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This chapter is from the book

Synchronization and Integration of Music

Inside film and linear media, we can usually rely on time codes or streamers and punches to synchronize our music. In contrast, in a game, the player is essentially directing the next shot in real time.

The game engine that is built makes requests to the music engine to change from one state to another, or to play a musical stinger. These requests are called “hooks” because the game is hooking into the music engine.

In many cases a programmer from the development team needs to program these hooks into the game for the music system to run properly. The game development team and the composer strategize about which actions in the game would trigger a music hook. This allows the music to stay appropriately in sync with the gameplay. After all, it’s unlikely that you would want to hear the intense boss-battle music when you killed the boss minutes ago. The best video game scores are connected to the game engine so that the music is aware of what’s happening in the game.

Although you’ll explore this topic more in depth in the next chapter, here’s a list of triggers you might see in a game that affect the music:

  • Changing the emotional state (e.g., going from explore to combat)
  • Moving to a different location within the game
  • Number of enemies that are attacking
  • Amount of health the player has remaining
  • Time of day or the weather
  • Proximity of an enemy
  • Solving a puzzle or finding a treasure
  • Killing a boss or finishing a stage

Serendipitous Sync

What happens when there is no synchronization of music in a video game? This is typically called serendipitous sync. It’s similar to turning on the radio while watching a movie. Sometimes the music lines up wonderfully, but mostly it doesn’t. There are ways to write music that suits the game without using external synchronization, but it might not be as reliable. Probably the most famous example of serendipitous sync is Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon (1973) played in tandem with the film The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Some games rely on serendipitous synchronization, including the original Bioshock (2007). In that game, music cues begin when you enter a new area, but the music is static after that point—meaning that it doesn’t change based on player control. It may end serendipitously when you finish a battle, but it also may end earlier.

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