“Music theory” can be somewhat of a polarizing force in music school ;-) Some people love it, some people despise it with every fiber in their being. The reason for this is that music theory involves staring at scores for long hours and analyzing each and every note for connections to each and every other note in the score. It can quickly become visually and mentally exhausting. And most students have trouble with the “ear-training” aspect of it; there's sight-singing, where you have to sing a melody line that you've never seen before, on the spot, in front of your entire class. Or dictation, listening to a piece you've never heard before and having to write down the melody and bass line by ear. It's very challenging, and the fact that most public schools only offer music theory courses in high school doesn't help. Learning to read and comprehend music is like learning a whole separate language—it's harder to learn as an adult, rather than as a child.
Me, I was lucky in school! I enjoyed the sight-singing, dictation and ear-training courses because it's something I had been doing ever since I was a child. I started transcribing video game music as hobby when I was just 10 years old, because I wanted to be able to listen to the music without having to play the games. So when I started my first music theory courses in high school, I was surprised to discover that my ear-training was already very strong, at a more advanced level than most of my class. But even with that solid foundation, score analysis still would have my head aching and my eyes rolling after about half an hour.
It's true that composers write with a form in mind--they create melodies and themes that work well together, have them connect in some way, use certain distinct elements to build the fabric of a piece, etc. So, it's always, always worth it to look at a score and discover the individual elements that make up the music; it's like looking at the blueprints of a machine and figuring out how all the parts work together; with that knowledge, you can start building your own machines!
But the flipside is that you have to be careful that theorizing doesn't completely take over—all of a sudden, you find “things” in the music--motives, phrases, rhythms, intervals--that seem meaningful at first, but were quite possibly accidental, unintentional and had no bearing on how the piece was written. The fact that it's called music theory means you can basically draw any conclusions you want, but I think sometimes a composer chooses the notes not because of some mathematical equation, not because he had used a similar pattern upside down and backwards 400 measures earlier, not because the notes are actually code for the initials of his first girlfriend—he chooses them because he likes the way they sound. It's just plain aesthetic taste. There's also a great deal of intuition involved in composing—putting different elements together because it "feels right," without coming up with some musical formula to support it.
Now that we've discussed the ups and downs of music theory :-P let's do a little theorizing! Today we're looking at Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest. The DKC soundtracks are some of my favorite of all time, especially DKC2. I have played this game more than any other game I've had in my possession, even more than Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Super Mario World. Words cannot convey how much I adore this game.
In 2010, I was asked to promote our Indianapolis VGL show by performing some video game tunes at our ticket booth inside Gen Con. I tried to pick songs from all the big franchises that worked well as flute solos, but Donkey Kong proved pretty tricky. To me, the magic of the music came not just from the catchy melodies, but from the colors and orchestration. I use the term orchestration loosely; obviously, the music of the Donkey Kong games did not use a traditional symphony orchestra, but in this case, “orchestration” refers to the specific sounds and timbres that Wise used to produce the melody, harmony, bassline, textures, rhythms, etc.
So there I was, listening to various DKC themes. I finally picked out “Snakey Chanty,” which had a fun, fast melody, and while I was transcribing it, I got some major deja vu. Something about the song seemed really familiar, like I had heard it somewhere else. I mean, I knew it was drawn from DKC's Gangplank Galleon with a jazzy twist, but there was something else about it that I just couldn't place. It was killing me—what was it about this song that sounded so familiar?
Then it clicked.
Take a listen to a bit of “Island Swing” (Jungle Hijinx) for a moment. Check out the rhythmic pattern in the drums, one of the most iconic game themes of all time:
Now check out a bit of the melody-line of Snakey Chanty:
Notice anything about the rhythm of each song?
THEY'RE THE SAME.
I wanted to punch myself in the eyeball for not noticing the connection right away—the super catchy “Snakey Chanty” from DKC2 is based off of the rhythm of “DK Island Swing” from the previous game! With only slight differences, the rhythm has been transplanted into a totally new setting; originally an earthy jungle beat, it's now a breezy, almost Dixieland Jazz type melody. Wise rehashed an old theme into something brand new, but still totally recognizable.
SO! Why did I write all of that stuff about music theory in the beginning of this article? Because I want to make it perfectly clear that is just my theory. Yes, Snakey Chanty and DK Island Swing share the same rhythm, that is a fact. But whether this connection was intentional or completely intuitive on the part of the composer...that's something we'd have to ask David Wise himself ;-) But whether it was intentional or not, I think it was a really ingenious way to musically connect two games in a series, without simply copying the same exact track from one game to the other. NO WONDER HIS NAME IS DAVID WISE. HA-HA SEE WHAT I DID THERE.
Enjoy this week's transcriptions of Bayou Boogie, Snakey Chanty and Swanky's Swing from Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest! 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!