Pleasantries and Preamble – ‘Ludomusicology’ and its Implications.

Well met and welcome! This is the first of (hopefully) a number of posts that I intend to make on this blog, the vast majority of which shall focus upon music in video games. I intend to get started properly on this altogether personal project as soon as possible. In the meantime, I thought it might be prudent to write a very short piece of speculation on the emerging academic perspective on the topic, as well as highlight why I wished to start this blog in the first place. I’m still getting to grips with the site, so any advice and feedback is welcome (either through comments or the contact page).

Ludomusicology: an extremely satisfying word of obvious etymological origins, yet its current definition is less straightforward. A Google search of the term immediately brings you to the ‘Ludomusicology Research Group’, a small yet intriguing collective that “[takes] a musicological approach to videogame music, drawing together researchers from Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol Universities”. That such a forum even exists gives me cause for celebration, as a serious academic approach to such topics is, regrettably, less evident in some institutions than it may be in others. However, the existence of scholarly interest in this field, and their coinage of the word, creates an inadvertent bias in its meaning, as the ‘musicology’ of video games implies something altogether different from the ‘study of music’ thereof.

Indeed, musicology is a tradition that is dependant upon a certain amount of bias. The study of western art music is one that is forced, mostly out of necessity, to emphasise context, due to the problem of describing the pure ‘sound-world’ that music entails without the sullying of the experience by means of words (a problem also experienced to lesser degrees in other art forms). Thus, the individual works of more prominent composers are generally viewed from the perspective of a ‘bigger picture’, such as the composer’s complete output, or that of their generation. This can then be placed within an even larger context, such as the greater history of the Western Art tradition or, as is becoming increasingly common, non-musical factors which appear to be complimentary to the composer’s aesthetic or predicament. It is through this method of enquiry that contemporary musicology usually demonstrates its utility, which makes sense considering that any great musical success is next to impossible to quantify without any form of contextual background.

Browsing the bibliography page of the aforementioned Ludomusicology research group does indeed indicate a musicological focus on context. With some exceptions, the majority of writings seem to be composed of histories and interdisciplinary studies in which the emphasis on video game music (or sound) varies. Whilst I do not mean in any way to undermine the importance of a contextual framework, the relative scarcity of writings that focus on musical analyses and comparisons are in tandem with the secondary role of these practices within the mainstream musicology of the 21st century. This, in my view, borders on the dangerous. Whilst a wealth of context might be edifying in the study of, for example, Wagner’s music dramas, such information would surely be less fulfilling had predominantly musical examinations of these works not been proposed by previous generations of scholars. I see this as a rather dubious gap in the emergent strand of ‘ludomusicology’ for the simple reason of a lack of any scholarly precedent. For any and all gathered contexts to be as meaningful as possible, music-centred discussion cannot be neglected as the field simply does not have the historical tradition upon which mainstream musicology, with its reams of contextual padding, is dependant.

Given this brief preamble (the content of which I may revisit), the question remains as to why I have made this blog. As someone who likes to believe that their own fundamental approach to music is musicological, as well as having been heavily involved with video games (and its music) from a young age, it is perhaps not surprising that I wished to pursue the topic for my undergraduate dissertation. Sadly, this was not an idea supported by my supervisors, who believed that the academic framework for video game music was somewhat nominal for use in a sustainable thesis. I understood their misgivings at the time, at least given the knowledge that the topic is still emerging and remains unacknowledged by a number of institutions. In the end I was fortunate in that I had other research interests that culminated in a dissertation that was successful and (to me at least!) just as edifying. However, this rejection did not remove my desire to explore a field to which groups such as the Ludomusicology Research Forum are giving voice. Although I may not be able to make positive contributions through my current postgraduate study, I may be able to voice my thoughts and arguments here, in a manner which is open to criticism whilst avoiding the confines of a given university’s academic requirements.

Given this freedom, I imagine that the contents of this site will vary from singular observations to sustained argument, and from specific musical occurrences to thoughts that feed into above-mentioned greater contexts. Comment is welcome, so should those traversing the internet come across here and find themselves up for discussion, this place shall be as accommodating as possible. If they do not, then may I remain the online equivalent of a street preacher, espousing thoughts on a topic about which I am passionate. As to which scenario comes to fruition remains to be seen, but I hope to engage at least some, allowing myself to become further engaged in return.

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One thought on “Pleasantries and Preamble – ‘Ludomusicology’ and its Implications.

  1. Good post, and welcome to ludomusicology! I hope you enjoy (and get plenty of time for) your personal studies. It’s a shame your supervisor didn’t support your original ideas, but hopefully we’ll see less of that as the field develops. Those of us who study game music know it’s worth it 🙂

    Personally, I feel the context/analysis relationship that you’ve drawn out to be a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation in this field. Many of the seminal works in ludomusicology were comparative studies with film music – a context setting exercise. But because of this early work, and since many game developers have drawn upon filmic elements for aesthetic inspiration, we can (to a limited extent) treat film musicology as a scholarly precedent to our own work. Not a thorough approach, perhaps, but a good place to start. We are starting to move beyond that starting point now, but only just.

    Ludomusicology is, by nature, an interdisciplinary study, as game music is always part of a wider text. To my mind, a focus on determining context at the start of such a field of study is entirely natural, as it helps us understand the nature of the beast and helps sharpen further, more detailed studies. And this is a field that is very much still in its infancy – a few seminal studies were produced in the 2000s but the 2010s have seen far greater output. Because it is so young, we are still a long, long way from the point when all obvious paths of enquiry have been exhausted. Rather than risk an abrasive approach by calling current approaches dangerous or dubious, try to see it as an opportunity to fill the gaps with your own research. From what I have seen, we who study game music are trying to build a scholarly community that highly values thinking outside the square. I, for one, find it truly exciting to be in a field where that is still possible 🙂

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