Retro Video Game Music, As Digested by a Classical Musician -

Retro Video Game Music, As Digested by a Classical Musician

Nahre Sol
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Like: 3656
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In this week’s Sound Bank 15, I explore retro video game music from the 8-bit/chiptune genre, and write a tune. Instead of composing a “Pocket Piece” like I normally do for these videos, I went ahead and made a track with layered parts using synth sounds from 8-bit video game music. Thank you to everyone who suggested this idea to me, and for everyone who helped me compile my playlist (through instagram).

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Here is the playlist:
Super Mario Odyssey – Projection Room – Above Ground:
Super Mario Odyssey:
Tetris Theme Song:
Mega Zun Stage X:
Rokko Chan – Lightning Man Stage:
Cirno Fortress Stage 2:
Super Win the Game Razor’s Edge:
Sonic 2 – Chemical Plant:
Kirby’s Return to Dream Land Title Theme:
Zelda Ocarina:
Yu Gi Oh:
DuckTales Music:
Boulder Dash:
Boulder Dash theme:
Wii menu music:

How Oldschool Sound/Music worked:
Logic Pro Tutorial – Classic Video Game Music:
WHAT IS 8-BIT? | What are 8-bit graphics, anyway?:


  1. As you may know “Fortnite” is the biggest game on earth right now. Can you please recreate the Fortnite birthday bus song. It’s basically “the happy birthday” song with some strange dissonant chords thrown in. It would be awesome if you could re-create that!! Just look up Fortnite birthday bus song.

  2. Math Rock, As Digested by a Classical Musician!!! Please?!?

  3. My dog barks at chiptune too! I think it's either because it sounds unnatural or the intense harmonics in square waves

  4. That was fun! Although I didn't play those games or have much interest in that style of music in the past, I recently started watching some of 8-bIt Music Theory's videos and have come to appreciate what the composers did with very limited hardware in the then-new genre of game music. Your take on it has been illuminating.

  5. (Intro Song) I would buy that game. Just for the music 🙂 Awesome Nahre, thank you for this 🙂

  6. time traveling into my 80s/90s childhood, reconnecting some final fantasy synapses. nobuo uematsu would like your piece for sure. at least i do.

  7. have you had an opportunity to check out any modern chiptune artists like Fighter X or Trey Frey? I think you will find what they have done with gameboys to be shocking!

    Also you are exactly right, you don't hear big chords because in most 8 bit music you are limited to 4 monophonic channels. You will often hear extremely fast apreggiated chords in place of actual chords. In modern (gameboy) chiptune this is called "C-Command". One of those channels can really only make noise so it ends up being convenient for crafting those crunchy drums you always hear. However, with clever use of attacks, envelopes and some commands you can generate deep, rich kicks in WAV based channels was well which is common in modern chiptune.

  8. Awesome video! Like I have said before, it's really rad that you go through digesting different genres of music. It's also great that your intentions are not replicate, but to assimilate and, as you said, digest. You absorb the nutrients and apply them as you see fit. I think that point gets missed by a lot of viewers which is indicated by their responses typically being, "Yeah, but they didn't do…"

    In this case we're seeing a lot of comments regarding the limitations of the NES. Yes, there are limitations and those limitations influenced the "style" of 8-bit music, but composers were not composing with this in mind. They were using what they had. If you look at music coming from Sunsoft they had a VERY unique sound because they created their bass sound in the 5th channel which allowed for low quality sampling. This was almost ALWAYS used for their music. As a result the three melodic channels were free for other purposes. This also meant that the standard Triangle bass line was not present which is very characteristic of prototypical NES music.

    Another example of breaking the limitations "rule" is the use of the VRC6 chip which was only used on the Famicom and NOT on the NES. The most well-known example of this Castlevania III. They utilized many more channels and were able to create far denser sounds. Sometimes this resulted in unison lines for the sake of timbre, other times it allowed for overlapping sustains or more convincing delays, and occasionally it created chords. A great example of the latter would be Madara's Inn Theme which forms 7th chords. These are not implied horizontally, but are stated vertically. They are also not incomplete, but are often complete (i.e. 1-3-5-7) voicings with four tones occurring simultaneously. This is because they had the ability to do so due to the VRC6.

