Canons—of music, video games, or people—can provide a shared pool of resources for scholars, practitioners, and fans; but the formation of canons can also lead to an obscuring or devaluing of materials and people outside of a canon. The four authors in this colloquy interrogate issues of canons relating to video game music and sound from a variety of perspectives. Each author considers an aspect of canonization and argues for a wider purview. In “Rewritable Memory: Concerts, Canons, and Game Music History,” William Gibbons examines the ways in which concerts of video game music may create canons and reinforce particular historical narratives. In “On Canons as Music and Muse,” Julianne Grasso views the music originally presented in a video game as itself a type of canon and argues that official and fan arrangements of original game music may provide windows into lived experiences of play. In “The Difficult, Uncomfortable, and Imperative Conversations Needed in Game Music and Sound Studies,” Hyeonjin Park highlights issues of diversity and representation in the field of video game music and sound studies, with respect to the people and music that make up the subjects of the field, the people who produce scholarship in the field, and the people who engage with game music and sound. In “Canon Anxiety?” Karen Cook pulls together various issues of academic canons to question the scope, focus, and diversity of the growing field in which the Journal of Sound and Music in Games exists.
In 1991, Roger Lustig wrote: “we are currently concerned with the idea of a canon—a body of art, literature, or philosophy that forms a core for the entire field, and that controls the ideas and assumptions used in study and criticism.”1
Almost twenty years later, such a statement still stands; in fact, one could easily make the case that it is not just a concern but a major preoccupation. For decades, scholars have been busy pulling back the curtains on canon formations to expose the social constructs beneath. (Such work, it must be stated, has often been done by those from within minoritized communities, whether personal, musical, or both, calling into question the presumptions upon which previously unassailed ideas of “the great work” and its creators were built.) Even from before the foundational challenges of Susan McClary, Marcia Citron, Joseph Kerman, and others, and ever since, scholars have suggested on the one hand that the “body of art” that preoccupies the musicological field be expanded to include non-European, non-Western, avant-garde, jazz, popular, and other such non-“classical” musics, and on the other hand that such a body in and of itself must take into account a wider and more nuanced array of cultural, social, political, economic, and identity contexts, many of which destabilize the primacy of such a body to begin with. The idea of a canon, singular, is still reinforced within academia in the guises of textbooks and anthologies, survey courses, ensemble repertories, entrance exams, and the like, as much as it is probed and challenged within musicological discourse, and within such discourse it has, as James Currie recently observed, become so anathema as to provoke the same kinds of hegemonic reinforcement of cultural values amongst musicologists that the canon itself is claimed to do in society as a whole.2
Where, then, do we stand, we academics who take part in and perhaps seek to grow this new-ish field of sound and music in games? (And here, I must insert several caveats: that academics exist both within and outside of academia; that “academic” and performer, composer, game designer, game player, etc. are not mutually exclusive; that the questions I raise from here on out are not restricted to academia; and that the “us” and the “we” are intended to be neither elitist nor universal.)
In many ways, we are pushing back against mainstream, traditional ideas of “the Western canon” simply by studying sound objects that do not fit its criteria. Games, after all, are trivial and entertaining. They are popular. They are often the result of collective, collaborative work, including that of the player. They are not always fixed, whether as aural encounters or as written documents. Such objects of study trouble the canonical waters, to be sure.
But of course, that does not inoculate the field against any further critical examination; nor does it mean that such a field of study does not have its own canons, or counter-canons, or canonizers. The field, such as it is, is now far enough past its early stages to be a bit historically introspective, so the launch of a new journal dedicated to it is a perfect time to reflect upon what that field studies, and how; what it values, and why.
As others before us have noted, canons are created on multiple levels and in multiple ways, at multiple times, by multiple people. In their respective contributions to this colloquy, William Gibbons and Julianne Grasso each focus on concerts of video game music, investigating the overlaid and intersecting canons formed by fans, game players, composers, performers, and industry personnel. Hyeonjin Park turns a critical eye toward the fraught questions of whose voices and narratives are centered within games, gaming discourse (especially oft-toxic online gaming spaces), and academic game studies.
My own contribution to this colloquy, as its opening indicated, leans more toward the latter. I am interested here in the canons of academic study, what William Weber would call the canons of the scholarly and the pedagogical. We are privileged in this new-ish field to have the benefit of hindsight with regard to discussions of the canon in other modes of musicological discourse, so in what follows, I draw from such scholarship a series of questions and suggestions that might help us think through the endeavors of our field collectively and mindfully.
Are canons necessarily bad, or can the act of canon formation be neutral, even benevolent?
If an academic game music canon were to be shaped, however well-intentioned, what then would it be based upon? Composers and works? Games? Consoles or systems? Eras? Technological capabilities or constraints?
Or do we need to ponder instead the canonization of certain scholars, published studies, methodologies, and access to materials? Has this already begun, however well-intended, through venues such as conferences, academic societies, and publication opportunities?
Should one of our goals as participants in this field of study thus be to avoid creating any sort of canons? Is that even feasible?
Will an ever-increasing and presumably ever more diverse body of voices necessarily create a canon, and will that canon therefore be more equitable? Is that a goal that is currently shared by those active in the field?
Are there other goals we should be pondering as we move forward? What might they be, and how should we discuss them?
