Saturday, November 21, 2009

Video Game Music

Note: the acronym "vgm" is short for "video game music".

     Here's a letter I wrote in December of 2007:

    Some of the vgm I have is the result of nostalgia and the pure novelty of having such things. For instance, I was shocked to learn that video game music is actually put on CD and sold in Japan.

But why does that happen? You don't see vgm on store shelves in America, so why Japan? This is purely my opinion, but I believe part of the answer lies in the way that the original Nintendo system was marketed. In Japan, the system was called 'The Family Computer' and was marketed to entire families, to be used by children and adults alike. In America, the system was called 'The Nintendo Entertainment System' and was marketed to kids, to be used as a toy.

Another part of the answer (probably The Answer) is that a video game company in Japan in the mid 80s, called 'Enix', was looking for a person trained in classical music to make music for their video games. They found Koichi Sugiyama, who was trained in classical music, and he composed music for 'Dragon Quest'. The music was good enough to be released on CD and it was put on the market in 1986. It sold well and an orchestral concert was held, with music from Dragon Quest, in 1987. Since then, there have been well over a hundred video game music concerts in Japan.

The reason why I listen to vgm is because I prefer music that has a strong melody and does not have vocals. Sound quality is not that much of an issue, since my imagination can fill in the gaps. For instance, when I listen to original 8 bit music, I can 'hear' what it sounds like if played with real instruments. My guess is that some people are unable to transform music in their minds to what they want it to sound like.

Most of the vgm I listen to is not taken directly from games, but 'arranged'. If vgm is arranged, that basically means the sound quality is much improved, often with real instruments. Sometimes, popular singers in Japan add lyrics. As one might logically suspect, the Japanese might play video game music on the radio. I asked someone in Japan about that, and they don't. It's not considered popular music at all. It's made because there is some money to be made. Generally, the company that owns the video game would hire an orchestra or a band to arrange the music. This is not done very much anymore, since the newest generation of video game systems produces sound that is indistinguishable from real instruments.

I mentioned that nostalgia is a factor, but its influence is minimal, since much of my favorite vgm is from games I have never played. And it would be quite difficult to play some of those games, as reading ability in Japanese is required.

What style of music is video game music?

As far as I can tell, there does not exist a style of music that has not been used in a video game. So, video game music is not a style of music, but rather, video games are a medium for playing different

How many video game soundtracks exist?

Definitely more than 50,000. The amount that has been transferred to CD and sold in the marketplace now stands at more than 6,500 different albums. 

EDIT (7-17-2011): There are now more than 20,000 different video game music albums.

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