to loop music tracks in certain areas. This is a technique used in a great variety of games, all through video game history; You have the looping music in Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985) and you have looping music in Dark Souls (From Software, 2011). It should be mentioned, though, that some composers have gone to greater lengths in making the loops feel less repetitive, which is the case of the music for Super Mario Bros. Here Koji Kondo has incorporated out-of-order repetitions, which means that one section will not repeat after the same section twice (Schartman, 2015). This can create the illusion of the music not being as repetitive. Even though looping music is interactive in the sense that the player holds some control over when the loop is being played and not (Stevens and Raybould, 2011), it can still become and feel repetitive because the player might spend a lot of time in a given area. Some games give a solution to this by not having the music loop endlessly; Instead the music will fade out after a set amount of time (Collins, 2009). This, however, might make the player feel like the game is waiting for them to finish, which can be hurtful to the gaming experience and potentially lead to a break in immersion.


Games released on the Xbox 360 (Microsoft, 2005) must give the player the possibility of turning the music of, and even substitute the music with their own choice of music (Collins, 2009). It is also becoming increasingly normal that games released on any platform offer the opportunity to adjust the volume of both music and sound. In one way, this lets the player adjust the sound to their own preferences. This might be regarded as a positive feature, as players will value different parts of the sound mix: Some players might feel that the sound design is of the most importance, while others will feel that the music is more important. As the player gains more control over the sound, it also becomes more interactive. It might also make the sound feel less repetitive, as the player can choose to change the sound mix with every playthrough. What some – the composers and sound designers especially – might consider the downside to this, is that this possibility also enables the player to turn the sound and music completely off. Some consider the possibility of turning the audio off as a “testament to the power of audio: that audio is such an important part of the experience that if a player doesn’t like it, it is better to turn it off than to ruin the game” (Vachon, 2009, pp. 1–2). In some instances, it might be good to have the possibility to turn the music off; When you are playing on your mobile device on the bus and you forgot your headphones being one of them. Another instance, pointed out by Stephen Totilo (2011) is that turning the music down, gives the player the opportunity to multi-task, i.e. by listening to a podcast instead of listening to the game. In the case of the former, it is in some way understandable that the music and sound in general will have to be turned down – many of us will have experienced how annoying it can be when someone is playing music out loud on the bus. Turning it down thus becomes a sign of respect for the people around you. In the case of the latter, however, one question begs to be asked: “Why is it that we play video games to begin with?” People will have different answers to this question, and to some it may indeed be to “have something to do while I listen to my podcasts”. It might also be possible that some players feel more immersed by either playing their own music, playing no music all together, or it might even be possible that the type of music played is not as important as one might think. A study on the concept of cognitive immersion, conducted by Rod Munday (2007) suggests that although the presence of music is important in immersing a player in a game, the choice of music is not as important. Munday states that music helps to create immersion into video games, by “occupying the area of the brain dedicated to dealing with non-linguistic sounds”, which then “prevents this area from hunting around for stimuli outside the game” (p. 57). In perceiving audio, the brain is capable of hearing any number of sounds, while still being able to focus on one sound and by that exclude less relevant sounds (Munday, 2007). In the context of video games, music is only but one out of many audio sources. Thus, Munday implies that music, even though it is of importance to the experience of the game, will be one of the sounds the brain does not focus on – making the type of music playing irrelevant.


If music is superfluous, or if the type of music has no real impact on the degree of immersion the player feels, why is it that the music scores for video games are so highly regarded by many players? Every year, video game music is being played in concert halls around the world, in shows such as Video Games Live; there is an online radio channel dedicated to the music of Final Fantasy. If the music really has no impact on the player’s experience of a game, would we then remember these scores, and seek them out outside of the game? One argument could be that even though the music is memorable, we would still feel the same level of immersion without the music, and that the brain works in twofold; We acknowledge the music for what it is – good music – while a separate process is at work in creating our sense of immersion. In order to fully understand in which way the type of music may or may not impact the player’s experience of the game, it is also necessary to take into consideration the different levels and kinds there are of immersion. While it may be possible to feel immersed in a game with any kind of music playing, the player might not get the experience of being fully immersed. As playing a game is a highly subjective experience, it would be difficult to accurately measure the impact music does or does not have. The answer might also be as easy as that: It varies from player to player.


In some games, turning the music of might be the result of the player feeling there is too much music. This seems to be one of the reasons that lead Totilo (2011) to turn the music off in Read Dead Redemption (Rockstar, 2010), as he explains that he would not turn off the music in those instances where the music is of utmost importance – for example the long ride home at the end of the game. The lack of music can be just as effective in creating a sense of presence, and even more so, the lack of music could have the possibility of making those instances with music feel more powerful. To quote Truman Fisher: “the pause is as important as the note”. A good example of this can be seen in Dark Souls (From Software, 2011), where, in the open world, there is only music in certain areas – most of which are safe areas in the game world. The music becomes extra effective here in that the player will quickly learn to associate lack of music with danger and the presence of music with safety (Burdal, 2014).


