Eight-bit Baroque: Basso continuo in the early Nintendo period

by Ricky O'Bannon
December 18, 2013
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Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo of America)

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Music has a way of repeating itself, and sometimes musicians come to similar conclusions — particularly when they face similar problems.

Take, for example, the fact that early video game composers — intentionally or unintentionally — mirrored some of the composition practices of Baroque-era composers, for many of the same reasons.

Music history is intertwined with the development of technology. Composers have to write to the limitations of their instruments, and the creative act of problem-solving serves to create an aesthetic. Igor Stravinsky described that process during a lecture at Harvard in 1939.

"The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self," he said. "The arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution."

In the late Renaissance and Baroque eras, composers created basso continuo or "continuous bass." Often improvised and occasionally fully written out, basso continuo communicated the harmonic underpinnings of a piece of music horizontally instead of vertically. Rather than sticking to block chords, the basso continuo style often arpeggiated chords — playing each note in a chord one at a time rather than simultaneously — and relied on counterpoint by weaving an accompanying melody underneath the main melody. In some ways basso continuo resembles the walking bass line used in jazz.

There were a number of reasons for this style, but one theory about its development concerns the available technology. Composers left the decision of what instruments were going to be used for the bass support to what the performers had available. An organ was great if you had one handy, but another keyboard instrument like a harpsichord would do the trick in a pinch.

A harpsichord or a lute could spell out a full chord, but the notes evaporate quickly. A cello could sustain but can't offer more than one note at a time without substantial player skill and changing the color of the sound. The result often was a very active counterpoint, heavy on arpeggios, to support the melody.

Hundreds of years later, video game composers and programmers were facing a similar technical problem in the 1980s. Games had limited memory and very basic sound chips that limited the number of voices available. The eight-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) had only three audio channels, and at any time one of those channels had to be available for sound effects. Tuning was extremely difficult, and those electronic tones that composers could get out of a gaming machine sounded a lot better in passing than as sustained notes. The result was an eight-bit style that often sounded like this.

"Technology really drove the kind of music that was being written at the time," said composer Michael Sweet, who teaches about the history of game music at Berklee College of Music. "Because of those limitations...that all led to innovation in new and interesting ways."

In the case of the famous Mario theme, composer Koji Kondo couldn't play a single simultaneous chord because of only having three sound channels available (one of which had to be free for sound effects). Kondo, Sweet said, had to focus on that super-catchy melody.

Melody was king, and in plenty of early arcade games, the melody was the only music to be found. But many video game composers, particularly those writing for home consoles in the 1980s, forged a kind of eight-bit counterpoint and frenetic bass line to support those melodies when chordal harmony wasn't possible.

"Part of that [sound aesthetic] is dictated by the fact that you have such limited resources," composer Rob Hubbard said of the eight-bit Commodore 64 in Karen Collins' book Game Sound. "The way that you have to write, in order to create rich textures, you have to write a lot of rhythmic kinds of stuff...it's easier to try to make it sound a lot fuller and like you're doing a lot more if you use much shorter, more rhythmic sounds.''

None of this is to say that eight-bit composing perfectly recreated Baroque basso continuo or counterpoint, and it's also an oversimplification to say that there was only one style for early video game music. But some of the most enduring pieces to come out of that era are remembered for fantastic active bass lines, countermelodies, and that energetic aesthetic.

Imagine what Johann Sebastian Bach might make of the 1980s. Maybe he would find some like minds in unexpected places — or maybe we'd all get to see what a Flock of Seagulls haircut would look like on a powdered wig.

Ricky O'Bannon is a freelance music journalist living in Los Angeles.