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10 Classical Music Pieces In Video Games

Virtually blowing things up, running from monsters, and stealing cars to classical music.


E3 2015 is on its way out, and boy what a show it was. The Electronic Entertainment Expo is the biggest event in video gaming, where manufacturers and game publishers show off and advertise their upcoming products. It is fairly exclusive and only open to those who are professionally connected to the industry, but it is also where the biggest news and biggest hype comes from for the next year of gaming. This year was a particularly impressive showing; the collective gamer pulse quickened after seeing previews of Fallout 4, Star Wars: Battlefront, or The Last Guardian.

Within the past decade or so, video games have raised their own bar with regard to musical content; they’ve even popularized themes written for them à la music written for movies. It’s become increasingly popular for symphonies to perform entire concerts of video game music, like Video Games Live or Distant Worlds: Final Fantasy. Classical music has, of course, been a part of the rise of gaming music. Here are ten instances of classical music finding its way to the world of gaming:


10. Clair de lune – Claude Debussy

Never has anyone felt so relieved to hear the strains of Debussy after playing through the nightmare that is The Evil Within. Made by the creator of the Resident Evil series, The Evil Within is a haunting journey plagued by sinister apparitions and horrifying monsters. Amidst such terrors, Claude Debussy’s most famous composition (with a little violin added) beckons the player with the promise of safety. Any time the music is heard in the game, it means a save point is nearby, and in any game where death could be just around the corner, being able to save one’s game is a welcome relief.


9. Requiem in D minor – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The Bioshock series has been praised for both its visuals and its storytelling since the release of the first game in 2007, and 2013’s Bioshock Infinite was released to similar acclaim. This time, taking place in the sky city of Columbia, the aesthetic is generally brighter and more vivid than the cramped, dim setting of Rapture from the previous games. This is remarkably illustrated when the player character visits the memorial of Lady Comstock in the Hall of Heroes, where the powerful strains of the Sequentia section from Mozart’s Requiem echo in the halls.


8. The Stars and Stripes Forever, The Washington Post, and other patriotic songs – John Philip Sousa, et al.

With a brand new studio and some seriously excellent hardware, the Fallout series made some huge leaps with the release of the third game in the series in 2008. One of the innovations added was the inclusion of a radio on the player character’s Pip-Boy, a device that acts as an inventory, status, map, and quest screen for the player.  Among the radio selections is the cheerful propaganda machine of Enclave Radio, featuring broadcasts from John Henry Eden (Malcom McDowell), President of the defunct American government 200 years after a devastating nuclear war. Between these messages are patriotic tunes meant to inspire dreams of the country’s former glory for survivors in the Wasteland.


7. Etude Op. 10, No. 12 in C minor, “Revolutionary” and others – Frederic Chopin

Eternal Sonata is truly one-of-a-kind in that it is an RPG inspired by the life and work of a composer, and it even features him as a playable character. The premise of the game is a sort of dream imagined by Frederic Chopin in the last few hours of his life, where he joins with a band of characters as they travel through a fantastic, magical world and do battle with evil characters and creatures. Naturally, several of Chopin’s compositions are featured in the game, and the final battle pits the accompanying characters against the spirit of Chopin himself while a remixed version of the “Revolutionary” etude plays in the background.


6. “Ellen’s Third Song” from Seven Songs from Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake – Franz Schubert

Perhaps better known as Schubert’s “Ave Maria”, this song follows the latest trend of taking something serene and putting it against a backdrop of something horrific or violent. In the case of the Hitman series, this piece was first used for the opening menu screen in Hitman: Blood Money, and has subsequently been used at various points in the following games. There is certainly an unsettling disconnect between the intense subject matter of the game and the peaceful beauty of Schubert’s piece. The menu screen isn’t much to look at, but sometimes the song just sucks you right in and you can’t quite hit “Enter” just yet…


5. Various arias by Mozart, Verdi, Donizetti, and Puccini

Once again pitting classical tunes against scenes of crime and dangerous thrills, 2003’s Grand Theft Auto III allows the player to drive around causing mayhem with a classical music radio station playing on the car’s in-game radio. The station’s DJ, Morgan Merryweather, is a caricature of the sophisticated cultural aficionado, though if you really pay attention to what he says, he doesn’t have any idea what he’s talking about. The selections on the radio come from Le Nozze di Figaro, La traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto, and Don Giovanni.


4. Night on Bald Mountain – Modest Mussorgsky

This piece was a pretty easy pull for Disney when they made Kingdom Hearts, an RPG that combines characters and worlds from their most famous franchises with those of Final Fantasy. This draws from the final scene in Fantasia where the great demon Chernabog summons forth spirits and other ghastly creatures for a nighttime dance to Mussorgsky’s haunting composition. Kingdom Hearts pits the characters against Chernabog in a boss battle that features the piece as well. This piece was also featured in the platforming classic, Earthworm Jim, where the titular protagonist must do battle against Evil the Cat on the fiery planet Heck while dodging shadowy demons, lawyers, and bossa nova elevator music in its 16-bit glory.


3. Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, “Moonlight” – Ludwig van Beethoven

Not to be outdone by their previous effort, Shiny Entertainment once again felt that the Earthworm Jim series needed a bit of a classical touch. For Jim’s second outing in Earthworm Jim 2, he is forced to float through the intestines of some unknown entity as a blind cave salamander with Beethoven’s lilting first movement playing in the background. And at the end of the game, he must race against his archenemy Psy-Crow to save Princess What’s-Her-Name to the tune of Beethoven’s third movement rondo. The adventures of a sentient earthworm may not have been quite what Beethoven had in mind for the piece, but it seems to work just fine in context!


2. Various music by Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, and more

Sid Meier’s Civilization series has enjoyed a long and fruitful development over the years. With the ability to construct your own empire based on any number of historical regimes, Civilization is one of the definitive titles in the turn-based strategy genre. Ever since the first game in 1991, famous classical pieces have been used throughout the series as background music, theme music for particular leaders or civilizations, or certain events in the game. In 2005’s Civilization IV, the background music changes depending on the era that the player is in, so for the Medieval Age one might hear Gregorian chant or works by Josquin or Palestrina (though they are technically Renaissance era composers), and in the Industrial Age there is music by Brahms, Dvoªák, or Saint-Saëns.


1. “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” from The Nutcracker – Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Though most people tend to associate Tetris with an arrangement of the Russian folk song Korobeiniki, it was only featured on the original GameBoy version. For the Nintendo Entertainment System it was omitted and Tchaikovsky’s work tends to be the piece everyone remembers from that one. While it does sound significantly better with an orchestra as opposed to the 8-bit electronic noises, it does have a certain repetitive quality that seems to aid in concentrating on the game. And if you start falling behind, the game is kind enough to ramp up the speed of the piece to throw you into a panic as you helplessly throw random shapes around wherever they seem to fit until your inevitable end comes… unless you’re the player in the video below:

Thumbnail image of the Pip-Boy 3000 from Fallout 3. Screenshot from the game from Bethesda Softworks (fair use).

Joshua Zinn

Joshua Zinn

Producer, Houston Matters

Joshua is a producer for Houston Matters on News 88.7 as well as the host of Encore Houston on Houston Public Media Classical. He joined Houston Public Media as a radio intern in 2014 and became a full-time announcer the following year. Now he prepares segments and occasionally records interviews...

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