I recently finally got to sit down and play through the entirety of Super Mario Galaxy. I haven't really read any professional game reviews about it, but personally, I LOVED this game. Everything including the level design, the completely beautiful construction of the Comet Observatory as the galaxy map, the occasionally excruciating Prankster Comet challenges, Luigi's complete adorableness...and especially the music. I am addicted. It is now officially my dream to perform this music in an orchestra someday. I was surprised to learn that most of the music was not composed by Koji Kondo, but by composer Mahito Yokota. Not only are some of the tracks BEYOND EPIC (Melty Molten Galaxy, Gusty Garden, Bowser Battle), but there are also some throwbacks to old themes from earlier Mario games (Toy Time Galaxy, Nostalgia 1), as well as some really soft, moving tracks that reflected the sweet, sentimental aspects of the plot (Bunnies, Sad Story). I don't want to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn't beaten it yet, but this was a pretty deep Mario game; it had a lot of references to the circle of life, life after death, etc. And this from a franchise that started out as, in the words of my friend Mallory, “A plumber who jumps down pipes.” :-P Mario, you have a-certainly a-come a long way.
Which brings me to the point of this article! So, while I was getting some arranging work done for a few clients this week, I put on some Super Mario Galaxy tracks to listen to, which inspired me to randomly asked on Facebook, “What are everyone's favorite tracks from this game?” Most of the votes were for Gusty Garden, which I think turned out to be kind of the iconic Galaxy theme. And one of my friends, in addition to his vote, sent me the link to this completely awesome interview with the music and sound design team of Super Mario Galaxy. This is, by far, one of the coolest articles I've ever read on video game music. It interviews the composers and sound designer of the game and really digs into how they tried to make this game unique, but still retain the “Essence of Mario.” It's such a great, in-depth look at not only the music of Super Mario Galaxy, but the entire Mario series as a whole. I'm not going to paraphase the entire article here, you just need to stop and read it right now LOL—but I will say that I practically fell out of my chair when I read the section where Yokota talks about his original conception for the game. He mentions at one point that he had always thought Mario games had a lot of—I kid you not--Latin influences.
I couldn't believe it!! I mean, this blog is just a collection of my own ideas and takes on music in video games. I try not to be a “reviewer,” I don't want to judge a soundtrack as being “good” or “bad,” I just want to talk about the music itself, the different techniques composers use to construct their pieces, and what I personally hear when I listen to the music. So it was a really special moment for me to know that such a renowned, talented composer such as Mahito Yokota heard the same Latin influences in Mario music as I did—and that we were both kind of backwards in the way we were thinking! While Yokota and I both heard some pretty distinct Latinesque influences (sometimes as simple as just bongos and steel drums), Kondo states in the Iwata interview that he was never actually conscious of his Latin tendency. It was something that kind of popped out from time to time, but only when it suited the game.
Let's quickly return to my post from a few weeks ago: Why did Latin music suit Super Mario Kart so well? I think it had to do with the rhythmic qualities to Latin music. It gets your feet tapping, makes you feel like moving; basically, it excites you. And I think a racing game needs exciting music to make it work. I'm sure there are examples out there of racing or driving games with calmer music that disproves this theory, but if we're talking about Super Mario Kart, a game in which you are desperately trying to trip up your opponents with banana peels and blast them off the track with a well-timed lightning bolt. I think it calls for some pretty heart-pumping musical action. So Latin music worked perfectly for that game, and many of the following Mario Kart and Mario Party games.
But when Yokota wrote 28 tracks of Latin space music and Kondo rejected them, it was like a slap in the face. He was pretty upset. There are a plethora of Mario games in which samba rhythms and steel drums worked just fine, why wouldn't it work for Super Mario Galaxy? That's when Kondo showed Yokota the light: he had it backwards. Yokota was trying to copy the “Mario sound,” when really, he should have been writing music that suited the game. In truth, there is no exact formula for a Mario sound; Mario is made up of many sounds and styles and genres, Latin is just one of them. And to try to copy any of the preceding Mario games would be a mistake, because there is no Mario game like Super Mario Galaxy. It's not Mario in a go-kart, Mario in a doctor's coat or even Super Mario 64. This is freaking Super Mario Blasting Through Space, and therefore a full-fledged symphony orchestra and scary Bowser choir is in order. Once this fact was realized, Yokota and Kondo really came together and were able to create such an amazing, epic, orchestral, unique soundtrack for Super Mario Galaxy.
Check out this other, fairly recent interview with Kondo, where he talks more about his work with the Mario series as a whole, and his own personal musical influences. Very cool and informative as well! Lastly, enjoy this week's arrangements from Super Mario Galaxy: Bunnies, Power Star, Sad Story and Space Junk Galaxy! More on the way!
For those of you who caught the New Jersey show in December, you and I had the great honor of meeting one of the original composers of the Castlevania series, Kinuyo Yamashita! Not only is she extremely talented but she is also an absolute sweetheart, it was such a pleasure to meet her. It inspired me to do a couple of more early Castlevania arrangements and talk about its iconic theme, Vampire Killer. This blog entry is a little broader than just Castlevania, but Vampire Killer is a great example of how powerful and nostalgic game music can become.
