8-Bit Music Theory
This YouTube channel is a gaming musician’s best friend. (Illustration by Natashna Anderson, School of the Art Institute of Chicago)
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8-Bit Music Theory

You’ll never look at video games the same.

The world of YouTube abounds with instructions for every niche, from tying a tie to Thai food to titration. Many are quick and to the point, some are misinformative or outright dangerous, but one series is just plain fun. 8-Bit Music Theory asks the question, “What if you could learn compositional theory from video games?” From this silly question, one man has created hours upon hours of distinct, informative videos.

In October 2016, “The Music of Zelda’s Overworld: a Historical Retrospective and Analysis” was uploaded to the 8-Bit Music Theory YouTube channel. From that video to the latest, the faceless video essayist known as 8-Bit has retained the same basic structure. He introduces the video game in question and a particular component of its musical composition. 8-Bit then breaks down what makes that piece of music work, often incorporating other examples from the game or its franchise. This simple approach works well.

Video games are a great subject for learning music theory. Their soundtracks use many of the techniques common to classical music or movie soundtracks, but they also must be able to loop indefinitely. Composers condense what could be an elongated piece into a short, memorable, easy-to-repeat chunk. These limitations bring the compositional methods into the forefront, so the examples become clearer and more distinct for the listener. In addition, since video games are interactive, the composers try more directly to work with the player as a listener. This clarity makes video game music good study material.

8-Bit Music Theory often focuses on a piece as a mood. Since video game music enhances an emotion during a particular stage, 8-Bit primarily considers the pieces as such. Of the 50 videos in his main series, the majority show how a song accomplishes a type of mood: “Why Does Mario Music Sound ‘Fun?’” and “Odd Time Signatures in Video Game Music,” two of his most popular videos, both deal directly with how composers use music theory to craft an ambience, whether to please or unnerve the listener.

While a piece’s atmosphere receives much attention, 8-Bit Music Theory is far from one-note in scope. 8-Bit invests a lot of energy into motif, development of a theme, harmony and other topics. He shows some depth and breadth of music theory that enhances the songwriters who put his videos into practice.

The bouncy tone of 8-Bit Music Theory makes the series enjoyable. 8-Bit has an innocent glee when discussing soundtracks. While his delivery is professional and clean cut, a buoyancy springs forth when he speaks. He puts little quips and oddball deliveries into the videos. The goofiness of “smooth, buttery leads” in his “Donkey Kong Country”-based “4 Tips for Writing Ambient Chord Progressions,”  the sheer joy at the end of “Leitmotif in Hollow Knight’s Soundtrack” and the childhood drummer stories from “Odd Time Signatures in Video Game Music” are too pure to not love.

8-Bit demonstrates a deep respect and love for the composers behind the soundtracks. He spends a chunk of time in many a video showering the musical masterminds with praise. Two of the most memorable instances are his Junichi Masuda exultation in “What? The SOUNDTRACK Is Evolving! Revisiting Kanto Themes in ‘Pokémon Gold and Silver” and his admiration for the jazz musicians involved with Mario Kart 8 in “Mount Wario’s Dynamically Developing Music.”

Also, 8-Bit clearly enjoys a good game. A self-proclaimed first generation Pokémon player, his videos show a deep-running love for Nintendo and ‘90s classics. Other games covered include indie legends like “Shovel Knight,” “Cuphead” and “Hollow Knight” as well as various larger games. 8-Bit Music Theory videos always gush with genuine admiration throughout, especially in the introductions.

8-Bit Music Theory does not aim for people without musical knowledge. According to 8-Bit’s Patreon page, his inspiration for the series was a search for “nerdy music theory videos that weren’t either A) directed at complete beginners or B) unbearably dry and boring.” He succeeds, which is great for him and his viewers. For those complete beginners, he can be difficult to understand. 8-Bit focuses on more advanced topics meant for people who already know the basics of music and want to apply music theory rather than people wanting to learn the fundamentals. In addition, the videos tend to run around 15 minutes. Though he does have a “Music Theory Minute” for the time-constrained.

Even so, the series is far from esoteric. 8-Bit Music Theory examines each subject clearly, precisely and with plenty of references to the source material. By integrating pieces of the game soundtracks, as well as providing sheet music, piano chords and other reference points, 8-Bit keeps the viewer well on track. While the audience may not understand every intricacy behind the theory present, 8-Bit’s methodical presentation and clear purpose make sure that his audience cannot get lost.

In addition, that video game focus keeps most of the music popular and enjoyable. The games 8-Bit selects are some of the most famous in history. “Mario,” “Final Fantasy,” “The Legend of Zelda” and “Sonic” all receive multiple videos. Outside of “Odd Time Signatures in Video Game Music,” the vast majority of songs studied are gorgeous and accessible. His cited songs are simply great tunes on their own merits, and they would enrich the lives of many.

For people without an interest in music composition, 8-Bit Music Theory is still a worthwhile YouTube channel. Though songwriting is niche, the love of music is virtually universal. Most people enjoy music, and understanding why people enjoy music can be a great joy. Watching 8-Bit’s videos is like watching anyone discuss their passion: You likely will not fully comprehend what he says. You may not pick it up yourself. However, the love poured into his videos makes 8-Bit Music Theory a treasure to watch.

Many channels float about YouTube, from the dull to the bizarre to the maddening. 8-Bit Music Theory stands out as one of the most pleasant, educational and fun on the website. If you have a spare 15 minutes and want to try something new online, this channel is a good one.

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