As music in games is becoming more and more interactive, in the sense that it is a part of the game’s core mechanics rather than it just being there for enhancing the mood or working as a response system for the player, we might come to see that the doubt in whether or not music is important will vanish. One game that uses the music in such a way is Journey (Thatgamecompany, 2012). In Journey, both the music and sound design work in such a way that the game would most likely feel very empty and shallow without it. As this blog is mainly focused around video game music, the sound design will not be discussed in depth, although the music and sound design often blends together in the game. This is evident in the song talk that the character does as the player pushes a button. This sound is a mixture of re-pitched and processed bird sounds, made by Steve Johnson, the sound designer, musical elements made by Austin Wintory, the composer, and the vocals of a singer. The musical elements are further varied to fit in tonality and style with the music of the different levels (Johnson, 2012). As the player hits the circle button, the character will make a chiming/chirping sound (song talk). The length and quality of this sound varies, depending on the length of which the player holds the button. Johnson (2012) explains this function as such “the singing in the game is of four types; a light quick button press for a ‘coo’, a hard quick press for a ‘chirp’, a reasonably-held press for a ‘call’, and a long-held press for a large ‘shout’.” When the player has a companion – is playing with another player – the two different characters will also make different sounds, so they are easily distinguishable. Although this sound technically belongs in the sound design realm of the game, the musical elements added by Wintory, could make these sounds seem more like musical stingers, responses to the player upon interaction with the controller. Similar musical stingers also accompanies the player when picking up fabric for the scarf. Many other points can be made about the music, just by looking at the first level alone: The general ambience music of the first level is mostly made up of droning sounds or organ points. However, as the player approaches objects in the game world, the music will change and a variation of the Journey theme will play.

Here the music is first at the droning state, and as the player approaches the stone with the rune symbol and the pieces of fabric, and then absorbs the rune, the theme starts playing. As the player floats away from this area, the music goes back to the previous state. As you can still hear the drones play underneath the theme, it would seem that a parallel, or layered approach has been used as a technique here. This musical event informs the player of the fact that picking up fabrics are important, and also that they should look for more runes. This part also shows the close entanglement between the sound design and the music, as the sounds the fabric and rune makes, just as easily could be regarded as a part of the score as of the sound design. These instances keep happening as the player goes through the first level, and in all cases it seems like a parallel/layered technique has been used.


Going through the game in detail, would show that there are so many other things to point out, that really strengthens the argument for why music is of great importance in video games. In the case of Journey, it would simply be impossible to imagine the game without music – as the music moves and evolves with every action done by the player. It could be argued that the music is indeed a dynamic part of the gameplay itself. Even though not all games are Journey, and even though the music of most video games does not aim to do what the music of Journey does, this example should show the importance music can have on the experience of a game, and we might discover that this is the case for more games than we think. To take from personal experience with a completely different game: In retrospect of playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda, 2011), I’ve realised that I most likely would not regard that game as highly had it not been for the music. I’ve even contemplated on whether or not I would even like it – that, of course, is just the opinion of one against many, and cannot be used as a base of anything. While the importance of music will depend on the type of game, players should at the very least give the music a chance to see how it might impact the experience before turning it of.



Borda, Melissa (2013) “Journey: A Critical Analysis” [Online]. Arcade : The Best from Game Design at VFS. Available from: <; [Accessed 13/11/15]

Broomhall, John (2013) “Heard About: Journey” [Online]. Develop. Available from <; [Accessed 13/11/15]

Collins, Karen (2009) “An Introduction to Procedural Music in Video Games”. Contemporary Music Review. Vol. 28, No. 1. 5–15.

Final Fantasy Radio [Online]. Available from <> [Accessed 15/11/15].

GadgetGirlKylie “JOURNEY PS4 1080P 60FPS No Commentary FULL Complete Walkthrough” [Online]. YouTube. Available from <> [Accessed 15/11/15].

Johnson, Steve (2012) “The Sound Design of Journey” [Online]. Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Games. <

journey.php?print=1> [Accessed 13/11/15]

Leigh, Alexander (2012) “Journey’s composer finds a game’s soul through his music” [Online]. Gamasutra: The Art and Business of Making Games. Available from: <; [Accessed 13/11/15]

Munday, Rod (2007) “Music in Video Games”. In J. Sexton (ed.) Music, Sound and Multimedia: From the Live to the Virtual. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Pp. 51–67.

Schartman, Andrew (2015) Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack. New York; London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Stevens, Richard and Dave Raybould (2011) The Game Audio Tutorial. A Practical Guide to Sound and Music for Interactive Games. Boston: Focal Press.

Totilo, Stephen (2011) “The Year I Gained Courage to Ignore Video Game Music” [Online]. Kotaku. Available from <> [Accessed 11/11/15]

Vachon, Jean-Frederic (2009) “Avoiding Tedium – Fighting Repetition in Game Audio” [Online] 35th International Conference: Audio for Games. Available from <> [Accessed 16/10/15]

Video Games Live [Online]. Available from <> [Accessed 15/11/15]







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