Author: Contributor

“To Love and Learn Game Music in the South”

Crest of the Ludomusicology Society of Australia

In this chapter of our ludomusicological journey around the world we hear from Barnabas Smith, the founder and President of the Ludomusicology Society of Australia. Smith prefaces his commentary on the LSA, developments within the Australasian academic community, and game music culture projects with a brief assessment of the reason we are all here – the compositional landscape itself.

Composing for Games

Despite enduring a distinctly strict digital game classification regime for many years – or perhaps because of it – Australia’s most vibrant and successful development models are found in the indie game sector. One of the earliest games to receive industry recognition was The Hobbit, a 1982 game developed for the ZX Spectrum. This recognition has continued through to today, with several recent indie titles receiving notable acclaim. Untitled Goose Game (2019) won Golden Joystick, D.I.C.E.[1] and NAVGTR[2] awards, while Hollow Knight (2017) was added to the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia in 2019. The scores for these two games were created by Dan Golding (Melbourne) and Chris Larkin (Adelaide) respectively. Both continue to work and live in Australia, as do composers Amy Bastow and Belinda Coomes. Along with Jeff van Dyck (Total War series), Mick Gordon is perhaps the most internationally recognised Australian game composer, known for his signature scores and sound design on titles in the DOOM, Wolfenstein, and Destroy All Humans series.

On the pedagogical side, there now exist a number of game composition, recording, and engineering study opportunities across the tertiary and vocational education sectors. Courses at the University of Sydney, University of Melbourne, Australian National University, James Cook University, and the Queensland University of Technology are enhanced by a regular series of game culture events. Melbourne, in particular, is a national game music industry leader and education hub. Each year the city hosts the Melbourne International Games Week (MIGW), which is the largest games festival in Southeast Asia, and hosts the only PAX festival held outside of the USA. Since 2017, music rights body APRA AMCOS has presented High Score, an event hosted in Melbourne and yoked to the MIGW. Part conference, part showcase, and part Q&A session, High Score offers a superlative opportunity to engage with game composers, producers, and audio designers. International guests such as Neal Acree, Manami Matsumae, and Takahiro Izutani have been featured guests, in addition to some of the aforementioned Australian composers.

Valuable as these events are, they are not structured to foster scholarly endeavours relating to game music. Such early forays can be found in independently published dissertations and occasional computer culture conference programmes. An instructive example is “Game/Music Interaction”, featured in the Eighth Australasian User Interface Conference (2007), and whose second author, Burkhard Wünsche, remains at the University of Auckland. However, it is within the last five to ten years that a corpus of journal articles focusing critically on video game music has emerged.

Academic Research

Articles such as Iain Hart’s 2014 “Meaningful Play” in Musicology Australia and 2015 critique of L.A. Noire’s soundtrack in Screen Sound Journal heralded a more ‘ludomusical’ approach. There followed more articles offering distinctly varied avenues of inquiry, in tandem with a broadening appreciation of the subject matter. In 2017, Jessica Crowe analysed Nintendo Music by Australian composer Matthew Hindson through a postmodernist lens, while the same year saw New Zealand scholar Ivan Mouraviev’s syncretic evaluation of music, narrative, and emotion in Journey published. Sebastian Diaz-Gasca, whose 2013 PhD was concerned with the consumption of video game soundtrack, continued this line in 2018 with “Super Smash Covers! Performance and audience engagement in Australian videogame music cover bands” in Perfect Beat. “From Skyrim to Skellige” saw Musicology Australia once again showcase game music scholarship, and this 2019 evaluation of RPG and fantasy music’s neo-Mediaevalist aesthetic was co-authored by Brendan Lamb and Barnabas Smith.

Many of these authors have also been active proponents of sharing game music research within different professional groups. Evidence of this can be found in conference proceedings that see publication, such as a paper on the soundtrack for DOOM (2016) featured in the 2017 Australasian Computer Music Conference. Yet like so many other fields of music research, papers on game music delivered at musicology, music education, popular music, and computer music conferences on both sides of the Tasman Sea have tended to be experienced only by those ‘in the room’, as it were.

Ludomusicology Society of Australia

In response to this need for a single and dedicated group, the LSA was launched in 2017 at the conclusion of the Ludomusicology Easter conference in Bath, UK. Indeed, the LSA’s genesis was inspired by the activities and ethos of the Ludomusicology Research Group. It was founded with the aims of unifying isolated study groups, communicating individual scholars’ research, and connecting academics and enthusiasts within Australasia.

The LSA’s Inaugural Winter Symposium in 2018 provided an opportunity for delegates to share their research through the Society for the first time. This event saw scholars travel from across Australia to congregate in Adelaide, with remote papers also delivered from the UK and US. A panoply of topics ranged from cut-scene narratives and participant agency in music games, to non-Western notation analysis and thematic nostalgia, through to evaluations of fantasy game and RPG scores. Acclaimed composer Neal Acree delivered the event’s keynote presentation and Q&A session, offering insight into his composition process and creative stimuli. The final programme can be viewed and downloaded here.

The roundtable discussion session was a particularly memorable opportunity for delegates to exchange views freely on concepts and challenges associated with ludomusicology. This activity will now be programmed during every LSA conference as a counterpoint to the primary formal paper delivery process. Its recapitulation at LSA Symposium 2019 was similarly positive and informative. Held within the castellated Sydney Conservatorium of Music, this event saw a marked increase in attendee numbers and remote delegate involvement from across Australia and the US. Among the distinguished attendees was Scottish expatriate and field leader Kenny McAlpine, who delivered the symposium’s keynote. This event’s programme can also be viewed and downloaded.

