Session 1.1 Musical Perception and the Emotional Life of Videogames

Wednesday, 5 June 2019. 9-11AM, Room 113. Chair: Stephanie Lind (Queen's University)

In his ground-breaking 2014 book Sound Play: Video Games and the Musical Imagination, William Cheng dissects not only the musical, but also the philosophical underpinnings behind the use of music in video games. Cheng speculates that this discussion “hinge[s] on basic questions about whether games and gameplay are really as virtual as they appear – about how our engagements with gameworlds (and the sounds in there) speak to who we are and our values out here.” (42) The four papers proposed for this session each explore this idea in some way, from engagement to morality, perception, and virtuality. Each suggests that games, much like film, engage with their audiences not only as “play” or entertainment, but also at an aesthetic and/or emotional level. The connection between music, virtuality, and our emotional and moral selves suggests wide-ranging implications, which will be explored in a joint question period.

A Musical Identity Crisis: Communicating Morality and Humanity in War Games
    Stephanie Lind, Queen's University

When we think of violence in video games, we imagine first-person shooters, whose casual approach to violence includes driving music meant to propel the player forward.  However, several recent games take a different approach to war; with plots that revolve around morality and consequence, these games focus on the effect of conflict on individuals, and their music evokes regret, grief, and sorrow.  William Cheng, in Sound Play:  Video Games and the Musical Imagination, asks whether such games reveal anything about our true moral selves, and suggests that “Music, when sounded against (or used to inflict) bodily violence, undergoes ontological violence.  It suffers an identity crisis – or, more aptly, becomes a canvas onto which we, its patrons and admirers, project our own crises of identity, epistemology, and humanity” (Cheng, 40).

This presentation will examine the music of four “moral” games, Detroit: Become Human, Battlefield 1, Papers, Please, and This War of Mine.  All four have musical features that contribute to our perception of moral discomfort.  For example, in This War of Mine (, the dystopian environment is represented through harmonic and tonal instability (including lack of cadential resolution and avoidance of tonic), and the narrative elements of unease and conflict are reflected in the use of dissonance, digitally-altered sounds to represent the unnatural, and shifting rhythmic pulses.  Cheng’s theories suggest that a map between musical and emotional instability is not, in fact, unusual:  the discomfort and unease suggested by musical features thereby contributes to the player’s emotional engagement with the game.


Cheng, William.  2014.  Sound Play:  Video Games and the Musical Imagination.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

“Epic” Orchestration in First-Person Shooters
    Andrew Bennett, Queen's University

The term “Epic” is used among gamers to reference an aesthetic particularly common in the first-person shooter genre: an enhanced experience or augmentation of the senses contributing to a stronger sense of player immersion. From a musical standpoint, this Epic aesthetic often features full symphonic orchestration, with a particular emphasis on heavy brass, low strings, and percussion. Scholars such as Tim Summers describe the relationship between music and Epic as a fundamental component of player interaction:  the player “approximate[s] the experience of the [epic] literary genre’s depth and intensity, which engages the player, and encourages immersion” (Summers 135). 

Summers’ link between the Epic and immersion is consistent with Adorno and Eisler’s observation that music in film (and by extension game) functions as a tool to communicate with the audience (Eisler 8).  In this presentation, I will show how instrumentation and an adherence to stable tonality affects the player’s perception of game world and of space. For example, the title theme from Battlefield 1 ( features large string orchestra, with prominent brass solos; the large instrumentation generates a sense of aural expansiveness, reflecting the size of the gameworld.  In Uncharted 1, the metric regularity, clear tonic stability, and thick orchestral textures in the protagonist’s main theme (“Nate’s Theme,” give a sense of weight to this Leitmotif and by extension to the protagonist himself. Thus, as Summers observes, the musical Epic is a useful aesthetic “to explain and understand an element of the immersive properties of a score” (Summers 135).

Selected Bibliography:

Eisler, Hanns, Theodor W. Adorno, and Graham McCann. 1994. Composing for the Films, 2nd ed. Atlantic Highlands: Athlone. 

Summers, Tim.  2012. “Epic Texturing in the First-Person Shooter: The Aesthetics of Video Game Music.”  The Soundtrack 5: 2, 131–151, doi: 10.1386/ st.5.2.131_1. 

