Dragon Quest: The Arpeggio
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!
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!