I'm a big fan of the Zero Punctuation game reviews on The Escapist. If you like hilariously brutal honesty, this is the reviewer for you. One of the many things he tears apart are the tendencies of platforms to reuse the same game franchises over and over—i.e. Mario, Zelda—instead of creating entirely new games. I do agree with him, to a point. There are so many unique stories, characters, places, etc. that we can create through video games, and sometimes ONLY through video games. (check out Zero Punctuation's review of Silent Hill 2).
But the flipside to that argument is the amazing feeling of nostalgia that comes with every new game in a franchise. If I had to draw a parallel, a game franchise is like a series of books; you've got to have some newness and some oldness to make it work. Take The Chronicles of Narnia, for example: same world, same setting, but different characters, plot and time period. Or the Song of Ice and Fire series, which is basically a story arc: same world, same time period, same characters, one continuous story from start to finish. Or an anime series like Death Note, where the entire story is entirely told in short chapters.
Same opportunities with game franchises. There are way too many to list, but just think of all of the franchises that exist that have more than one game; Halo, Super Mario, Legend of Zelda, Sonic, Kingdom Hearts, Mortal Kombat, I'm just rattling these off of the top of my head. And while a book can only use the characters, plot and setting to tie a series together, a game can use a very special element, often one of the most important of all: the music.
Don't get me wrong; plenty of franchises, including some of the ones I listed, use brand new music from game to game. But I think a special brand of awesomeness accompanies games that at least reference the music of preceding games; the music is a big part of what gives a game character and atmosphere. So if a composer writes a piece of music for a game that captures it perfectly, it makes sense to use it again in the second game. It's like the music is a separate character in and of itself; without it, the game just doesn't make sense. Or if it doesn't utilize the same melodies from earlier games, the game can have a similar sound and style. Let's face it, Banjo-Tooie would NOT have worked if it didn't have that same kooky cheerfulness as Banjo-Kazooie.
But often, the oldest, most popular game franchises do tend to reuse certain musical themes, and they seem to become even more awesome and lovable over time, i.e. the Vampire Killer theme from Castlevania. How is it that we can listen to the theme from game to game, over and over again for over 20 years? Answer: the art of theme and variation. Just like in a classical t&v, if you can create a catchy, memorable melody and then mess with it over and over again for twenty minutes, you're golden. That combination of old and new in a t&v is pretty much a perfect way to get a lot of mileage out of one melody.
We didn't play much Castlevania in my house when I was a kid, but I've listened to the music quite a bit and I really enjoy the dark, gothic style, perfect for a game about vampires. And almost every game contains a theme that was written for the very first game: Vampire Killer. I've transcribed two versions of this,Vampire Killer from the original Castlevania (sheets, audio) and from Castlevania 3 (sheets, audio). What's the same? The melody. What's different? A few things: the bass in Deja Vu has a much lower range. The texture in general is more active, there's more percussion going on. Basically, although the changes are rather subtle, I'd call Deja Vu a “more exciting” version of Vampire Killer.
Now prepare to be pulled through a time warp of undead awesomeness, because the franchise reuses the Vampire Killer theme about fifty bazillion times throughout the series, and it's so different every time they do it! I stumbled upon this great video on Youtube: it's literally a musical timeline of the Vampire Killer theme. Take a listen to it, listen for the changes between each version, and see if you can describe it in words! Think melody, key, texture, style, instrumentation, tempo, etc. As we move along the timeline, the composers tend to take more liberties with the arrangement, but still have most of the original melody. It's the perfect example of what I've been talking about for this entire post: all the Castlevania games have new, different stories, characters and music, but they all have an appearance of this one, memorable, iconic theme, which helps to tie the whole series together and remind you of how far the franchise has come and how much the story of Castlevania has grown!
Enjoy the new arrangements for Castlevania's Out of Time, Castelvania 2's Bloody Tears, Castlevania 3's Deja Vu and (random) Mega Man 4's Dive Man! More on the way!
So I don't know about you guys, but when I was little I was ADDICTED to Super Mario Kart. My family didn't have Super Nintendo, but one of my aunts did; it was a real treat for my siblings and I when we'd go to visit her and get to play the SNES. While my parents and the rest of my adult relatives played card games like Phase 10, my younger cousins and sibligns and I would race over to the TV to pop in Super Mario Kart. And I swear to you, half the fun for me was just listening to the ridiculously cheerful music that accompanied every level. The music had an undeniable grooviness that I thrived on when I was younger. Looking back on the music now, I realize that the music from that game is a combination of rock/pop drumbeats, original tracks from Super Mario World and—get this—Latin dances. I have several Super Mario Kart arrangements posted on the Arrangements page already, and I'm adding some new ones this week. Let's dive into these Latin styles that will forever remind me of the sadistic joy when Lightning Bolting somebody straight into the ocean on Koopa Beach 2.
