Musical Idea 30: Scorality

04.26.2014 § Leave a comment

Certainly they must have this by now: a video game whose musical score doesn’t just dumbly loop again and again, irrespective of what’s going on in the game world. I expect somewhere today you can find a game in which — once the action kicks into high gear — something happens to the music: the tempo quickens, the amplitude increases, more voices join in, etc. — some combination of these and other possible intensifying effects.

To be clear, I’m speaking of a change in the music, not of the music. To simply cut or fade from the normal/ambient track to the e.g. chase, fight, or nighttime track (as so many games do) is too superficial to really get at what I’m going after here.

Furthermore, this change in the music should be caused by the game action, not merely correlated with it. 1994’s Donkey Kong Country features a level called Snow Barrel Blast whose score track Northern Hemispheres escalates in musical intensity at a rate designed to match the rate of progress an average player makes through the level, thereby underscoring the increasing perilousness of the level’s obstacles. Much respect goes out to David Wise, Robert Beanland, and Eveline Fischer for this impressive gesture. However, if I sit on my monkey butt at the beginning of the level and just let music rise and fall in intensity again and again while nothing happens in the game, it kind of turns into a joke.

1990’s Super Mario World is further along the right track than this. When you hop on Yoshi, Koji Kondo instantly throws some extra percussion into the mix. It works on any level and for any score track. So I’m thinking about stuff along these lines, but a bit more advanced, a bit more subtle, and a bit more musical. I’m looking to cover the broad spectrum of possible game states not with an exhaustive set of pre-rendered, dead audio files, but rather with a single rules-based composition that can adapt in real-time to suit the situation.

By a bit more musical, I mean — well, outside of this context, what kind of percussionist would ever just go straight into a drumming pattern in a random spot in the middle of a meter? Sure, it’s natural enough to go straight into a drumming pattern, and it’s natural enough to start drumming in a random spot in the middle of a meter, but not both of these things combined. Usually if you start straight into a drumming pattern, you do it on the first beat of a meter (or even hypermeter); and usually if you start drumming in a random spot in the middle of a meter, you’d start with a fill, and get to the repeating drumming pattern at the next meter or hypermeter. So maybe rather than the percussion just switching on or off the instant you mount Yoshi, perhaps it could start out with a drum fill, which lasts until the next meter or hypermeter and then settle into the drumming pattern. More naturally integrating with the musical composition increases the strength of this bond between the diegetic action and the non-diegetic score.

By a bit more subtle, I mean that the reasons for the transformations in the music may not always be readily apparent to the player. In the Super Mario World example, it should be plain as day how the additional percussion is associated with riding Yoshi. But what if the music was responding to things like what kind of player you were, or what choices your enemies were making?

And by a bit more advanced, I mean that a really thoughtful composer might take this idea beyond mere entrances and exits of layers of the music. Perhaps she could put together a graph of different paths the music can take depending on game variables, so that the musical variation occurs even at the level of form.


Sometimes when I’m playing a video game I find my attention lost in its sound effects. At certain points in gameplay the procession of triggered clips can seem to come together like music. Perhaps I’m launched across the sky through clouds of items, and the regular spacing of these items (per the memory-saving gridding and pixelation of the graphics) results in the item collection sound being triggered at a regular rate — the beginnings of a beat.

Or perhaps I’m amid a skirmish between two classes of warrior units, each with an attack sound, a sound for when they incur damage from another’s attack, and a sound for when they die from damage exceeding their health points; if each class has a certain number of health points, deals a certain amount of damage with each attack, and has a specific cool-down rate which determines the interval between attacks, have we not the beginnings of a compelling polyrhythm? X unit takes 5 shots to kill Y unit, Y unit takes 7 to kill Z, Z takes 23 to kill X, etc. Start working in things like armor, elemental resistances, upgrades, etc. and you’ve got the foundations of a quite exciting generative musical system.

So on one side we’ve got the music reaching out to the game action, and on the other side we’ve got game action reaching out to music. Now this latter situation here doesn’t require new work to be done — it’s already happening as a result of both games and numbers ultimately being based on numbers, however much abstraction and GUI may be layered on top of them.

That said, additional work could be done to push the diegetic sounds of game action further into the realm of music. For example, in a real-time strategy game, any battle larger than a skirmish is going to break down into cacophony. When army meets army, there are simply too many variables in their contour arising from the terrain, the pathing (unit AI, trying to move around each other and in groups together), and the micro-management of the units (instructions from players which the pathing algorithms try to follow as best as possible) for the onsets of the many polyrhythmic engagements that compromise the battle to occur as anything other than chaos. Only when a clean column of units meets another clean column of units head on can things unfold in an orderly fashion. But what if the game was programmed to be aware of the musical potential of its inhabitants, and added another layer of complexity to its pathing: attempting to get all units to conform to an underlying rhythm of activity (this I expect, unlike the score reaching out to the game, has not been worked on much yet).

While the designers are at it, they may as well have this rhythm connect with the score, and pitch the sound effects in harmonic consonance with the score.

Were one to shut ones eyes and listen only, not watch, as a friend played such a game, one would hear a fascinating new type of music. It would be music in which some sounds followed strictly musical patterns, some sounds followed patterns defined by the rules of a game, and other sounds straddle or remain ambiguous between the two.


