I cannot stand the music anymore – please turn it off

…typical gamer after hours of suffering the same tiring sound

Who did not experience this before? Known as “repetition fatigue”, this effect tires our ears and minds, even when one is not listening actively. Melodies and sounds repeating over and over again, especially when being too dull and simplistic, lacking finesse and wit, can quickly exceed our level of tolerance.

The first reason for this may be a lack of musical material. As a cost-saving measure, the same cues are repeated over and over again – in this way even the appeal of excellent musical material wears off quickly.

The narrow path – memorable melodies opposing variation and diversion – is a hard job and requires a skilled composer’s full attention. His or her job is definitely to find a balance between catchy elements and low-key passages.

Melody forges music’s perpetuity and enables us to diversify different types of music.

(Man-Kwan Shan, 2002, “Music Style Mining and Classification by Melody”)

This quote epitomizes an old wisdom, a principle which was probably evident to the ancient Greeks. It still works today, however; melody counts as the foremost memorable element in music, giving shape and identity.

Melody can be formed in many ways by musical tools.

One possibility is to reduce a significant moment to single sounds rather than coming up with a whole melodic line. This has been done successfully in “Breaking Bad’s” title theme, which will become an earworm after only a couple times of hearing it.

John Cage is one of the most important 20th century composers, who dispensed with melodic sweetness. His music should in no way bring up memories of the past – so the listener is confronted by him- or herself and can be immersed in the present moment. A good example is his Chinese I-Ching-inspired legendary “Music of Changes” from 1951.

This, of course, may not be a solution for a commercial product but shows the contrasting approaches very beautifully – repetition fatigue may not be Cage’s issue, but he loses many listeners because they are not “caught”; a pro-active listening process is required.
There are many musical underlines which do not stick to their passive listener’s attention, even in big budget productions, and and not always for the good – sometimes the music is too much low key and lacks character and profile.

On the other hand, there are many examples of extremely catchy and variable moments in Game music– such as the memorable main theme of the “Elder Scrolls” video game series. Between 2006 and 2012 the main theme underwent quite a lot of variation.

We think that it is vital to be sparse with dealing out the “magic moments”.

Otherwise they will not be magic anymore. Not overloading the player with epic bombastic orchestra or the ever-ongoing knocking of house beats may be a good option. Plenty of material put in good contrast can prevent fatigue and much more – bring your game to life and add memorable dramatic turns.

A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, Winifred Phillips, MIT Press 2014, p.66