- William Gibbons
Ludomusicology is the study of music and sound in, or related to, games. Broadly speaking, the term may apply to any type of game or sport, or to the relationship between music and play more generally (see Moseley, 2016; Fritsch, 2018). In practice, however, ‘ludomusicology’ has most commonly referred to the study of music and video games, or interactive media.
The study of video game audio presents unique challenges. Games themselves, which are typically the objects of study, are often unstable. This instability may emerge because of the interactive nature of the medium, in which each user’s experience may differ; because games exist in multiple formats or versions; or because they are constantly evolving, as in updates to online games (see Summers, 2016; Reale, 2019). Furthermore, copyright restrictions, regionally restricted releases, and/or technological obsolescence sometimes render archival materials – even entire games – inaccessible to scholars. As a result, overviews of game music history and style have by necessity focused on readily available ‘canonic’ titles that were released widely in North America, Western Europe, and (to a lesser extent) Japan.
Technical guides to video game music and sound, mostly aimed at composers and programmers, have existed since the 1980s. Academic scholarship on game sound followed in the mid-2000s, resulting from the development of game studies (ludology) as a broad field of study in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Some early publications (e.g., Whalen, 2004) focus on identifying the functions of game music, and how it differs from other media, while others (e.g., Collins, 2008) trace a technology-driven history of the medium. In subsequent years, scholars have built on these foundations by embracing a wide variety of methodologies, including historical and cultural musicology, ecomusicology, ethnomusicology, film and television studies, gender and sexuality studies, history of technology, sound studies, and theoretical analysis.
Although the field is still developing, it is possible to trace some major trends in ludomusicology. Understandably, a large amount of scholarship has focused on aspects of game audio that differ significantly from other media. Music-theoretical approaches to game music, for example, have focused primarily on developing or adapting theoretical models to address interactivity and player agency as a unique aspect of the medium (e.g., Medina-Gray, 2016). Interactive music-based games – in which creating or responding to music is itself the focus of the game – have also proven a consistent subject of scholarly scrutiny (see Austin, 2016). The performative elements of music games such as Guitar Hero have attracted significant attention (e.g., Miller, 2012), as have the possible pedagogical applications of music games (e.g., Auerbach, 2010).
Considerations of the relationship between game music and players have also led to more ethnographic and autoethnographic approaches. Studies have examined the soundscapes of virtual worlds (e.g., Cheng, 2014; Harvey, 2014; Galloway, 2019), and explored how players exist as part of a virtual acoustic ecology of any interacting audio elements, including music (e.g., Grimshaw, 2008; Jørgensen, 2017).
Another branch of scholarship has approached game audio from an intertextual perspective, whether through the presence of pre-existing music in games or through performances and recordings of game music outside games. Several studies (e.g., Cook, 2018) have explored the prevalence of classical music in games, while others have engaged with popular musics, either from economic (e.g., Tessler, 2008) or aesthetic (e.g., Ivănescu, 2019) perspectives. A third strand of research has traced the performance of game music in other settings, whether in terms of fan arrangements (e.g., Plank, 2016) or in concert performances of game music (see Gibbons, 2018).
A final important research topic has been the complex relationship between game audio and other audiovisual media, particularly film music. On the one hand, some studies (e.g., Lerner, 2014) have focused on how video games have consistently employed music in ways derived from film and television. On the other hand, other studies have suggested ways in which game audio challenges fundamental concepts in film sound theory (e.g., Kassabian, 2013).
The rapid expansion of scholarly interest in game music since 2010 has led to the creation of several research groups and conferences around the globe. The UK/Europe-based Ludomusicology Research Group has held an annual conference each spring since 2013, with the annual North American Conference on Video Game Music following in 2014. Scholarly societies have likewise begun to appear. The Ludomusicological Society of Australia (founded 2018) hosts annual conferences, and the Society for the Study of Sound and Music in Games (founded 2016) has launched the first academic journal in the field, The Journal of Sound and Music in Games.
