Nintendo, Stravinsky, and the Aesthetics of Limitation

By: William Gibbons (Texas Christian University) //

Not many video game consoles have the historical or cultural cachet of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The unassuming gray and black box became a ubiquitous feature of living rooms across much of the world in the 1980s and early 1990s, its massive success simultaneously revitalizing the flagging game industry and establishing standards that continue to affect many aspects of game design even today. The NES’s influence on video game music was (and still is) considerable. Music from its more popular games—including the Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Mega Man series, for example—ranks among the best known and most beloved game soundtracks, endlessly recycled in more recent games, requested in game music concerts, and reproduced in YouTube arrangements.


The Nintendo Entertainment System

The technical and aesthetic achievements of composers writing for the NES become all the more impressive when we consider the limitations they faced in working with 1980s game hardware. Although it was advanced for the time, the Programmable Sound Generator chip used in the NES only allowed for five audio channels. In essence, that means five sounds—musical or otherwise—could play at once. Of those five, only three were reserved mostly for music: two pulse wave channels with the capability to change volume and a single triangle wave channel with a fixed volume level. The fourth channel produced static (technically white noise), but was often used to create percussion effects. The final channel was the least frequently used but perhaps the most varied, providing short and often distorted snippets of sampled music, sound effects, or even speech.

This useful video explains the functions of the different audio channels on the NES.

As a result of its hardware the NES typically had only three musical tones playing simultaneously—just enough for the most basic chords in Western music. That alone could create a serious stumbling block for composers. A work for solo piano might require more pitches sounding at once, for instance, let alone the many different tones that might sound in, say, a full orchestra. But that wasn’t all: composers also had to keep in mind the very limited amount of memory reserved for music. Even though the size of the music files they created are miniscule by 2015 standards, designers in the 1980s needed every possible byte of space to fit games into the memory available on NES cartridges. Given these significant hardware restrictions, how were composers writing for the NES able to create such complex and memorable music? Maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. Instead, perhaps we should consider those restrictions as helping composers create groundbreaking musical scores. We can find an analogue in a composer about as far removed from game music as possible: Igor Stravinsky, creator of iconic modernist works such as The Rite of Spring (1913) and Petroushka (1910–11, rev. 1947).

Stravinsky’s compositional method was often deeply rooted in the idea of constraint—and indeed, in a kind of gameplay. In his fascinating book Stravinsky’s Late Music, for example, Joseph Strauss observes that “Stravinsky approached musical composition as a game, one which made sense only in obedience to explicit, strict rules. … Throughout his career, Stravinsky imposed many different kinds of constraints, obstacles, and limits upon his field of composition action.”1 Although he didn’t have the same technological restrictions placed on his work that composers writing for the NES did, Stravinsky frequently chose to create his own, forcing himself to invent new solutions to compositional “problems.” In some works, Stravinsky elected to only use certain pitches, while in others he limited the technical demands on the performer, and so on. Sometimes, those problems were even technological in nature: Stravinsky’s Serenade in A for Piano (1925) was famously composed with the limits of a 78-rpm record in mind—each of the four movements is around three minutes long so that it could fit on a single side of the record.

As with Stravinsky’s self-limitations, overcoming the obstacles inherent in 1980s game hardware required composers to innovate. This essay is far too short (or its limits are too great) to go into their many innovations, but we can touch on a few particularly important examples. To conserve the scarce available memory, for example, composers often wrote music in repeatable “loops” (a term drawn from electronic tape music, like that of minimalist composer Steve Reich)—providing the maximum amount of music with the minimum amount of material. Though some loops were overly repetitive (to the point of listener fatigue), other composers worked within the medium to create more musically rewarding loops. Perhaps the most famous of these loops is Koji Kondo’s music for the first level of Super Mario Bros. (1985). As Andrew Schartmann notes in his new book on the Super Mario Bros. soundtrack, despite the fact that almost the entire game features music, it contains only about three minutes of original work. To create a loop that wouldn’t get overly repetitive to players, Kondo composed the music in discrete sections with a complex pattern of repetition, keeping listeners (especially those actively engaged in playing the game) a bit unsure about when the loop was going to repeat.

Music for Super Mario Bros. (1985), Level 1-1. Music by Nintendo’s longtime in-house composer Koji Kondo.

Composers also found ways to work around, or benefit from, the limits on the number of simultaneously sounding pitches. For instance, by playing the individual notes of a chord up and down (“arpeggiating” them) very quickly—far faster than a live performer could play them, and almost too fast to hear the individual pitches—they could create the aural illusion of multiple pitches sounding at once, sometimes called the “arpeggio effect.” (This technique had been pioneered on the Commodore 64 computer, but was very popular on the NES as well.) By necessity, composers discovered new sounds by embracing the capabilities of the technology at hand.

This video offers some examples of the arpeggio effect on the NES, which was particularly popular with European game-music composers.

The desire to maximize the effects of the few available audio channels even led some composers to borrow from the past—another technique Stravinsky used frequently in his Neoclassical works. The ballet (and later orchestral suite) Pulcinella (1920), for example, is based on music supposedly by the eighteenth-century composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Some game composers also turned to eighteenth-century composers to learn how to effectively create music with only a few musical notes at once. J.S. Bach, for example, composed many complex and beloved works that never use more than three “voices,” or independent musical lines. Kinuyo Yamashita and Satoe Terashima clearly imitated Bach and other Baroque composers in some music from Castlevania (1986), as did Hal Canon for the NES version of the arcade classic Gauntlet (1987, below). Significantly, both examples are based on the Baroque passacaglia, a musical form based on a set of variations over a repeating harmonic pattern. This repetitive structure meshed well with the idea of looping in game music. (In fact, some NES games simply borrowed pre-existing classical music because, among other reasons, the styles and forms often worked well for the hardware limitations.)

In this music from Gauntlet (1987), composer Hal Canon uses techniques borrowed from eighteenth-century composers such as J.S. Bach, although some moments also suggest jazz, rock, or even heavy metal.

The capabilities of the NES sound hardware profoundly affected how composers approached writing music for its games. Far from preventing these musicians from creating enjoyable and rewarding works, those limitations instead inspired new compositional methods unique to the challenges and possibilities of games as a medium. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the clever techniques to be found on the NES, and composers continue discovering new ways to turn limits into the freedom to innovate. “My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles,” Stravinsky wrote in Poetics of Music. “Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit.”2

For Discussion

  1. What are some techniques that 1980s video game composers developed to overcome technological limitations?
  2. How are Stravinsky’s self-imposed limitations similar to those faced by composers writing for the NES? How are they different?
  3. What are some other examples of composers or musicians who have had to overcome mechanical or technological limitations, and how did they do so?

1 Joseph Strauss, Stravinsky’s Late Music (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 44.

2 Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), 65.

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