Most great games have similarly iconic or at least highly memorable scores or soundtracks. But the right video game music isn’t just about a soundtrack—it’s an important part of the gameplay in its own right. Gaming music is also an accompaniment to a game’s other primary audio component, sound design.
The best game soundtracks are features that gamers remember and talk about for years. At their most inspirational, these soundtracks can influence future game development and even streaming gameplay experiences.
A brief history of game music
Video game music has a long, rich history. Looking back, gaming music has come quite a ways from its primitive early days.
Introduced in the early 1970s, arcade games and their soundtracks are notable for their charming lo-fi qualities. Video game fans of all eras are well familiar with their looped 8-bit electronic scores, a format that would make its way into home video game consoles like Atari and Nintendo, as well as home computers from Apple and Commodore.
In arcade and video games like Space Invaders, game designers had composers slow down and speed up the music according to the on-screen action. Over the years, gaming background music has become more compositionally complex and stylistically diverse. Long gone are the 8-bit music days. For years, video game music has been produced in several ways. There are cinematic scores with orchestras, Rock and Industrial band scores, Electronic music soundtracks, Ambient tunes, and many other styles and compositions.
An alternative to original scores are video game soundtracks that feature various musical artists, much like film soundtracks. These can range from little-known and underground bands to major artists, like Grimes’ and A$AP Rocky’s appearances on the Cyberpunk 2077 game soundtrack.
Music helps make the game or streaming experience
While it’s technically true that games feature “background music,” a video game soundtrack isn’t just some simple audio component that gamers listen to while playing. Individually and collectively these tunes aren’t simply passive listening experiences or sonic wallpaper, like you might hear in a mall or elevator. The best video game soundtracks can be active listening experiences designed to immerse players in the game’s world.
When gamers began streaming on platforms like Twitch, YouTube and Facebook Gaming, music took on an additional dimension. Gamers now stream music of their choice for their live audiences or add background music to video recordings of their gameplay. They do it to create an atmosphere that immerses viewers in the gaming experience.
How to find gaming music
If you’ve created a video game or are thinking of doing so, you’ve probably given some thought to gaming music. The good thing is that you have several options for finding it. Some options are better than others, depending on your needs.
Most of these options will be for game developers. However, a few will be options for gamers just looking for Twitch or YouTube gaming music, and we will make a note of these below.
Traditionally, developers have turned to composers like Nobuo Uematsu for Final Fantasy or C418 for Minecraft, producers/musicians who have created some of the best video game soundtracks of all time. While major game developers can easily pay composers, especially of this caliber, today’s game developers might be able to find composers to collaborate with on platforms like Soundcloud, Bandcamp or even YouTube.
If you’re willing to budget for original music with these Indie artists, you might not have to break the bank in a major way. Just remember that musicians don’t like working for free.
For a Twitch streamer, original music is a bit overkill. Only the most ambitious and forward-thinking game streamer might think of hiring an original composer for his Twitch stream music, and have the funds to do it.
Soundtracks with individual song licenses
Other game developers opt for a soundtrack with different songs by several major artists. In this approach, developers license (pay for) individual tracks. Licensing an album’s worth of songs by major musical artists can get expensive fast, so this option will likely be beyond the financial means of developers and for the vast majority of gamers looking for Twitch music.
Creative Commons or Public Domain
If you’re a game developer operating on a razor-thin budget, one option to consider is finding music for free on Creative Commons and other Public Domain platforms. While the music will be free, this doesn’t mean that the artists haven’t placed any restrictions on use, so be sure to check out the artist’s exceptions and limitations.
One thing to consider when finding music in the public domain is that it’s not always easy to find the songs or sounds you want. Why? These platforms are usually open-source and lack good interfaces for user browsing and searches. Also, these platforms likely won’t have the best video game music for developers or the best gaming music for streaming experiences.
Royalty-free gaming music
Several software companies offer royalty-free music for game developers. It’s important to understand that this does not mean the song is free. Typically, royalty-free music platforms (like Artlist) offer subscription-based music you can download without paying a royalty (fee) to the musician every time you use the song in a game, video, stream et cetera.
Unlike public domain and Creative Commons platforms, royalty-free music platforms tend to have easily navigable user interfaces. This makes it easy to find the best gaming music by genre, mood, instrument or other search terms. Royalty-free video game music is a great option not only for developers but gamers streaming on Twitch and other platforms.
Downloading and editing songs for games
Finding the best video game songs or gaming songs for live-streaming is only half the battle. The other major part of the equation is properly downloading and editing the music into your game or playing it in your stream.
While the technical details of how to edit music into your game are beyond the scope of this article, there are a few things to think about when loading music into your game. When downloading music, pay attention to the file format. Make sure the file options are compatible with your game development platform. If the audio files aren’t, you will have to convert them into a compatible format.
Once downloaded, you will need to think about editing the music into your game. At this point, there are several things to think about.
First, what is your music saying to your potential players? What atmospheres and emotions are you trying to evoke? And how do you want the video game soundtrack to evolve throughout the game?
Wrapping things up
We’ve covered a lot of ground in the world of video game soundtracks. If you’re designing a game for the first time, or you’re a seasoned indie game developer, putting together a soundtrack should be fun and an adventure.
Remember, several soundtrack options are available to every game developer. If you take anything away from this article, it should be that you don’t need to pay a lot of money to a music publishing company, record label, or composer to get the best background music for your video game.
DJ Pangburn is a New York-based journalist, videographer, and fiction writer, with bylines at Vice, Fast Company, Dazed and Confused, and other publications. DJ records ambient techno and IDM under the name Holoscene.