I listen to video game scores sometimes. They come packaged, just as film scores do (though maybe with generally less extra material that didn’t make the final cut of the visual work)  — usually with tracks ordered roughly as you encounter them in the game. I listen to film scores too, but when I listen to a film score (as opposed to a game score) I find myself less likely to wish or imagine that I was hearing the rest of the sounds that accompany the music when paired with the visual work. Perhaps it has to do with the much higher repetition of specific sounds in games, or perhaps it’s how the game sounds don’t always hit at the same spots in the music like unchanging, dead films do — but I’m just far less able to conceive of the video game score as a stand-alone entity, of existing without a layer of sound effects on top which is semi-random or up to the decisions of human or computer players. I mean, how can the music of 1990’s F-Zero exist without the scream of your hovercraft’s engine (intermittently punctuated by the electronic smack-crunk of feedback when you collide with the edges of the racecourse, of course) mixed in? It’s certainly not the quality of the score, because believe you me, doubters, there are a lot of genius video game scores out there (also, I admit I supply my own lightsaber and starship sounds when listening to John Williams’s Duel of the Fates).

Sometimes when I want to listen to a video game score track I’ll just put on a video of someone playing the game, specifically for the purpose of including all the sounds effects I know and love along with the music. These sound effects don’t have to be programmed in some advanced way to interact with the music, nor does the music even need to react to the game action like I’ve been describing here for this to be more enjoyable to me.  The point is that this may be an interesting dimension to add to stretches of your music: layers of sound which follow their own rules and tell their own invisible story, and you’d at least have one audience member in me. And if you can take it to the level where the music and these sounds get swept up and confused between each other, then I’ll think you’ve really defeated the secret boss.

Scorality, in its first usage, is the musical technique of presenting a diegetic entirety alongside a non-diegetic entirety, such that the former is perceived as a continuous experience of a film or video game like world, while the latter is perceived as its score.  In its second usage, scorality is the aspect of an entity as it moves between these two entireties: non-scoral when aligned with the diegetic, and scoral when aligned with the non-diegetic.

Diegeticity may be deployed in much more limited and isolated situations, as a technique or flourish. It’s much more about the physical nature of an individual sound — does it sound like it is within or without this world? Scorality is a much more involved, comprehensive effect to achieve using diegeticity, once diegeticity has been used to establish an overall dichotomy of within and without a world.

For further clarity, I wouldn’t really care for scorality to be taken completely literally. I don’t want to feel like I’m listening to the audio track for a movie without its images — some prog rock band has probably already done that as a concept album, right? Nor do I just want to listen to something sounding like someone playing Age of Empires, the game starting out with all grunts and blunt weapon impacts and ending with tank and laser sounds as civilization has technologically advanced over the course of the game. I’m not trying to reduce this to a clever means to make cultural references. Another example of a lame version of this: having your music fluctuate back and forth between sounding like a live recording, including the noises of the crowd, and a studio recording, with types of sounds difficult to create in a live setting.

That said, it is definitely permitted to take inspiration from common interactions between score and the scored. Look to common film and game cues. Perhaps the same sound effect tends to accompany total changes in the musical fabric. It doesn’t have to sound like a door or pipe, but it is the case that when moving from world to world in games you often end up using the same types of portals which make the same sounds. Or a certain sound effect, like a Yoshi mounting sound, is associated with the same change to the musical fabric each time. Or perhaps, as in a suspense or melodrama film, sometimes the score just looms in the background, fitting loosely with events, but then swells suddenly to echo a shouted accusation. Or, d’uh, in musical films, there are scenes without music, scenes with music but which aren’t full-fledged musical numbers, and then the full-fledged musical numbers sprinkled throughout — that that as a formal precedent. And that Age of Empires example — this is not the only time video games exhibit gradual risings in stakes and advancements as the game proceeds — remember the other Donkey Kong Country example where the level grows more perilous — so there is certainly no reason why you can’t have the music evolve in essence like this, but musically.

Ideally rather than a door or pipe sound, the timbres of sounds may be as musical as the score, and perhaps even at the ultimate level of transcendence the game rules are musical — jazz combatants defeating each other with the right chord at the right moment, say. I’ve heard of “NPC (non-player character) fetish”, describing the interest in watching two sets of totally artificial intelligent players duke it out — suppose you take that to this music sphere, so we have an improvisational battle via cellular automata. Robot pro wrestlers, entertainment combat.

I bet it would be super cool to apply scorality within spatiality. Suppose you default to the sonic space corresponding to the map of the entire field of play. That is, most of the time, you experience the game omnipresently. One army of players starts in bottom back center, another in top center left, another in center front right. We can hear their forces developing as musical themes, their individual units in counterpoint. The forces begin to swarm around the spatial map, encountering each other, fleeing, confronting.

Now here’s where it really gets super cool. At any time the perspective may cut from the default map aural-view and into the phenomenal experience of any of the units, so you can get the the ground level from various points. For finesse, I think it would be smarter to cut or fade directly into these perspectives, rather than (even extremely quickly) moving as if physically repositioning from god into inhabiting someone, if only because it should be fascinating to hear the differences between sounds heard from different angles and distances. Cut from one unit to another mid-explosion, and the sound will be continuous but change from distant thunder into an enveloping roar.


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