Game Music Theory

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Apr 2

#58: Conquest, Fire Emblem Awakening

Hey guys! I’m back again with some more new content. Pretty stoked to have crossed 600 followers despite my hiatus, so thanks for that everybody :) I had an idea for a sick April Fools Day blog but I decided to postpone it for possibly next year, but trust me when I say it would’ve been hilarious ;)

I really want to take an in-depth look at the Fire Emblem Awakening soundtrack over the coming weeks. I honestly think it’s surpassed Twilight Princess in my eyes as my favorite soundtrack of all time, and most importantly, I just can’t stop listening to it! The music is so good! Here’s a link to the full YouTube playlist so you can listen to some of the best game music released in a long time :D

Today’s focus will be on one of the battle tracks featured in the game, entitled Conquest. If you haven’t heard it before, you can find the link here.

The main feature I’d like to look into in this track is the contrast between diatonicism and chromaticism/extended harmonies. If you scan through the full score you can see that the melody doesn’t depart from diatonicism at any point, which allows the composer to explore a great variety of extended harmony and chromatic movement underneath the familiar diatonic melodic content. Take a look at the B section for a moment: the melody highlights the pitch D, which, while a diatonic note in Eb, is the sharp 11th over Ab and the 9th over C, the most important bass notes of the passage. The diatonic melody sounds natural to our ears while also adding to the extended harmonic content of the track.

What’s more impressive in my eyes, however, is that the melody remains diatonic throughout the C section, which features some unexpected chromatic movement in the bass and harmony. Over the Db chord we see the melody sit on F and move to Bb and C, highlighting the third and major seventh of the chord. We also see the third and sharp eleventh highlighted over a Gb chord, which gives the normally sharp chromaticism some necessary grounding in the key center.

The coolest part of the piece appears in the D section, in my opinion. We see the return of the traditional Fire Emblem theme which appears throughout the series, which supplies even further harmonic grounding in our ears, which will be very necessary halfway through the melodic statement. At this point the piece suddenly modulates from Eb major to B major using a nifty chromatic shift upwards from the F that concludes the first statement to F#, and then starting the second melodic statement from there. The strong familiarity of the melody here allows the composer to explore this very distant key center, all the while continuing his flagrant use of suspended and extended harmonies underneath the familiar tune.

That’s it for today’s post, I hope you guys enjoyed it and are looking forward to more! :)

Bonus Track: I’m undecided as to if I will do this track for a future blog, but until I decide I guess I’ll share it here: Fire Emblem Awakening features some amped-up versions of battle themes for when your team is close to victory, and Conquest is no exception. Listen to what makes this rendition so exciting, as that is what I will focus on in the event I do analyze this piece.

((Here is today’s score PDF!))

What I’ve Been Up To (aka more writing!)

Hey guys, I’m sure many of you may have wondered what I was up to last week, where I was once again MIA.  I’m happy to announce that I was working on music for yet another game jam!  :D

Last week I was working with my good ol’ pals at ForkIt Games (check us out on Twitter here!) on a game for the Procedural Death Jam, a game jam where the theme was procedurally-generated levels with a rogue-like feel, where death is permanent.

You can check out our game here, lovingly entitled Spacebar Steve and the Adventure of the Shiny Thing.  I’m really proud of how the game turned out and I hope you guys give it a shot :)

The track I wrote for the game was heavily inspired by the Lost Woods theme from Ocarina of Time, as the structure of the Lost Woods level is a big influence on the game’s overall design.  I started by throwing the progression and pad pattern into minor and elaborating from there, adding different timbres such as the xylophone to make the track more playful.  You can listen to the tune here!

I also wrote a second track for the game, which is my first foray into full orchestral writing!  You can hear the influence of Final Fantasy and Mozart on the composition immediately, as I tried to convey the idea of Spacebar Steve becoming much more powerful when he picks up the Shiny Thing.  You can listen to the second track here!

Thanks for your patience everybody and I hope you enjoy the music and game!  I have plans for a post this week of one of my favorite tracks from Fire Emblem Awakening, so you also have that to look forward to :D  Thanks for reading and see ya soon!

((Also, you can see all the entries to the game jam here!))

