Comparing Baroque Music to Early Video Game Music

by Emily Reese
March 27, 2014

Listen Top Score: Ricky O'Bannon and early game music
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Ricky O'Bannon (submitted photo)

There are two key phrases from the Baroque era that defined its music — "basso continuo" and "counterpoint".

Writer Ricky O'Bannon says the early days of video game music mimic the musical style of the Baroque era.

"Counterpoint" simply means note against note — pitting one voice, like a violin, against another voice, like a cello. Composers only need two sounds, or voices, to create solid counterpoint.

The "rhythm section" of the Baroque era is termed "basso continuo", and it involves a couple of instruments, at the very least: a keyboard, or some type of instrument that can play multiple notes at a time (guitars, lutes and harps also fit the bill), and a lower instrument like a cello or bassoon. If you have a keyboard and a cello, both can spell out the harmony of the music underneath a soloist.

Consequently, "Trio Sonatas" were incredibly popular in the Baroque era; trios consisting of a keyboard (harpsichord, organ, or the like) and one of those lower instruments, along with a solo instrument or two like a flute or violin. Or both:

The sounds you hear that accompany that solo voice create the "basso continuo", which translates as "continuous bass".

Fast-forward some 300 years, to the early days of video game music. Technological limitations forced game composers in the '70s and '80s to be creative. The early consoles, like the Atari 2600, the Commodore 64 and the Nintendo Entertainment System, only had three channels available for composers to use after the game was programmed.

Three channels = three voices. Three voices = counterpoint?

Sort of. The similarities are there, spelled out nicely by Ricky O'Bannon here, and in the newest episode of Top Score from Classical MPR.

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