Delegates a the 2019 LSA Symposium

The intention to build on such positive progress remains an exciting priority for the Society. Of course, along with most other groups across the world, the current global health climate and subsequent restrictions of movement and congregation are predominant determining factors.

Next Steps

The future is bright for the LSA and ludomusicology more broadly in the Australasian region, despite the uncertainty of these times. This significant sub-discipline continues to be not only accepted but also embraced by those in established popular music research fields and conventional musicology spheres. This might manifest in a Musicological Society of Australia award, an article in the popular and contemporary music journal Perfect Beat, or a conference hosted by Music EDnet, the premiere music technology education group across Australia and New Zealand.

Moreover, as game music studies undergo natural field maturation, the LSA continues to forge and nurture connections with non-academic game music enthusiasts, professionals, and groups. The Society’s President was featured recently on Game Composure, a podcast run by South Australian musician Angelo Valdivia. Valdivia’s cover outfit 17-Bit Band is also one of many popular groups performing game music live throughout the country. Another of Valdivia’s guests is composer Meena Shamalay who hosts Game Show, a weekly national ABC Classic radio program broadcast out of Melbourne and featuring an extensive game music catalogue.

The LSA is exploring collaboration options with many of these outfits, and exciting Society publication projects will be announced soon. Hosting composers will also always remain part of future conference activities.

As a proud member body of the SSSMG, the LSA aims to continue offering scholars, composers, and enthusiasts from Australia, New Zealand, and across globe, a unifying home for connecting, communicating, and celebrating game music research – that is, AMARE ET COGNOSCERE LUDUM MUSICA AD MERIDIANAM – to love and learn game music in the south.

[1] Design Innovate Communicate Entertain

[2] National Academy of Video Game Trade Reviewers

Video Game Music Research in Chile

By Ariel Grez

Continuing our series of posts about game music research around the world, Ariel Grez gives us an insight into the activities of our friends in South America.

At first glance, the ludomusicological research in Chile is as recent as the foundation of the Chilean’s Research Group of Video game music (LUDUM), at least when it comes to the use of the term ludomusicología (the self-proclaimed translation of the term ludomusicology). LUDUM is formed by musicians and researchers who met at University of Chile. Daniel Miranda is a pianist, composer, producer and researcher, Joaquin Gutiérrez is an electric guitarist and composition student, Guillermo Jarpa is a bassist, researcher and cultural manager, with formal training on audiovisual communication, Ariel Grez is a clarinetist, singer and songwriter, researcher and adjunct professor at the Music Department of University of Chile and Sean Moscoso is a percussionist and artist, and professor at the Sound Studies Department of the same university. We started this group in February 2018, and although we were the first to centralize research and documentation, the work from agents outside LUDUM before and after its beginnings must not be ignored.

That’s why our first assignment was to identify the state of academic video game music and sound research, including the social and cultural reach of its music, and the advances of Chile’s video game music industry.

It is worth noting that research from Chile was part of the first wave of academic scholarship on video game music. 2004 saw the completion of a Master’s thesis in musicology by Mónica Moreira Cury named Video games music: modes of use and their relationship with the social imaginary. A study on the soundtrack of the game Final Fantasy VI. Her work is relevant in a context where this topic of research was underrepresented globally and non-existent in Latin-america.

In 2014 Gerardo Marcoleta, an academic member of the Autonomous Center of Musical Research (CIMA) of University of Valparaiso, presented “Music for Video Games” and other papers about the matter in different instances, including academic ones like the “1st Meeting of Contemporary Music” in Rengo or the “1st International Instance of Music and Audio” in ARCOS’s institute.

The Chilean videogame industry is in an adolescent, but evolving, condition. The Chilean Association of Video Game Development Companies (VG Chile) is a guild of 38 companies (representing more than the 85% of games companies operating in Chile). In regards to the video game music that these companies make, we have observed that the composers of the games with the higher reach, are Chileans who graduated from music-related programs from colleges or academic institutes. Among them we have Francisco “Foco”, Patricio Meneses, Ronny Antares, and others. Since 2015 the 101 Training School of Creative Technologies has offered the diploma of music production for video games, the only program in our country that specializes in music for this media, with “Foco” as their main teacher.

In Chile, Video Game Music is also experienced as a collective cultural experience taken from its original designed setting (video games) to – literally – the streets and festivals. There are many video game music bands and groups of different levels of professionalization that play music of (or inspired by) video games. Ludópatas and Jazztick make regular concerts in the capital Santiago de Chile, with the latter having performed weekly in different streets and venues. The Plasmas have been sporadically playing game music for more than 10 years in Valparaíso. Pokérus and Thennecan have smaller, but growing audiences. The Popular Music Orchestra in Concepción and the Student’s Orchestra of Federico Santa María’s Technical University in Valparaíso have included video game music in their repertoire.

As in other parts of the world, the chiptune scene has developed in our country since the mid-2000s with different waves of artists. First with Una Niña Malvada and Noobelesia, later from 2008 to 2012 with H#xz, Analog and Foco, then from 2012 to 2016 we have Kbt, Utsuho, Clsource and YZYX, and in recent years Jota Capsula and Bluu whose point of reunion in Santiago was the Once Super Portable/Mutante, a regular music festival (‘circlo’) in which chiptune musicians gathered and played among peers and fans. These events are on hold since March 2019, because their point of reunion Casa Ruido recently closed.