Here's a confession: I am a terrible dancer. Second confession: I am also a HUGE “So You Think You Can Dance” freak. I LOVE dancing shows, I live SO vicariously through watching other people dance, it just looks so utterly joyous and carefree and fun! And if you've ever watched any dancing show at all, you've probably heard the terms samba, mambo, salsa, cha-cha, rumba etc. In the ballroom world, these are referred to as Latin dances. I am by no means an expert on Latin dance, but from what I understand, these types of dances originate in Latin America, Cuba or Puerto Rico, and several of these dances actually correspond with a musical form. We heard this word before when I spoke about Super Mario World and the theme & variations, which originated in European music. The word form can refer to a grand, overarching architecture of a piece (theme and variations), or it can refer to very small, compact ideas and styles that give a form its character (dance form).I just want to make that clear before I go on, because different cultural styles use the word “form” in different contexts. So, the dance forms we look at are not necessarily these big, broad outlines for an entire piece of music, but instead a collection of small compact ideas and elements that a composer would use to create the piece.
The music for Super Mario Kart was not composed by Koji Kondo; it was composed by relatively unknown composers Soyo Oka and Taro Bando, who worked on a number of early Super Nintendo games. (Kondo and Oka did however work together on the original Pilotwings!) The music from Super Mario Kart has a very unique and definitive sound to it; as I said before, it's mixture of 80's rock, original tracks from Super Mario World, and Latin-style dance music. Latin dance is a very recognizable style of music, one of those “you know it when you hear it” things. Why is that? “It's dancelike!” you say. But why? What makes it dancelike? What is it about any song that makes you want to get up and dance a party? The answer is: rhythm. And Latin dance has very strong, definable rhythmic elements that are instantly recognizable. In relevance to Super Mario Kart, we'll be looking at the samba and the mambo in particular.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I had no idea the samba and mambo were two distinct musical forms; I thought that when people referred to the samba or mambo, they were referring just to the dance steps. But in fact, the musical forms are very different. I found this great video on Youtube when I was doing research on Latin rhythms, musician Kristin Parker basically outlines the basic differences between a samba and mambo. For one, while they both have African roots, they originated in different places; mambo is a Cuban dance, while the samba is Brazilian. Another difference is the time signature; a samba tends to be in moderate 2/4, while a mambo is in a fast 4/4. Lastly, Each style has strong syncopation elements, but a samba's style tends to be a more laidback, mellow dance, while the mambo is intense and “party-like.”
In both types of dance, there is a LOT of percussion going on and it often subdivides the beat (i.e. four sixteenth notes to every quarter note beat). Typical Latin percussion includes the shaker, clave, bongos, conga drum, etc. Those have very particular timbres (sound quality) that we identify as being Latin in nature. At this point, I encourage you to watch Kristin's video and listen to her examples of each dance, they'll give you a better idea of what we're talking about. Much easier to just listen to the music, rather than describing it in words, I find ;-)
So now that we have a very basic background of what these pieces sound like, let's look at the music of Super Mario Kart! I think we can find some good examples of each dance style here. I think we can safely say that a few tracks are decidedly not Latin; Rainbow Road sounds more like rock to me, and Bowser's Castle and Ghost Valley are both taken from Super Mario World. Mario Circuit is hard to place because it's got the bongo sound, and the piano creating the Latin-like syncopations; but the presence and rhythm of the punchy bass and snare drums makes me think of a rock or pop sound, so let's call Mario Circuit a crossover piece (It's also completely AWESOME when it appears as a remix in Super Smash Brothers Brawl.)
Samba first! I think the best example of a samba in this game is Vanilla Lake (sheets, audio). The tempo is about quarter = 112, a pretty moderate tempo. I can distinctly hear the syncopated percussion, which is comprised of lighter instruments (bongos, shaker). There is also syncopation in the guitar. Lastly, the style of the piece, to my ear, is very laidback and easygoing. So considering the tempo, timbre, and flavor of this piece, I think we could consider this a samba.
What other pieces are sambas in Mario Kart? I'd say Koopa Beach (sheets, audio) as well; the tempo is slightly faster than Vanilla Lake, around quarter = 120, but the melody is pretty smooth and mellow. The bongo is providing that subdivided syncopation that we also heard in the shakers of Vanilla Lake. I'd call it a samba. I'm also tempted to call Choco Island (sheets, audio) a samba--it's roughly the same tempo as Koopa Beach--but something about that piece feels less laidback to me. It could be that it has faster harmonic rhythm (the chord changes happen faster) than Koopa Beach and Vanilla Lake; the percussion break in the middle is pretty active as well, I wouldn't describe it as being laidback. So Choco Island might be somewhat of a crossover between these two styles (or perhaps another Latin style entirely...)
Now for the mambos! Donut Plains (sheets, audio) is the first one that popped in my head. I was a little uncertain of it at first, because it's rather happy and lighthearted, and I think mambos generally have a darker, more intense sound. However, it's tempo is faster than most of the other tracks, around 138 bpm, and it has that 4/4 drive feeling that Kristin speaks about in her video. The choice of percussion for this track is a little heavier than the samba tracks, more drums and whistles and less shaker. I'd also put the Title Theme into this category; the tempo is the fastest out of the entire game around 140 bpm, it contains a lot of syncopation, it's heavy on the percussion and has a pretty active harmonic rhythm. The overall more intense sound and faster tempo makes me think it must be a mambo.
