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Music Library Thematic Displays: Video Game Music

This guide showcases resources from the George F. DeVine Music Library centered on specific themes. Selected themes reflect UT School of Music events and programs, as well as cultural celebrations.

An Introduction to Video Game Music

With a history going back decades, video game music has accompanied and even defined players’ favorite experiences with games. The genre has situated itself at the intersections of film, electronic, and minimalist music with tracks that loop back on themselves, demand the instrumentation of a symphony orchestra or just a handful of audio channels, and can adapt to the actions of the player as they play.

Many early video games had extremely limited sound capabilities, with no signs of true soundtracks in sight. But even as early as 1972’s Pong from Atari, a single tone can be heard at different octaves and timbres when either player scores, the ball hits the wall, or hits one of the paddles on either side of the screen. This makes Pong an early example of not just a video game soundtrack, but an aleatoric one at that! Since then, video game music has flourished over the decades to branch out into many styles and genres, evolving from computer chip-based music to CD audio, and eventually live recordings and adaptive sound. Video game music plays a crucial role in a sizable industry, with estimating the market size of the US gaming industry at 85 billion dollars in 2021 and still growing. Opportunities exist for the performance, study, and composition of video game music, with more and more popping up with each new release.

Image: Screenshot of Atari's Pong (1972)

General Books on Video Games

Gaming and Gender

Books on Video Game Music and Sound

Koji Kondo at 60

In August 2021, Japanese composer and sound designer Koji Kondo celebrated his 60th birthday. He has written some of the most iconic pieces of video game music to date. If you’ve heard music from the Super Mario or Legend of Zelda series, you’ve likely heard Kondo’s work. Some of his earliest acclaim was for Super Mario Bros. (1985) and The Legend of Zelda (1986), and while the last games he was sole composer for were in the late 90’s with Super Mario 64 (1996) and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998), he has supervised and partially composed for Nintendo games up through Super Mario Maker 2 (2019) and Paper Mario: The Origami King (2020).

As a senior in the Art Planning Department at the Osaka University of Arts, Kondo interviewed for a sound design position at Nintendo in 1984. He told Wired magazine in 2007: “I graduated from university in 1984, and I found my way to Nintendo by looking at the school's job placement board. You're supposed to apply to many different companies, but I saw the Nintendo ad, and had a love of making synthesizers, and loved games, and thought -- that's the place for me. I interviewed with one company, Nintendo, and that's where I've been ever since.” Kondo began working in Nintendo’s Research & Development No. 4 Department (R&D4), which was renamed in 1989 to Nintendo Entertainment Analysis & Development (EAD). Nintendo EAD was the department responsible for creating many of Nintendo’s most popular franchises including Mario, Zelda, Animal Crossing, and the Wii series of games like Wii Sports (2006).

Kondo’s work with video game music is as much computer science and sound design as music composition, and cannot easily be categorized under one style. Many of his works draw upon jazz, ragtime, and bossa nova traditions as well as waltzes and ambient music.

Image: Kondo (right) with Mario and Zelda creators Takashi Tezuka (2nd from left) and Shigeru Miyamoto (2nd from right) next to Mario (left) in 2015.

Kondo (right) with Mario and Zelda creators Takashi Tezuka (2nd from left) and Shigeru Miyamoto (2nd from right) next to Mario (left) in 2015.
By Nico Hofmann - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Listen to the differences in timbre for the sound design of The Legend of Zelda (1986) between the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) version and the Famicom Disk System (FDS) version through Clyde Mandalin’s project Legends of Localization here:


Blog Post

Writing music for 8-bit games

How did sound designers like Koji Kondo make music for video games before CD-level audio quality was available, like for consoles in the 1980’s? The answer lies in the game console’s Audio Processing Unit (APU), such as the Ricoh 2A03 sound chip that was used in the Nintendo Entertainment System.

The Ricoh 2A03 has five sound channels with the following functions:
1. General Purpose Pulse Channel (Usually the melody, like the beginning of the title screen theme from Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link (1987))
2. General Purpose Pulse Channel
3. Triangle Wave Channel (Typically used for bass lines, such as in the track “Vampire Killer” from Castlevania (1986))
4. Noise Channel (Pitched static, usually used as percussion. An interesting example is in Quick Man’s Stage music from Mega Man 2 (1988))
5. DPCM Channel (Differential pulse-code modulation) for special samples and sounds. A few examples include a digitized voice saying “Cowabunga” on the title screen of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1992) and a timbali-like percussion in “Overworld Theme 1” from Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988))


Image: The Ricoh 2A03 Soundchip and its functions


Ludomusicology is the study of video game music. A combination of ludology (the study of games) and musicology, ludomusicology first appeared in the late 1990’s with articles like Matthew Belinkie’s “Video game music: not just kid’s stuff”, but has blossomed into its own subfield with organizations, conferences, published works, and journals. Just a few of the ways ludomusicology investigates video game music are through its relationships to other mediums like film, composition, technology, interactivity, and the utility of music based video games. Some active organizations and events include the Ludomusicology Society of Australia (LSA), the North American Conference on Video Game Music (NACVGM), the Ludomusicology Research Group, the Society for the Study of Sound and Music in Games (SSSMG), and the Ludomusicology Study Group of the American Musicological Society.

Just earlier this year in March 2022, the University of North Texas hosted Press Start: A Video Game Music Symposium which featured paper and poster presentations on video game music, a ludomusicology dialogue panel, discussions on working in the video game music industry, and featured as keynote speaker Akash Thakkar, composer for the 2016 game Hyper Light Drifter who has worked on sound design and orchestration for Bungie’s Destiny and Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds among many other games.