These musicians have been building networks of social interchange to promote their music and create financial opportunities of collaboration between each other, as seen with the chiptune scene, the collective of game music “Pixel Quemado” and the Ñoño Party (the word ñoño is used colloquially to describe someone who pertains to geek culture). This last event aspires to congregate players, who want to have fun while listening to the video game bands of the capital. After a successful first Ñoño Party, that took place in April 2017 in Santiago de Chile, there was a second version of this event in October 2018, and the Ñoño Party 3 will be held in November 2019. But, that was not the first time that this kind of event was held in our country, as in May of 2014 the Festival of Video Game Music was held in our capital.

Three international video game music ensembles have come to our country: Symphony of the Goddesses (2015), Distant Worlds (2014) and Video Games Live (2012), all of them with excellent reception.

Chile is a highly centralized country, both in politics and economy. Our work as game music scholars is dedicated mostly to uncover the state of video game music in our close environment: the capital, Santiago de Chile. This is because our members are students, graduates and/or workers of the University of Chile and are all living in Santiago. But, there is still a lot to unravel in other areas of our country.

Conference presentation “Una Princesa Contenida, un análisis vocal de los personajes del juego Super Mario 3D World” by Daniel Miranda (left)
during the III Congreso Chileno de Estudios en Música Popular

Our research group started with seminar activities that consisted of getting an overview on the state of the art of the discipline by assigning readings and making summaries on each reading. Here, we read some of the seminal works on video game music, and came to realize the first and most important challenge to disseminating our interest in video game music research: the lack of research in Spanish on the topic.

So, in an attempt to activate the academic community, we organized our first public event. We held the 1st National Meeting of Ludomusicology in the Faculty of Arts of the University of Chile in November of 2018, with the sponsorship of its Music Department, and the Latin American Aesthetics Research Centre, with the support of the “Espacio Elefante” Cultural Center. Even though LUDUM is an independent research group, we are working to strengthen our bonds with different institutions, such as the University of Santiago de Chile or the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso.

The meeting’s program consisted of three days with academic, artistic, formative and musical activities open to the public: A daily session consisted of seminars, where papers were presented, and different activities with artists and video game music producers. A forum of productive experiences was held the first day, with the Creative Director of Niebla Games Nicolás Valdivia and Composer René Romo. A Workshop on interactive music was held the second day with the composer Francisco “Foco”. Musical performances were realized every day, with arrangements of video game music made by students of musical composition David Bustamante and Joaquín Gutiérrez, the latter being a member of our group and also director of the ensemble composed by students of the University of Chile. Foco also performed his chiptune project and Ludópatas closed the last day with a concert, where a full Sala Elefante danced and jumped to some classic video game tunes. A review of this concert? was published in the Chilean Musical Journal.

Also, LUDUM members have presented papers at academic conferences. Ariel Grez has presented papers both at the Ludo2018 and Ludo2019 conferences, using different analytic approaches to video game music, aesthetic, semiotic, ludic and ethics fields, bringing the input of Latin American thinkers like Katya Mandoki and Enrique Dussel to the ludomusicological field, to deepen our understanding of the reception of video game music, aiming to finally being able to characterize the specificity of Latin-American gamers experience in the complexity of the geopolitical problem of distribution of video games. On the other hand. Daniel Miranda presented a paper in the Third Chilean Congress of Popular Music in Alberto Hurtado University. In this paper entitled A Contained Princess: a Vocal Analysis of Super Mario 3D World’s Characters he proposes a methodology to analyze these voices comparing the pitches and sentences used by each character, doing a gender performance reading inspired by Butler (1990) and also studying the reception of Princess Peach’s voice, categorizing popular comments of an online viral video. He concludes that the Princess’ voice responds to a voice direction that overcaricaturizes her among other characters through a process of infantilization that is increased over time in the games she appears in and by using a template of an already caricatured version of a sexualized woman (Betty Boop, Marilyn Monroe). A continuation of this research was presented at Ludo 2019, in which the reception of Peach’s voice was studied through Philip Tagg’s methodology of semiotic analysis, categorizing different profiles of gamers that responded in different ways to her voice, suggesting that experienced male gamers were more likely to refrain from playing with her character because of her voice.

Our objective is to consolidate a space of debate and knowledge building on video game music, articulating the Spanish-speaking community, while also connecting with the academic and professional field and the public in general. To that effect, we are preparing several investigation projects, ranging from characterizing the local video game bands scene, to analysing the Chilean production of video game music, and continuing to test different analytical methods to investigate the experience of listening while gaming. Last but not least, we are currently preparing our second academic event, the Second National Ludomusicology Gathering, here in Santiago de Chile.

Presentation given by Ariel Grez.
¿Jugando Mario Bros? Las pasiones son algo serio dice Ariel Grez a l@s estudiantes de la Feria de Orientación al postulante

The Cognitive Dissonance of Classical Music with ‘The Grotesque’ in Video Games

This is a guest post from Vivaswath Rao.
Viva is a postgraduate student at Royal Holloway, University of London. He recently hosted and chaired William Gibbons’s guest talk at Royal Holloway, which was part of the inspiration for this essay. Here, he investigates how classical music interacts with the idea of ‘The Grotesque’ in games.

Content warning: violent images.


