Can you imagine Star Wars without John Williams score? Think about it. Pretty bleak hey. You end up with a serviceable plot slavishly cribbed from samurai films, full of B movie nonsense dialog. The set, character, and visual effects design would still be incredible, but it’s filmed and presented in such a plain, workmanlike manner that it’s difficult to take much notice. The one element of Star Wars episode IV that sets it apart from other films of it’s genre, budget, and era is the music.
If you watch any movies made before the 70’s you will start to notice a trend. There are the occasional standouts, typically in the musical genre, but a lot of the music is largely interchangeable between one film and another. There are a few standard scene closing techniques that are used again and again to point out different changes in tension. The score acts as a pivot for these movies, but it’s not woven into the fabric of the scenes.
If you look up lists of the greatest movie scores, or just take stock of the ones that are permanently embroidered on your brain, the list skews very heavily toward the 80’s. Most of this has to do with the steady advance of technology. Creating, refining and matching music to the images on the screen became much, much easier. It became a solvable problem. It wasn’t that the music was better. People have been good at making music for a while. It was that the technology of music making and film editing had leveled up. They could work together in ways that were difficult or impossible before.
Before the NES there are almost no memorable video game scores. There are sound effects and audio stingers, like the wakka-wakka of Pac-man or the dirge of the Space Invaders, that still resonate, but no real musical scores. During the 8 bit and then 16 bit eras there was a convergence of technologies that entangled music and gameplay in a memorable way.
Most of the time the music would simply play on constant loop under the game being played. creating a piece of music that wouldn’t be grating over the many hours a player could be listening to it was a true talent. Rather than have the themes tied to emotionally charged scenes in a movie, game music would drill itself into you through sheer repetition.
There was another convergence that strengthened game music during that time. It was all at once and advance and a limitation. While storing digital sound was possible, space was at a premium on cartridges and early disks. Encoding the music, and playing it back through the same synthesizer chips that were also used to create all the games sound effects was much more practical. The positive side effect was that all the sounds, instruments, impacts, and shouts, come from the same source. Every sound in the game was unified with the same palette. The sound effects are the music. By the end of the 16bit consoles gameplay, art, music, and sound all existed on the same level. They created one consistent experience.
Then CDs came along and broke all that. Suddenly musicians could create orchestral scores without limitations. They could record with any instruments, add vocals, whatever tools their film counterparts could use were fair game. For quite a while, it meant that scores for games actually got markedly worse. The game and the sound had fallen out of sync. Early polygonal games can be described as anything but visually artful. The sound and music had leapfrogged the visuals, and they were both weaker for it. Attach a John Williams score to some Tom Baker Doctor Who and you get the idea.
Of course, technology always wins. It didn’t take very long, one console generation and even less time if you were a PC gamer, before the visuals caught back up. Now there are dynamic sound systems that can fade themes in and out of the score depending on the players interactions. Songs don’t simply loop under the actions, they shift and change, punctuating key scenes, wringing just the right emotion out of just the right moments. Film composers started to really get the hang of this art around 40 years ago. Now games are doing the same thing, only dynamically in real time.
I could point to the main themes to Halo, Mass Effect, Metal Gear, Assassins Creed, and on and on. Musical scores for games are getting so good that most low budget indie games can sell a copy of the soundtrack for the same price as the original game, and be justified in charging it. I have gotten more enjoyment out of the soundtrack for some games than actually playing them. It’s really a great time for game music. Can you imagine Halo without Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori’s score?