Of Falling Blocks and Letters
This piece was originally written for Epiphany Magazine's Music For Desks series, which tasked writers with writing short essays about how music factored into their writing process. In their own words, "the essays meditate on that magical middle, the place where music and one's writing practice intersect." Evidently, I'm bereft in anything resembling magic, as my piece was rejected. If you, for some unfathomable reason, want a glimpse of my writing process that wasn't good enough for a literary magazine, then you're in luck.
The sound of silence usually reigns supreme when I write. And I don’t mean the dreary classic by Simon and Garfunkel. No, often, the only things I hear are the keys that I press to type.
This isn’t to say that I don’t like music; quite the opposite, in fact. I listen to it often, whether via my phone or record player and I carry out most tasks accompanied by a melody— listening even helps during brainstorming. It’s a different matter entirely when I actually begin putting words to the page.
But the reason I love music is the same reason why I find it obtrusive to writing. Songs stimulate my brain too much for me to focus on the words in front of me. No matter the genre, music is usually too complex for its own good, making it difficult for me to write while listening to it. Thanks to its simplicity, I have one notable, delightfully odd exception. An entire album, in fact.
My sonic savior comes in the unlikeliest of forms — an obscure 90s video game released on one of the most infamous consoles of all time. When I write, I’ll often be listening to the soundtrack of Tetris CD-i.
I discovered the soundtrack the same way I do a lot of music — extremely serendipitously. Three years ago, I was on YouTube listening to a Vaporwave track when I spotted it in my recommended feed — the unassuming thumbnail of the game's title and a group of the iconic tetrominoes. If not for YouTube's algorithm deciding to show me the video on that day, I might not have ever listened to it and it wouldn't have been my most re-watched videos.
The Phillips CD-i was a video game console that aimed to set the world on fire but instead self-immolated. There were few gems released on the console and many agree that its iteration of Tetris wasn't one of them. Its tagline was "The Classic Becomes a Legend in CD-i." It didn't. This isn't to say the game isn't notable, however. If it wasn't, I wouldn’t be talking about it today. Each level of Tetris CD-i features animated backgrounds of nature — from windblown sand dunes, to a cascading waterfall, to a gentle stream. The music was designed to fit in with these calming visuals. The soundtrack has escaped the confines of being the soundtrack for an obscure game, taking a life of its own as songs that many consider "aesthetic." In my case, it lives as one of the best ways to stay focused.
The 1992 soundtrack composed by Jim Andron seems to buck against a tidy genre. It's certainly vaporwave adjacent and it fits some of the vibes, yet it's not quite it. The soundtrack is a bit too deliberate to be considered ambient music and too traditional to be New Age, yet like both genres, it's committed to being relaxing. It's not quite cool enough to be considered smooth jazz, though the mood is certainly there. I've heard it described as "pop" which is one of the most nebulous genres out there, but it certainly aims to make the listener feel good like most pop songs.
More than anything else, the soundtrack is defined by the emotions it elicits rather than the sounds it employs. The best way I can describe it is by saying it sounds like it belongs either in an 80s job training video or as a customer service's on-hold playlist. Does it sound hokey and dated? Yes, but it's still pleasant and it works. It works for the same reason on-hold music is supposed to calm an irritated customer. It makes a game that could be aggravating therapeutic. It makes the puzzle blocks of writing fall into place for me.
One of the most basic aspects of the music that makes it relaxing is that, much like most songs designed to relax, the tracks are of a low-to-moderate tempo. The fastest songs hover around 108 BPM while the slowest are around 70. Even at its most frantic, the soundtrack doesn’t ever really make me consider jumping out of my seat. These aren't songs I'd put on a jogging playlist. The slower tempos help keep me in a relaxed mood that I find necessary for writing.
The relaxed mood is maintained thanks to the soundtrack’s musical complexity, or rather the lack thereof. Video game tracks are often designed to be looped. With consideration to how little time a player might spend listening to a song, many video game tracks change little during their runtime. Songs that are constrained in this way tend to be musically "dense" with a lot of information contained in a short time — think breadth vs. depth. Tetris CD-i is notable in that it seems to lack both breadth and depth. On one hand, the tracks are very loopable and you've pretty much heard all a song has to offer about a minute into it. On the other, what you do hear is a pretty sparse track. While this may seem like a negative, it's perfect for me to write to. There isn't much of a musical journey per song, thus I can just let the simple tune wash over me. My ears don't perk up at something below the surface, because I hear all I need to even when not giving the song all my attention. Whether writing, playing a puzzle game, or doing some other task, this music is perfect, since it's fine hanging out in the background instead of jumping around in the foreground of your mind.
What the soundtrack lacks in a musical journey in each song, it more than makes up for by having a journey throughout. With some tracks being upbeat, others being bittersweet, one sounding like it's set in an arid desert, while another sounds like a wintry field at night, listening to Tetris CD-i inspires me to write because it sounds like the soundtrack is telling as much of a story as the one I'm writing. While each track features pleasant synths that soothe me, they're different enough that it never sounds monotonous and it helps me write various scenes.
As much as I can pick and prod at what makes it tick, at the end of the day, musically, Tetris CD-i isn't terribly interesting. This isn't to say it's bad; it isn't. It's quite pleasant, but pleasant in a way that some might feel is manufactured to the point of kitschiness and ingenuity. As much as I listen to them, none of the songs in Tetris CD-i are in the running for my favorite song. Yet I can't help but love the soundtrack overall because of how much I appreciate it. I can't help but smile as I hear the songs, knowing that they do for me what few others can by chasing out the silence of my writing process. For that, and I say this with nothing but love, I thank Tetris CD-i’s OST for its plodding music.
If you're curious, there are a few other collections of songs that I can write to, but none are a consistent for me as Tetris CD-i. These include Miles Davis' Lift to the Gallows / Ascenseur Pour L'échafaud and Pat Methany Group's Essential Collection Last Train Home.