An Experience Created by Rules

In The Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Anna Anthropy defines a game as “an experience created by rules.” While the rules themselves can be simple, the interaction between them is generally more complex, and this is partly what makes games interesting. Anthropy uses the schoolyard game of tag as an example, which has an extremely simple set of rules and a huge range of possible situations not strictly dictated by the rules.

This got me thinking: By this broad definition, is a piece of music ever a game? Certainly some pieces of music seem to have game-like properties, proceeding according to an internal logic which could be expressed as rules. Phase shifting in minimalist music, in particular, has a similar relationship to simplicity and complexity, where you can understand the process and still be surprised by the musical results of that process.

Writing music, too, is often like a game. The exercise of four-part voice leading is certainly mediated by rules–or are they guidelines? Regardless, considered as a game, its reward structure seems to be broken, because you can follow all the rules and still generate a musically bland result. What makes a Bach chorale compelling seems to have an orthogonal relationship to the rules. Does this mean we’re missing some rules, playing the wrong game, or is it something mysteriously else that we should be considering?

Maybe writing music is more like simultaneously writing and playing a game: generating sets of rules, deciding if they are fun or not, accepting or rejecting them, and then starting over. When rules create beauty, you win!

What about listening to music? Some composers embed secret data in their musical materials, like the A-B-H-F motive hidden in Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite. From a narrative gameplay point of view, solving this puzzle is extra satisfying because it contains an emotional revelation about the life of the composer (A.B.) and his semi-clandestine affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (H.F.). But this game, too, is kind of broken, since you’re unlikely to make this discovery from listening alone. It’s really only possible through research and score study, which isn’t accessible to most listeners. However, you can certainly enjoy listening to the Lyric Suite while blissfully unaware of these undercurrents, as generations did before Berg’s motivic agenda was revealed. So, there’s a kind of disconnect between music-as-music and music-as-game that seems unbridgeable.

Nonetheless, I think that certain aspects of my composing have been informed and enriched by my experience with games. One thing games excel at is exploring issues of choice or player agency. I think about listener agency a lot, and ways to give listeners multiple valid paths through a piece. This is hard, and I’m not sure it’s even something music is very good at! A great deal of music seems to be more cinematic or novelistic in its aims, subtly or overtly guiding you to particular emotional points of inflection, which might be roughly analogous to narrative peaks and valleys. I’m not knocking this approach at all–it works!–but I’m always looking for ways to make music a more ludic experience, where the listener is presented with choices. (And I’m interested in narratives, too, that have that ambiguity.)

The danger of this approach is that the result may come off as thematically confused or oversaturated. Games are always negotiating this trade-off. Some opt for a more cinematic experience, with a linearly constructed series of set pieces, while others are more like a sandbox where players are free to explore. But I find myself often dissatisfied with the pure sandbox experience; on some level, when engaging with a work of art I want to be guided by a strong authorial voice.

In music, counterpoint is the most obvious way to introduce multiple paths while maintaining that authorial control. But establishing equality between the voices in a contrapuntal texture is difficult; at any given time, one voice usually dominates. Textural or stylistic counterpoint, where two or more “complete” musical settings are simultaneously or subsequently juxtaposed, is another way to bring about a kind of ambiguity. It also introduces what I might call “counterpoint of meaning,” for lack of a better term. When Charles Ives’s Second Symphony quotes “America the Beautiful” in the midst of an otherwise unfamiliar musical landscape, are we meant to take it sincerely or with a dose of bitter irony?

This game, too, requires culturally transmitted information–we have to know the tune–but at least that knowledge is easier to come by.

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5 thoughts on “An Experience Created by Rules

  1. Jon

    I’ve actually been thinking about this kind of thing a lot lately. That other week I was on youtube watching some lectures by Jonathan Blow where he discussed his game design aesthetics I felt like a lot of what he said could be also applied to music in interesting ways.

    I’ve started working on a piece that involves a soloist and Max/MSP that is largely based around giving the performer choices about triggering certain events and effects that affect how the rest of the piece proceeds. And I know a lot of music for laptop ensemble does similar things.

    But even with things like that I guess the problem is, as you mention with the Berg piece, the rules and “gameplay” mechanics in a piece of music probably won’t be apparent to non performers (without research). But honestly I don’t think that’s all that different from video games. Imagine if you never played video games and you were watching someone else play one. If it were something simple like Super Mario Bros you could probably figure out the rules and mechanics of the game pretty quickly, but I would guess that a more complex game might really confuse a lot of people.

    If you haven’t seen this and you’ve got some time to spare, I really recommend watching this video,

    I think it speaks to a lot of what you’re saying here.

  2. Christoph Meyer

    Hi. I was fascinated by this questions a year ago. Thank you for bringing it back to my mind. There are some known examples of works – do you know about the Oblique Strategies? There are some paintings / sculptures which are designed to be moved by the spectator.

    I think the theme will come up with the accessibility of open music programming to more people. Algorithmic music is determinated but the rules are not. Playing round with the parameters leads to a lot of amazing results.

    So here is an example of a composition consisting of an well known algorithm:

    The example has not many rules and brought up a lot of different results after, which is to mention, a long time of programming.

  3. Kevin Whitehead

    John Zorn got a lot of attention for his cooperative/competitive game pieces of the 1980s, notably Cobra, but such pieces were a bit of a rage among certain ’60s composers. In 1964, Mauricio Kagel staged “Match” as a duel between cellists, with a percussionist as referee. Misha Mengelberg had his 1966 “Hello! Windyboys” for dueling wind quintets, who attempt to trip up each other up (and who have to play a ‘penalty melody’ when they do mess up). Peter Yates in his 1967 book ‘Twentieth Century Music’ said of Morton Subotnick’s “Play,” “The rules are as definite as those of Parcheesi.”

  4. lawrencedillon

    c. 1/2 century ago, phase shifting was a fresh way to think about canon. The word “canon” means “rule.” Let the games begin!


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