Loops in Video Game Music

When listening to arrangements of early looped and electronic music, the crafted compositions were evidently experimental. Access to new technology allowed for composers to be much more radical and imaginative with their works. As such, diverse instrumentation, varied melodies and harmonies, and generally innovative ways of creating music came forth. Thus, looped music became a catalyst for musical evolution as it pushed the process of composition to its absolute limit.

As time progressed, integration of skills and ideas from looped music intersected with more traditional methods of creating music. Looping certain rhythmic and melodic patterns became a more common practice in modern music, whether it was looping the beat to a song or a certain harmonic progression. However, I find that where I notice the evolution of looped music is in video game music. Why do video game soundtracks rely on loops? It’s because they have to. 

For those who are less familiar with video games, the easiest analogy is that video game music operates similarly to movie soundtracks. Compositions are created to further immerse the player in the environment or situation the characters find themselves in. Essentially, video game music is meant to elevate the player’s experience by creating atmosphere or emphasizing the emotional impact of a scene.

There are a few reasons why loops serve video game music so well.

Simply from a production level, I think it is important to recognize that in video games, music is an almost constant element of the experience. Whether it is a theme for a character, theme for a setting such as a dungeon, or theme for an intense battle, music plays a crucial role in gaming. As I started to consider why loops are used in video game soundtracks, I realized the sheer number of pieces that need to be composed for every game. For example, Final Fantasy IX and Xenoblade Chronicles both feature soundtracks that consist of over 100 unique pieces each ranging around 4-5 hours if all the works are compiled together. If these compositions did not loop, it would significantly delay game production and would likely mean cutting down the number of distinct musical pieces that these games include. 

This is also why within video game music, there are often even sections of a piece that loop. Whether it be a looped background rhythm or drumming beat, or a phrase that is repeated back-to-back, these loops can help create a piece easier for composers who have to compose so many unique sections. Additionally, some pieces will loop a melody, but introduce a new instrument or harmony to transform a piece and make it appear less repetitive.

Further, game developers have no way of knowing how long a player may need or want to remain in an area for, and therefore pieces of music have to loop. For example, two people who are playing the same boss battle may take different amounts of time to complete the encounter. If the music did not loop and just ended at some point for the player who required a longer time, the atmosphere of the scene would disappear and thus the player’s immersion would be jarringly broken.

For players, a benefit to the repetitive nature of looped music is that they can easily recognize and follow a musical piece. After listening to the composition in a repetitive setting, it becomes very familiar. As they run through an area, they can hum along or simply enjoy the music since it is something they can easily recognize. As such, a piece can be something that passively plays in the background as a player is deciding how to win a battle, or it can be something they are actively listening to as they are just trying to get from point a to point b.

However, this emphasizes the difficulty of creating video game music. The music must be stimulating enough to positively attract the attention of a player by illustrating the situation it is played in. Yet, the music cannot be overpowering to the point where it turns attention away from the game. Likewise, a composition cannot be too repetitive to where the listener either gets bored of the piece or can no longer enjoy it. It is a constant tension within the very concept of game music that makes it so complex. 

To conclude this post, I wanted to analyze two examples of pieces that utilize loops in interesting and original ways. Consider The Fallen Arm from Xenoblade Chronicles as our first example. 

After a brief introduction around 0:12, we are introduced to the sorrowful melody of the piece played by an oboe. Then at 0:39, this section loops but has added contrapuntal lines played by strings, giving it a new, more complex feeling despite featuring the same melodic material. At 1:05, we are introduced to a part of the piece that introduces a different melody. This provides a breath of new air as this is new melodic material we have not heard before. At 1:32, the original melody reappears, however, it is now joined by a counter melody played by the strings. This gives the piece a more dense texture, and makes it difficult to recognize the original melody. At 1:59, the melody and the contrapuntal line are looped again right after it is played, which allows the listener to fully identify the combined melodies that are being played together. At 2:25, the main melody appears with a new timbre as it is played by the piano instead of a violin with a slight variation at the end.  This reappearance of the melody leads to instrumental piano postlude that mirrors the harp prelude from the very beginning. Thus, the loop of the entire composition is completed. 

Here, there are really two distinct sections that are played. However, the continuous variations in the instrumentation (from oboe solo, to oboe/ violin dialogue, to strings, to violin solo with piano accompaniment, and finally to piano solo) make the repetitions appear different. Added to changes of instrumentation are contrapuntal melodies and new, richer harmonies that make the piece both easy to follow and still unique and not repetitive. This music plays in an area that holds a nearly-eradicated civilization in a forgotten land. The downcast sound evokes a feeling of pain that the civilization endured. 

A different approach is taken in Final Fantasy X’s Path of Repentance

The entire piece is played by piano solo and centers on a simple melodic phrase. The very first couple of notes played in the right hand part establish the melodic motive which is looped to create the A section. Essentially, the same pattern of melody and rhythm dominate this section with the pattern being sequenced up or down a whole step. Thus, a loop of a single sequence is used to create the A section in its entirety. At 0:20, the A section loops and is played again. At 0:39, a B section is introduced. While this section introduces a new melodic pattern, this pattern is then again sequenced going up and down by half steps and looped. After this, the A section is played again and the loop is complete. 

This piece is much more straight-froward, as it is played only by a piano, features only two sections, and consists of both small scale (sequenced melodic patterns) and large scale (ABA pattern) loops. Yet, the piece does not feel repetitive since it employs pitch sequence in place of actual repetition and large scale pattern by including ternary form. This piece plays as your character is escaping a prison after being wrongfully detained. The repetitive pattern illustrates the confining environment your character finds themselves in, and the sole piano reflects the isolation and sorrow you feel separated from your party. 

I encourage you, the next time you are playing a game, to dedicate a little time to appreciating the music that is being played. 

By Aimee S

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