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A chiptune is a piece of music made using vintage home computers.

To create one, composers use only the sounds that can be generated by the chips inside old personal computers such as the Commodore 64, the Atari or the ZX Spectrum. The fascination of this sub-genre of electro music is partly the technical challenge of pummelling these old chips into producing a noise worth listening to, but also that their low-fi tonal quality is unlike any sound made by the current range of electronic gear.

The genre, and the term, have been around in the underground music scene for a couple of decades — my first sighting of chiptune is from 1992; to judge from that example it wasn’t new even then. In recent years it has been moving towards the mainstream and references to it now appear in the popular media, though mainly in Europe, Australia and Japan rather than North America. Chiptune artists have presented sessions on British radio and two concerts using antique computing machinery took place last month at the British National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park.

The concept has also been an influence on the newish alternative musical genre called wonky or aquacrunk, a blend of hip-hop, crunk and electro, and it’s related to what has been disparagingly called videogame music, early examples of which perforce used the same sound chips.

Music plays a huge role in the experience, and every beat that you deflect contributes a note to the level’s chiptune song; each segment transition that you make adds another layer of complexity onto its ever-evolving soundtrack.

CNET Reviews, 21 Mar. 2009

What the article didn’t mention was the huge debt this sound owes to the chiptune scene, an international underclass of musicians who create incredible tracks by electronically torturing the sound chips found in vintage videogame hardware.

Guardian, 26 Mar. 2009

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 11 Apr. 2009

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 11 April 2009.