A delightful new puzzle game, Sentris, was released on Steam last month. Beautiful and engrossing, it leads the player through increasingly complex musical levels, in which you have to place blocks in the correct point in a spinning circle to add in different loops and instruments to an electronic track. The game is deeply enjoyable, tapping into one of the deepest human instincts: the sense of rhythm.

Newborn babies have a sense of rhythm. Only days after birth, scans can detect the brain anticipating a missing downbeat, or noticing the rhythm “stumble”. There’s still debate about whether animals share this trait but dance, drumming and music are common across human cultures. There’s something in us that just likes it. Even without the skills to play an instrument, there’s a satisfaction to a game that allows you to control music, to bring it to life, even to feel that you’re playing it.

The classics here are Guitar Hero and Rock Band, games with simplified “instruments” that rely on a good sense of rhythm to complete a variety of songs successfully.

The games have spawned numerous sequels and a new version, Guitar Hero Live, is out this autumn. The faintly sneery critique sometimes levelled at these games – that it’s not like you’re playing an instrument, and that you might as well spend your gameplay time on learning musical skills – misses the point. There’s a deep pleasure in joining in with a rhythm, as anyone who’s ever clapped along to We Will Rock You or taken part in a Mexican wave can testify. If you don’t regularly attend religious services, there are few opportunities for communal non-performance music-making. But musical rhythm games give players the opportunity to lose themselves in the music.

The cult hit Rez, released in 2001, was perhaps never bettered as an experience of entering the music itself, of letting you feel at one with the music. It might have been be a game best played when you had just got in from a club night in 2002, but its trance-like hypnotic combination of beats and visuals is still worth seeking out on older consoles. Again, in Rez, you don’t need to feel that you’re playing the music, rather that you’re playing with it, that it’s become tangible. An out-of-body experience.

Electroplankton, a great way to entertain young children.
Electroplankton, a great way to entertain young children. Photograph: Electroplankton

If entertaining a fractious child on a wet afternoon, I can highly recommend the venerable Nintendo DS game Electroplankton. It contains several ways to experience music, including a level in which the child loops tunes together, and one where the child sings notes to smiling, swimming underwater creatures which then repeat the music in a variety of funny voices. I say “the child”. It’s possible I mean “me, when I’ve just delivered a draft of a novel and I’m having a duvet day”.

For my money, the best of all music games is Auditorium, a puzzle game in which you move coloured blocks to redirect streams of light to add instrumentation tracks to a piece of music that builds across the levels. It’s mesmerising and calming, the game that’s most likely to give me that tingle at the back of the neck – the frisson which, like the sense of rhythm, is still being investigated by neuroscientists.

No one really seems to know definitively why frisson and the related phenomenon ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) happen, but everyone who experiences this feeling agrees that they’re deeply enjoyable, banishing stress and anxiety, with some even claiming they can alleviate headaches or other physical symptoms.

I’m not saying Auditorium should be available on the NHS, just that a half-hour spent with that tingle moving slowly down my spine and across my back … has rarely felt like a waste of time.

“All art,” said Walter Pater, “constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”

Like that frisson, there’s something about music that reaches beneath the hood of the conscious mind, tugging at us emotionally without the need for the stories of literature or the representations of objects and people in visual art. And in games, the most immersive of forms, music has perhaps found its natural partner.

This article titled “Yes, you’ve got rhythm … so bring a tingle to your spine by playing a musical game” was written by Naomi Alderman, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 15th September 2015 06.30 UTC

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