- Z. Whalen: ‘Play Along: an Approach to Videogame Music’, Game Studies, vol.4/1 (2004) http://gamestudies.org/0401/whalen/
- K. Collins: Game Sound: an Introduction to the History, Theory, and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design (Cambridge, MA, 2008)
- M. Grimshaw: The Acoustic Ecology of the First-Person Shooter: the Player Experience of Sound in the First-Person Shooter Computer Game (Saarbrücken, 2008)
- H. Tessler: ‘The New MTV? Electronic Arts and “Playing” Music’, From Pac-Man to Pop Music: Interactive Audio in Games and New Media, ed. K. Collins (Farnham, 2008), 13–26
- B. Auerbach: ‘Pedagogical Applications of the Video Game Dance Dance Revolution to Aural Skills Instruction’, Music Theory Online, vol.16/1 (2010) http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.10.16.1/mto.10.16.1.auerbach.html
- K. Miller: Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance (Oxford, 2012)
- A. Kassabian: ‘The End of Diegesis as We Know It’, The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, ed. J. Richardson, C. Gorbman, and C. Vernallis (Oxford, 2013), 89–106
- W. Strank: ‘The Legacy of iMuse: Interactive Video Game Music in the 1990s’, Music and Game: Perspectives on a Popular Alliance, ed. P. Moormann (Wiesbaden, 2013), 81–91
- W. Cheng: Sound Play: Video Games and the Musical Imagination (Oxford, 2014)
- T. Harvey: ‘Virtual Worlds: an Ethnomusicological Perspective’, The Oxford Handbook of Music and Virtuality, ed. M. Grimshaw (Oxford, 2014), 378–91
- N. Lerner: ‘Mario’s Dynamic Leaps: Musical Innovations and the Specter of Early Cinema in Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros.’, Music in Video Games: Studying Play, ed. K.J. Donnelly, W. Gibbons, and N. Lerner (New York, 2014), 1–29
- M. Austin, ed.: Music Video Games: Performance, Politics, and Play (New York, 2016)
- E. Medina-Gray: ‘Modularity in Video Game Music’, Ludomusicology: Approaches to Video Game Music, ed. M. Kamp, T. Summers, and M. Sweeney (Sheffield, 2016), 53–72
- R. Moseley: Keys to Play: Music as a Ludic Medium from Apollo to Nintendo (Berkeley, 2016)
- D. Plank: ‘Mario Paint Composer and Musical (Re)Play on YouTube’, Music Video Games: Performance, Politics, and Play, ed. M. Austin (New York, 2016), 43–82
- T. Summers: Understanding Video Game Music (Cambridge, 2016)
- K. Jørgensen: ‘Emphatic and Ecological Sounds in Gameworld Interfaces’, The Routledge Companion to Screen Music and Sound, ed. M. Mera, R. Sadoff, and B. Winters (New York, 2017), 72–84
- K. Cook: ‘Beyond (the) Halo: Chant in Video Games’, Studies in Medievalism XXVII: Authenticity, Medievalism, Music, ed. K. Fugelso (Woodbridge, 2018), 183–200
- M. Fritsch: Performing Bytes: Musikperformances der Computerspielkultur (Würzburg, 2018)
- W. Gibbons: Unlimited Replays: Video Games and Classical Music (Oxford, 2018)
- K. McAlpine: Bits and Pieces: a History of Chiptunes (Oxford, 2018)
- K. Galloway: ‘Soundwalking and the Aurality of Stardew Valley: an Ethnography of Listening to and Interacting with Environmental Game Audio’, Music in the Role-Playing Game: Heroes & Harmonies, ed. W. Gibbons and S. Reale (New York, 2019), 159–78
- A. Ivănescu: Popular Music in the Nostalgia Video Game: the Way It never Sounded (London, 2019)
- S. Reale: ‘Barriers to Listening in World of Warcraft’, Music in the Role-Playing Game: Heroes & Harmonies, ed. W. Gibbons and S. Reale (New York, 2019), 197–215