Hello friends! I hope you've put on your thinking caps this week, because this post is going to be down and dirty with some intense music theory. I'm trying to keep this Blog fresh by coming up with different formats for the articles; last week, I picked a musical concept (the counter-melody) and we looked at a few pieces from different games that used it to great effect. This week, I thought I'd try doing a full-fledged theory analysis of just one piece from a video game, and pick apart all of the different musical elements within it. And I've just been DYING to dig into this piece for a while now: the Great Bay Temple theme from Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask.
Not exactly music we'll be hearing live in concert anytime soon, eh? :-P This probably is not considered one of the more well-known pieces from Majora's Mask, and the game did not have a ton of new music to begin with. Not that this is a bad thing, but--the soundtrack felt much smaller than its predecessor Ocarina of Time. It wasn't just that they re-used a lot of music from OoT; they also re-used a lot of the same themes within Majora's Mask. Clock Town, the center of Termina and thus where you spend a lot of your time, has the same theme from day to day (rehashed to reflect the weather and circumstances); the cursed areas outside of Clock Town also used the same “Majora's Theme” simply with different instrumentation; and the temples' music was on the reeeeally murky and ambient side—but then again, this entire game was really out of left field for the Zelda franchise. And what a gem it was! I loved the darkness of the story, the strong theme of the meaning of friendship, and the challenge of the side stories and side quests. This game really got you to know the characters in Clock Town, and it certainly was nice to have a break from Ganondorf for once, wasn't it?
This game did have some new pieces that really added a lot to the game (i.e. the Song of Healing, the End of the World), but I have always considered the Great Bay Temple theme one of my favorites. Ever since I heard it when I was fourteen, it just stuck with me. I'm always drawn to highly rhythmic pieces with a lot of neat percussive effects in it, and this certainly has elements of that—but at first glance, this does not seem like a piece most people walk around humming after they've played the game, right? But when I finally sat down and started analyzing it this week, I discovered there was a lot and I mean a LOT more to it than meets the eye--or the ear, I should say :-P
So! Ever since I started this blog, I've been trying to make these posts as “user-friendly” as possible, so people who are non-musicians, or unfamiliar with music theory can understand and appreciate the elements that go into the composition of a video game piece. But the Great Bay Temple theme is a violently erupting volcano of ingenious musical design, and I thought maybe this would be a good time to just go nuts and dig deep into my nerdy, music theory side. I'm going to explain everything as I go along, so don't be daunted if you're not a trained musician!! This article is just going to cover a lot more info than previous blogs. Now, I haven't met any myself, but if those stereotypically snooty, VGM-scoffing musical theorists really exist, then I sincerely hope they stumble upon this article sometime--I'm sure it would surprise them to see just how much depth and integrity that video game music can possess :)
The Level Design
A little backstory, for those who are unfamiliar with the game: Great Bay Temple is the token Zelda water temple. Now, the challenge of the Water Temple in the previous game (OoT) was navigating an area in which Link was ill-suited to travel: it was filled with water. Your choice was to either put on the 400-pound boots and walk around really slowly underwater, or do the Unheroic Side-Stroke. It was annoying and difficult. However, in Majora's Mask, Link has just obtained a mask that allows him to turn into a Zora (fish-creature), which means he'll be moving easily and rapidly through the water. The challenge in the Great Bay Temple is that it is designed around a series of water pumps attached to underwater propellers, which change the direction and flow of the water into tunnels leading to different areas of the dungeon—so as tempting as it is to zip around in your Zora costume, you have to be careful not to get sucked into the wrong tunnel.
So, in summary, the basic elements of this temple: Speedy travel with the Zora mask. Giant tanks of water. Water pumps, controlled by gears. Propellers moving the water. Rapid currents of water, sometimes in opposing directions. Now listen to the song again.
There's a lot of musical imagery to support the environment and design of the temple; let's walk through the piece step by step and figure out how this was done.
The piece starts out with a simple ambience (atmospheric sound), a machine-like hum. Link is essentially in a giant pumping station, so ambience is obviously a good fit. Then the drum patterns start up.
The first drum sound has a hollow ring, as though banging on a large, empty cannister, or oil drum; the second sound reminds me of the crash of heavy machinery, and the third is almost electronic in nature. On a whole, the drum patterns have a very mechanical, factory-like vibe to them; while they are the driving rhythmic force of the piece, I would say that the choice of drum timbres (colors) adds also to the ambience that the composers are going for: inside a machine.
Then at m.7, we've got our first actual pitches (which I call the “A” theme):
Before we go on, let's review the definition of melody, courtesy of Wikipedia: “a linear succession of musical tones which is perceived as a single entity. In its most literal sense, a melody is a combination of pitch and rhythm.”
