Functions and definition of music techniques in video games


The video game industry is one of the largest media in the world. It succeeded even Hollywood and the global music industry combined as in 2016 global revenues from games topped $101 billion (Esa, 2016). As the games industry becomes larger, even more attention is being paid to the rigorous study and examination of games.

Linear Music

In most 2d games the music is played as a linear composed piece that is directly tied to the level or the game state. If the playthrough is still in the level and the music has reached his end, the music will restart from the beginning. Then when a new level is reached, the music will quickly change or fade out and it is replaced with the new one. This kind of music is often associated with classic games such as Super Mario Bros. (S.Miyamoto, Nintendo, 1985), Castlevania (H.Akamatsu, Konami 1986), Mega Man (Capcom, 1987) or Super Metroid (Nintendo, 1994).

Functions of Music

This linear methodology of composing music helps to set the broad tone of the different aspects of the game. However, video game music could serve different functions other than setting the mood of the levels. Film music theorist Annabel Cohen (1998) identifies eight functions of film music, each of which could as well be relevant to games:

  • Inducting mood
  • Communicating meaning
  • Directing attention
  • Providing memory cues (example: leitmotifs, which are some short musical segments linked to a precise character or a place)
  • Increasing arousal and absorption
  • Contributing to the aesthetics of the film

Downsides of Linear Music

Berndt and Hartmann (2008) argue that even though the above functions of film music are equally applicable to games, most of them have not been adequately utilized so far in games. This is likely due to the fact that in current implementation of game music, fine grained control over the structure and dynamics of the music is usually not feasible. The music’s ability to support the narrative is therefore limited to relatively long-term, high-level changes which may be adequate for conveying the broad tone and setting but not more intricate narrative details, (A. Prechtl, Open University, 2016).

Interactive Music

As the music becomes interactive, the player’s actions have influence on the music. As K. Collins (2008) said “interactive audio refers to those sound events that react to the player’s direct input”.
…the nondiegetic music that plays in the background of scenes as underscore becomes diegetic when players decide to have their character play an instrument or sing along with the music”, Karen Collins (Collins, 2008, p. 125).
In some games the location-based trigger-points (Collins, 2008, p. 161) are used as cues to change the music. These triggers are a result of the player’s actions through movement, this change of music is also considered as interactive. An example of a location-based trigger-point is in the beginning of the sci-fi first-person shooter Unreal, (Epic Games, 1998), where the player has crash-landed on a strange planet. When the player character exits the space ship, a piece of immersive music is triggered, as he discovers that his spaceship has crash-landed on a beautiful rocky planet. The trigger for the music is therefore based on the player character’s location in the game space, as he leaves his spaceship.

Adaptive Music

To extend linear and interactive composed music in games there are two main techniques. The first technique is the adaptive music which addresses the linear use of music. Adaptive music is music that reacts to a game’s state, (K. Collins, 2011). Adaptive music directly connects musical features to game variables. These features can include adding or removing instrumental layers, changing the tempo, adding or removing processing, changing the pitch content, etc. These changes in adaptive music are directly linked to gameplay variables. The adaptivity of music can be understood as a dimension. Low levels of adaptivity may only adapt to a small set of in-game variables, while higher levels of adaptivity may adapt to tens or hundreds of in-game variables (Philippe Pasquier, CoG, 2019).

Generative Music

The other technique is generative music which addresses the creation of musical content itself. Most music is composed by an individual or team of human composers. As argued by P. Pasquier and A. Eigenfeldt (2016) computational creativity is a field that explores the automation of creative tasks, and Musical metacreation (MuMe) is a subfield of computational creativity that addresses automating the creation of music.

Fig 1: Typology of generative game music systems (Philippe Pasquier Simon Fraser University, Canada)
  • Gameplay dimensions: These dimensions describe both how the generated musical content is used in the game, and how the musical generation is informed by the gameplay.
  • Architecture dimensions: These dimensions describe inner structure, data, and algorithms used by the generative music system.
Figure 2: 3D movable objects that change parameters of the synthesizer
Figure 3: Picture of the first sequencer puzzle machine (Techgage, 2014)
Figure 4: In the guts of the bass synth module being constructed in-game


Modern games tend to push the bar always over the top and creating an emotional music piece is not as easy as it seems to be. Even though linear music composition has different downsides when it needs to follow the player actions, it is broadly used in tons of indie games. Using the interactive and generative music composition is a powerful tool which delivers immersion and can follow exactly every step the character makes along the game. Even though the generative composition is immersive and it always creates different musical pieces, it could tend to be unstable and unpredictable so it is important to choose upon the needs and the budget of the project.


  • M. Scirea, Affective music generation and its effect on player experience, Ph.D. thesis, IT University of Copenhagen (2017)
  • Intelligent Systems, Nintendo, Super Metroid, 1994
  • H. Akamatsu, Konami, Castlevania, 1986
  • A. Kitamura, Capcom, Mega man, 1987
  • Vigil Games, THQ, Darksiders, 2010
  • Ryan Clark, Brace Yourself Games, Crypt of Necrodancer, 2015
  • K. Collins: From Pac-Man to Pop Music Interactive Audio in Games and New Media, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Farnham, Farnham (2011)
  • Phosfiend Systems, Fract OSC, 2014
  • Cale Plut, Generative music in video games: State of the art, challenges, and prospects
  • Cale Plut, Philippe Pasquier: Music Matters: An empirical study on the effects of adaptive music on experienced and perceived player affect
  • K. Collins: An introduction to procedural music in video games, 2009
  • Michael D’Errico: Worlds of Sound: Indie Games, Proceduralism, and the Aesthetics of Emergence, University of LA, Journal 2016
  • Anders B. R. Pedersen: Performative Music in video games, Roskilde University, 2015
  • J. Cullimore, H. Hamilton, D. Gerhard: Directed transitional composition for gaming and adaptive music using q -learning, pp. 332–338



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