This is a list of concise definitions for terms popular in video games and music, with an example of a song or game that utilizes the term. Click on the word for a link to the Wikipedia article.
An aria is usually a self-contained piece for one voice, with or without orchestral accompaniment, normally part of a larger work. They are usually found in operas. An example can be heard in Aria di Mezzo Carattere when Celes sings in the opera house scene in Final Fantasy III (SNES).
An arpeggio is a chord whose notes are not played together, but after each other—like on a harp, which is in fact where the Italian term comes from. It is also called a broken chord.
- Arpeggios were already used in classical music. Two examples for classical arpeggios in video games are:
- Most European video game music uses a very fast form of arpeggios, down to, for example, 1/96 notes. This was born out of necessity, as real chords do not fit into the limited PSGs of the 1980s. Several composers had different terms for this: warbling chord effects (Rob Hubbard), bubbly chords (Jason Brooke), wobbly chords with fast arpeggios (Ben Daglish), multiplexed chords (Martin Walker). Ultimately, arpeggio stuck, prominently in Chris Hülsbeck's Soundmonitor. The following songs use both chords (on the Amiga) and arpeggios (on PSGs), providing a comparison:
Bass refers to the lowest range of a particular group. When referring to vocalists, bass is below baritone as the lowest male vocal range (extending from around the second E below middle C to the E above middle C). When referring to instruments, it is the lowest rage for that instrument, like a bass clarinet or bass saxophone. There are also instruments simply called a bass, like the traditional double bass or a bass guitar.
A cantata is a vocal composition with an instrumental accompaniment. Cantatas often span multiple movements and while they originally featured mostly solo singers, it is now common for them to include a choir.
100 cents are a semitone. 1200 cents are 12 semitones or an octave.
Chorus has two meanings:
- When a note is played by two sounds, one slightly detuned. One example is 0:34–0:41 of Hardman Stage.
Primarily a psychological term, musically a common risk: Every now and then, a composer listens to somebody else's song, forgets about it, and later remembers the actual song, but not having heard it before. Instead, the composer genuinely believes having composed it. After George Harrison was sued for copyright infringement, it was established that cryptomnesia is no excuse.
When employed at Electronic Arts, Rob Hubbard became so afraid of cryptomnesia that he stopped listening to music (except modern classical). Chris Hülsbeck admitted cryptomnesia on Forgotten Path - Jim Power.
A decibel (dB) is a unit of measurement that changes depending on the context, but when talking about acoustics, it usually refers to the pressure level of a sound wave which humans perceive as volume. Decibels are measure logarithmically, so for each 1 increase in decibels, the value increases 10 times as much in volume which fits with human perception of sound (two speakers playing a sound will not sound twice as loud as one speaker. It actually takes ten speakers to sound twice as loud as one speaker).
An echo is when a sound is repeated once or multiple times, with each repetition being softer.
A finale is the last portion of a long musical composition which ties the work together. It is usually played in a lively manner like allegro or vivace.
Foley is the process of creating sound effects for film and games. While this process is usually a post-production event in film and cut-scenes within games, sound effects are usually actively worked on throughout the development of the more interactive parts of a game.
Very short (usually lasting for no longer than just 10 seconds without loop), yet melodical and often atmosferic musical sequence. Due to the limitations of hardware and the lack of needed programmers' and composers' skills in videogame industry, jingles were the most common form of music in 1970s, were used very often in 1980s and 1990s, usually marking the start of a new level, another variant of players success or lose. In the modern days, long background music is more common, however, jingles still are still presented in games to be utilized for the same purposes as it was before.
A song, fanfare, or jingle associated with a particular person, though also a place or idea. An example of it used for a person is Locke's Theme which plays in Final Fantasy III (SNES) whenever focus is on the character Locke. An example of when it used for a place can be heard in Kakariko Village from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES). An example used for an idea is the Fellowship Theme from Ultima VII: The Black Gate (DOS) which plays whenever you speak to key members of the cult, when you enter Fellowship buildings, and when major events relating to the cult occur.
