The Rhetoric of 8-Bit Music

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the different ways music can be described as “rhetorical,” even (especially?) when it’s instrumental.

(Ooh, instrumental is a cool word. Need to look up the origins of its different meanings one day.)

One example: I’m listening to Sabrepulse right now, one of many artists creating new music from 8-bit technology. (As far as I understand it, he performs with computers that are actually hooked up to modded Gameboys, actually using their original music hardware.) (Check out the 8bitcollective for more amazing artists.)

And as I listen to the bleeps and boops, I’m trying to figure out why I like it so much. There’s the purely musical angle–the fact that I love the tight rhythms and syncopation and inspiring little melodies. (Preferences which, I suppose, aren’t really “purely musical,” since those preferences are direct products of my years of wading through popular music.)

But then there’s the nostalgic angle–the fact that I’m reminded of years of playing Mega Man games and soaking in the music. So Sabrepulse’s stuff has a sort of rhetorical “message” for me, I think. It carries a meta-meaning beyond the purely musical that says something like, “This music has added value because of what it makes you remember.” Its shape has a particular effect on me, which affects how I understand its meanings and purposes, regardless of whether Sabrepulse had those meanings in mind when he composed this stuff.

I’m also a few chapters into Alex Ross’s exploration of 20th-Century classical music, The Rest is Noise, which makes me wonder if there are parallels between my experiences with 8-bit music and, say, Germans in the 1920s who heard the occasional new composition that was surprisingly tonal, nostalgic, un-modern. Thoughts?


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