Chips with everything: coding as performance and the aesthetics of constraint

Kenneth B. McAlpine

Research output: Contribution to conferenceOther

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Constraint has always been a powerful driver for musical creativity. Every culture expresses shared ideas about musicality. Arguably, it is the role of the musician both to satisfy and to challenge these ideas by extrapolating from the agreed norms that emerge largely from the constraints of musical structure. Without these, music would develop by aleatory, making it near-impossible to recognise expressed musical creativity. One style of music for which constraint is a primary driver is the chiptune, a minimalist electronic style that evolved from the programmable sound generators (PSGs) of home computers and video game consoles of the early 1980s. Early gaming hardware offered limited scope for musical expression, usually only a few channels of polyphony a prescriptive palette of waveforms. In response there arose from this digital frontier a period of intense creativity, as game programmers and musicians coaxed the hardware into performing feats of musicality that it had never been designed to achieve. This paper explores the role of technical constraint in the developing aesthetic of the chiptune. By considering PSGs as expressive musical instruments whose hardware specification embodies their form and function as do the wood and strings of a clarinet or violin, we explore coding as both the virtuosic expression of technique and the means by which players might explore and transcend the boundaries of the instrument. We conclude by reflecting on the implications for chiptune analysis, both in terms of its expression as game music and in its recent emergence as a popular musical style.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - 2016
EventAssociation of Art Historians 2016 Annual Conference and Bookfair: In and Out of Art History - the Video Games Conundrum - University of Endinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Duration: 7 Apr 20169 Apr 2016
Conference number: 42nd


ConferenceAssociation of Art Historians 2016 Annual Conference and Bookfair
Abbreviated titleAAH 2016
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • Chiptune
  • Constraint
  • Video game music
  • Coding
  • Programming
  • Creativity
  • Creative ability


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