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.

Firstly, only one audio file needs to be available in RAM for playback. Depending on the system, this can be a huge boon for resource management.

Secondly, it affords the composer a great deal of control over the flow and shape of the music. This trades off against interactivity, but allows the possibility of beautiful iconic pieces.

Thirdly, it’s well scoped. A collaborating composer and game designer can agree on deliverables for this kind of track, reducing frustration on both ends. There’s little risk of requirements changing due to minor gameplay changes.

Screenshot from De Blob 2.
In De Blob 2 (THQ, 2011), the soundtrack uses dynamic vertical layering to change mood as the player paints with different colours. The background tracks still stand well on their own when the mix is held constant, thanks to good old-school loop writing.

Of course, dynamic music (which changes with the player’s actions) is increasingly common, and not just for big studios. Why focus on looping music for this series? My answer is simple: the basics still matter. Music which changes shape and direction over time (“horizontal re-sequencing”), like Ocarina of Time’s field theme, needs all the possible combinations of building block sections to fit together smoothly. Music which brings new elements and instruments in and out over time (“vertical layering”), like De Blob’s various level tracks, still has a clear underlying core shape to it. We can treat the theory of non-interactive looping music as “foundational”, and apply what we learn here to these more complex scenarios.

At its best, looping music smoothly complements gameplay. Winifred Phillips (Assassin’s Creed series, God of War) writes6Phillips, W. (2014). A composer’s guide to game music. MIT Press, p158.:

“[A good loop] takes the listener on a journey that is interesting enough and diverting enough to disguise the fact that it has repeated. When a loop is composed expertly, this disguise can remain effective through many repetitions.”

But at its worst, looping music can be incredibly grating.

When music loops go wrong: repetition fatigue

Tiling wallpaper with hand-drawn pastel seashells.
“Vintage Sea Shells Background” (source).

Human beings are excellent at pattern detection. Repetition is among the simplest kinds of patterns, and in many contexts we find thoughtless repetition boring, if not irritating. That’s why the pattern in the image above works much better on wrapping paper and garment textiles (where the amount shown is limited, or the pattern is arranged in space rather than laid flat) than, say, as an art print. It’s why it’s exhausting to see a TV show recycling the same plot, or frustrating to look at a row of chairs and see the same fake wood patina on each, whorl for whorl.

A strong, recognisable melodic element played again and again can induce what Phillips calls “repetition fatigue”. (Emphasis here on “recognisable” and “melodic” — a short drum loop, or random horror movie plucked strings, are less irksome played on repeat.) Looping music, without the support of dynamic music generation, is at serious risk of inducing this kind of experience.

I’m going to go through a few examples of tracks that induce repetition fatigue. Of course, “fatiguing” and “annoying” are subjective judgements, so although I’ve done my best to pick disagreeable examples, you may quite like some of them. If so, that’s fine! There are rarely universals in aesthetic enjoyment7…except for the fact that Louis Armstrong is a better trumpeter than your baby cousin..

“Together We Ride”, from Fire Emblem: Blazing Sword (Nintendo, 2003). The loop point is at 00:54; the logo is glorified WordArt.

Consider “Together, We Ride!” from Fire Emblem: Blazing Sword (Nintendo, 2003), linked above. Have a listen to it! Let the loop run two or three times to get a feel for the dynamics of the track, and how it loops back into itself.

In my mind, the most challenging part of the track is its sudden drop in intensity.

Hand-drawn graph displaying intensity vs. time for "Together, we Ride!". The intensity starts at a low ebb then increases and stays high for a while. This repeats forever.

Above, I’ve sketched out how the track’s intensity waxes and wanes. (This is obviously not to scale.) The track begins with a rhythmic brassy fanfare over bass guitar, that builds and builds. At 0:13 it breaks out into a synth-y theme with celebratory tones, and the drums hit a basic rock beat. The problem arises at the loop point at 0:54 (indicated by the blue circles in the diagram). All of the momentum of the initial build-up is still there, but now the music drops back into the initial fanfare. This comedown is sudden enough to draw the listener’s attention, which makes it all the more obvious that they’re listening to a loop stitched back in on itself. Repetition fatigue has found a foothold.

Now, it might sound like I’m implying that you can’t have build-up in looping music without an annoying drop in intensity somewhere, but that’s really not true. Later in this series we’ll look at some techniques for avoiding this, such as using sections which are intense in different ways, or even just drawing out the comedown to be less sudden.

Additionally, the piece is composed of two very short sections. In a later article, we’ll dive into “chorus and verse”-shaped pieces, and I’ll argue that if there’s a distinctive secondary section to the track (the “verse”), it needs to be reasonably long. A short loop induces repetition fatigue faster8…as a general rule of thumb, at least..

The fanfare is short enough to feel like more of an interruption than a section of the piece in its own right, especially as the music starts looping. Again, this turns it into a major landmark, drawing attention to it and bringing the loop more into consciousness.