Donkey Kong Country(1994)’s Use of Progressive Rock Style
   Brooke Spencer, Queen's University

Whereas most of Nintendo’s music from the 1990s used basic looping structure and simple chiptune-reminiscent sounds, Donkey Kong Country (1994), composed by British composer David Wise rather than by Nintendo’s in-house composition team, featured texturally more complex music, including features characteristic of the 1970s/80s progressive rock style such as short repeated melodies and chord progressions with layering (Collins 44).

For example, in “Fear Factory” (Figure 1), we hear a repeated chord progression of (VI, iv, i) underneath a faster eighth-note melody. Very little harmonic movement occurs and the focus is more on the melodic layers that occur in this top voice. In addition, “Fear Factory” includes unconventional punk, “mechanic/industrial”, and “glitch” noises that emphasize melodic content ( As William Cheng discusses in Sound Play, the use of such unconventional sounds often contribute to a feeling of dissociation and alienation in the player, and create a divide between diegetic (that is, music the characters are aware of) and nondiegetic (that is, “background” music) soundscapes (Cheng 98-9). While this is not a direct element of prog-rock, both industrial and prog-rock music styles feature a strong focus on texture. Collins speculates that this may have been an attempt by Nintendo to capitalize on the ‘edgier’ market of other game
producers such as Sega (Collins 46).

In this paper, an analysis of form, melodic structure, and instrumentation from Donkey Kong Country’s “Treetop Rock” and “Fear Factory” will demonstrate features atypical of Nintendo style, which normally features catchy tunes, simple instrumentation, and pop-inspired harmonies. 




Cheng, William. Sound Play: Video Games and the Musical Imagination. The Oxford Music/media Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Collins, Karen. Game Sound an Introduction to the History, and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.

Music and Time Perception in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)
   Kaitlin Saari, Queen's University

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild received acclaim upon its 2017 release for its focus on free exploration and discovery-based gameplay. The game presents a handful of labyrinthine locations that utilize free explorative movement; in one location, the “Lost Woods”, the musical theme (composed by Manaka Kataoka) invokes a sense of anxiety that causes the player to speed up their pace. This effect is sometimes described by ludomusicologists such as Andreas Rauscher as “Adaptive Mickey-Mousing” (98).

Various studies on how music affects a person’s perception of time explain how the “Lost Woods” theme achieves this effect of “Adaptive Mickey-Mousing”. Kellaris, Krishnan, and Oakes posit that time seems to compress with increasing musical complexity as more complex music “distracts from listeners’ cognitive timers” (230). As shown in Figure 1, while “Lost Woods” does not appear at first glance to have much complexity, the unpredictable motivic fragmentation and variation avoids any sort of clear pattern that the listener can use to orient themselves. The continuous eighth-note rhythm persists through each loop, which conceals the various repetitions of its mere one-minute duration. The result is music that appears simple on paper but sounds complex due to a lack of recognizable patterns, contributing to the perceived time compression. This presentation will examine how tempo (building on work by Oakes), complexity (building on Kellaris, Krishnan, and Oakes) and tonality (building on Kellaris and Kent) contribute to how fast time is perceived by the player

Selected Bibliography:

Kellaris, James J., and Robert J. Kent. "The Influence of Music on Consumers' Temporal Perceptions: Does Time Fly When You're Having Fun?" Journal of Consumer Psychology 1.4 (1992): 365-76. Print.

Kellaris, James J., Vijaykumar Krishnan, and Steve Oakes. "Music and Time Perception: When Does a Song Make It Seem Long?" Ama Winter Educators' Conference : Marketing Theory and Applications. Chicago, Ill.: American Marketing Association, 2007. 229-30. Print.

Oakes, Steve. "Examining the Relationship between Background Musical Temp and Perceived Duration Using Different Versions of a Radio Ad." E - European Advances in Consumer Research, vol. 4. Edited by Bernard Dubois, Tina M. Lowrey, and L. J. Shrum, Marc Vanhuele, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, 1999. 40-44. Web.

Rauscher, Andreas. "Scoring Play – Soundtracks and Video Game Genres." Music and Game: Perspectives on a Popular Alliance. Ed. Moormann, Peter. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden, 2013. 93-105. Print.

Please note that the four papers in this session will be presented back to back, with time for questions after the last paper.

1.2 Music in France (Room 116) →

MusCan Office

MusCan is led by a committed community of volunteers from across Canada. You can contact our secretariat by mail, phone, or email.

10 Morrow Avenue, Suite 202
Toronto, ON
M6R 2J1
office [AT]