The Save Room in the horror video game Evil Within, is a place of contradictions. A washroom within a mental asylum, the safe haven of the game, the room is crawling with cockroaches and pullulating flies. In the midst of the grungy and decrepit enclosure, a large grandiose mirror gleams out with extravagant beams of white light, leaving the protagonist Sebastian silhouetted. What stands out about this mirror is that its prophetic light is accompanied by a looped version of Debussy’s Clair De lune. The situation brings up an interesting prospect, one that extends far out into the real world. Video games have long attempted to push boundaries towards increased player engagement, along with greater intellectual and emotional reward. As illustrated by Michele Dickey, a careful blend of physical, environmental, temporal, ethical and emotional dimensions enable “…a sense of suspended disbelief and provides players with a sense of immersive engagement in the gameplay environment”.[1]

One of the ways by which games have done so is to utilize real world subjects and objects to create intertextual systems. The above scene is one such example. In a world torn apart by bloody conflict, supernatural forces, and exaggerated violence, Classical music is an uncanny misfit. It stands at odds with its surrounding predilection for death, symbolizing on the contrary serenity, virtue and peace. It is this fascinating co-existence of the ‘grotesque’ with ‘Classical music’ in video games that I seek to understand further. Given that terms such as ‘grotesque’, ‘classical music’ and ‘video games’ rest on a shared cultural definition, it is worth investigating what its reactionary cognitive dissonance might suggest about us, or our relationship with the game on a psychological level.

The term ‘grotesque’ has for very long elucidated various explanations and definitions. An idea emergent from European Renaissance interest in antiquity, the term has itself drifted along etymological tides from era to era.[2]

Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis (1915) begins with the main character, Gregor Samsa, waking up to find that he has been transformed into a giant insect. The book is at once surreal in its premise, yet set in an otherwise apparently realistic world. Kafka’s creation is often judged as a benchmark of the modern ‘grotesque’. Describing Samsa’s transformation as ‘grotesque’ reveals not only what the term approximates but also where it is ambiguous. This story that takes place in a strange world that for the most part, appears natural, Kafka’s subject of mutation displays tensions that mingle together horror with humor. While the protagonist insect represents an amalgam of unsaid fears, nightmares and biological deviations, it remains unclear (perhaps intentionally) as to what definitively marks out the grotesque. While some argue that the grotesque lies in the construction of the symbol itself, i.e. ‘the grotesque’ (giant insect), others argue that the identification of ‘grotesque-ness’ depends on its affective response. Following Kafka’s odd and unsettling combination of fantastic and realistic elements, we might consider grotesque to be partly a result of our psychological reactions to juxtaposed, ‘dissonant’ elements.

Cognitive Dissonance in Video Games

A new field of empirical psychological research (VGTx) has begun to explore the potential of commercial video games as therapy,[3] resulting in a growing body of literature that studies relationships between gamers and how they view the game themselves. Anthony M. Bean’s book Working with Video Gamers and Games in Therapy looks into this area of study with the primary theoretical framework being that of a Humanistic and Jungian/Archetypal paradigm.[4]

In this tradition, we can consider video games as a medium of a controlled confrontation of the unknown, which involves frequent instantiations of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is defined as a psychological state where an individual’s cognitions—beliefs, attitudes and behaviors are at odds. This is immediately followed by a motivation to resolve inconsistencies between disparate cognitions. Marc Prensky explains, “Electronic games require active engagement in environments, which supports discovery, observation, trial and error, and problem solving.” While video games have constantly strived towards greater artistic realism and narrative nuance, the importance of ‘accomplishing the challenge’ and ‘undertaking the task’ make for its psychological currency and a medium of positive reinforcement.[5] Research reveals that part of the appeal of video games may be attributed to its relatively risk-free goal-oriented tasks.[6] Thus games might offer grounds for studies on affective responses, not only in psycho-therapeutic endeavors but also ludology and game designing experiments. Where video games align with the grotesque in this sense, is best summarized in Wolfgang Kayser’s view of the grotesque, “The grotesque is a game with the absurd, in the sense that the grotesque artist plays, half laughingly, half horrified, with the deep absurdities of existence. The grotesque is an attempt to control and exorcise the demonic elements in the world”.[7] As discussed by Rune Graulund, the grotesque in some way rests in opposition to sophistication. Sophistication lies in the intellectual validation of the ‘known’, symbolized by knowledge, order, control, balance, life. The Grotesque, however, is the demon from the ‘unknown’ that leaps through the cracks of existence, threatening to topple it, i.e. chaos, disorder, or even death.

Classical Music in Video Games

Classical music has long been frequently invoked as an agent of sophistication in video games. While most commonly Classical music and video games have occupied opposing ends on the cultural spectrum of high art and low art, the relationship between the two is by no means a simple one.[8] To evoke the term ‘Western Classical’, brings along with it the suggestion of a canonic body of works. Most often referred to as works by highly regarded European composers between the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. These works retain a status in popular culture as unquestioned artworks.[9] In this regard, collaborations between video games and classical music through the last few decades have revealed a multitude of consequences. A recent resurgence in the game Assassin’s Creed due to its representation of the historical Parisian cathedral Notre Dame in the aftermath of its destruction, gives an insight into one such collaboration between video games and a monument of the ‘classical’.

A news report on the story claimed, “With so much details poured into the game, it’s hard not to see the benefits of video games in how they can also preserve history, even in its own way”[10].

Below, I look at a few examples of popular single player video games where Classical music acts as a propeller of cognitive dissonance in order to intensify player experience of ‘the grotesque’. In all the examples below, Classical music is used as an agent of the civilized, the peaceful, and the victorious. As such, it serves to enhance and articulate the ‘grotesque’ when this emblem of civility is put in tension with other horrific or otherwise dissonant elements. Like Kafka’s juxtaposition and the self-other psychological confrontation that underpins games as therapy, Classical music is here used as a potent agent for forging a grotesque aesthetic experience by representing a symbolic anchor against which horror and irrationality can be contrasted.