“Inside House”, from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (Nintendo, 1987). The loop point is at 00:08.

Let’s consider a more extreme example. The “Inside House” theme from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (Nintendo, 1987) is a short loop lasting barely 8 seconds per repetition. In the context of a twenty-second shopkeeper interaction, it’s spritely and fun. For a longer gameplay section, it would overstay its welcome very quickly. The piece has no feeling of build-up or movement. But it’s still melodic, so it doesn’t can’t play the “anti-music” card like, say, throat singing can.

Hand-drawn graph displaying intensity vs. time for "Inside House" from Zelda II. The intensity pretty much never changes.

It takes a very specific fortitude to play it on repeat for several minutes (as the Youtube video above does) without getting annoyed, making it a pretty bad call to use for level background music9…unless a game’s target audience is masochists, in which case, niiice..

So this track works fine the way it’s used in-game, but would be inappropriate elsewhere. This tells us that the context in which the loop appears affects its reception and ability to induce fatigue. 10That’s right, context matters. Film at eleven.

The length of the gameplay section matters. So does how much attention an engaged player pays to the music. A text-heavy dialogue sequence provides plenty of time for the player to really consciously take in the music while they’re reading (or, heavens forbid, waiting for the text to scroll into view). On the other hand, an action-packed racing game is going to keep the player deep in flow state where the background music will be less of an attention grab.

Screenshots from Fruit Ninja and Threes.
Fruit Ninja (Halfbrick Studios, 2010) and Threes (Sirvo LLC, 2014) have very different requirements for their main gameplay music.

In Game Sound, Karen Collins writes: “[In the 8-bit era of gaming,] loop lengths were genre-specific, with the genres that had the longest gameplay having the longest loops.”11Collins, K., op. cit., p27. We still see this pattern decades later: Fruit Ninja (Halfbrick Studios, 2010) has shorter play sessions and keeps the player in flow state (where the music stands out less); Threes (Sirvo LLC, 2014) supports long play sessions and often places the player in thinking/planning mode. Their main gameplay music has loop lengths of thirty seconds and three minutes, respectively.

So there’s no universal rule for whether a piece of looping music works well. It matters when and how the music is used. It matters on how this fits into the larger flow of the game. It matters how much dynamic re-sequencing or instrumentation we’re using on top of our basic loop. Hell, it even matters whether we want the player to feel repetition fatigue12Listening to Mr Resetti in the Animal Crossing series (Nintendo) is not meant to be a pleasant, flow-state experience..

With that in mind, we can start figuring out how to make enjoyable loops.

Shape makes loops work

We’ve seen how the sections of a track and changes in intensity affect its effectiveness as looping music. Balancing these concerns while doing the creative work of musical composition is a fickle art.

A lot of how a looping track functions is visible through the lens of musical form. By form, I mean the “shape” of the track over time: the different sections, when and where they appear, and how they interrelate. (The term “form” has multiple meanings within classical music; usually it denotes the structure inherent in a single track’s “tonality and repetition”13Randel, D. M. “Form”. (2003). The Harvard dictionary of music. 4th edition. Harvard University Press..) Do similar sections appear at multiple points inside the loop? Are there strong main themes or none at all? Musical form gives us a useful framework to explore this in.

Photo: Play School windows - circle, square, arched - in storage at the National Museum.
Shapes. Source: Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

In the rest of this series, we’ll turn the spotlight on several key forms that continually crop up in game music:

  • Rhapsody. This is the poster child of video game music. The track is made of several distinct sections, each flowing into the next.
  • Theme and episodes. “Rondo” if you’re into old-school names. There’s a main theme that is interspersed with varying interludes.
  • Chorus and verse. When a song gets stuck in your head for hours, odds are you’ve got this kind of loop. Two sections, one more intense than the other.
  • Textural. For workhorse background music, not iconic tunes. No strong themes; no strong sense of sections.

This isn’t an exhaustive list! (It’s not even mutually exclusive.) Just like game genres and literary movements, musical form doesn’t divide the world into clear-cut categories. We explore these forms not because they constrain the kinds of music we can make, but because they give us insights into their construction.

In the next post in this series, I’ll be discussing rhapsody form. Until then, this is a good time to reflect on the looping tracks you’ve encountered, past and present. Which ones stand out? Are there any you’d be happy to listen to on loop for hours at a time? Let me know in the comments!

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.
6. Phillips, W. (2014). A composer’s guide to game music. MIT Press, p158.
7. …except for the fact that Louis Armstrong is a better trumpeter than your baby cousin.
8. …as a general rule of thumb, at least.
9. …unless a game’s target audience is masochists, in which case, niiice.
10. That’s right, context matters. Film at eleven.
11. Collins, K., op. cit., p27.
12. Listening to Mr Resetti in the Animal Crossing series (Nintendo) is not meant to be a pleasant, flow-state experience.
13. Randel, D. M. “Form”. (2003). The Harvard dictionary of music. 4th edition. Harvard University Press.

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