Why is looping music so hard to write? Looping music (which repeats forever) is integral to video game sound, but it has many pitfalls for the aspiring composer.

This is the first in a series about game music that loops (i.e. repeats forever). In later entries we’ll discuss different shapes and forms that work for looping music.

In this article we’ll consider why looping music is so integral to games. We’ll also explore some of the challenges (and solutions!) faced by video game composers for this kind of music.

Looping music

Most songs (and other pieces of music) have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Whether it’s the extended instrumental fadeout in The Eagles’s Hotel California, or the bombastic build-up of Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King, these tracks all have clear boundaries and interiors1There’s a mathematical topology joke to be made here, but it’s something of an open problem.. Not so for game music! The majority2Citation needed. of video game background music effectively runs forever, providing a non-stop score no matter whether the player takes ten seconds or ten hours to complete a gameplay section3“The bluegrass tune withers, the pop ballad fades, but videogame background music will last forever.” -mangled version of Isaiah 40:8.

Screenshot from the "Sawmill Thrill" level of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. The main character, Donkey Kong, is riding a log flume through stormy weather.
The “Sawmill Thrill” level from Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Nintendo, 2014) is a rare example of background music written like a film score.

This is often a necessity. As composers and game designers, we usually can’t predict how long a player will spend on a task or in an area. There are exceptions, of course. Rhythm games (Dance Dance Revolution and its lineage, Bit.Trip Runner, etc) tightly couple gameplay to music. In other genres, highly “on-rails” gameplay sequences can be timed down to the second. Consider the “Sawmill Thrill” level of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Nintendo, 2014). David Wise’s track for this level is intense, self-contained, and timed with the precision of a film score4At 0:50 of the linked video, the score dips into a beautiful dark “water theme” with X-Files-esque synthy bells and distant piano sounds. The percussion kicks back in just after 1:20, returning to the main theme with comic intensity. Classical musicians may recognise the shape of this track as A-B-A ternary form and feel vaguely vindicated for actually seeing it used in the real world.. But most of the time, music must be written to tolerate arbitrarily long play time. Effectively, this means running forever.

The usual solution to this is with looping music: a single track that loops on repeat for as long as needed. This approach came into popularity in the mid-80s5Collins, K., (2008). Game Sound. MIT Press, p19.. It’s attractive for a number of reasons. Continue reading Why is looping music so hard to write? Looping music (which repeats forever) is integral to video game sound, but it has many pitfalls for the aspiring composer.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. There’s a mathematical topology joke to be made here, but it’s something of an open problem.
2. Citation needed.
3. “The bluegrass tune withers, the pop ballad fades, but videogame background music will last forever.” -mangled version of Isaiah 40:8
4. At 0:50 of the linked video, the score dips into a beautiful dark “water theme” with X-Files-esque synthy bells and distant piano sounds. The percussion kicks back in just after 1:20, returning to the main theme with comic intensity. Classical musicians may recognise the shape of this track as A-B-A ternary form and feel vaguely vindicated for actually seeing it used in the real world.
5. Collins, K., (2008). Game Sound. MIT Press, p19.