What Mozart and Super Mario Have in Common

This post is part of a blog series leading up to the American Musicological Society annual conference taking place in Vancouver, Canada from November 3–6. Please visit our booth if you are attending, and otherwise stay tuned for more content related to our Music books and journals programs.

This post is also in honor of International Open Access Week, October 24–30, 2016. At publication date, a free ebook version of this title will be available through Luminos, University of California Press’s Open Access publishing program for monographs. Visit www.luminosoa.org to learn more.


by Roger Moseley, author of Keys to Play: Music as a Ludic Medium from Apollo to Nintendo

Keys to Play cover MoseleyIn languages ranging from French to Turkish and German to Japanese, the verb “to play” is applicable to both games and instrumental music. But what kinds of games might we be playing when we play music? Johan Huizinga, the founder of modern play studies, remarked in 1939 that “it seems probable that the link between play and instrumental skill is to be sought in the nimble and orderly movements of the fingers.” Growing up, I was vaguely aware of parallels between the hours I spent at the piano keyboard and the computer keyboard, or with Nintendo gamepad in hand. Exercises of dexterous timing and the navigation of obstacles in the form of double thirds or Goombas occupied me throughout my childhood. Decades later, when writing Keys to Play, I found myself articulating my sense of what exactly these activities have in common and how they might illuminate one another.

I was particularly intrigued by how Huizinga’s focus on “the nimble and orderly movements of the fingers” hints at a genealogy of digitality that links fingers to numbers and fortepianos to game controllers. Since its earliest musical incarnations, the keyboard has materialized and arrayed bits of information, making them available for processing by both humans and machines. Keys and buttons represent bits as spatially divergent entities that are configured and mapped according to cultural memory, the elements of which are stored and retrieved by recourse to notes, letters, numbers, tunings, and temperaments. Temporally, the keyboard enables these bits to be processed in sequence, configuring strings of events that can be programmed (composed), executed in real time (performed), or both at once (improvised).

At the same time, keyboards afford analogical modes of play. From the clavichord’s infinite sensitivity to the Guitar Hero controller’s cheerful fakery, both the isomorphism and the discrepancy between digital action and sonic outcome activates the logic of mimesis, revealing the senses in which play unfolds in a subjunctive mood. Under the rubric of make-believe or fantasy, we play as if things might be otherwise.

To alight on another point of linguistic contact between music and games, in both cases the “score” is indicative of a need to objectify and quantify the outcome of a playful process. To score, etymologically, is to mark: to tally, in the case of games, and to prescribe, in the case of music. In this sense, a score describes and constitutes the ludic rules according to which the music is to be played. Throughout Keys to Play, I wanted to conceive of figures such as Mozart and Beethoven not as composers in the traditional sense, but as game designers, creators who engineered playful adventures for themselves and others to act out.

These connections help explain why Keys to Play considers the playing of Mozart’s keyboard concertos and Nintendo’s New Super Mario Bros. Wii side by side (and even goes so far as to mash them up). Shuttling between the digital and the analog, between the concrete and the fantastical, between the nimbleness of eighteenth-century fingers and the wanderings of the twenty-first-century imagination, musical play enables us to act as if the world were—or might yet become—a more wondrous place.


Roger Moseley is Assistant Professor of Music at Cornell University. Active as a collaborative pianist on modern and historical instruments, he has published essays on the interface of the keyboard, the performativity of digital games, the practice of eighteenth-century improvisation, and the music of Brahms.