So happy you’ve joined us! Each year, the Library of Congress adds a list of top recordings to its National Recording Registry, and The Sounds Of America radio series devotes an episode to each of the recordings selected for preservation that year. Recently I was interviewed for an episode of The Sounds Of America radio series on National Public Radio, in order to provide some background and musical context to one of the latest additions to the National Recording Registry – the famous theme to the Super Mario Bros. video game! This is awesome news for game composers and game music fans. The Super Mario Bros. theme music is now the first game music composition preserved for posterity in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. Each year, the National Recording Registry selects twenty five recordings that represent “the richness of the nation’s audio legacy.” The expert preservationists at the National Recording Registry works to ensure “the long-term preservation of that legacy for future generations.”
As the author of the book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I was able to discuss the historical significance of the Super Mario Bros. theme music as a seminal work in the field of game music composition. I had previously given a lecture at the Library of Congress about the nature of video game music (that lecture is recorded and preserved in the Library’s Films & Videos Collection) and this experience gave me further insight to the importance of the preservation efforts undertaken by the Library of Congress. I could also discuss the Super Mario Bros. theme music from the perspective of a musician who had recorded one of the many cover versions of this world-famous tune. I recorded my version for the tribute album, “Best of the Best: A Tribute to Game Music.” All of this gave me a unique perspective on this historically-significant musical composition, and I was honored to discuss it during the interview with The Sounds Of America radio show. In addition to my own interview, the show includes interviews with author Jeff Ryan (How Nintendo Conquered America), Super Mario Bros. actor Charles Martinet, and the Super Mario Bros. composer himself, Koji Kondo! You can listen to the entire show here:
I thought it might be useful to include the transcript of my entire interview in this article. The transcript also includes my own cover version of the track (which you’ll find in the section discussing the popularity of cover versions). But first, let’s listen to the original Super Mario Bros. Theme, and then dive into the transcript!
Sounds Of America: First if we could to start, could you introduce yourself with your name and occupation?
Winifred Phillips: Sure. I’m Winifred Phillips, I’m a game composer, and I’m best known for composing music for games in six of gaming’s biggest franchises – God of War, Assassin’s Creed, Total War, LittleBigPlanet, Lineage, and The Sims. I’m also the author of the book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, published by the MIT Press.
Sounds Of America: Great, and today we’re going to be talking a little bit about the Super Mario Bros. Theme. Do you remember when you first encountered the score to Super Mario Bros?
Winifred Phillips: I first encountered the Super Mario Bros. theme when I was very young. Like a lot of kids who were avid gamers, I experienced Super Mario Bros. in its natural habitat. Following along with Mario as he saved the princess! It was great fun to experience it that way. There’s something about the music of Super Mario Bros. which really marries so well with gameplay. It’s so complimentary and so memorable. So that was one of the things that really stuck with me as a kid and inspired me as I grew older and started thinking about being a game composer.
Sounds Of America: What do you remember made it appealing to you?
Winifred Phillips: The Super Mario Bros game was really revolutionary for its time. It was so bright and colorful and well constructed. It was such a fun experience! Very lively, very exciting, challenging, and the music itself was marvelous in enhancing that experience. What’s particularly exciting about the music of Super Mario Bros is that it marries so well with gameplay and enhances the kinetics of the game. There are certain areas during gameplay where the music aligns with the kinetics of the game and the game itself pulses in rhythm with the music. That’s very exciting for me as a composer. As a kid it was exciting for me – as somebody who loved music! Because I was so fascinated by what the game was doing, how the music was spotlighted and enhanced within the mechanic of the gameplay. That really felt special to me, so that was memorable.
Sounds Of America: Could you tell us what you know about Koji Kondo and how was he regarded in the world of video game composing?
Winifred Phillips: Well, Koji Kondo is really just a giant among game composers. He’s essentially the first professional video game composer. Before him, composers did not dedicate their careers solely to music for games. He essentially was the first composer to do that, and he worked for Nintendo for his entire professional career, so there was such a tight relationship there. As a composer who was also a sound designer, he truly had an intrinsic understanding of how music and sound design in a game complement each other. He applied this to his structure of music, and to how his music and sound design wrapped together. There’s a lot to learn by studying the music and sound of the Super Mario Bros game, and it made a huge impact on how sound professionals perceived the importance of music and sound in games – from that game forward.
Sounds Of America: If someone has never heard the Super Mario Bros. Theme, how would you describe it?
Winifred Phillips: The Super Mario Bros theme is such an interesting piece of music. It’s quite syncopated in its design. Lots of interval leaps! So it has a very strong sense of uplift. Very lively and energetic music! It’s also interesting in that it’s reminiscent of the kind of musical composition you would associate with the Baroque period. The idea of polyphony being an important driving factor in musical composition. Koji Kondo only had three voices to work with – in terms of how to compose his music. So he would have a bassline, and then he’d have two other lines for harmony, and a line for a noise generator that he would use for percussion. This was quite a limited sound palette with which to create music. Its a testament to the creativity and ingenuity of the artist that he was able to take those limited tools and create such a vibrant score.
Sounds Of America: And how is this an example of game music that is melodic in nature?
Winifred Phillips: Melody in video games goes beyond the way we perceive melody in other forms of entertainment. Games are very long experiences. When we sit and play a game, we might be playing it for quite a long period of time. So we become intimately familiar with the music of a game, because it accompanies us on our adventures. With a game like Super Mario Bros., the theme is played quite frequently, so it has to be welcome in its repetition. It has to be structured in a way that is infectious – like an ear worm. It gets inside our heads and accompanies us… and entertains us for lengthy periods of time. That’s a very difficult thing to pull off as a game composer, so it’s really impressive how well the Super Mario Bros. theme works. It has a lot of interesting rhythmic complexity. It has a lot of entertaining and inspiring harmonic intervals and relationships. All of this comes together to make you feel both happy and energized – and also focused on what you’re doing during the game. All of this is excellent, and quite effective – and admirable for a game composer to study and understand.
Sounds Of America: I want to talk a little bit more about gameplay. What are some of the ways that music heightens the experience of the player?
Winifred Phillips: Music has a really interesting relationship with the human psyche. It influences the way in which we perceive events. It can influence our perception of time – how quickly or slowly it passes. It can draw our attention to important details that we may need to pay attention to in order to succeed. It can guide us, and give us a sense of objectives, and rate the importance of different factors within our environment. Music is very powerful. Plus, when we experience music while we’re active, while we’re engaged in an activity, music becomes more directly connected to memory for us. It becomes a very powerful mnemonic. Music can bring back an experience in a way that’s stronger than nearly any other sensation we have as human beings. I think that’s why fans flock to those game music concerts that are currently touring the globe! The fans are sometimes dressed in costume, and they cheer loudly when they hear their favorite themes. Those melodies bring back memories, and those memories are cherished by gamers. So it’s a strong, intimate, and joyous bond between the gamer and the music that accompanies their play.
Sounds Of America: How does music help with world-building, and the world of the Super Mario Bros. game? It’s pretty quirky, it’s got ecclectic characters, so how do you think music helps with that?
Winifred Phillips: The Super Mario Bros. Overworld theme, and the Super Mario Bros music in general, has a very bright, vibrant quality – primary colors! It evokes a sense of optimism and energy. It’s quite purposeful. It has a definitive sense of momentum. There’s lots of rhythmic drive, and that’s very helpful for the type of game that Super Mario Bros is. There’s constant action, there’s constant momentum. There are goals and tasks that are facing you as you go along your way. Really makes a big difference when the music helps you to concentrate on the momentum of the game. It also is very complementary to all of the quirky characters and all of the fun experiences, Koji Kondo was interviewed about how when he was creating the sound design of the game, he was asked to create sounds for the jumping, and he asked, “why would I have a sound for jumping? It doesn’t make noise!” But the idea was that everything had to have a whimsical flair. Everything needed to be gestured to, from within the audio realm. And that was very interesting as a new way to approach the audio of a game – that audio was essentially a concurrent language that was complementing the gameplay and gesturing to all of the different actions you were seeing on screen. So that was really effective.
Sounds Of America: And Mr. Kondo is also very struck by the bright blue sky. He also tried to compose music for the different environments – for example, Mario’s underwater levels. How might this affect the game player?
Winifred Phillips: Rhythm and meter were very important in the music of Super Mario Bros. and it’s actually quite interesting – the choices that were made from level to level, from area to area. For istance, when Mario is swimming underwater, the music morphs into a lovely waltz time. Koji Kondo was interviewed about this, and said that the waltz was meant to give a sense of the dance-like nature of Mario’s movement during that level. It’s really interesting how the visual aspects of the level also accentuate that waltz-time by pulsing and flashing in accordance with the rhythm of the music. It’s an admirable choice that was made on the part of the development team, to really spotlight the music in that way. That sort of mindset pervades the Super Mario Bros. game. Music was central to the experience, and I think that’s part of why the game itself is so infectious. It had an infectious musical undercurrent at its core. So that makes it a very exciting game to study, as a composer.
Sounds Of America: And the Super Mario Bros Theme, the original instrumentation, can you talk a little bit about the texture of the sound?
Winifred Phillips: The technology for the Nintendo Entertainment System at the time only afforded square waves and three channels of sound. So you needed to focus on rhythmic and melodic ingenuity in order to be able to create a satisfying musical score. It wasn’t as if you could create texture and nuance by virtue of the timbres of sounds that reacted to each other, because you really didn’t have that wide a variety of choice. You had those three voices, and you had the noise generator that would give you a sense of rhythm. Now, what’s so cool about what was done in Super Mario Bros. is the rhythmic drive of it was very syncopated – which made it interesting, and influenced by a more contemporary sensibility. So there’s a really nice head-nodding rhythm that gets you focused into what’s going on in the game. And the polyphony of the different parts and how they reacted to each other was quite excellent. One of the things that’s interesting about the music of Super Mario Bros. is that the sound design and the music needed to occupy the same space. If sound design elements were being triggered, they would steal voices away from the music. And the music had to be created so that if voices were stolen away by a flurry of sound design, the music would still feel satisfying. It wouldn’t feel like it had lost something. It’s a really interesting approach to what’s essentially a system of interrelationships between what the sound design needs and what the music needs.
Sounds Of America: This track has also been rerecorded, reimagined, and covered by artists like yourself. What do you think makes the track so translatable to other arrangements?
Winifred Phillips: The Overworld Theme in Super Mario Bros. is enjoyable – it’s energetic, it’s lively – but within the context of the sound palette that was available, it’s also a little ambiguous. So many of the signals that tell us about musical genre come from instrumental choices, as well as the texture of sounds interrelating with each other. In the game, you have such a limited 8-bit sound palette, so you don’t have these signals. I think that allowed people listening to this music to interpret its genre in terms of what they liked best. So some people might hear it as a more contemporary piece, and they might imagine it that way. And other people might think of it more as jazz or ragtime. Koji Kondo himself has said that a lot of jazz influences pushed the music forward for him… and some people might hear it that way, but others might not, because the instrumental language of jazz was not present. But if that was at the heart of what you like, you might interpret it that way. I think that’s part of the reason why reinterpreting the Super Mario Bros. theme with different instruments can be so much fun for composers and musicians. We get to interpret it in the way in which we imagined it when we were initially hearing it. The kind of instrumental textures that we can bring to it – those textures can pull the theme into genre, where before it might have been more ambiguous (in terms of what genre it was asserting on its own.)
Sounds Of America: And tell me a little bit about your version, about what you might have discovered.
Winifred Phillips: I’ve been a student of video game music for a very long time. I’ve worked a long time as a video game composer. And I’ve made it a focus of my professional life to study and understand what makes game music exciting. My book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music from the MIT Press, is very much concerned with what makes game music fun, what makes it effective and special – that was something that was really important to me to understand. I think I was inspired to create a cover of the music for Super Mario Bros. to be able to express what was exciting about it to me… and also to celebrate the music from the standpoint of its importance in the body of work that comprises game music as a whole.
Winifred Phillips: (cont.) As an art form, video game music is somewhat young. In terms of its comparison to other forms – like film music, television music, and of course, symphonic music and popular music – game music is a young art form. We don’t have a long history. So having a master – having a seminal work – is meaningful to all of us who create in that art form. Being able to celebrate it by performing it and bringing our own spin to it is a way that we can celebrate our participation as game composers and game musicians, and also pull ourselves together as a community. I think that’s one of the reasons why there are so many cover versions of the Overworld theme from Super Mario Bros. We all share it as a focus of our work, as an inspiration, and I think that’s really special for all of us.
Sounds Of America: And when you were going about playing it, what was your goal?
Winifred Phillips: The original Super Mario Bros. has a wonderful syncopated quality to it that’s very inspiring to me. Now, I think when other people have created cover versions of Super Mario Bros, they’ve gone in very different directions. Some may give it a very relaxed feeling, and settle into more of the Latin rhythms that Koji Kondo has said were a big inspiration for the composition process. But for me, in listening to it, it was really more reminiscent of a ragtime jazz style. It spoke to me on that level, because those kinds of syncopated rhythms and the way that the bassline moved really made me think of ragtime – and that was great fun. Of course, at that time I was known both for my work as an orchestral composer and also for my work as a vocalist. So the idea of creating a vocal version of Super Mario Bros… essentially a scat verion in which I used my voice to execute the limited polyphony of the original arrangement… that appealed to me too. Essentially, I took my voice, which was a limited sound palette, and brought it to what the Super Mario Bros. theme was trying to express. That was fun! Finally, I think I just wanted to create a sense of party with Super Mario Bros. It’s not only an important piece of music for game composers and game musicians, it’s also such a shared exprience for gamers as a whole – the idea of coming together and playing Super Mario Bros. together and enjoying each other’s company. That’s just the focus – the core – of what it is to be a gamer. So creating a cover version of Super Mario Bros. that also felt like a celebration of early gaming as a whole – that was really fulfilling for me. It was something that I really wanted to do.
Go Mario! (Super Mario Bros.)
from the album Best of the Best: A Tribute to Game Music
Sounds Of America: And how do you suppose the Super Mario Bros. theme has also come to represent Nintendo?
Winifred Phillips: Nintendo has an incredibly strong brand. I’ve been lucky to create music for some games that have been on the Nintendo platform. And I know that when creating music for a Nintendo game, like the work that I did on Spore Hero, SimAnimals, Speed Racer – those projects are driven by the embrace of family gaming which resides at the heart of what it means to create in the Nintendo universe. The Nintendo gaming philosophy is all about playing in an embracing environment – an enviroment that welcomes everyone – an environment that’s diverse and upbeat, that is positive and optimistic and colorful and lighthearted. All of these things are tremendously important to the Nintendo brand. I think the Super Mario Bros. Overworld Theme did a marvelous job of expressing that kind of optimism and hope and inclusivity and brightness that is at the heart of what Nintendo is all about.
Sounds Of America: Right and what do you think it is about the Super Mario Bros. Theme that gets the audience emotional? What makes it special?
Winifred Phillips: The theme music for Super Mario Bros. certainly is one of the most memorable game music melodies ever created. You could go to nearly any gamer and hum just a few notes, and they’ll know immediately what you’re talking about. That’s incredibly potent as a community creator… for people to share that bond. I think it’s partly because of the way in which that melody pervaded the entire game, and how the Nintendo teams were focused on preserving and carrying forward that melody into other games in the franchise – letting it move forward through time and continue to entertain gamers in Mario games, from that day to this. I think that’s a big part of why that theme is so important to the gaming world, because we’ve all had experiences with it. We all love it for different reasons. I think that’s part of what makes it special.
Sounds Of America: And this Super Mario Bros. Theme is going now to be preserved in the National Recording Registry – selections that are nominated by the public and ultimately selected by the Library of Congress. And they will be preserved for all time, so whatever the format is, they will be translated and preserved in their original state. Why do you think it’s important to preserve this? It’s also the first game music that has added to the registry – why do you think it’s important to preserve this music in this way?
Winifred Phillips: Having this music preserved by the Library of Congress is a huge step for the game music community. We’ve all believed in the potential of game music to be an art form in which composers can express themselves, and have unique and powerful relationships with listeners. To have this music now recognized in the Library of Congress adds so much meaning to what we do in our professions. It’s an affirmation of the importance of this music to our culture. And that means that game composers makes cultural contributions to our nation as a whole. It means a lot to us as game composers. I’ve had the opportunity to speak before the Library of Congress during an event that celebrated video game music, and that was particularly meaningful to me, because then I was able to talk about why game music has meaning to the overall field of music composition.
Sounds Of America: You had mentioned earlier about how game music can last for a long period of time – which is interesting to think about! You might not play your favorite album for five hours straight, but you might listen to a video game that long. Can you talk about that? And how does that length of play impact the music?
Winifred Phillips: The Overworld Theme is actually pretty short. It’s about eighty seconds long, and that’s amazing to contemplate. When you think of how many times you hear that music while you’re playing the game. In order to have a melody that can repeat for that long and still be remembered fondly… it brings together a combination of factors and considerations. For one thing, this was in the early days of gaming. This was in the 1980s – in 1985. And at that time, gamers had a bit more patience with repetition in musical motifs. So they would experience the repetition of the Super Mario Bros. theme as a fun facet of the game they were playing. Nowadays, it might be more difficult to repeat a theme to that extent in a game and expect it to be embraced by the gaming community, in the same way that the Super Mario Bros. theme is embraced now. Games that are now being made in the Super Mario Bros. franchise no longer repeat the theme with the same kind of frequency that they did in the first Super Mario Bros. game. Music for games has morphed and adapted to the tastes of the time. They’ve taken on new technologies allowing them the ability to adapt to gameplay. Game music has become much more complex and interesting in terms of what it can do to react to the choices of the player – to give the player a sense of agency. Game music is a much more vibrant and complex process, in terms of being a creator of this art form. But the idea of creating a seminal motif is still very important to all of us. The idea that we can create a short, concise, memorable melody that people will still embrace and love years later – that’s not only the essence of branding and a triumph of identity, it’s also the pinnacle of composition. So we all admire the theme from Super Mario Bros. for that reason.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this transcript of my interview with The Sounds Of America radio show, and that you’re as excited as I am about the induction of the theme from Super Mario Bros. into the National Recording Registry! It’s a big step for the field of game music composition!
Winifred Phillips is a BAFTA-nominated video game composer. The music she composed for her latest video game project Jurassic World Primal Ops won both the Global Music Award and the NYX Award, and was nominated for a Society of Composers & Lyricists Award for Outstanding Score for Interactive Media, and a Game Audio Network Guild Award in the category of Music of the Year. Other recent releases include the hit PlayStation 5 launch title Sackboy: A Big Adventure (soundtrack album now available). Popular music from Phillips’ award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score was featured in the performance repertoire of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which made its Paris debut with an 80-piece orchestra and choir. As an accomplished video game composer, Phillips is best known for composing music for games in many of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: the list includes Assassin’s Creed, God of War, Total War, The Sims, and Sackboy / LittleBigPlanet. Phillips’ has received numerous awards, including an Interactive Achievement Award / D.I.C.E. Award from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, six Game Audio Network Guild Awards (including Music of the Year), and four Hollywood Music in Media Awards. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the MIT Press. As one of the foremost authorities on music for interactive entertainment, Winifred Phillips has given lectures at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, the Game Developers Conference, the Audio Engineering Society, and many more. Phillips’ enthusiastic fans showered her with questions during a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything session that went viral, hit the Reddit front page, received 14.9 thousand upvotes, and became one of the most popular gaming AMAs ever hosted on Reddit. An interview with her has been published as a part of the Routledge text, Women’s Music for the Screen: Diverse Narratives in Sound, which collects the viewpoints of the most esteemed female composers in film, television, and games. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.