Look at the A passage. Not very striking melodically, is it? In fact, I wouldn't call this a melody at all. What we have here is not a deliberately constructed combination of pitch and rhythm; what we have here is simply 3 notes repeating over and over again. at the same rate of subdivision (in this case, sixteenth notes). To top it all off, the pattern does not divide equally into the time signature. If I rebeamed this passage to reflect the 3-note pattern, it would look like this:
Because the pattern doesn't divide evenly, that means each measures has a different pitch of the cell as the downbeat (first beat of the measure). As a result, there is no specific rhythmic importance attached to these notes at all; they just loop continuously.
So if this isn't a melody...what is it? In music theory, we would call that group of 3 notes a cell. Wikipedia defines a musical cell as “the smallest indivisible unit of rhythmic and melodic design that cn be isolated, or can make up one part of a thematic context.” What is a theme? Also according to Wikipedia, it is “the material, usually a recognizable melody, upon which part or all of a composition is based.” This passage is certainly recognizable, even if it is not what we would call “melodic.” So, what we have here is a theme, based off of a 3-note cell.
BUT WAIT. Going on to m.15, we see another, different theme start up. Let's call this one B; have a listen to just the B theme, isolated:
Take a look at the notes; we have another repeating pattern. This one is based off of a 5-note cell, also repeating on a 16th note subdivision. Being a 5-note pattern, it also does not divide evenly into the time signature.
What happens when you put the two themes together, as in m.15? MADNESS:
Since there are two different themes that make up this piece, we would call this...wait for it...a polythematic composition. Pretty neat effect, right? Not only are the themes played by the same instrument, but they're also in the exact same register; they weave in and out of each other, and since the cells are different lengths (3 and 5), they never line up in any sort of rhythmic way. It's a very cool, watery, murky sound.
Harmonic Planing and Implied Keys
Now for the last few elements that make up this piece—until now, we've just had ambience, drums, and two conflicting, unrelated themes. We do actually have brief moments of harmony at the end of the piece. In m. 25, everything drops out completely and we're left with just the A theme; then, very faintly, we hear flute-like block chords.
The first chord is an A major chord (A, C#, E). Now, since the notes in the A theme do contain C# (Db), and A, my ear automatically tells my brain, “Well, we must be in the key of A major!” But some of those chords do NOT belong in the key of A:
In a major key, there are naturally a few minor chords; but all of the chords in the passage are major. How was this achieved? Every note in the chord moves the exact same interval (distance) to the next set of notes. This kind of parallel movement of notes is called harmonic planing, or parallel harmony.
What does this do? In this case, it prevents us from hearing a definitive, actual key signature. But before we chalk this one up to a simple case of harmonic planing, check out that last block chord, a Db major chord. Then look at the notes in m. 43--a Bb and Gb, implying a Gb major chord (Gb, Bb, Db)
The Db in m.33 is the dominant chord of Gb. Very, VERY simply put, the use of these two chords, in that order, could imply that we are in the key of Gb at m.43. And it's JUST a few measures after this that the entire piece starts looping.
Now try THIS on for size: let's look at the seemingly random 3 and 5 note cells for the A and B themes. They seem conflicting at first...but if we look at the pitches in the context of the key of Gb...
We are...ALMOST in the key of Gb. Almost...but enough of the pitches in the cells are from outside the scale. As a result, the key of Gb is obscured for the entire piece...until those pitches in the bass at m.43.
So this seemingly arbitrary choice of harmonic planing in mm.28-33 actually could be construed as setting up the key for the ENTIRE PIECE: Gb.
The Summary (Here's hoping you're still reading)
So! Now that most of you are bored to tears and are trying to remember why you thought it would be fun to read this blog: what does all of this mean musically? We've discussed the piece in the most dry, emotionally-removed music theory terminology available; we know now that there was actually a lot of cool stuff going on throughout the composition. Now let's connect the pieces and see what this music adds to the game.
You know what my favorite part of this piece is? How elegantly simple it is. We have like what, 5-6 different instrument sounds, including the percussion? Two straightforward themes, a moment with harmonizing chords, the simple background ambience? And while the piece was certainly memorable to me, it never distracted me from the gameplay. The music was meant to be a supporting feature, not the main event. And how did Kondo and Minegishi do this? With a brilliant mixture of just a few elements, like the recipe for a cake. I can make an eight-tier wedding cake and recreate the Mona Lisa on it with fifty-seven different shades of icing; or, I can throw some flour, sugar, butter and banana in a bowl and make my grandmother's plain-looking but ridiculously tasty banana cake. You don't always need a lot of bells and whistles to make a really great piece of video game music; the “greatness” of a piece comes from how effective it is in the level, and I think the Great Bay Temple music has certainly done that. What do you think?
Enjoy this week's arrangements of the Dungeon/Underworld theme from the original Legend of Zelda, and Great Bay Temple from LoZ: Majora's Mask! More on the way!
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!
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!
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, 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!
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!