Mambo is a musical form that developed originally in Cuba, with further significant developments by Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians in Mexico and the USA. A dance style, also referred to as mambo developed along with it. An example can be heard in the Final Fantasy V (SPC) song, Mambo de Chocobo.
Noise is a term used to identify interference or static in a signal. In signal processing, noise is generally unwanted, however, engineers have made use of noise in music, and many early programmable sound generators used short bursts of noise to simulate percussion. There are many different types of noise, the most popular is white noise.
Examples for portamento:
- The melody, especially the whistling in Ending - Mega Man III (NES)
- The last two notes in Game Over - Gargoyle's Quest (GB)
- Title - Psycho Pigs UXB (C64)
A pulse wave is a simple waveform very similar in shape to a square wave, but with a non-symmetrical waveform. Most early video game audio chips generated multiple pulse waves for their lead voices. The wave can be modified to alter the pitch, volume, and timbre. Pulse waves have a classic "beep" sound.
A musical genre with a ragged (syncopated) rhythm. It gained prominence in the African-American culture before seeing mainstream popularity between 1895 and 1918. Many examples can be found in soundtrack of The Yukon Trail (W16), like The Mississippi Rag.
One example is Underworld BGM - The Legend of Zelda (NES).
Sawtooth waves are waveforms with a shape similar to the teeth on a saw. Compared to a square wave, they produce a rougher "behp" sound. Though sawtooth waves are easily generated, they were far less common on early audio chips making them rare to early video game music. This was probably due to their rough sound making them less conducive to melodic music.
Sine waves are waveforms with a regular curve. When left unmodified, a sine wave produces a very artificial-sounding "boop" tone. They are fairly easily generated, though not as easy as a triangle wave which was more prominent in the 8-bit era. Sine waves didn't become popular in video game music until the early 1990s when chips were made which could easily modify them using FM synthesis.
A sound card is a circuit board that can be inserted into a computer to provide additional audio capabilities through the use of on-board synthesizers, digital signal processors, and digital-to-analog converts. Sound cards were especially popular in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, but at the end of the decade, they started to be built-in to the mother boards, and sales dropped dramatically. While they can still be purchased to provide high-end audio like Dolby 7.1 surround sound, most general consumers don't bother with them.
Square waves are waveforms shaped like squares. They produce a very artificial-sounding "beep" tone, but are easily generated. By definition, a square wave must have symmetrical times between maximum and minimum values. If the values are not symmetrical, the wave is a pulse wave and yields a slightly different tone. Most early 8-bit video games used pulse waves rather than square waves.
Staccato is when a note is played very shortly. For example, a staccato eighth note would be played like a sixteenth note. To signify staccato, a short dot is placed over or under the note.
Symphonies are complete musical performances (usually by an orchestra) of several movements played in succession. Vocal segments are uncommon in symphonies, but not unheard of.
A synthesizer is an electronic device that converts an electronic signal into audio in an attempt to synthesize a musical instrument. While the term is often used for an entire instrument like a keyboard, the actual device that performs the synthesizing is usually an integrated circuit microchip.
A tremolo is like a vibrato, only on volume instead of pitch.
Triangle waves are shaped like triangles and produce a deep tone similar to that of a sine wave. They were often used instead of sine waves in early synthesizers because they are much easier to produce, but the advent of low cost synthesizers capable of complex sine wave production through FM synthesis in the 1990s made them obsolete. An example of triangle waves can be heard in the bass line of most Nintendo Entertainment System games like Title BGM from Metroid (NES).
A tuplet is an irregular division of notes that don't keep with a song's timing. For example, requiring that five notes are played in a measure set to 4/4 time. A specific form of tuplet that is common enough to have its own name is a triplet, where three notes are played in the duration of two quarter notes.
A vibrato may be strengthened on specific notes in order to accentuate them. Examples include 0:05.7 and 0:07.3 of Title - Tom & Jerry 2 (C64).