The involvement of Classical music in the game is best demonstrated by the above sound disk and artbook cover of the game score.

The game is set around protagonist Vincent Brooks, who is caught between an emotionally dormant long-term relationship with his girlfriend Katherine, and a second new relationship with young, attractive Catherine. He must confront in his dreams the demonic manifestations of his real-life insecurities and win over them in order to wake up alive the next day. As William Gibbons has described, remixes of famous Classical pieces are prominent features of the nightmare stages of the game.[11] A combination of normal life depicted through cut scenes, and nightmare in the form of gameplay, it is the latter in which complete manifestations of the grotesque are revealed. Classical music in the nightmare scenes are marked out through an action-film style of scoring. While the rest of the game features music in a piano based smooth jazz-style, the nightmare remixes feature strings and brass — rock-style arrangements. Irrespective of player knowledge of the repertoire, the element of the ‘Classical’ is made unavoidable through the repeated recurrence of the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus and extensive use of orchestral instruments.

The game’s narrative teems with allusions to psychological theories in its observation of dreams being a mediation ground between conscious, subconscious and unconscious, and in Jungian terms, the dwelling ground for archetypes. Dreams become the playground where the Freudian id, ego and superego must resolve Vincent’s insecurities. The unconscious impulse, the id, is clearly manifested through demons, with Vincent playing the part of the ego, or the decision maker, while the superego, or the moral center remains un-manifested in material form. This void is filled by Classical Music. Remixed nonetheless, it represents that part of Vincent associated with reality, conscience, order, balance and victory. On completion of each challenge, Vincent opens the ‘door of faith’ to the sound of the Hallelujah Chorus. Each demonic form represents a twisted representation of the central subjects of the Vincent’s fears, sexuality, marriage and child bearing. While each of the three form essential symbols of life, joy and pleasure, in other words sources of positive emotions; in Vincent’s dreams they are manifested as enlarged disembodied forces of destruction, capable here, of taking a life. They emerge from within the darkness of the unknown below the surface of reality and wield not only an instinct but weapons to slay – sharp teeth and sharp knives. With contradicting ideas of the sophisticated and grotesque, battling it out, the player is left guard-less in the line of fire, reaping in return maximum psychological rewards.

The Evil Within

On few occasions in the game The Evil Within, the player witnesses chilling occasions when famous pieces of Classical Music not only meta-diegetically underscore the scene but add to what would have otherwise been intensely cognitively dissonant.

In Chapter 1, hanging upside down from the ceiling, the lead character Sebastian is about to be hacked to death by serial killer Sadist. Sadist is a large and muscular man with a metallic mask, bloody outfit and gory appearance. Sadist, much like Catherine, represents a human form of a demon except this time, the weapon is a chainsaw. While Sebastian hangs alongside rotting hacked bodies and putrid carcasses, a nearby gramophones resonates with an orchestra, the tune of Bach’s Air in G. Playing on the pun with the name Sebastian, the music itself has nothing more to do with the narrative than to intensify the already horrific and disgusting visuals into an articulation of artistic irony. The music in the scene symbolizes the death of civilization itself. The game takes place in Sebastian’s home town where all inhabitants have either perished, mutated or have turned into evil monsters.

In The Evil Within, we see another common theme across a multitude of video games, including GTA, Fallout, Bioshock Infinite and the Far Cry series. This is the old radio machine or gramophone that is the mouthpiece for Classical music. The two symbolize not only the ‘archaic’ but also something of the prophetic. Seen across both futurist and historical period games, the radio is something of an artificial conjunction of human machine and transcendental classical music, in other words it is the object of grotesque, often tattered in appearance and giving the sound a distorted and desolate quality.


The grotesque is a term that defies a clear definition. It bears a place in common usage that stretches across object and subject, noun and adjective, video game stimulant and human respondent. What may be observed throughout these cases is that even ‘the grotesque’, exists on a spectrum of ‘grotesqueness’. Outside the question of intention and authorship, lie strong reasons to suggest that any combination of Classical Music and video games is in itself something of a “grotesque” and places it on this spectrum of grotesqueness. Games like Catherine and The Evil Within exploit this triumvirate, to place themselves higher on the grotesque spectrum. As audiences for video games continue to grow, with more individuals voluntarily engaging with video games at deeper levels of emotional involvement; as the influence and usage of Classical music in/on video games continue to grow; cognitive dissonance becomes an increasingly important factor in putting each video game on the spectrum of grotesqueness and thus, putting Classical music itself on various spectrums of modern human experiences.


  1. Michele D. Dickey, ‘Engaging By Design: How Engagement Strategies in Popular Computer and Video Games Can Inform Instructional Design’, ETR&D, Vol. 53, No. 2, 2005, pp.  76
  2. Geoffrey Harpam, ‘The Grotesque’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Summer, 1976), pp.461
  3. Matthias Jaeger, ‘Commercial Video Games As Therapy: A New Research Agenda to Unlock the Potential of a Global Pastime’, frontiers in Psychiatry 8:300 (2018)
  4. Anthony M. Bean, Working with Video Gamers and Games in Therapy: A Clinician’s Guide (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2018), pp. 2
  5. Michele D. Dickey, ‘Engaging By Design: How Engagement Strategies in Popular Computer and Video Games Can Inform Instructional Design’, ETR&D, Vol. 53, No. 2, 2005, pp. 78
  6. Ibid, 70
  7. Philip Thomson, ‘The Grotesque’ (London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1972), pp. 18
  8. William Gibbons, ‘Ultimate Replays: Video Games and Classical Music’, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 4
  9. Ibid. pp. 174
  10. ‘How Assassin’s creed could save Notre Dame’, Stuff,
  11. William Gibbons, ‘Ultimate Replays: Video Games and Classical Music’, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2018), 101–113.