Now I've been speaking exclusively about the music for the racetracks, just to keep this post focused--I challenge you to go listen to the character themes and decide which ones are influenced by Latin dance! For example, try Luigi's Theme (sheets, audio). Samba, mambo, or something different? Test your listening skills! ;-)
The interesting thing is that even though Latin dance music works SO well for Super Mario Kart, the Latin style is not tremendously similar to Kondo's work on the preceding platformer Super Mario games; I find that those games have more of an element of ragtime to them. But it's around this point in time that Mario games do start to gain an occasional Latin feel, i.e. the Special Zone from Super Mario World; later on, the title theme to Mario Party has crazy Latin percussion going on, as well as samba-like the Mini-Game Stadium (both composed by Yasunori Mitsuda). And the Overworld Theme for the New Super Mario Bros. has an EXTREMELY distinct samba feel to it. I wonder if the Latin influences in Mario started with Kondo's Special Zone in SMW? Or maybe it didn't really start taking off until Oka and Bando's work in Super Mario Kart?...
So, to conclude, let me say again that I am no expert on Latin dances. If I've made any mistakes, feel free to call me out on them and correct me—that's how I learn! ;-) Again, I'm writing these blog posts from my own personal discoveries, and I'm sure I'll have a few misconceptions along the way. But let's remember that even though probably none of these tracks are perfect examples of sambas or mambos, the fact that the music has Latin influences at all is what makes the music so AWESOME. A real-life cultural style, Latin music, has been combined with a sound that is entirely Super Mario's; cheerful, carefree, cute, ridiculously happy. And together, these styles make amazing music that makes us tap our feet, snap our fingers, and recall with hatred how supremely infuriating it was to hit a banana peel just before the finish line and watch Donkey Kong Jr. steal first place.
Enjoy the new arrangements for Choco Island, Luigi's Theme and Princess Toadstool's Theme from Super Mario Kart! More on the way!
Hey peeps! Sorry about the lack of updates for the past few weeks, they've been pretty busy! I'm writing this on the VGL tour bus, as we begin our twelve hour drive to Wichita, Kansas for our fourth show of our two week tour. It's been a really great time so far! Performed some brand new segments which have gone really well, and premiered a new flute arrangement! :-D We just had a day off in Chicago which was awesome—I got to check out the Museum of Natural History, and went to my first ever NHL hockey game, where I witnessed a fistfight, a pane of plexiglass fall on a player's head, and a hockey stick fly violently into the audience. I think hockey is my new favorite sport.
Anywho! I've posted a few random arrangements this week, but the one I really want to dig into is "Heavenly Flight" from Dragon Quest III. Let me just say a big THANK YOU to David for sending this one to me--he sent me an email a while back to ask me if I was familiar with the Dragon Quest series, and sadly I was not at the time. But I listened to "Heavenly Flight," and man, I just fell in love! my best friend Mallory recently bought Dragon Quest VIII and was showing it to me last week--this soundtrack is absolutely gorgeous. It's all live symphony orchestra and man does it bring such an amazing epic feeling to the game. I definitely want to play through the whole game someday. I decided to start with the original "Heavenly Flight" from Dragon Quest III, but ALL OF YOU should check out this arrangement of the piece from VIII, it's BEAUTIFUL!
Let's talk about the texture first. This piece is comprised almost completely of arpeggios. An arpeggio is defined as a broken chord, where the notes are played or sung in sequence one after the other, rather than played simultaneously. And while I was reading the Wikipedia article on this, I found this very important point:
“In early video game music, arpeggios were often the only way to play a chord since sound hardware usually had a very limited number of oscillators, or voices. Instead of tying them all up to play one chord, one channel could be used to play an arpeggio, leaving the rest for drums, bass, or sound effects.”
Couldn't have said it better myself, Wiki. Remember when I talked about Castlevania's texture and how there were only 4 “channels?” In acoustic musical terms, this is like having a limit of four instruments. Four instruments vs. full symphonic orchestra means that some things are going to be different, because of the instrumental limitation. Same thing for channels—the less you have, the more creative you have to be about conveying basic musical things, like melody, harmony and rhythm.
Using the arpeggio is a great way to “convey” chords. If a composer writes a piece for solo flute, he's working with one “channel” of sound. A flute can only play one note at a time—so what happens if you want your music to have some kind of a chordal structure? You can't sound a bunch of notes at the same time. That's when you break out the arpeggios, baby—it breaks up a chord into individual notes that the flute can play, one right after another; the chord is present in the music without having been played as a “chord.”
And it also provides motion between notes, which is a cool and exciting effect! Playing each chord underneath the melody has a very different feeling than breaking the chords up into fluid arpeggios. Look at Heavenly Flight, for example—really, we're only working with two channels, if you think about it: melody and arpeggios. The arpeggios span many octaves, but we never have more than two notes playing at the same time. So with only two channels, this piece has melody, harmony and rhythm. Awesomeness.
Actually, one of the best ways to learn composition is to severely limit yourself with the number of instruments, and see what you can do. I know that when I first started writing, everything was for huge full orchestras and choirs and every instrument I could find in Finale—but with that many instruments and options and colors, it's hard to really get to know each instrument. Write a piece for solo trumpet and you'll REALLY start feeling creative—how do you make a piece work with one instrument? You have to find different colors and options within the context of that instrument and really push yourself to discover and explore what it can do. Do that with every instrument in the orchestra; then, the next time you write a symphonic piece, you'll be amazed at all of the colors and sounds you never knew existed!
