What is chiptune music?
Chiptune music originates from the early era of arcades and video games. In the early days of video game music, the computer chips themselves which had an inbuilt sound processing unit were used as a musical instrument to produce the sound; this is why they are called “chiptune” i.e. after the computer chips that were used to perform the music.
Unlike today, where we have nearly infinite data storage and can load up our modern games with lots of impressive graphics and elaborate orchestral music scores, in the early days of video games, memory space was precious with very little to spare.
Using the chips themselves created a great space-saving option for playing music. Being a tiny chip, the sound processor did not take up much physical space and given how the music was saved also to these chips, very little virtual memory was used.
I find it fascinating that most if not all of the very early chiptune music were composed by computer programmers and not music composers.
To create chiptune music in the early days, you needed a fundamental background in programming and understanding in this early technology, therefore the programmers themselves did the music.
Creating computer-generated monotone notes with a limited range in one musical key, performed by a computer programmer sounds like an audio disaster waiting to happen but the opposite is true.
Chiptune music was loved then and it is still loved today.
Why does chiptune sound so appealing?
Given the limitations of chiptune music, it is amazing that it sounds so good. As already mentioned, a lot of the early chiptune music was created by computer programmers and not “seasoned composers” or musicians.
Also, there were a lot of limitations placed on this music. For example,
- There was often one musical key available.
- The tempo of the music had to remain constant for the entire song.
- The dynamics of the song had to remain constant.
When you play a musical instrument like a piano for example, how hard or softly you press the keys creates emotions and dynamics in the song. Imagine playing the piano by striking the keys at exactly the same force every time? You could argue that the music would sound “robotic” and lack emotion and dynamics.
Yet, with chiptune music, there is only one standard dynamic (or velocity as we call it in the music production world). A note is played at exactly the same force every time and it does sound “robotic”. In other music genres, this would not sound good but in chiptune music, it is great and is part of the sound!
Many would argue that nostalgia plays a big part in loving chiptune music as it brings some of us back to our childhoods, but I still love chiptune music today, even the chiptune music that is being composed in 2020 I am fascinated with and love to listen too.
When I think about the characteristics of chiptune music already mentioned, I have to ask, why do we love chiptune music so much? Putting on my music composers hat, let me give you my theory as to why chiptune music is so appealing.
1 – Simple Loops with Simple Structure
In music, the best melodies are the simplest ones. Think about all the musical riffs you love for a minute….perhaps it is the lead intro in the Guns N Roses classic, “Sweet Child O Mine” or an electronic riff in a dance tune…whatever your favourite musical melody is, it will be pretty simple.
Typically single notes played in a short loop makes a simple melody memorable.
The early chiptune music was very simple in its structure with a simple single melody line.
The structure of the songs themselves often followed the standard “verse-chorus-verse- bridge- chorus” formula. The vast majority of popular music today follows this tried and tested songwriting structure because it works.
There is just the right amount of repetition to get the melody in your head but it is not repeated enough to annoy the listener.
2 – Key of C Major & Music Limitations
Musical key plays an important part in music composition and conveying feeling. Most (if not all) of the early chiptune music was composed in the key of C as this was the only option available.
The key of C major has no sharps or flats. It is widely used in popular music today.
Inadvertently, I believe that having just one key and a limited amount of music notes helped the early creators of chiptune music to write good music.
Limitations are actually a good thing. If you want to develop creatively, it is often good to put limitations on your work to force your mind to bend in ways it would not naturally do. <Here is a great article that digs deeper into this theory.> This is a theory I completely believe in and have used myself, working as a music producer for 10 years.
Examples of great creative limitations that have a good impact are:
- Short films that must be set in one room.
- A short story in 6 words
- A drawing with three pen strokes
So in chiptune music, with just one music key, major notes only and just seven notes in total, there is not the room to wander. Such limitations will force you to create simple and fun little melodies that are incredibly memorable and likeable.
3 – Space in the Sounds that Can be Easily Mixed
As mentioned, the sounds of the notes in the early chiptunes were created using onboard sound generators in the computer chips.
The sound of these notes is really appealing. The tone is “soft” and has a “spacious” feeling to them. The sound is very unique.
