What Is Chiptune? (Explained)

Chiptune is a genre of electronic music that is created by using the sound chips of vintage video game consoles and computers. It gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s when gamers began to use PC-based software to create music.

Chiptune 8-bit music comes from early video games. Early video game hardware had computer chips with in-built sound generators that made an electronic sound. All the game sound was produced using these chips, and this type of music became known as chiptune. 

The sound of chiptune is often similar to 8-bit or 16-bit computer games and is characterised by a strong rhythm. The genre has seen a resurgence in recent years, with many modern musicians using it as part of their sound.

Chiptune can be used to create anything from catchy dance tunes to nostalgic ballads, giving the genre an extremely wide range of potential styles. In its simplest form, chiptune consists of a repeating sequence of a few 8-bit or 16-bit computer sounds, and can often be accompanied by MIDI keyboards, drums, and other instruments.

Chiptune music fills me with nostalgia and brings me back to the hours I spent as a child playing Tetris on the original handheld Nintendo Gameboy.

Chiptune music is very unique as truly authentic chiptune music is created using the sound generators on the computer chips from original and historic video game hardware.

In this article I will dig deeper into the world of chiptune, covering:

  • What is the meaning of chiptune?
  • Why is it called chiptune?
  • Is chiptune music the same as 8-bit music?
  • How is chiptune music made?
  • How to compose chiptune music?
  • Where can I download chiptune music for free?
video game music

What Is The Meaning Of Chiptune?

Chiptune music originates from the early era of arcades and video games. It gets the name “chiptune” after the computer chips that were used to create the music.

In the early days of video game development, computer chips had inbuilt sound-generating capabilities, called signal generators.

These signal generators were used as musical instruments to produce all the sounds of the game, from short melodies to sound effects.

As a result, this type of music became known as “chiptune”, after the computer chips that were used to perform the music.

Unlike today, where we have nearly infinite data storage and can load our modern games with lots of impressive graphics and elaborate orchestral music scores, in the early days of video games, memory space was precious with very little to spare.

Using the computer chips themselves created a great space-saving opportunity for playing music and sound effects.

Being a tiny chip, the sound processor did not take up much physical space and given how the music was saved also to these computer chips, very little virtual memory was used.

Why Is It Called Chiptune?

The name chiptune is derived from the idea that this type of music is defined by the use of individual sound chips.

As mentioned, in early video games we did not have the same storage capacity that we have today and the actual computer processor chips used to run the games had an inbuilt sound generator that was used to make single tones.

Game programmers could use very basic programming to create simple melodies from these computer chips, hence why it is called chiptune.

Is Chiptune Music The Same As 8-bit Music?

Chiptune music and 8-bit music is the same thing and the terms are often used interchangeably to talk about the same piece of music.

Many of the early computer processor chips used in early game hardware were 8-bit. This means that they could transfer 8-bits of data at the same time.

The term “8-bit music” is called after these 8-bit sound processor chips.

How Is Chiptue Music Made?

To create authentic chiptune music you need access to the computer chips used in the original game hardware and the knowledge to programme the chips to produce sound.

I find it fascinating that most of the very early chiptune music was composed by computer programmers and not music composers.

To create chiptune music in the early days, you needed a background in programming, therefore the programmers themselves composed the music.

How To Make Chiptune Music Today

There are two ways to make chiptune music today:

  • Use Hardware: 
    Get access to a physical device with a sound-generating chip in it, such as the Gameboy, and hack the hardware to play music on the chip.
  • Use Software: 
    Use modern software which digitally recreates the sound of the original chips.

1. Making Chiptune 8-Bit Music Via Hardware

Today, if you want to recreate authentic chiptune you need access to the original chips, hardware and software.

This is very rare and limited so many creative electronic savvy musicians have started to hack Gameboys and gained access to the sound generators within the device.

If you are a “purest” and want to have really authentic chiptune music then hacking computer chips hardware is the only way to get the truly original sound of chiptune.

2. Making Chiptune 8-Bit Music Via Software

Due to the soaring demand for chiptune, many software options are available for making chiptune music.

These are audio plugins that will work with existing music production software such as Logic Pro or Cakewalk.

These audio plugins will have chiptune sounds built in which you can access, play and record just like any other virtual music production instrument.

Some of the best free chiptune music software include:

How To Compose Chiptune Music?

Once you have found your chiptune sounds, either via hardware or software option, the next step is to compose in the chiptune style.

The following features make chiptune so appealing and characterize the musical genre:

1. Simple Loops & Structure

In music, the best melodies are the simplest ones. Think about all the musical riffs you love for a minute….perhaps it is the lead intro in the Guns N Roses classic, “Sweet Child O Mine” or an electronic riff in a dance tune…whatever your favourite musical melody is, it will be simple. 

