I would like to study contemporary music such as 80's pop, 90's rock, video game music (NES, SNES, Genesis) and more. However, my background knowledge of music theory is in tonal harmony.

I have absolutely no idea where to start. I've seen some music books with chord names above the staffs instead of Roman numerals and I'm assuming this is how to analyze contemporary music. Here's an example:


This leads me to ask a lot of questions:

1) How do you know it's a G or a Cmaj7 chord? Couldn't an inversion lead you to conclude the chord is something else?

2) How do passing tones come into play?

3) How do you know what chord goes to what? Is there some kind of guide or are the chords there simply to identify what's being played?

4) In the picture, what is a B7/D# chord?

There's also this YouTube channel which goes into detail about analyzing video game music, but I get lost easily because he goes too fast and he talks about things I haven't been exposed to.

Where do I start? What books can I read to learn about contemporary theory? Does Jazz theory help with contemporary theory?

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    Classical theory will help you understand contemporary music because it's almost all based on the same concepts. Jazz theory does relate to contemporary music, but not as widely as classical theory. I find some genres like Hip Hop have much more of a jazz influence than video game music (in general). Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 4:42

2 Answers 2


Regarding video game music, a great place to start would be Zach Whalen's article "Play Along - An Approach to Videogame Music" in Game Studies: http://www.gamestudies.org/0401/whalen/ Whalen's article was one of the first to analyse the functions of game music. He explains some of its functions within the game by drawing analogies with film music, but also examining music's role in immersion into the game experience. It's a valuable read for starting off with the basics of what game music does and how it does it.

Getting in deeper, you could check out the Overclocked Remix forum, where there is a subforum for "History & Study of Video Game Music": http://ocremix.org/community/forum/56-history-study-of-video-game-music/ The forum is pretty active, and has people who love video game music, who make video game music, and who study video game music academically (like me). The posts vary between discussion and technical analysis. But if you want to get a feel for how it goes together, musically and functionally, it might be worth a read.

There are links on the forums to academic and technical books on video game music, if that's more your thing. There's also a comprehensive bibliography of literature in video game music studies on the website of the Society for the Study of Sound and Music in Games (can't post a link just now sorry).


There is a lot to answer, and I'll make a start. Each contemporary chord has a name, it's built on a triad of stacked thirds usually.Take G major - G B D. Look at your Cmaj7 - C E G B (the B is another stacked third). So, while they both have G and B, they can't be mistaken for each other. There are several that can, though. C6 - C E G A has the same notes as Am7 - A C E G. Here, usually, the bass (base) note is the clue to naming.

What's D/F#? The first letter tells which chord, the one after the slash tells which note gets played lowest. Usually the slash note is in the chord, but not always.That's often where the passing tone you ask about comes in. It's the modern way to show inversions - the classical way is to write a couple of numbers to signify the same.

That's enough for now, except to recommend LCM Theory books. Grade 5 is one to aim for but with the questions you ask, maybe look at them all in sequence, to build your knowledge. A fair bit in them is very similar to the 'standard' theory, but they add extra knowledge such as you appear to ask for.

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