Despite its decline in popularity, classical music continues to pervade our everyday culture in subtle ways. Outside of the concert hall, commercials, cartoons, and pop songs alike feature the work of long-departed tunesmiths.
The lesser cost of using sources within the public domain is surely one reason behind this trend, but the impetus for such use is often creative as well. And it’s easy to understand why.
Classical music—especially opera—is incredibly rich in musical “characters.” Like actors on a stage, these different personalities-in-sound lend themselves well to the kind of over-the-top storytelling typical of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Carl Stalling’s arrangement of a Rossini overture for the famous cartoon short Rabbit of Seville, for instance, is a masterful example of how a diverse musical palette can enhance on-screen narrative. The music reinforces the animation and vise versa.
Such references to old music, however, aren’t always so direct. Visionaries often use classical models to inspire new creative enterprises, sometimes in the most unlikely of fields.
Enter video games.
In the early days of game design, there was no need for companies to hire dedicated composers. Technological limitations were too severe to make use of such talent, and game audio was still more in the domain of sound effects than music (Pong and Space Invaders, for example).
Following the video game market crash of 1983, however, companies had to rethink their strategy for selling what was then perceived as an old and tired form of entertainment. When faced with this challenge, one company in particular incited a veritable gaming revolution: Nintendo.
In addition to packaging their product as an interactive toy set (as opposed to a video game console), Nintendo made a solid commitment to increase the quality of their games. One strategy for improvement involved hiring actual composers to write complex scores that would form an integral part of the gameplay. And so the art of game music was born.
With Nintendo’s new found philosophy at work, it was only a matter of time before a star video game composer emerged. His name: Koji Kondo.
Kondo’s big break came when he was asked to compose the music for Nintendo’s classic hit Super Mario Bros. Little did he know that the product of his efforts would become the model for video game composition for an entire generation.
Kondo’s work featured two principal innovations: 1) he didn’t simply incorporate pre-written melodies into his work, as was common in the industry, but rather created a completely new kind of music using classical influences as a point of departure; 2) he made it his aesthetic goal to synchronize music with onscreen animation, such that the gamer would “dance” internally while playing.
If you’ve ever guided the now-famous moustachioed hero through a waterworld, you’ve witnessed both of these innovations first hand.
Kondo’s underwater music bears the indelible stamp of a nineteenth-century Viennese waltz, but at the same time, it is decidedly modern in its minimalist texture and 8-bit clothes—a hybrid genre carved from Straussian wood. And if you pay close attention to Mario’s movements and those of the surrounding marine life, you’ll note that the characters actually move in time with the music at hand.
Whether or not one is actively aware of these aspects of the tune, Kondo’s work has a tendency to trigger fond memories, the strength of which many would attribute to nostalgia alone. It seems, however, that another force is at work in Kondo’s music—one that fortifies its tenacious grip on our minds.
And so we ask ourselves: what makes the memory of this music almost tactile in nature? Why is it so special? There is no definitive answer to these questions, but one possibility comes to mind.
By forcing us to experience the music physically—as an extension of our body controlling an imaginary character—we too can dance along with Mario and his nemesis cheep-cheeps and bloobers. And in this way, Kondo’s music becomes a part of us.
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