What is 1-bit-music?

By Nikita Braguinski and ‘utz’

On November 20, 2018, the musicologist and media theorist Nikita Braguinski and the musician, programmer and historian of computer sound working under the assumed name of ‘utz’ convened in an IRC chat channel to discuss a musically and technically intriguing question: What is 1-bit-music?

NB: You are, as a musician and as a programmer, actively working in the genre of 1-bit music. Can you give a first, non-technical explanation of what it is?

utz: Sure. Let’s talk about 1-bit sound first. The subject sounds quite esoteric, but actually 1-bit sounds are more common than one might think. For example, if you’re a bit older you may remember that when switching on a PC, it makes a “beep”. Another common example that many people may be familiar with are those birthday greeting cards that play a simple melody when you open them. Or, a more annoying example: the alarm in smoke detectors. All these sounds share a common principle in that they are produced by repeatedly switching the current that goes to the built-in speaker on and off, or in other words, they are produced by toggling a signal between two states. These two states can be expressed by a number containing a single binary digit (bit). Basically, 1-bit music is music made using this principle of sound generation.

NB: We’re only talking about electronically produced sounds, right?

utz: Pretty much.

NB: Great. We’ll return again to this definition to discuss it in more technical terms, but let’s now take a look around this musical practice. It exists within the specific culture of chiptune artists, the demoscene and the retrocomputing scene. Can you give a kind of a first working definition for each of them?

utz: I’d somewhat argue with that statement, actually, but yes, there’s definitely a strong connection with these scenes. “Chiptune” is probably the hardest one to define. Generally, it’s a culture revolving around music made with old home computers and gaming consoles, or music that sounds like it would come from one of these machines. In 1-bit, we often use machines from the same era. The sounds can also be quite similar, though they can also be radically different. Furthermore, there is quite a bit of overlap in terms of people active in the chiptune and 1-bit scene. As a matter of fact, there are hardly any “pure” 1-bit musicians. There are also differences regarding technology. The machines commonly used by chiptune musicians generally have a sound chip, a dedicated piece of hardware that produces sound. Machines used for 1-bit music generally don’t have that.

NB: That’s a huge difference! How do you make sound without sound hardware?

utz: There are different ways to go about, though commonly we look for something like an data port. For example, many old computers can load and save data from/to tape. That’s something we can hook into. If you remember old modems, they make these gnarly sounds, right? That’s pretty much the same idea. Basically, these data ports can be active or inactive, on or off.

NB: If I decode correctly what you describe, the 1-bit-culture is all about difficult, “gnarly” sounds.

utz: A lot of the fun, for me at least, comes from how to get it to make meaningful sounds in the first place. But yes, it often has this very gnarly aesthetic and that’s something that’s very appealing to 1-bit folks. At the same time we strive to make it sound less crude, and make it produce more complex sounds. There’s a kind of very immediate “you vs. the machine” aspect to it.

NB: Does this also apply to retrocomputing and the demoscene?

utz: For retrocomputing, yes. For the demoscene, it’s mostly true for the “oldschool” part of the scene. The demoscene is a culture that focuses on producing non-interactive, realtime-generated audiovisual computer art. Retrocomputing is a movement that uses supposedly obsolete computer hardware in various different ways. As a good portion of the demoscene (the so-called “oldschool” scene) revolves around old computers, there’s significant overlap between the two, of course. Personally I don’t like the term “retrocomputing” very much. It carries this implicit connotation of “obsolescence”, which I find inappropriate. For me, these old machines aren’t obsolete at all, they’re valid contemporary musical instruments. Also, the software being developed for these machines is very much about exploring new possibilities and finding new algorithms, so “retro” isn’t a good fit in that respect either. Also, the thing with 1-bit music is that there are people in it who aren’t connected to either of these scenes. There are for example people who come from the calculator scene. There are these graphing calculators that are being used in school, right? Well, there are people who dig into these machines, and coincidentally they can make 1-bit music. Also, 1-bit music existed before chiptune/demoscene/retrocomputing.

NB: And all these cultures seem to emphasize technical restrictions. Is that right?

utz: Yes, there’s definitely some truth to that. I think there are actually two different aspects related to that, though. One is challenge: It’s a challenge to make something on these old machines, even more so to push the boundaries of what can be done. The other side is that paradoxically, restrictions can be artistically liberating, in a creative sense.

NB: I totally agree. But I have a question: If the term “1-bit music” is really only about 1-bit sound then any kind of music can be “1-bit” if it is played using this specific technology?

utz: I don’t think anyone ever gave too much thought to a solid definition of 1-bit music so far. But yes, I’d agree with that. In fact, it’s possible to employ 1-bit techniques on sound chips, for example. This contrasts it with the term “8-bit music”, where “8-bit” generally refers to the type of CPU used to make the music. 1-bit music can be 8-bit music, although it doesn’t necessarily have to be. There is a general-purpose music editor called Sunvox, which has a 1-bit mode, so you can make 1-bit music without actual 1-bit hardware. There are 1-bit VSTis (sound plugins) as well.

NB: So, unlike algorithmic composition it is not primarily about generating music, but the generation of sound.

utz: In a sense we have the same problem as with chiptune: everybody has their own idea about what qualifies as a chip and what doesn’t.

