Hello friends! Sorry this post is a bit late--I meant to have this done last week, but last week was pretty brutal! When I'm not on the road with VGL, I work as a singer/pianist for various churches on Long Island. This past week, Catholic churches were celebrating Ash Wednesday, for which I was hired to do four gigs in Queens, Brooklyn and Nassau County. All of them involved playing the organ. It was a terrifying day for two big reasons: 1) I'm only just learning to play the organ over the past month or so, and 2) I had a nasty cold that reached its zenith on that very day. I croaked my way through the masses and managed to play the pedals without falling off the organ bench, so we'll call it a win :-P But the cold took a lot out of me, I didn't get as much writing done this week. So, this is going to be a pretty short post, but hey, maybe that's a good thing after the NOVEL I wrote last week :-P
So, last Tuesday night, I was coughing up a lung and couldn't get to sleep because of my screaming sore throat. Like the hopeless geek I am, I decide that to help me sleep, I'll pick out some video game music and transcribe until my brain goes into a cold shutdown and I pass out. As I booted my computer, I immediately thought of the old DOS games I used to play when I was in elementary school. My sister and I were DOS addicts, we loved all of those old games—Word Rescue, Math Rescue, Monster Bash, God of Thunder, Lemmings, and of course, Commander Keen. He was definitely one of my favorites! I loved the silly story, fun gameplay, the catchy music, the Dopefish. How can you not love a game that has a creature called “the Dopefish?” He was the terror of the deeps, and to this day, I don't believe I have ever beaten Dopefish level.
So, I started Youtubing the music. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the songs actually had titles, instead of just “Level 1, Level 2” etc. One of the Youtube videos was called “You've Got to Eat Your Vegetables.” I clicked it, and laughed when I recognized the tune—it happened to be the music that accompanies the Dopefish level.
Then I gaped at the Youtube video description. An interview with Bobby Prince in the 90s revealed that this wasn't originally a piece of instrumental music; it was a song. WITH WORDS. THE DOPEFISH THEME...HAD WORDS...*EXPLODE*
Apparently, Bobby Prince, the God of Music at iD software, had written this piece to accompany a completely different installation of the Commander Keen series. The game was supposed to begin with a cutscene of Billy Blaze at the dining room table, refusing to eat his vegetables. I'm just guessing from what Bobby describes in the interview, but it seems that this song was meant to “vocalize” the words, which I'm guessing would just appear as text at the bottom of the screen. I say “vocalize” because I'm assuming no one was actually going to sing the lyrics; the gamer was most likely going to read the text while hearing the melody, and his/her brain would automatically link the two together.
But Prince didn't just write a random melody and slap some words on it; he reflected the inflection (speech pattern) of the characters' voices through the contour, or "shape," of the melody. All melodies have a shape of some sort, but it is more important than ever when you're setting words to music. The English language has a natural rhythm to it; our voices rise and fall when we talk because some words in a sentence are more important than others. So, when writing a melody to go with lyrics, composers have to keep that natural word stress in mind, to make sure that they aren't musically stressing the wrong words. And Prince does this perfectly!
Take the very first line of the son. Billy's mother is the first one to yell at him; what would an exasperated mother sound like if she was telling you to eat your vegetables? She wouldn't just say "Billy, you've got to eat your vegetables" in a monotone; it would be something like, “BILLy! You've GOT to EAT your VEGetables!” There are certain words and syllables in that sentence that are stressed, right? Now listen to the melody line.
He stressed those words and syllables in the melody line by placing them on higher notes--the rise and fall of her voice is exactly reflected in the rise and fall of the melody-line.
Then she says, “do you hear me?! You've got to EAT your VEGETABLES!" Appealing to her husband, "Tell him, Dad...” Prince expresses the exasperation in her voice through that random F-natural on "Dad."
Then here comes Dad, with the same exact melody—only now the melody-line is taken down two octaves, to reflect a man's lower voice. He says, “You've got to eat your vegetables. NOW.” Check out that glissando—great way to express the command in his voice as he says “NOOOWWW!”
Lastly, here comes Billy's little sister, teasing him at the table. Now the melody-line has been taken up two octaves, to reflect a little girl's voice. And we have the classic teasing sound; Prince adds those extra halfsteps to it to make it sound a little more grating:
How cool is that? Without any spoken/sung words at all, the contour of the melody conveys EXACTLY what Billy's family sounds like when they speak to him; exasperated mom, fed-up dad, and giggling little sister. And then you have the supporting accompaniment itself; the tempo is deliberately slow and draggy, the instrument sounds are heavy and clunky--all of this clearly represents Billy's boredom and complete lack of will to eat his vegetables. And nobody even said a word. Hail to the Prince, baby!
Enjoy this week's transcriptions for You've Got to Eat Your Vegetables and Map Theme from Commander Keen 4, and Laboratory from Bio Menace! 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!