Enjoy this week's arrangements for Heavenly Flight, Mario Party's Can It Be Done? and Ghosts n' Goblin's Stage 1 & 2! More on the way!
Heya folks! Gonna dive right in today: I talked briefly in in one of my other posts about the division of themes in this happy relic of my childhood; Koji Kondo associates certain melodies with certain types of levels of the game (i.e. the dark scary theme for castles and ghost houses, and the happier theme for pretty much everything else). But even though the melodic material is clearly the same between levels—we instantly recognize it when we hear it—there are many changes in the music that supports the melody. Accompaniment, key, meter, texture...there is, in fact, a name for this compositional technique, and it's a very cool one that has been in use for hundreds of years. It's called theme and variations.
Theme and variations is one of many musical forms, that dates back to the Classical period and is still in use today. First things first--what's a form? Well, form as you know is short for “formula;” musical forms are essentially different formulas for how material is organized in a composition to make it a cohesive piece. In layman's terms: form is what makes a piece make sense.
There are several basic forms that became popular during the Classical period (1700's and 1800's, Mozart and Beethoven's time), some of which are still in use today. There are entire libraries written about the Classical period, but one of the main things you should know is that, during that time period, music was supposed to appeal to the average listener; most of the people in concert halls did not have any sort of musical training at all, so the music was supposed to be easy for the audience to “understand,” i.e. easily recognizable melodies, phrases, harmonies, and of course, forms. There are tons of textbooks that talk about the forms of that period: sonata, rondo, scherzo, minuet and trio, etc...and of course, theme and variation (which I will know refer to as t&v).
Let's take a look at an example t&v; this example is aptly named “Variations on a Theme by Haydn,” by Romantic period composer Johannes Brahms. You certainly do not. need to listen to this entire thing to get the idea, but I encourage you to because it's AWESOME. When you listened to it, you probably said, “Hey, this piece is just the same basic melody, or harmony, or rhythm over and over again. Brahms just messes with it in different, crazy ways.” This is all part of the form called theme and variations (t&v). In t&v, you can literally vary ANYTHING: texture, instrumentation, rhythm, meter, key, register, harmony, etc. The possibilities are never-ending...which Brahms proved by writing twenty minutes worth of variations. He chose a theme by Classical composer Haydn, introduced it to you, and then varied different aspects of it throughout the course of the piece, while retaining some kind of recognizable elements of it.
“Cool...hey, wait! Isn't that what Koji Kondo did for the levels in Super Mario World?”
YES. YES IT IS.
I can't think of a more perfect example of theme and variation in the context of a video game. All the elements are there! Kondo created his main melody, and for the rest of the game, he messes with it. BAM. In a classical t&v, the theme is introduced first, and then the variations follow. Since the very first level we play contains the Overworld, then we call the Overworld the theme, and the rest of the levels following it the variations. Let's take a looksy (and you should listen to the tracks too, links on the Arrangement page!):
1) Overworld. Straightforward. Tuba hammers out the bassline, the jumpy banjo fills out the chords, and steel drum beats the melody in your face. Only in Super Mario World would all of those instruments work so perfectly together. Genius.
2) Underwater. The theme is now in a different meter; the original theme was in common time (4/4), while this variation is in a dreamy waltz (3/4).
3) Underground. In that low, percussive marimba, there's our friend, the ostinato! This is a perfect example of one of the most common uses of ostinato: as a variation technique. The composer can go completely nuts on the melody, harmony and rhythm of the theme, while the ostinato binds everything together.
4) Athletic. (No sheet music yet, sorry!) Now we've taken the theme and put it into a new musical style: a rag (short for “ragtime”). This is also a common way to vary a theme; for example, many composers have at least one movement that puts the theme into a “jig” format, which is a dance in 6/8. Lastly, it's in a different key.
5) Bonus Level. Almost forgot about this one! The changes in this one are not as drastic as in the other variations; it's been pushed to a more rapid tempo, with a new accompanimental pattern in the bass and steel drums. And of course, nonstop bongos. FTW.
Now, just to clarify: for game music to be considered t&v, it's not enough to just bring back the theme over and over again in a video game soundtrack. There's a difference between using a leitmotif (recurring theme) and actually constructing a classical theme and variation, where the variations are very distinct and clearly divided. But we'll talk about that more next time!
Enjoy this week's arrangements for Underground Theme, Bonus Level, and the map themes for Bowser's Valley and Special Zone! More on the way!
Yikes...so I definitely lied about updating more often! :-P Trust me, I, I wanted to! When I'm not traveling with VGL, I work two part-time jobs at home, and lately I've been getting slammed with hours at both of them lately. Money is a good thing! Not having time to practice/compose/arrange/blog is not LOL I do enjoy my jobs to a point though--I work as a singer at a Catholic Church, where I perform for the masses, funerals, weddings, communions, confirmations, you name it. I also work as a hostess in a Chinese restaurant, and WOW, talk about learning a lesson in humility!! Since I started working there three months ago, I have not ONCE seen my boss take a day off. His dedication to his restaurant is very much the same as my dedication to music, and seeing how hard he works literally every single day is very inspiring to me, to work hard every day as musician and better myself and teach myself new things.