Typically single notes played in a short loop make a simple melody memorable.

The early chiptune music was very simple in its structure with a simple single melody line. 

The structure of the songs themselves often followed the standard “verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus” formula. The vast majority of popular music today follows this tried and tested songwriting structure because it just works. 

There needs to be the right amount of repetition in your chiptune to get the melody in your head but not repeated too much which could annoy the listener.

2. Key of C Major & Music Limitations

The musical key plays an important part in music composition and conveying feeling. Most (if not all) of the early chiptune music was composed in the key of C as this was the only option available. 

The key of C major has no sharps or flats. It is widely used in popular music today.

Inadvertently, I believe that having just one key and a limited amount of musical notes helped the early creators of chiptune music to write good music.

Limitations are actually a good thing. Research has shown that if you want to develop creatively, it is often good to put limitations on your work to force your mind to bend in ways it would not naturally do. [source]

In chiptune music, with just one music key, major notes only and just seven notes in total, there is no room to wander. Such limitations will force you to create simple and fun little melodies that are incredibly memorable and likeable. 

3. Easily Mixing

As mentioned, the sounds of the notes in the early chiptunes were created using onboard sound generators in the computer chips. 

The sound of these notes is really appealing. The tone is “soft” and has a “spacious” feeling to them. The sound is very unique. 

Often, the music was built up in early chiptune music in layers – similar to music today with a topline and bassline and drumline – but all created using the inbuilt chip sound processor. 

An important part of music is mixing music. If you have ever been to a live gig you will appreciate the importance of being able to hear all the different elements of the music in balance. If the drums are too loud or a flute is playing at the same time in the same frequency range as a female lead vocalist, you will not enjoy it. 

It is really important in music to allow every musical instrument space to be heard. This is the art of mixing music. In chiptune music, the sounds of the notes themselves have a spacious vibe which naturally allows itself to mix well. 

All the music is played on one instrument and as long as the composer has given some room for each melody to breathe, the mix sounds natural.

Interacting melodies that are spacious, “soft” and sound balanced is something the human ear loves.

4. Speed

An appealing characteristic of chiptune music is speed. As the sounds are computer generated and not performed live in the early video game soundtracks, the speed is constant – it will not vary. 

The early video game music has a fast-paced tempo. Typically this is in the 120BPM range. (Beats per minute). Again, 120BPM is widely used in popular music today.

The constant speed gives a fantastic sense of urgency and pace to the music and is ideal for adventure games such as Super Mario Bros

What is great about this particular speed and lack of dynamic is that it creates a “mono emotion”. Modern video game music is similar to movie soundtracks and the dynamics of the music can rise and fall, creating emotion. 

With chiptune music and its staccato, repeatable constant melody, there is not a diverse range of emotions evoked in the listener.  

This makes it really appealing when doing a single task as it keeps the mind of the listener focused on getting the task done, be it getting to the end of the level or not dying.

The constant speed induces a sense of urgency which results in a focused mind, focused on one objective, with controlled emotions.

5. Natural Ear-worms

Simple melodies, constant tempos and memorable loops will lead to one thing – an earworm.

If you have not heard the term before, an earworm is a melody that gets caught in the listener’s mind and will not go away for a long while. Have you ever had that feeling where you can’t get a song out of your head? That is an earworm.

Chiptune music lends itself naturally to being an earworm. I love and hate the Super Mario Bros theme as once I listen to it, it is there for hours and I keep hearing it on a loop in my brain.

The chirpy melodies, the interaction of the music layers, and the staccato underscore beats mixed with the simple topline make this the perfect recipe to be an earworm. 

You could argue that chiptune music is so appealing as it is a bunch of earworm music at heart, however, it takes a lot of skill and talent and elements to come together to make a classic earworm.

Creating such great earworms is a work of genius and I think classic chiptune music such as Super Mario Bros will be with us for a long time. 

Where Can I Download Chiptune Music For Free?

Personally, I am fascinated with the genre of chiptune or 8-bit music so I produced an album of chiptune-inspired music using modern-day synthesizers to create a similar effect.

You can download and use this music for free in your video game development and videos through Coya Music.


Final Thoughts

Chiptune music has become a popular genre of music that is loved by many due to its unique sound and catchy melodies.

It’s no wonder why the 8-bit style created in the early video game era still appeals to us today – it offers a sense of urgency, simplicity, and natural earworms that are hard to forget.

With modern technology allowing for easier production of chiptune tracks, anyone can create their own classic-sounding tunes with ease.

If you’re looking for some great chiptune music for free, be sure to check out Coya Music’s library, where you will find a unique collection of chiptune music which you can download or stream for free.

Happy listening!

Coya Music

Coya Music is a website where you can find free music to use in your content. We also share information about how to make your content sound better and how to make music yourself.

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