Image: Press Start Banner

Image source: UNT Libraries

Image: Banner for Hyper Light Drifter

Image source: Steam

The Music of Celeste (2018)

Celeste is a 2018 platform game developed by Extremely OK Games. Celeste follows its main character Madeline as she confronts the challenge of climbing the titular Celeste Mountain and the challenge of her own anxiety, characterized by a doppelgänger, known in-game as “Part of Me'' and as Badeline by fans. Celeste has seen both critical and community acclaim, being given a 10/10 rating from Destructoid, IGN, and Nintendo World Report, 10 stars from Nintendo Life, and receiving the award for Best Independent Game at the 2018 Game Awards alongside a nomination for overall Game of the Year. It has been praised both for its accessibility to new or more casual gamers as well as providing challenge and learning curve for more advanced players and speedrunners.

The soundtrack, composed by Lena Raine, is a mixture of piano, electronic, and lo-fi hip hop tracks and has received plenty of its own acclaim. Raine’s work was the 2018 Video Game Score of the Year at the ASCAP Composers’ Choice Awards, winner of Best Audio at the 2019 Game Developers Choice Awards, and a nomination for Best Score/Music at the 2018 Game Awards. Beyond Celeste’s main levels are the B-Sides, which are remixed, more difficult versions of their main story counterparts. Each B-Side level is a remix by a different artist - including Ben Prunty (composer for the 2012 game Faster Than Light), lo-fi artist In Love With a Ghost, and Jukio Kallio, one of the composers for the soundtrack of Fall Guys (2020).

Image: Promotional art for Celeste (2018)
Image Source: By Matt Makes Games, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Read: Lena Raine's interview with Destructoid magazine

Listen: Celeste Original Soundtrack

Listen: Celeste B-Sides Soundtrack

Watch: Game Score Fanfare's video "The Anxiety of Celeste and its Music"

Composing for Hollow Knight (2017)

Image: Hollow Knight SoundtrackImage: Hollow Knight Silksong Soundtrack Artwork

Image Source: Bandcamp

Hollow Knight is a 2017 Metroidvania* game created by Australian developer Team Cherry. Playing as a nameless character known only as The Knight, you explore the interconnected ruins of the kingdom of Hallownest. Hollow Knight has sold more than 2.8 million copies worldwide and won numerous awards upon its release, including the Australian Screen Sound Guild award for Best Sound in Interactive Media in 2017 and Independent Game of the Year at the 2018 Australian Game Awards. The soundtrack for Hollow Knight was composed by Christopher Larkin, and has received praise for its atmosphere as well as its use of leitmotif to enhance and advance the game’s narrative. While much of the game’s tracks are synthesized, there are live recordings used for viola throughout the soundtrack, played by Timothy Cheel, and a soprano solo in the track “City of Tears” sung by Amelia Jones. A sequel, Hollow Knight Silksong, is currently in the works with Larkin composing the soundtrack again. Two sample songs have been released as of December 2019 that feature a string quartet of players from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra based in Adelaide, Australia. 

*Metroidvania is a sub-genre of action-adventure games that typically feature interconnected worlds with a lock-and-key relationship between in-game obstacles and obtainable items and power-ups. The term Metroidvania is a Portmanteau of two game franchises, Metroid and Castlevania, that cemented the genre’s formula. Example games include Super Metroid (1994), Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997), Cave Story (2004), and Ori and the Blind Forest (2015).

Listen: Hollow Knight Original Soundtrack on Bandcamp
Listen: Hollow Knight Silksong Sample Tracks on Bandcamp
Watch: Interview with Christopher Larkin on the composition of Hollow Knight
Watch: 8-bit Music Theory's video "Leitmotif Use in Hollow Knight (Spoilers for the game!)

The relationship between video games and classical music

Video game music has impacted the concert hall as well as the stage. Concert seasons featuring video game music or ensembles and artists devoted to it have come up with the rising prevalence of the medium. Below are just a few examples of video game music ensembles:

Game ON!
The Final Fantasy VII Remake Orchestra
Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy
A New World: Intimate Music from Final Fantasy
The 8-Bit Big Band
The Boston-based Video Game Orchestra
Video Games in Concert at Royal Albert Hall
The University of Maryland’s Gamer Symphony Orchestra

In 2020, the LA-based Pacific Opera Project put on a video-game themed production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. While keeping with an English production of the Mozart Singspiel, the characters were repurposed to mirror some of Nintendo’s most popular characters, with Prince Tamino as Link, Pamina as Princess Zelda, Papageno and Papagena as Mario and Princess Peach, and Sarastro as Donkey Kong. The music remains Mozartian, but the production is very much that of a video game.

Image: Pacific Opera Project's 2020 production Super Flute

The beginning of Act 2 of Pacific Opera Project's Super Flute, their 2020 Nintendo-themed production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.

Image Source: Opera-Online


Just like how video games have found their way into the concert hall, classical music has found its way creatively into video games, too. The silly antics of developer House House’s Untitled Goose Game took the internet by storm in 2019, with numerous memes about the humorous thievery committed by a single goose. (Or a pair of geese, if you played it in 2 player mode) Untitled Goose Game sold more than 1,000,000 copies in its first year across all systems. The goose’s mayhem is accompanied by snippets of piano, all excerpts from Debussy preludes. 

Read this article from The Verge on how the game’s sound designer, Dan Golding, made its dynamic soundtrack.

Image: The GooseImage: Claude Debussy

The Goose (Left) and Claude Debussy (Right)

Image Source: The BBC