So, this week I'm posting only one arrangement, but it contains a very cool musical element that we can learn a lot about: the ostinato! The "Corridor of Time" theme from Chrono Trigger is a perfect example of this motivic tool.
Let's first look at the definition of motive, which is essentially: a recurring musical fragment or idea that characterizes a composition. Hard to describe in words, but it motives are the things in a piece of music that make it unique from other pieces. What's an ostinato then? A motive or phrase that is repeated in the same musical voice. We're not talking "oh the motive pops up now and then throughout the piece"--we're talking some kind of rhythmic, melodic or harmonic idea that is literally looping over and over again. An ostinato doesn't have to last the whole piece of music to be considered an ostinato (although some pieces DO do that), but it does have to repeat several times in a row. The wikipedia article on ostinati that I linked to contains an important point: "Ostinati are to classical music what riffs are to popular music." Riff = ostinato, they're two different terms for essentially the same thing. Examples ahoy!:
Classical music: Possibly the most famous example of rhythmic ostinato in classical music is Maurice Ravel's Bolero. That short pattern in the snare repeats, over and over and over again, for the entire song, unchanging (And the version I linked to isn't even the entire song--the whole thing is close to 19 minutes long!) Also check out Pachelbel's Canon in D and the first movement of Holst's Suite in Eb, both examples of harmonic ostinati. Listen to the unchanging bassline, while a ton of variation is going on in the rest of the instruments--this is called "ground bass."
Pop music: I admit it: I am a Gleek. Here's a version of "Loser" by the cast from the TV show Glee--repeating guitar part right in the beginning? Yup, ostinato. Also, here's an interesting example of a sung melodic ostinato: the Glee cast's version of "Gold Digger."
Video game music: ...CHRONO TRIGGER!! Seriously, this game is filled with great examples. Yasunori Mitsuda uses ostinati to great effect in all of his pieces. "Corridor of Time" has an ostinato that starts off the piece and plays straight through. It can be considered a rhythmic and melodic ostinato, though it breaks the rules slightly; technically, the phrase in a melodic ostinato should be exactly the same each time it repeats, but throughout this piece, the pitches change slightly to support the chord changes. The rhythm and contour are the same, however, so I think it fits the definition of ostinato. If you take a look at the score, you can see the ostinato line is in the topmost stave--it literally never stops looping.
Here are a few more examples of MItsuda-san's use of ostinato in other pieces...can you hear the loop? What kind of ostinato is it--harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, a combination of those?
Chrono Trigger - Undersea Palace
Chrono Trigger - Last Battle
Mario Party - DK's Jungle Adventure (bet you didn't know he did the music for this game!)
Other video game pieces with ostinati.
Donkey Kong Country - Vulture Culture
Mortal Kombat -- Courtyard
Earthworm Jim -- New Junk City
Notice that these examples have ostinati all over the place--Corridor of Time has it in the treble range, Undersea Palace and Vulture Culture have it midrange, and the rest of them have it in the bass/percussion. Actually, in Vulture Culture, there's a few ostinati running at the same time in all of the registers. Cool huh? Ostinato is a very groovy tool.
So, the Corridor of Time! This piece I found difficult to arrange on a reduced piano score. Usually I try to fit everything on only two staves (also known as a grand staff). But my goal is to arrange the music in such a way that you can see EVERYTHING that's going on in every instrument. So let's look at our texture for a minute: we've got the melody, the chords supporting the melody, the bass, and the ostinato. You need at least three hands to get through all of that! So I did Corridor of Time for what's called "Four Hands Piano"--that is, two people playing one piano. So if you want to play any of my 4-hands arrangements, grab a friend and knock yourselves out! :-D
Enjoy the new arrangement of Corridor of Time! More on the way--sooner this time, I promise! ;-)
Yikes, it's been a while since I've posted new arrangements! The last few weeks got crazy-busy for me--I had to prepare for VGL Indianapolis, where I performed in five different segments, PLUS putting together an absolute mountain of flute arrangements to play at the ticket booth, to advertise for the show. Then there was Gen Con itself, which was AMAZING!!! I mean holy crap, there were a LOT of games there! I spent waaay too much money, but hey, it WAS my birthday ;-) And then I went straight from Indianapolis to a family vacation for a week at a dude ranch, where I horsebacked and paintballed for several days, complete with getting shot in the head at less than twenty feet. EXACTLY as painful as it sounds.
But I'm back, with more Super Mario World arrangements! Just two this week, but I'll have more stuff to post next week--now that I'm home for a while, I'll be back on schedule with my about-once-a-week posting. This week, we have the Underwater Theme and Forest of Illusion themes. Let's take a look at both. Forest of Illusion, although short, has a very interesting sound--my guess is that Kondo decided to use unresolved, nontraditional harmonies to reflect the mysterious, illusory nature of this map (for those of you who have played the game, almost every level on this map has two exits).
