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!