From Pac-Man to Pop Music

Karen Collins, one of the few scholars writing on 8-bit music, has just published a book called From Pac-Man to Pop Music. Apparently, it is the first book to present a wide range of texts about music for computer games and game technology, written by both academics, composers and programmers. It includes several interesting texts on adaptive and interactive music composing, and games audio and marketing. And, since I am mentioning it here, also texts about chip music. Actually, yours truly wrote a chapter about the history of chip music. By now the text is not mega fresh, but I got good feedback from prominent chip folks during the writing of it. The main purpose of the text is explaining the history of chipmusic from a non-commercial perspective, ie demoscene rather than videogames. I briefly explain the foundations of the demoscene on one hand, and computer music on the other. My main point is to differentiate chipmusic as medium from chipmusic as form. Chipmusic as medium is any music made with a specific medium (a range of soundchips from the 80s, typically) and chipmusic as form is a music genre made with any kind of technology. YMCK is mostly referred to as chipmusic although they use Mac, while DJ Scotch Egg is typically referred to as breakcore although he uses Gameboy.

What I argue in the text, is that the term chip music was first used in the Amiga demoscene around 1989 by artists such as 4-mat, Duz, and Turtle. Prior to that, it is hard to find references to the term chip music, as it was probably just called computer or digital music. When the term chip music was first used then, it did not refer to music with waveforms coming straight off a chip. The waveforms were sampled and manipulated by the composer using sample-based trackers such as Noisetracker or Protracker. Furthermore, chip music seems to have been predominantly happy 4/4 music often flirting with C64-aesthetics. This might be annoying to people arguing that chip music is 1) not a music genre and 2) based on sounds generated in realtime by a chip. But although it might break a common historiography of chip music, it is because of using a sociocultural perspective rather than (techno)logical empiricist one.

As I wrote in the previous post, computer generated music has been around for almost 60 years now. By tracing the birth of chip music to 1989, we can (atleast theoretically) differentiate between chipmusic as we know it today, and the pre-1990 chipmusic which was mostly made in the names of science, art, conceptual music, and videogames. Technically speaking it might be 57 years old, but culturally I argue that it is 19 years old. This is a theoretical distinction that might seem unnecessarily absurd to some, but I find it useful. Atleast at the moment. I believe that the production, dissemination, and approaches within today’s chip music shares more with the (old) demoscene rather than videogames or art. Fun rather than monetary, playing with limitations rather than concepts, static rather than interactive.

8 Responses to “From Pac-Man to Pop Music”

  1. r00s Says:

    ┛ ┗┛ ┗┛ ┗┛ ┗┛ ┗
    very nice!
    ┛ ┗┛ ┗┛ ┗┛ ┗┛ ┗

    a square wave


  2. r00s Says:


  3. Ijon_Tichy Says:

    Lol, static rather than interactive… sometimes i’m convinced to believe this…

  4. decrepticon Says:

    Heir, heir! And veir cen von obtain said printed matter should one desire to read it?

  5. chipflip Says:

    but wait, there’s more!

  6. More classical chipmusic « CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] Usually, chipmusic seems mostly concerned with pop, games, dancing, happiness, clubs and so on. By placing a C64 in a church (virtually) and having it play Bach with the feel, touch, and limitations of an organ players’ hands, it seems to me that Åkesson has made a pretty hardcore recontextualisation of chipmusic. When I listen to Reverberations I think about christianity, note sheets, motoric skills, and the 18th century. On one hand, that’s pretty crazy results from a C64 and reverb. On the other hand, it’s not really that surprising that a modern machine can simulate (emulate?) these simple waveforms. But anyway – this is a rather perfect example of 8-bit music that is not in the form of chipmusic. Reverberations has almost nothing to do with with the culture, composing style, software, and context of chipmusic. Only the technology is shared. Medium does not necessarily cause form, as I said before. […]

  7. Nicolas Williams Says:

    Greetings! I am currently writing a thesis on 8-bit music, its history, cultural significance and context. I was wondering if there was anyone on the site who would be willing do answer some interview questions via email? If you are keen, you can contact me on :)


  8. Chipmusic Festival, 1990 « CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] previously argued that in 1990 chipmusic was equal to chipmodules but that was probably wrong, actually. I’ve […]

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