    And when you look at Lagrange Point which utilized the VRC7, well… yeah, most people wouldn't even expect that to be an 8-bit game because… my goodness, it surely does not sound like one!

    As a result, it's pretty pointless to state that 8-bit/Chiptune music requires limitations to be "authentic." Castlevania III, Madara, and Lagrange Point, as well as those that pushed the limitations of the console all used an excess of voices when able… and they were literally composing the music we now refer to. They are the SOURCE of our pointless declaration of "authenticity."

    That said, Nahre, I would make the following statements… (these are more so suggestions or pointers… or whatever… I've transcribe and analyzed a lot of NES music)

    Firstly, yes, development is often lacking when comparing NES tracks to, say, a Piano Sonata by Beethoven (then again, most music is lacking compared to the development of Beethoven's Sonatas!!!!! Haha). You covered the typical reason behind this nicely. That said, there IS often development if only in a confined sense.

    For instance, the Title Theme from Wario's Woods on the NES is a Compound Period built with two sentences, the first being a large antecedent ending in a Half Cadence and the latter being a large consequent ending with a Perfect Authentic Cadence. This is all within 16 measures, yes, but there is still a sense of development (even if minimally).

    That said, if you listen to the music by Tim Follin, one of the legends in early video game sound design (as well as his brother), you will certainly hear development in the larger sense. For instance, the Title Theme to Solstice is a doozy! It's a full on prog-rock tune that starts off sounding like a simply fantasy-esque tune (i.e. wizards, hobbits, etc. type fantasy… not to be confused with the fantasy form in music).

    Also, you have OSTs like Mega Man V which is a full on Jazz/Funk/Rock sounding score. Gravity Man's Theme, for instance, has an introduction that does not repeat as well as an A, B, and C Section (the entire piece is, roughly, 50 measures). The A Section is a prolongation of the Tonic Area, the B Section shifts focus to the PreDominant Area in preparation of the final section which is an explosive solo (for real, the use of chromaticism straight slays… Mari Yamaguchi absolutely killed it on this OST) based upon the Dominant. Each section is also fully realized with intricacies. So I wouldn't necessarily assume that 8-bit music, by default, lacks development.

    Secondly, one thing that you could certainly develop is the use of changing tones/timbres within a given line. Many OSTs were developed with both a composer and a sound designer. It's VERY OFTEN that a waveform will change parameters as it is being used. This resulted in vibrato (both from the point of attack or delayed), fluctuation in volume (not simply decay, but decay followed by a secondary peak), false delays (and even delays with register transfers), and more.

    It sounded like all of your tones were set and then never changed. This is fine and I understand that using a soundbank within a keyboard makes adjustments on the fly difficult, especially if you're dealing with a keyboard that allows for only minimal adjustments to parameters. Something like the Prophet 08 would be more fitting due to all of the allowed adjustments OR setting up MIDI data to adjust parameters as you play.

    This also has to do with the percussion. The noise channel was often adjusted to differentiate between hi hats, snares, and kicks. You could even have sounds set for closed hi hat vs. open hi hat. It was also very common for the Triangle channel to be used as "toms" between bass tones.

    Speaking of which, it's most common for melody and accompaniment to be Pulse Waves and the bass to be a Triangle Wave. This is certainly not ALWAYS the case, but is most common. Sometimes the Triangle Wave would be used as a melody due to its softer/rounder sound. Other times the Pulse Waves would leap down briefly to emphasize bass tones either by forming unisons or octaves. Or they might even cross voices.

    Thirdly, NES music is often harmonized in standard ways. It's most common for composers to harmonize with thirds (and their inversions) and the occasional fourth (depending on chord tones). That said, there are plenty of tunes that are predominantly harmonized in 4ths. In these cases it's often to hear the tritone avoided either via chromaticism (such as Contra's Jungle Theme using constant 4ths) or shifting to a third (or unison) momentarily.