NB: Well, now that we have taken a look at the cultural environment in which 1-bit music is being created, could you give a more technical explanation of how it works?

utz: Ok, so, as mentioned before, 1-bit music is made by switching signals on and off. If you switch a signal at regular intervals 440 times a second, you get a 440 Hz note. These are the basics. The gist is that by switching in more complex patterns, one can produce more complex sounds. This includes polyphonic sound (containing several independent melodies or effects played at the same time). Modern 1-bit music is generally about polyphonic sound. There are a number of techniques that can be used to achieve polyphonic sounds, and there are a lot of different implementations of these techniques. By the way, that’s also something that sets 1-bit apart from, say, chiptune. If you take Gameboy music for example, at least 90% of it is made on one of 2 editors, LSDj and Nanoloop. In 1-bit, on the other hand, we use tons of different software regularly. So, there are two main approaches to generating polyphonic sound with a 1-bit signal. One is called Pulse Frequency Modulation (which is actually an established thing, we didn’t make that up), and the other one goes by a bunch of different names, I usually call it Pulse Interleaving. Say, we switch our signal at a rate of 440 Hz. Or any rate, as a matter of fact. One would assume that the signal is on for half of the time, and off the other half of the time (which is what’s known as a square wave). But it doesn’t need to be that way. We can also create a signal that’s on for 1% of the time, and off 99% of the time. As long as we switch at 440 Hz, we still get a 440 Hz note. However, we now have a lot of space between the “on” pulses. Within that space, we can render a second train of pulses at adifferent frequency. The result will be that both frequencies are audible. This gives a very characteristic sound. This is pulse frequency modulation. Funny side node, that’s actually how your brain cells communicate with each other. Anyway, Tim Follin’s early works on ZX Spectrum are typical examples of that. See, for example, this video.

NB: How do you know this specific technique was used in this tune?

utz: The sound is very characteristic, 1-bit musicians will instantly recognize it. Also, we know because some clever people analyzed the music driver behind it.

NB: Yes, that’s a fascinating story how people reverse-engineer other musicians’ programs.

utz: The Follin driver is also legendary because it was the first to do 5-voice polyphony on a 3.5 MHz machine with no sound hardware. The pulse interleaving technique on the other hand tackles the problem at hand from a completely different angle. Generally, pulse frequency modulation makes it possible to render a lot of voices even with slow hardware. The record is at 16 voices for the ZX Spectrum. Pulse interleaving has more constraints in that respect, because it requires tighter timing. The idea behind it is that loudspeakers have inertia. The hardware components in a computer have inertia as well, but to a much lesser degree. Generally, a CPU is much faster than a loudspeaker cone. So, when we switch our 1-bit signal from off to on, the speaker cone will (slowly, from the CPU’s perspective) start to extend outwards from it’s current, contracted position. While this is still happening, the CPU can already switch the signal off again. Which means that before the speaker cone has even reached full extension, it will start contracting again. By precise timing, we can therefore control the speaker cone position, or in other words, we can produce different volume levels through our 1-bit signal. With different volume levels, we can of course produce polyphony. Generally, this technique will result in a more typical “chiptune” sound, though other applications are possible.

NB: It certainly requires a more complicated calculation than the previous technique.

utz: Yes, and what fascinates me the most is that it can be implemented in so many different ways. The funny thing is that for a minimal example, the actual code is nearly identical. Finding this similarity was a big “Aha!” moment for me. But generally pulse interleaving code tends to be more complex than pulse frequency modulation code.

NB: If I understand correctly, by creating cone movements of different amplitude, you basically make your own digital-to-analog converter which you can use to play anything, including polyphonic music (but also speech, for example).

utz: Yes, exactly. Speech is very simple, actually. Another way to put it is to say that for 1-bit sound, within a fixed interval time equals volume.

NB: Now, there is also a prehistory of 1-bit. There were mechanical devices that, to a degree, worked in the same way. For example, in the 17th century there were experiments with toothed wheels: in 1681, Robert Hooke presented to the Royal Society in London his experiments where a rotating wheel created individual “clicks” with its teeth. If rotated quickly enough, it produced not a pulsating rhythm, but a tone. This was later called a Savart wheel. There were also mechanical sirens. With an arrangement of holes, tones were produced by interrupting the stream of air going through it. Different machines existed that were based on this principle, one of them (already in 20th century) was the Rhythmicon, built by Leo Theremin and working with light instead of air. Sometimes, people would also put holes representing different frequencies into the same circular pattern, which basically corresponds to the “pulse frequency modulation” technique in 1-bit. This specific experiment was carried out in 19th century by Friedrich Wilhelm Opelt.

utz: That sounds very much like an application of PFM. So, they could do polyphony?

NB: Yes, by combining holes referring to two different tones (or teeth in the case of the wheel). Of course, you could not switch tones as easily as with the computer.

utz: Hmm, if they would’ve used a tape instead of a wheel it might have been possible.

NB: Too bad they can’t hear us! Now, coming back to 1-bit: during our conversation, I was listening to your album of 1-bit music, published under your artistic name “Irrlicht Project”. What was your own, personal experience in the creation of such music?

utz: Now that’s a long story… I’ll try to be brief. I started experimenting with computer music back in 2003-2004. I used the Fruity Loops software back in the day (a so-called digital audio workstation). I didn’t have any clue of what was going on in the outside world back in the day, since I had no internet. So, I just made music with sounds that I liked. Which happened to be mostly the sounds based on simple waveforms, such as pulse/saw/sine etc. Then, some years later I discovered that there’s a whole scene revolving around that kind of aesthetic, called chiptune. I also discovered that there are these old computers that you can use to make this type of music. At the same time I was running into a sort of a dead end with my digital-audio-workstation-based workflow. As these got more complex, and the synthesizers and effects started to arrive, I found myself more and more busy with tweaking sounds, rather than doing actual compositions. At that point I tried making music on the Atari ST computer, and it was a revelation. Suddenly, I could focus on composition again, because there’s only so much you can do to tweak the sound of the Atari’s sound chip.

