Press play on tape: 8-bit composition and musical innovation through technical constraint

Kenneth B. McAlpine

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Constraint has always been a powerful driver, perhaps even a prerequisite, for musical creativity. Every culture expresses shared ideas about musicality, and arguably, it is the role of the musician both to satisfy and to challenge these by extrapolating from cultural norms and subverting them. By stepping transgressively outside the boundaries of our culturally-agreed notions of taste and aesthetic preference, musicians can explore and map out new creative territories, before a process of refinement, repetition and reification consolidates them to create a new musical landscape. Without this process, music would develop by aleatory, making it near-impossible to recognize or appreciate musical creativity.
One style of music for which constraint was the primary driver is the 8-bit video game soundtrack, which has continued currency both through the popular trend for retrogaming and through chiptune, a minimalist electronic style that evolved from the programmable sound generators (PSGs) of the first generation of home computers and video game consoles, and that coaxes the hardware into performing feats of musicality that it was not designed to achieve. Video game music is, at least in part, functional: just think of the attract mode of many arcade games, non-playable demos used to entice the quarters of prospective gamers. It is a type of media music, whose form and structure is determined, at least in part, by factors that lie outside the music itself. From the outset, those early video game composers were driven by the need to create catchy tunes that worked repetitively and that reflected the game content, but which had to compete for meagre computational resources with the game’s mechanics and graphics, and be realized on sound chips that offered little in the way of musical expression, usually only a few channels of polyphony and a prescriptive palette of simple waveforms.
Those early days of video gaming are replete with tales of ingenuity as coders and musicians – and often they were one and the same – developed novel tricks to expand the capabilities of their machines. But the approaches that were adopted to broaden and expand the musical capabilities of PSGs were not without cost, and their application often imparted a unique characteristic to the sound. Over time, those characteristics came to define the aesthetic, if not the style, of the 8-bit computer soundtrack.
In this paper, we present a platform perspective on musicological analysis, an innovative approach that considers how the hardware of one machine, the Commodore 64, and the code that was written for it shaped the qualities of 8-bit video game music. By considering musical analysis from this point of view, we begin to appreciate the challenges — both creative and technical — that presented to those early game designers, and the routes through which the chip sound evolved. Featuring exclusive interviewers with notable 8-bit composers of the time, including Rob Hubbard and Ben Daglish, the paper explores how a unique combination of musical and machine expression defined the sound of an era.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 8 Sep 2017
EventInnovation in Music 2017 - University of Westminster’s Regent Street campus, London, United Kingdom
Duration: 6 Sep 20178 Sep 2017


ConferenceInnovation in Music 2017
Abbreviated titleInMusic17
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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