For those of you who are interested in some beginner music theory, let's do some simple harmonic analysis. In traditional, 18th century tonality (Mozart and Beethoven's time), composers used what are called cadences to conclude harmonic progressions. Cadence comes from the Latin word "cadentia" which means literally "a falling." I personally prefer to think of a cadence as a landing. In traditional tonal writing, a composer uses a series of chords to support his/her melody, which is called a chord progression. But how do you know when one progression ends and another begins? Cadences. They are essentially musical punctuation marks.
It's not as complicated as it sounds--in fact, you know EXACTLY what a cadence sounds like. Virtually all of the music we hear on the radio these days use cadences--and a lot of video game music too! For example, let's look at the other arrangement for this week, the Underwater Theme. The melody first appears in mm. 13-27. But wait a second--how do I KNOW the melody is ending in mm. 27? Take a listen to it (:19-:20). Do you hear that "landing" point in m. 27, how the phrase comes to a finish? WHY does it sound like that? Listen, and now follow along with the score:
1) We are in the key of F major.
2) The chord for m. 26 is built on the 5th note of the scale (C). Call it the V (five) chord.
3) The chord for m. 27 is built on the 1st note of the scale (F). Call it the I (one) chord.
This relationship, between V-I, is called an authentic cadence and we hear it ALL THE TIME, in pop music AND concert music. This is considered the "strongest" type of cadence, because it has such a definitive sound. This is just one type of cadence, there are many different kinds (IV-I, V-vi, ii-V, etc.), but we'll get into those some other time ;-)
So! Now that we know what a typical cadence sounds like, let's go back to the Forest of Illusion. Without getting too crazy with harmonic analysis: yes, there is a melody, and that melody does have landing points within it (i.e. mm.1-2), but do any of them sound as definitive as the landing point we found in the Underwater Theme? To my ear, no. Kondo creates non-traditional chord progressions, that don't resolve as strongly as traditional chord progressions; the cadences are more of a fading than a landing. And for me, that's what makes the Forest of Illusion Theme sound so mysterious :-D
One last thing to know about cadences: there are MANY different forms. If you ever take a music theory class, the first types of cadences you'll learn about are the classical ones that composers like Mozart and Beethoven used in the 18th and 19th century. Concert music has come a loooong way since then, and while some composers still use traditional harmonies and chord progressions, many contemporary composers do not, including myself. But for me, I believe a cadence is any kind of landing point, whether it uses old-fashioned chord relationships or some totally rad, crazy progress ion that sounds nothing like Mozart--if a phrase sounds like it begins, travels, and then ends--or lands--then I'd call it a cadence. Different sounds for different times!
Hope you enjoyed this week's lesson! If anyone has something in particular they want me to write about, whether it's straight-up music theory or a specific piece of video game music, feel free to comment or send me a message on the Contact page! I'd love to hear from you!
Enjoy the new arrangements of Underwater Theme and Forest of Illusion! More on the way!
Hey all! Was out of town this week, so I apologize for the delay in posting new arrangements! This week, I decided to take a break this week from the carefree happiness of Super Mario World to dig into some Chrono Trigger music. Now I must confess, I still have not actually played this game *dodges flying bullets* but it's not my fault, I tell you! When I was a kid, my sibligns and I grew up with a Sega Genesis and then a Nintendo 64; the only time I got to play Super Nintendo or Playstation was when I visited my cousin's house two or three times a year, and I guess he didn't have Chrono Trigger, because I hadn't even heard of it until I was in college! But rest assured, I DESPERATELY want to play this game, I have absolutely loved all of the music I've heard from it so far, and it's one of my favorite segments that I perform with Video Games Live.
So until I hijack a Super Nintendo and steal a copy of Chrono Trigger, I have been hunting down the music on Youtube. And wow...I can't believe how many orchestral colors Yasunori Mitsuda was able to get out of an SNES sound system. It really is very deep and complex music. Tell me the Chrono Trigger theme wouldn't sound completely EPIC with a live orchestra and solo saxophone.
What jumped out at me when I was listening to the Chrono Trigger music was the use of strong orchestral textures in video game music, which I think was pretty innovative for its time. I've included a link to a VERY lengthy Wikipedia article, but in a nutshell: texture is essentially the way all of the rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic elements in a piece work together. And video game music is absolutely the PERFECT way to learn rudimentary texture! Seriously! Early video games (i.e. NES) had only few channels of sound to use for instrument voices, so the texture as a result was very "thin."For example, any piece of music from the first Castlevania: you've got your melody line, your harmony/countermelody line, bass line, rhythm section. And that's it. Because there's only one "voice" per line, it's VERY easy to hear the distinct lines of the texture. I found this awesome video a few days ago that is a GREAT example of how the growing abilities of sound cards give composers more textural ability. And it was not only the number of channels, but the growing number of "timbres" available to the composers. I mean, listen to the Chrono Trigger theme! Some of those sounds are CRAZY good for their time, like the timpani hits, strings, the snare drum! Over the years, video game music has become just as texturally complex as a modern-day orchestra--and in some ways even MORE complex, because video game composers often work with electronic instruments, which means the number of timbres they could create are positively endless. And as a result, all of these new timbres can work with each other in different ways to create new textures of sound.