NB: So, it was again all about the self-imposed technical restriction.

utz: Oh yes, absolutely. Though, for me it always felt like a liberation. However, as time went on, I discovered more and more ways to tweak the sound, and that became an issue again. At that point I discovered the works of a certain Mister Beep, who was pretty much the only active 1-bit musician at that time. That must have been around 2008-2009. Then, the available tools for making 1-bit music were decades old, and extremely limited. Basically, they didn’t facilitate tweaks to sound at all. Obviously, those old tools had proven to be a lot of joy, even though they were crude and super clunky to use. A few people started getting into 1-bit around the same time. Also, some new tools started to pop up. First, they were mainly ports of old drivers (versions of the musical software that were made compatible with a different computing environment), equipped with new, better user interfaces. Then, we got the first “new” drivers (most of them by Alex “Shiru” Semenov), and also PC-based editor called Beepola. It was a cross-platform program which means that it could run on different systems. At some point, I became interested in making my own driver.

NB: For that, you already must have been a programmer, not just a musician.

utz: Well, that was the problem, actually. I wasn’t. I hardly knew anything about programming. I’ve had only 3 years of computer studies in school, mostly dabbling in the Turbo Pascal programming language, which I had all but forgotten at this point. Also, there’s pretty much only one way to implement 1-bit drivers (at least on the usual 8-bit hardware), and that’s by using the Assembly programming language. I tried to wrap my head around it for ages, with no success. But I had this vision. You see, other kids, they’d have Gameboys and whatnot at school, and a Sega or NES video game console at home. Well, I didn’t. I was the dorky kid who had… a graphing calculator. Everybody had one because it was mandatory, but I was one of the few people who actually spent a lot of time exploring the thing. Now, going back to 2011 or so. I still had that calculator, a Texas Instruments TI-82. At some point I realized that it has the same CPU as the ZX Spectrum home computer (for which many 1-bit tools where available at that time). So, I had this vision of porting one of the ZX drivers to the TI. And after many attempts, I finally succeeded in making the thing beep.

NB: That must have been a special feeling, given that you returned to a tool from your teenage years.

utz: Yes, very much so. As time went on, I became better at this Assembly thing. I made my first own drivers. Of course, they were bad, but, hey, I was making progress. Then, some friends found out about this thing I had done with the calculator, and started asking me about a music editor, a one which could natively run on the TI. And so I sat down and did that. It took me about 6 months, I think, and the result was… hardly usable. Then, a couple of years later I re-did the whole thing, and this time it was somewhat decent.

NB: Do you have an example of this calculator music?

utz: Yes, here’s the “introductory video”. This one uses the pulse interleaving technique, by the way.

NB: Did you modify the calculator to give it an audio output?

utz: No, not at all. It has a “link port”, which is normally used to communicate between two calculators, or between a calculator and a PC. I’m using it for sound.

NB: A beautiful hack! I am sure that, for many people, making music on a calculator symbolizes the ages-long relationship between music and mathematics (and time, I would add, since this is also all about the correct timing).

utz: Oh yeah! So, over time, this programming aspect of the 1-bit universe has become increasingly prevalent in my work. This goes to the point that I now regard it as kind of an art form in itself. It’s not even so much about the music anymore, though I do still enjoy making a good tune. I guess that somewhat sums up my experience in 1-bit.

NB: That’s a great story of going from making music to making tools for making music.

utz: Let me try to find one more example perhaps, just to show what’s possible. This is one of my later drivers, called zbmod. It was used by Tufty, one of the most talented 1-bit musicians (who, by the way, has a new album coming out soon). This works on the classic Sinclair ZX Spectrum home computer. I’ve written many different drivers (or “engines”, as we call them in the 1-bit world). They are all open-source, by the way – including the calculator editor. The code is currently available on Github.

NB: Great! Well, there are so many things that we could add to this discussion of 1-bit, for example the early mainframe computers sounds that you have collected and presented in your recent talk in Berlin. But the nature of this phenomenon, which is still unfolding, is that we would need an infinite amount of time to fully describe it. Thus, I’d like to thank you very much for this conversation, and I am looking forward to hearing about novel creative approaches coming from this technology, which is both new and old.

utz: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about my favorite subject!

Further reading:

Victor Adan, Discrete Time 1-Bit Music: Foundations and Models. PhD thesis, Columbia University (2010).

Kenneth B. McAlpine, “The Sound of 1-bit: Technical Constraint and Musical Creativity on the 48k Sinclair ZX Spectrum, GAME 6 (2017).


See also the PhD project of Blake Troise and the recently published book Bits and Pieces. A History of Chiptunes by Kenneth B. McAlpine.

Nikita Braguinski’s research has been focused on the notion of unpredictability in game sound during his PhD work. His dissertation has been recently published in German. At the moment, he works on the predigital history of algorithmic music and on the mathematization of music in the Soviet musical avant-garde. His recent publications include an article on the notion of 8-bit in music and a discussion of the Speak & Spell electronic toy.

‘utz’ is a developer of sound drivers and music editors, with a passion for low-level synthesis algorithms. He is also an avid composer and performer of 1-bit music. He maintains a personal website with all his works.

%d bloggers like this: