Gaming Science

From Pixels to Playlists: The Nostalgia of Game Soundtracks

Music has the potential to help patients with dementia.

Originally Published: 
Animated character with spiky blond hair and armor sitting at a piano, looking contemplative in a di...
Square Enix

Ten years later, the fun and peppy tune that plays as I design my own video game avatar still makes me want to do a little dance in my seat — it’s upbeat, the perfect vibe for the opening of XSEED’s 2023 Story of Seasons: A Wonderful Life.

In fact, the longer I play, the more I’m surprised by how much of the soundtrack I remember. There was the Blue Bar’s evening theme, now called “Nighttime” — pleasantly chill and familiar. Romana’s mansion? Still stately, the epitome of fancy. And when I bought my first chicken? Cue round two of the character creation song. I still wanted to dance.

Had I longed for those songs over the years? Maybe a little, much to my surprise. I’d liked, but not loved, the original games, 2004’s Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life and 2005’s Another Wonderful Life for the GameCube. The nostalgia hit me so hard that I actually looked up the full soundtracks on YouTube. I let them play in the background while I write this article, reminiscing. I’d courted Celia as a kid. I’d gotten my mom to play her own file. I’d played on that old, square TV in the family room after finishing my homework.

Had I longed for those songs over the years? Maybe a little, much to my surprise.

Harvest Moon

I hadn’t thought about some of those things in years. If you’d asked me to hum a song from Harvest Moon, I wouldn’t have been able to do so — and yet, when I started streaming those soundtracks, I found myself doing just that: humming along, like I’d last played only a few days prior.

Prompted by the music, I remembered not only the songs from A Wonderful Life but also many from the 1999 classic Harvest Moon 64, my first farming sim — including “Village,” which plays year-round, and “Summer,” which plays only during that season. I didn’t realize those tunes had been buried somewhere in my brain since the aughts. They only needed a little push to return to conscious memory.

As it turns out, keeping the memories of music alive is incredibly common, as many studies have shown. However, much of the existing research focuses not on game soundtracks but on bands. A 2022 review found that there are multiple benefits to the nostalgia brought about by music. Synthesizing more than 30 years of existing research, the authors found that music-evoked nostalgia “acts as a buffer against adversity” such as sadness and can also promote optimism (which are, uncoincidentally, some of the benefits of resilience, a life skill that can be cultivated via gaming). This is because nostalgic music has been shown to lift a listener’s mood.

That 2022 review also notes that music has the potential to help patients with dementia. Some studies suggest musical memories may be relatively unharmed in people with some types of dementia. This is huge, as dementia is on the rise. Many other studies have also focused on the memory aspect. One 2021 pilot study done at the University of Toronto that looked at 14 people with Alzheimer's Disease who were in early cognitive decline, found that listening to old favorites improved cognitive functioning. Their preliminary results suggest that songs tied to autobiographical memories hold special power for these patients, as evidenced by MRI data.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has nostalgic music.


But, as someone in their 30s with no discernible memory problems, none of those studies applied to my unexpected Harvest Moon humming. That’s where something called the musical reminiscence bump comes in. Coined in the 1980s by a group of psychologists and psychiatrists, the bump was defined as “the disproportionate recall of memories” from between ages 10 and 30 in a 2020 study; these researchers found a connection between those memories and the music of the time period in which those memories occurred.

Furthermore, they found this musical connection to be strongest from ages ten to 15, peaking at age 14. There are additional high points across childhood and adolescence, with the 15 and 20 age range both ranking second highest, and the five and 10 age range ranking third.

Practically speaking, this means the songs we hear as teenagers “become deeply embedded in our memory banks and have incredible lasting power,” which is exactly why I remembered those old Harvest Moon songs once prompted by the music. I first played it around age nine. I talked about it with my friends. I even created my own Flower Bud Village newspaper one day during indoor recess. I vividly remember the blue-gray construction paper I used that first time I thought of myself as a journalist.

That checks a lot of the reminiscence bump’s boxes: age, music, nostalgia, and autobiographical memories.

It’s a very real and powerful nostalgia, noted Dr. Andra Ivănescu, a senior lecturer in games studies at Brunel University London and part of the Ludomusicology Research Group. She pointed to the power of games to provide players with connection. Despite stereotypes of loners in basements, “gamers are always social,” she says. “Even when you're playing it by yourself, you're still part of the community that plays those games.”

This sense of community is heightened by music, whether it’s a major franchise like Breath of the Wild remixing the original Zelda main theme into the nighttime horse riding track, or a video game concert bringing players together IRL.

This is why you’ll remember boss music from your favorite RPG, and the best friend who used to play GTA: Vice City and loved the soundtrack.

Rockstar Games

“Even if it's not 8-bit anymore, even if it's completely different instruments, even if it's completely modified in a million different ways, you will recognize that [nostalgic] theme,” Ivănescu says. “That will hit differently than graphics and gameplay.”

This is why you’ll remember boss music from your favorite RPG, and the best friend who used to play GTA: Vice City and loved the soundtrack. When we’re nostalgic for these songs, we’re also nostalgic for our past.

There’s been some work on the nostalgia of video games, including a 2023 psychology study suggesting that nostalgia produced by games could potentially benefit players’ psychological wellbeing by increasing their experiences of “enjoyment and appreciation,” but more research is needed to better integrate game and nostalgia research. Unfortunately, their work doesn’t address music specifically.

Other research about music in games includes a 2023 anthology featuring a chapter on the use of classical music in gaming, and a 2022 anthology on nostalgia and game music. Ivănescu herself wrote a 2019 book focusing on the use of popular music in gaming, such as Annette Hanshaw, a jazz singer voted best female popular singer in 1934, whose music appeared in BioShock 2.

Annette Hanshaw, a jazz singer voted best female popular singer in 1934, had music appear in BioShock 2.

2K Games

All of this is to say, the benefits offered by other types of nostalgic music may very well extend to game soundtracks, but that can’t be stated with full certainty until it’s researched more thoroughly. Gaming, as a hobby, has never been all good or all bad, and as science starts to take it more seriously, the research around gaming will only improve.

In the meantime, where does that leave gamers? Doing exactly what we do best: playing games, whether they’re new worlds or remakes, making memories and enjoying a hobby that might also be musically benefitting our brains. As for me personally, I’d love to see a remake of HM64 (if you’re reading this, XSEED) for updated gameplay, the nostalgia factor, and a remix of a great soundtrack. I can’t wait to hum along.

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