In the call for papers for last year's conference on the canon (see footnote 2), the organizers stated that “canons are ideological, that they are not value-neutral, that they exclude important bodies of work, and that they reproduce existing social orders and replicate their inequalities and biases.”3 In similar veins, scholars such as Peter Mondelli, Carys Wyn Jones, and Douglas Shadle have recently remarked on the power structures inherent in canons. Mondelli points to the social normativity of canons as negatively “other-ing” those without the access to or desire for their contents, while Jones and Shadle place emphasis on the human agents, the individuals with power and influence whom Jones calls “canonizers” who have made conscious decisions to include or exclude works from a canon and to maintain the presence and prestige of those included works within given communities.4 Even a well-intentioned canon, therefore, is constructed by persons with power making ideological decisions that will be exclusionary on some level. In such a light, the first question reads as naïve, even patronizing; it is not that canons are good, bad, or ugly, but that they exist, and that existence is motivated by power and privilege.
Thus far in our field's existence, to the best of my ability to assess, we have not placed a significantly disproportionate amount of attention onto any single game, franchise, composer, or console, whether in publication or in public presentation. With that said, however, at least in North American contexts, certain popular franchises and composers (Nobuo Uematsu for Final Fantasy, Koji Kondo for Mario and Zelda) do receive frequent mention (as in this colloquy) and, as Ryan Thompson and others have pointed out in conversation, are often used as go-to examples for specialist and non-specialist audiences alike, for the sakes of familiarity, accessibility, and nostalgia. Overall, a brief look through the tables of contents for our many essay compilations, single-author books, articles, and conference schedules shows a field eager for a bounty of topics, and myriad methodologies ranging from the historical, cultural, and ethnographical to the theoretical and analytical to the pedagogical to the technological, and all overlapping Venn diagrams therein. Our work has been disseminated in traditional scholarly journals, books, and edited collections, but also in online-only, open-access periodicals, blogs, personal websites, prerecorded lightning talks, recorded lectures, YouTube channels, Twitch streams, Discord chat rooms, and more.
Before we rest too much on our laurels, though, we must keep in mind that, by and large, academic scholarship is built upon (careful, diligent, proper) citation—and the smaller the field, the fewer “authority figures” we have to draw on. In no way do I wish to deny our founding figures their rightful place or to suggest that we not continue to make use of their excellent work, of which I imagine there will be much, much more. But I would like to borrow a recent eloquent statement made by Megan Lavengood that succinctly summarizes a potential way forward: “diversity is about the different perspectives that people from divergent backgrounds bring to the table.”5 If one of our concerns as a field is the creation of canons, and potentially one of our goals the mindful avoidance of canonic entrenchment, then to fill the field with diverse people and their different perspectives can only help.
I would suggest that we not assume that such diversity, difference, and divergence will find us; I would suggest instead that we actively seek it out. Read, play, and listen widely. Talk to other academics (and see my caveat above) and, importantly, do so in multiple languages. Talk to performers, composers, audio engineers, game designers, game players. Go to conferences, conventions, and concerts. Remember, also, that these are privileged spaces, and work hard to make them accessible to all, whether through live-streaming, recording, funding, or other means of support.
In Gary Tomlinson's contribution to the 1992 volume Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons, he wonders, as Katharine Bergeron puts it, whether there might be another kind of canon possible: “one whose values would be … contingent, discursive: determined through a continuous dialogue among a plurality of voices.”6 What might that look like for us? It might look, in fact, a lot like this journal:
It serves a diverse community of readers and authors, encompassing industry practitioners alongside scholars from disciplinary perspectives including anthropology, computer science, media/game studies, philosophy, psychology and sociology, as well as musicology. JSMG is the only journal exclusively dedicated to this subject and provides a meeting point for professionals and academics from any tradition to advance knowledge of music and sound in this important medium.
As we move forward, perhaps this journal's “diverse community of readers and authors” will be the plurality of voices necessary to create the kind of continuous dialogue that can help continue to shape the contingent, discursive canons of our field.
Carl Dahlhaus, The Idea of Absolute Music, trans. Roger Lustig (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), viii.
James Currie, “The Inoperative Canon,” talk given at The Idea of Canon in the Twenty-First Century conference, Smith College, Northampton, MA, September 22, 2018, http://www.musicologyandthepresent.com/conference-2018abstracts/.
The Idea of Canon in the Twenty-First Century conference, https://www.umass.edu/music/event/conference-idea-canon-twenty-first-century.
The Idea of Canon conference; Carys Wyn Jones, The Rock Canon: Canonical Values in the Reception of Rock Albums (Ashgate, 2008); Shadle quoted in Alex Ross, “The Rediscovery of Florence Price,” The New Yorker, January 29, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/02/05/the-rediscovery-of-florence-price.
Megan L. Lavengood, “Gender and Hiring in Music Theory,” Megan L. Lavengood: Music Theorist (blog), July 9, 2019, https://meganlavengood.com/2019/07/09/gender-and-hiring-in-music-theory/.
First printed as Gary Tomlinson, “Cultural Dialogics and Jazz: A White Historian Signifies,” Black Music Research Journal 11, no. 2 (Autumn 1991): 229–64; see Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman, eds., Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 6.