I liked both of these new pieces for different reasons. Chrono Trigger's theme really gets my blood pumping because it feels like it's always moving forward. The big timpani hits in the bass really give the piece power, but there is also a forward momentum in the quieter sections, i.e. the little harp ostinato that Mitsuda employs starting in m.26; the melody, harmony and basslines have become very long and sustained, to create a sweet, quiet moment. Without the percussion and rhythmic bassline, the harp is the instrument that keeps the piece moving. What a great choice; it's a soft, light timbre, a short, plucked sound, and therefore doesn't take away from the melody and harmonies. It's "there" without distracting us from what we "should" be listening to. I find that Mitsuda-san uses a lot of ostinatos in his work, which I'll write about next week regarding his "Corridor of Time" piece.
"Zeal Palace" also has some seriously dark epicness, in very simple but effective ways. The use of pedal points give it a really forbidding, grim tone. It's like the antithesis of the Chrono Trigger theme, which excites us right at the beginning with loud, in-your-face drums and percussive harmonies; in the beginning of Zeal Palace, the low/high strings are barely moving at all, but it's the lack of movement that puts us on the edge of our seats! Two totally different approaches, but both excite us as listeners. Too cool :-D
Enjoy the new arrangements for Chrono Trigger and Zeal Palace! More on the way!
Two more of the map themes this week, plus the Koopaling Battle Theme. Speaking of which, did you know that Bowser's kids in SMW are specifically called "Koopalings" and not "Koopa Kids?" While looking up the title of their battle theme, I found an entire wiki page dedicated to Bowser's children, with more information than I could ever possibly desire about his spawn. This discovery was both ridiculous and awesome.
And speaking of RIDICULOUSLY AWESOME, man was their theme was crazy! Usually I have no trouble with melody lines, but transcribing the Koopaling Battle Theme was pretty difficult! The harmonies in the accompaniment weren't hard; the bass line is a basic pattern outlining the chords, and the harmonies (in the right hand of my transcription) are built in fourths. But the solo line moved FAST, and moved seamlessly between a LOT of different scales--for example, octatonic (mm.6-7), minor (m. 12) and chromatic (m.16). If the melody followed one scale throughout the whole piece, it would be easier for my ear to identify the notes. However, the composer will throw in a note that doesn't belong in the scale he was suggesting, at which point I go "D'OH, KOJI KONDO, YOU GOT ME AGAIN!"
And it's the rapidly changing scales that make the melody line so awesome! It's crazy and frenetic, and it definitely puts me on the edge of my seat whenever I do battle with a Koopaling. The style of the piece reminds me VERY strongly of Latin bebop, which is a very fast and virtuosic type of jazz, with the same type of rapid melody line. The link I provided is only one example, I'm sure there are a ton more on Youtube! Personally, I've always found that the music from the Mario franchise has a lot of jazz and Latin influence in it...I wonder if Koji Kondo is a bebop fan?
Enjoy the new arrangements for Vanilla Dome, Star Road and Koopaling Battle Theme! More on the way!
This week, I went a little nuts and started cranking out TONS of Super Mario World arrangements. It's the VERY FIRST video game I ever remember seeing; I think I was like four or five years old, at my aunt's house, watching my cousins do battle in one of Reznor's fortresses. I remember actually feeling scared when I saw Reznor shooting all the flames and the bridge vanishing beneath Mario's feet! See, you don't need crazy graphics to terrify gamers ;-) Because I love this game and its music so much, I am on a mission to transcribe literally EVERY piece of music from that game. I'm already working on all sorts of arrangements, some for piano, some for solo instrument & piano, I'm sure we'll have a piano duet thrown in there somewhere, etc. I'm having a lot of fun with this project, some of it is really quite challenging to transcribe! (Next week I'm doing the Koopaling Battle theme, and WOW is that music ridiculously crazy). So far into the project, I've noticed a few simple things:
1) Main Themes. I hear two big ones. The happy adventure theme (Overworld) and the evil danger theme (Underworld?). The happy theme is heard in Overworld, Underwater, Underground and Athletic levels. The evil theme is in the Ghost House and Castle. All contain either of the main melodies, just with different meters and textures. Crazy!!
2) They are heavily melodic. And that's why we hum them!
3) Division of Themes. Anyone notice that the level types are divided almost exactly like the very first Mario game? Overworld, Underground, Underwater, Castle. The only exception to this is the addition of the Ghost House and Athletic levels in SMW, and even those borrow from the Castle and Overworld themes respectively. I honestly didn't completely realize this until I started this project. Double crazy!!
4) The map themes are NOT heavily melodic. With the exception of the Forest of Illusion and Donut Plains, most of the map themes rely on simple harmonies + rhythmic interest. For example, Yoshi Island theme, which to me sounds like a basic call-and-response between the treble and bass lines. The lack of melody in the map themes makes sense though, you probably shouldn't have the map music overshadow the music of the actual levels.
5) I am having way too much fun :-D
Enjoy the new Super Mario World arrangements for the Main Titles, Yoshi's Island, Donut Plains, and the Overworld! A LOT more are on the way!
Video game music was what got me composing as a kid, and I learned the basics of composition from transcribing my favorite VGM pieces. These are my thoughts and discoveries about various game compositions as I transcribe and study them. Feel free to comment with your own thoughts/ideas as well!