    It's very important to recognize that NES music tends to be VERY horizontal. Harmony is often implied with arpeggios (as you did in your video). Sometimes these form ostinatos (similar to the arpeggios found in many of Mozart's Sonatas), but sometimes this results in chord rolls that are quite rapid.

    That said, there are also many many instances where chords are irrelevant and it's more about counterpoint/contrapuntal motion. There are times where it's very difficult to label passages with "chords" because the harmony is more a result of overlapping melodies. It's not the same as polyphonic music akin to the Late 16th Century or Bach, but it's similar in some regards.

    Many of us are taught to think with VERY vertical mindsets, but NES music tends to focus on the horizontal plane.

    If you read this far… I hope you enjoyed and, more importantly, learned something! Like I said, rad video.

  9. I like how you captured the tension on the chords with the specific sound plugin,

  10. Awesome, a video for a style I've been exposed to my entire childhood.

  11. 1:17 I wasn't expecting to hear Yu-Gi-Oh Forbidden Memories haha. What a great PS1 Soundtrack

  12. I love the melancholic 8-bit tunes like the theme from Mother (earthbound)

  13. I like your song. I think you captured the sounds and stylistic elements very well. My only critique point is that your composition was very complex and most video game consoles of the time would not have been able to produce it. I personally think one of the major reasons for the catchiness of the tunes of that area is the extreme restrictions that video game composers had at the time and that they needed to distill their music down to the absolute essence. But apart from that, great job 🙂

  14. I could listen to a whole album of these 8bit inspired comps, loved it. Following your channel opened my eyes to the highly complex nature of music in general. What a mind blowing art form. Thank you.

  15. I’d love to see you create a piece based on those in the Legend of Zelda franchise, especially with Breath of the Wild! That installment has all sorts of approaches towards physical instruments, especially the piano

  16. Nahreee you're so cool, thank you so much for this

  17. One relevantly interesting person to track their development in composition is Yoko Kanno. Ingenious woman who has composed in seemingly every genre (known especially for her work on Cowboy Bebop, though she has so much great other work as well). Her first work was for NES games in the 1980s! Check out Uncharted Waters for the NES than skip over to the piece "Arcadia". Pretty cool trajectory! Her most recent soundtrack for the anime "Zankyou No Terror" is an eclectic masterpiece. I didn't care for the show at all, but the music is incredible.

  18. You are so incredible, adorable, and so is your dog. lol This video game music is a gem. Great breakdown of ideas for notes played, and the possibilities. The endless possibilities. So nice to know you read all your comments. That sort of made my day even if you don't respond.

  19. Due to hardware limitations, many old videogames have to be very creative with their sound and music. For example, NES can only play 5 sounds at a time, one of which is a noise channel (which musicians use as a percussion channel), another of which is a samples channel (due to storage constraints, earlier games like Super Mario Bros can't use this channel), effectively allowing only 3 medolic notes to be played at the same time. A more extreme case is a PC speaker, which can only play a single note at a time. This should explain many of the features you are hearing, eg. runs going up, lack of complete chords, and notes that alternate back and forth (side note, alternating notes really really really fast is the way how PC spaker music play two notes "at the same time").

  20. Low on real content, but nice production quality and sounds like you were working on something nice at the beginning.

  21. Interesting ! My favourite 8 bit theme would have to be from the C64 game Spy vs Spy.

  22. That was an excellent analysis and demonstration.

  23. i would totally buy the game just of the tune alone

  24. Name a video game in the 90's that have the price is right like them song music.

  25. Nahre Sol, what are your thoughts on videogame composers such as Nobuo Uematsu, Shoji Meguro, Yoko Shimomura, or Sarah Schachner? Do you think they have a good approach to modern classical music? Do you think they get frowned upon by their classical peers because they use a pop culture medium? I would love to hear your thoughts.

  26. Usually chiptune composers use automatic arpeggiators. Nahre Sol comes along and plays PERFECT super-fast arpeggios with her fingers because SHE CAN.

  27. You can even go on hard mode and limit the amount of channel you use, in case you want a bigger cgallenge and a more iconic sound!


  29. If nahre was a RPG- character , her skill tree would be maxed out while still having skill points left 😀

  30. How do I get this sound on any daw or flstudio

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