Everyday Shooter: What Is Music?

I’ve described Everyday Shooter as a music game. And certainly, shooting stuff produces musical sounds. But can we really describe the end result as music? A cat walking on a piano keyboard also produces musical sounds, but we don’t call it music. Unless, I suppose, it’s used as part of a deliberate musical composition — sampling can turn pretty much any sound into music, like the barking dogs in The Beatles’ Good Morning or the rattling of a door in They Might Be Giants’ Hearing Aid. The cat on the keyboard lacks intentionality, but by being sampled and placed into a work, it becomes at least as intentional as Duchamp’s urinal — as if that were a convincing argument.

But even with intentionality as a criterion, the sounds in Everyday Shooter occupy a middle ground: the individual sounds were deliberately chosen, but their arrangement is left up to the player’s actions, which are guided by a desire to score points and avoid death, not an intention to produce music. The player might as well be a random number generator. But random processes have been used in composition before. The only difference here is that the random component occurs after it’s left the composer’s hands. Or, to put it another way, it’s rather like windchimes. Do windchimes produce music? I honestly can’t answer that.

For that matter, perhaps intentionality isn’t all that important. Coincidentally, about a month ago, a friend emailed me with some youtube clips of the arcade games Pulsar, Qix, and Zookeeper, asserting “These games are better electronic music than most electronic music out there.” Of the first, he said “I have entire glitchcore CDs that sound like this, but not as musical” (emphasis mine). This for sounds that were created by a very similar process to the ones in Everyday Shooter, but were not intended to be musical by the player or the creator. From this point of view, the important thing is merely the way the sounds are perceived.

And that, for me, is where Everyday Shooter fails. As is usually the case when I play a game a lot, I’ve had the music going through my head when not playing. And the music that goes through my head is just the background track, without the incidental player-initiated sounds. So clearly, on an automatic and intuitive level, I’m perceiving those sounds as not part of the music. It’s possible that I would perceive them differently if the background music weren’t there, because the consistency of the background music is so much more musical (repetition being the backbone of music) that it drowns out any perceived musicality of the foreground. If so, it’s ironic, because the author clearly intends the background music to encourage us to think of the foreground sounds musically.

2 Comments so far

  1. Jason Dyer on 6 Sep 2009

    Fascinating! I think you’ve hit upon a purely semantic distinction, but still I can’t think of anything else matching the situtation you describe.

    That is, where
    there is an intentional composed part
    there is an incidental music part that varies based on the performance
    (like, say, jazz)


    where the incidental music part is based on activity by the “performer” that is not musical at all

  2. Sean Barrett on 7 Sep 2009

    And the music the goes through my head is just the background track, without the incidental player-initiated sounds. So clearly, on an automatic and intuitive level, I’m perceiving those sounds as not part of the music.

    I don’t buy this analysis. Part of the music is linear and identical every time through; part of the music is totally different and comes it at random times overlaid. Thus I wouldn’t find it surprising that if you’re on “mental autopilot” you only get the linear/consistent part of the music.

    Picture the following scenario: you get a CD of some music in which the backing track is identical on every song, but the instrumental soloist improvises a different thing each time — and you’re only allowed to listen to each track once. It wouldn’t surprise me if at the end of listening to the CD, you could remember how the backing track goes, but you wouldn’t have retained any of the solos. Now add on a common chorus on every track where the soloist consistently plays the same thing, and I would expect you to at the end remember that part of it. But this experience doesn’t make the rest of the tracks not part of the music. It’s just not part of what you remember.

Leave a reply