Maestro Mario: New book shows how video game music is more than meets the ear

When I was about fifteen years old, I borrowed my mother’s credit card to order a product that I’d seen frequently advertised on television. It was the Time Life five CD collection of the great masterworks of classical music. And I devoured it. It consumed my life for months, this world of music I was only perfunctorily aware of before that I now immersed myself in. It shaped the course my musical tastes would take, and, I daresay, helped shape who I became.

To my family and friends, this sudden obsession with classical music no doubt came out of an apparent left field. But to me, though maybe then I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why, it made perfect sense. Because at that time in my life, and for years before, what was I filling my time between school and boyhood monkeyshines with? Well, the gritty, pulsing underworld of Metroid; the sprawling epic grandeur of Zelda and Final Fantasy; and, of course, the foot-tapping capers of those Mario Twins (especially that delightful undersea waltz).

I came of age in the era of the SNES, and was a child of the NES era. The lush musical woodland of my adult years was sprouted from the 8-bit seeds buried deep in my brain early on. These melodic bleeps and bloops were what led me to more sophisticated musical art. But, in his book, Maestro Mario, author and musician Andrew Schartmann argues that these digital ditties were not simply stepping-stones to bigger and better things in contemporary art and culture, but valid–and important–works of art in their own right.

He makes the case with the conviction and confidence of one with a great deal of knowledge about both music and video games; and whether you’ve ever sat around a smoky basement couch having your mind blown that the Moon level theme from Duck Tales is as good as anything you’ll hear in a concert hall, or the thought of video game music being anything more than trivial background noise has never crossed your mind, Schartmann will have you convinced that there’s a lot more going on behind these tunes than first meets the ear.

He takes us from the glitzy beginnings of video entertainment sounds in casinos, to the breakthroughs in the severely limited environments of Pong and Space Invaders, and through the Renaissance of Nintendo’s and third party developers’ output for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s a far more exciting journey than one might expect, and he makes it easy and compelling no matter your level of knowledge of either music or video games. Example figures abound, and it makes for an even more informative read if you take the time to seek out the musical examples that help illustrate the author’s point (having YouTube open makes this remarkably easy to achieve).

The technical aspect of what makes these machines produce the sounds that they do is covered succinctly and with enough simplicity that it could easily be understood by even those among us who think Nintendos are magic boxes what I can make the pitchers move in. And, along with the more minute details of how and why, the importance of these sounds in our culture is put into context.

It’s a book for lovers of music, lovers of video games and their history, and lovers of video game music past and present, and I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in any combination of those. For me, it helped achieve a better understanding of music I love, reminded me of a few gems I’d long forgotten about hearing or playing, and gave me a little more perspective on why it felt so natural for a teenage boy to suddenly buy a Time Life box set of music he saw on television.

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