My graduate seminar on Music and Meaning has recently been reading Raymond Monelle’s chapter “The Temporal Image” from his The Sense of Music , which has me thinking about time. According to Monelle (and most other philosophers on the subject) time can broadly be considered in two modalities: moment-to-moment time and structural time. Essentially, no matter what you call it (linear vs. vertical time, cyclical vs. structural, earthly vs. eternal) we as humans tend to perceive time in smaller, moment-to-moment ephemera and in larger, more structured units at the same time. You got up this morning, got ready, went to work, but you did this because you know it’s a weekday and certain things happen on weekdays that might not happen on other days of the week.

In music, this dichotomy between local and large-scale time seems best epitomized by opera. Specifically a so-called “numbers” opera typical of the Baroque, Classical, and early Romantic eras. These works alternate between recitative (moments which convey plot information and move the story along) and aria (moments of reflection on the actions that have just happened or are about to happen). Arias, in a sense, are out of time; a pause in the time of the opera. Of course, musical time presses forward no matter what, and our journey through literal time with the opera is unaffected, but our perception of time is altered by the way the music is presented. Indeed, the musical content of aria and recitative is so engrained in our Western musical culture that they are now coded specifically in reference to time. In opera, once you hear that harpsichord and bass with speech-like vocal lines, you know where you are in the time of the opera, even if you can’t understand the words being sung.

The music in Pokémon Go, as well as in other Role Playing Games (RPGs), whether they be augmented reality or not, have a similar relationship with time. The overworld music serves as linear time, moving the story along. Battle music, on the other hand, slows things down. It’s an interruption in the cyclical nature of the game and requires more attention from the player. Naturally, the music reflects this shift in temporality, and often does so in a somewhat paradoxical manner. In Pokémon Go, the battle music is heard when a player attempts to capture a wild pokémon, but it isn’t slow at all. In fact it is much quicker than the overworld music. Overall, the D Major tonal center, a whole step higher than the overworld music, sets a tone of heightened excitement and a sense of forward momentum. Both of these attributes are bolstered by the opening ascending flourish and the consistent presence of a syncopated rhythm. This music is also much shorter (40 seconds), given that encounters with wild pokémon in the game are usually quick, and until reaching higher levels are rarely prolonged events.

So what are we to make of this apparent contradiction in the way time is being represented? On the one hand, the main point of the game is to walk around and collect as many pokémon as possible. Thus, the occasions upon which a player has to stop and catch a pokémon interrupt the larger goal of traveling. Walking is linear time; battling in vertical time. But the musical characteristics of the themes present contrasting topics. The overworld music is slower and in a lower key than the faster, energetic, and much shorter battle music.

Perhaps this is less a problem of time and more an ontological issue. Let’s face it; the overworld/questing parts of RPGs are boring. A player directs a character across a large map, hoping to either make it to a destination quickly (i.e. not get interrupted by encounters with creatures) or to have as many encounters as possible to increase experience. In either case, the act itself is tedious. The appearance of a battle can therefore be met with a great sense of excitement. “Something changed and I can stop just walking around!” The battle music, then, seems appropriate given the context of its appearance.


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