So, last Tuesday night, I was coughing up a lung and couldn't get to sleep because of my screaming sore throat. Like the hopeless geek I am, I decide that to help me sleep, I'll pick out some video game music and transcribe until my brain goes into a cold shutdown and I pass out. As I booted my computer, I immediately thought of the old DOS games I used to play when I was in elementary school. My sister and I were DOS addicts, we loved all of those old games—Word Rescue, Math Rescue, Monster Bash, God of Thunder, Lemmings, and of course, Commander Keen. He was definitely one of my favorites! I loved the silly story, fun gameplay, the catchy music, the Dopefish. How can you not love a game that has a creature called “the Dopefish?” He was the terror of the deeps, and to this day, I don't believe I have ever beaten Dopefish level.
So, I started Youtubing the music. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the songs actually had titles, instead of just “Level 1, Level 2” etc. One of the Youtube videos was called “You've Got to Eat Your Vegetables.” I clicked it, and laughed when I recognized the tune—it happened to be the music that accompanies the Dopefish level.
Then I gaped at the Youtube video description. An interview with Bobby Prince in the 90s revealed that this wasn't originally a piece of instrumental music; it was a song. WITH WORDS. THE DOPEFISH THEME...HAD WORDS...*EXPLODE*
Apparently, Bobby Prince, the God of Music at iD software, had written this piece to accompany a completely different installation of the Commander Keen series. The game was supposed to begin with a cutscene of Billy Blaze at the dining room table, refusing to eat his vegetables. I'm just guessing from what Bobby describes in the interview, but it seems that this song was meant to “vocalize” the words, which I'm guessing would just appear as text at the bottom of the screen. I say “vocalize” because I'm assuming no one was actually going to sing the lyrics; the gamer was most likely going to read the text while hearing the melody, and his/her brain would automatically link the two together.
But Prince didn't just write a random melody and slap some words on it; he reflected the inflection (speech pattern) of the characters' voices through the contour, or "shape," of the melody. All melodies have a shape of some sort, but it is more important than ever when you're setting words to music. The English language has a natural rhythm to it; our voices rise and fall when we talk because some words in a sentence are more important than others. So, when writing a melody to go with lyrics, composers have to keep that natural word stress in mind, to make sure that they aren't musically stressing the wrong words. And Prince does this perfectly!
Take the very first line of the son. Billy's mother is the first one to yell at him; what would an exasperated mother sound like if she was telling you to eat your vegetables? She wouldn't just say "Billy, you've got to eat your vegetables" in a monotone; it would be something like, “BILLy! You've GOT to EAT your VEGetables!” There are certain words and syllables in that sentence that are stressed, right? Now listen to the melody line.
Then she says, “do you hear me?! You've got to EAT your VEGETABLES!" Appealing to her husband, "Tell him, Dad...” Prince expresses the exasperation in her voice through that random F-natural on "Dad."
Enjoy this week's transcriptions for You've Got to Eat Your Vegetables and Map Theme from Commander Keen 4, and Laboratory from Bio Menace! More on the way!