Pinball Music January 22, 1979

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon, and I was killing time in the West End Bar on upper Broadway while I waited for a friend. For lack of anything better to do, I wandered toward the back, where a few students were playing the pinball machine. It was an ordinary machine, except for the new digital scoring lights, but I sensed a special drama in the way the ball bounced around from bumper to bumper and slot to slot. It wasn’t until several balls had made their way through the maze of switches that I realized the fascination was in the sound. The pinball machine was not just ringing and clattering the way most of them do. It as making some real music.

Tink tink... tink.. tink tink tink tink... tink... tink

..... tink.... booooooooooooong...... tink tink tink

..... tink.. tink tink...... tink tink tink tink.... tink

.. tink..... bacoaoaoaoao tink.... tink...... tink.

The machine had a relatively large vocabulary of electronic sounds and an appealing beat, and it followed a distinctive scale with a clear tonal center. The ordinary little 10-point bumpers produced ordinary little short notes. But when you rolled the ball into the center hole you triggered off a louder tone that temporarily resolved the musical line. And when you managed to ease it under a particular gate you discharged a sequence of 17 very excited notes. And if you got it through the big bonus slot, the circuitry rewarded you with a rather elaborate melody. There were other motifs, including some that slid up and down, which I never was able to associate with any particular movements of the ball.

Tink.... tink tink...... tink.... tink tink tink tink

... tink tink tink tink.. tink...... tink... dong dong

dong dong dong dong dong dong dong dong dong dong dong

dong dong dong dong..... tink tink... tink... tink tink

tink...... tink baoaoaoaoao tink tink... tatatatatah


As in most good music, the system was too elaborate to decode on first hearing. I never did figure out why the machine would sometimes cut off the 17-note figure before it was finished, and just which switches took precedence over which other switches. Of course, even if I listened for days I could never be sure of hearing the whole piece, since there are an infinite number of routes a ball can take. After a while I lost interest in matching ball movements with sounds. I turned the machine over to another player, looked the other way, and enjoyed just listening. I concluded that this was some of the most animated, fascinating electronic music I had heard in a long time, that the main appeal had to do with the thousands of possible sequences and rhythms, that advances in computer technology had obviously opened up a whole new world for pinball machine designers as well as for electronic music in general, and that whoever worked out this particular program had an excellent musical ear.

Tink... tink........ dong dong dong dong dong dong

dong dong dong baoaoaoaoao.... tink... tink tink tink

...... tink.. tink tink....... tink tink tink tink

..... tink.. tink....... baoaoaoaoao tink tink baoaoaoaoao....... tink tink.......... tink.

I made a note that I had been listening to the ‘Six Million Dollar Man,’ made by the Bally Company, and determined to pursue the topic of recent pinball machine music. After four phone call and a letter, I managed to make contact with Tom Nieman at the company’s Chicago office and asked some questions. When did the machine come out? Just this fall. Who was the bright musician who programmed the sound for the ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ ? He doesn’t work there anymore, and Nieman couldn’t remember his name. Could they find out and maybe send me some other information on current pinball machines? Yes, but three weeks later the package had still not arrived. Did they have more models with good music? The spring line was going to be even more sensational, Nieman assured me, because it was to feature a machine called ‘Kiss’ that would play electronic versions of that group’s greatest themes. With that I more or less gave up hope on the notion that commercial pinball machines would ever develop their potential as a unique new musical medium.

Tink........ tink.. tink tink tink tink tink tink tink

........ tink tink tink tink tink tink

... boooooooooooong... tink... tink.... tink.........

tink...... tink tink tink tink tink boooooooooooong

... tink tink..... tink....... tink tink.

The subject still fascinated me, so I made a trip one afternoon to the pinball haven at Times Square, which has the largest collection of machines around New York that I know of. Of course, listening to an ensemble of 30 or 40 is very different from listening to a solo performance in a bar on a Sunday afternoon, but it was easy enough to determine that other manufacturers had also converted to computer equipment. Musically, however, I couldn’t find much. One machine had its electronic tones and dull rhythms all neatly tuned to a major chord. One played two simple tunes, and not much else. Most were still oriented toward simulated airplane crashes, exploding ships, squealing brakes, and related sound effects. Oh well, how much musical sensitivity can we expect from pinball machine manufacturers? We should be grateful that it happened even once.

Tink tink tink..... tink tink........ tink

....... baoaoaoaoao boooooooooooong.... tink tink tink

tink.... tink tink tink..... tink.. tink.. tink..... tink

tink tink tink tink tink... dong dong dong dong dong dong

dong dong dong dong dong dong dong dong dong dong

dong...... tink tink tink.. tink tink....... tink

...... tatatatatah tatah.