Often, the music was built up in early chiptune music in layers – similar to music today with a topline and bassline and drumline – but all created using the inbuilt chip sound processor.
An important part of music is mixing music. If you have ever been to a live gig you will appreciate the importance of being able to hear all the different elements of the music in balance. If the drums are too loud or a flute is playing at the same time in the same frequency range as a female lead vocalist, you will not enjoy it.
It is really important in music to allow every musical instrument space to be heard. This is the art of mixing music. In chiptune music, the sounds of the notes themselves have a spacious vibe which naturally allows itself to mix well.
All the music is played on one instrument and as long as the composer has given some room for each melody to breath, the mix sounds natural.
Interacting melodies that are spacious, “soft” and sound balanced is something the human ear loves.
4 – Speed
An appealing characteristic of chiptune music is the speed. As the sounds are computer generated and not performed live in the early video game soundtracks, the speed is constant – it will not vary.
The early video game music has a fast-paced tempo. Typically this is in the 120BPM range. (Beats per minute). Again, 120BPM is widely used in popular music today.
The constant speed gives a fantastic sense of urgency and pace to the music and is ideal for adventure games such as Super Mario Bros.
What is great about this particular speed and lack of dynamic is that it creates a “mono emotion”. Modern video game music is similar to movie soundtracks and the dynamics of the music can rise and fall, invoking and creating emotion.
With chiptune music and its staccato, repeatable constant melody, there is not a diverse range of emotions invoked in the listener.
This makes it really appealing when doing a single task as it keeps the mind of the listener focused on getting the task done, be it get to the end of the level or not die.
The constant speed induces a sense of urgency which results in a focused mind, focused on one objective, with controlled emotions. For me, it is a bit like meditation! No wonder we like it so much 🙂
5 – Natural Earworms
Simple melodies, constant tempos and memorable loops will lead to one thing – an earworm.
If you have not heard the term before, an earworm is a melody that gets caught in the listener’s mind and will not go away for a long while. Have you ever had that feeling where you can’t get a song out of your head? Well, that is an earworm.
Chiptune music lends itself naturally to being an earworm. I love and hate the Super Mario Bros theme as once I listen to it, it is there for hours and I keep hearing it on loop in my brain.
The chirpy melodies, the interaction of the music layers, the staccato underscore beats and the simple topline makes this the perfect recipe to be an earworm.
You could argue that chiptune music is so appealing as it is a bunch of earworm music at heart, however, it takes a lot of skill and talent and elements to come together to make a classic earworm.
Creating such great earworms is a work of genius and I think classic chiptune music such as Super Mario Bros will be with us for a long time.
Is chiptune music still popular with game developers today?
Chiptune music is still a popular choice for many indie game developers today.
Firstly, as mentioned it is really appealing and is still widely loved by young and not-so-young audiences.
This music is really useful to indie video game developers as it has a simple and retro vibe that can work well with simpler 2D games.
Choosing music for a video game soundtrack is a difficult thing. Many indie game developers are a “one guy/gal team” and must select the music for their indie game as well as doing everything else from storytelling to development.
Chiptune music is reliable. It is the original video game music and if your video game is not very fancy with basic graphics, the chiptune music says “I meant it to look like this”.
Chiptune music has simple constant tempos, simple loops, a retro vibe and memorable melodies that can really enhance an indie game development project.
Is chiptune music and 8-bit music the same thing?
Yes. Chiptune and 8-bit music are the same things.
Often the processors in the early game hardware were 8-bit – meaning that they could transfer 8-bits of data at the same time, so the music was called 8-bit after the sound processors chips themselves.
This is why chiptune or “chip music” is also known as 8-bit music as the terms get used interchangeably.
Where can I find chiptune music for free to use in my video game development and videos?
Personally, I am fascinated with the genre of chiptune or 8-bit music so I produced an album of chiptune inspired music using modern-day synthesizers to create a similar effect.
You can download and use this music for free in your video game development and videos, however, as it is a bit special and rare, I keep it for my subscribers.
Go here to sign up and download this music for free. (No spam I promise)
Retro Game Sounds – Free Chiptune Music
Disclaimer: This blog is intended as a guide only for educational and informational purposes. It is not legal advice. The content contained in this article is not legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific matter or matters.