Mar 6

#57: Amiss Abyss, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Hi everybody! It’s good to be back on the horse here, and I’m happy to be bringing you guys some new content once again in the month of March! :D

A lot of cool games have been released recently, and I’ve been doing a much better job than I usually do of keeping up with new game releases. I recently picked up Thief (which I rather enjoy, despite what reviewers will tell you), South Park: the Stick of Truth (basically Paper Mario V, but VERY funny), and the subject of today’s blog post, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. I’m a huge fan of DKC Returns, particularly the 3DS version, therefore I was super excited to pick up this new release for Wii U. My excitement was further ballooned when I heard that David Wise was returning to do many of the music tracks for the game. I knew immediately that I’d love to do a blog post around some of his newest work, and so here we are today, looking at Amiss Abyss!

It should come as no surprise to those of you who have followed the blog for a long time that I chose a water level track for today’s post. One of my earliest posts took a quick look at the track Aquatic Ambiance form the original Donkey Kong Country (you can have a look at that post here), and therefore you’ll know that I highly admire that piece of music. By simply giving both tracks a quick listen you can easily hear they are both quite similar (even the alliteration!), and it’s quite evident that Amiss Abyss gives homage to the original track in many ways. Let’s investigate those ways more closely:

For starters, they both use synth bends and breaks to create a mysterious timbre, akin to the mystery of exploring the bottom of the ocean. Both tracks also make generous use of heavy reverb to let the sounds bounce around your ears for quite some time. Both of these features are evident in the first four bars of Amiss Abyss, and these qualities are enough to make those of us old enough to remember the first DKC immediately feel the nostalgia.

One factor that is shared between both tracks but is more integral to the newer track is through-composing. David Wise seldom repeats material in Amiss Abyss, even changing keys at seemingly odd times to send the piece in an entirely new harmonic direction. The result is a piece that isn’t afraid to explore new directions, happily sauntering through different melodies that are only minutely connected to each other. Oftentimes these melodies change instruments, subtly altering the overall timbre of the piece as we travel through the level. It’s a very interesting technique that I encourage all composers to examine, as sometimes we can get caught up in trying to make all of our melodic material connected in some way. What Mr. Wise is saying here is that it’s ok to meander, to explore different areas and not necessarily return to them, because that’s the way the player plays the level, and the timbre of the entire piece is cohesive enough to explore different melodies.

Lastly, I can’t mention the similarities between Amiss Abyss and Aquatic Ambiance without mentioning the E section. This is as clear a tribute to the original Aquatic Ambiance as there is, taking a similar arpeggiated pattern (that emphasizes the minor 7th, no less) over a simple, singable melody. The track’s influence is heard throughout the soundtrack (as water (frozen water, of course) is an important part of gameplay), but this is possibly my favorite tribute to the original track in the entire soundtrack, as it’s quite subtle but still pays its dues.

That’s it for today’s analysis, thanks for reading and I’ll see you guys real soon!

Bonus Track: Aquatic Ambiance is a heavily-influential track in lots of game soundtracks, but possibly no more than in the soundtrack of Aquaria, an indie game that plays out like an underwater Metroidvania game. Check out some of the soundtrack here and listen for that heavy synth, reverb and arpeggiated figures that have become mainstays in underwater exploratory game music.

((You can see the PDF of today’s score here!))

Mar 5
Quick sneak peek post of the transcription I’ve just finished!  Full post and analysis will be up tomorrow afternoon.  Feel free to send me any guesses as to what you may think the track may be!  Two hints: it’s from a recent release and directly relates to a past blog post!  :D

Quick sneak peek post of the transcription I’ve just finished!  Full post and analysis will be up tomorrow afternoon.  Feel free to send me any guesses as to what you may think the track may be!  Two hints: it’s from a recent release and directly relates to a past blog post!  :D

Mar 4

Aaaand we’re back!

Hey guys!  I’m happy to announce that the blog will be back on track this week!  I’ll be doing a “research” stream right now for tomorrow’s post, which is where I’ll play some games while looking for a track to do for the next post.  Tonight I’ll ladder some Hearthstone while listening to the recently-released (and very excellent) Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze soundtrack!  Very cool!

Thanks for all the shares and likes during the hiatus, and I hope you guys are ready for more content this month!

The stream can be found here, which will start momentarily!!

Feb 6

#57: So Noted/Bookmark of the Heart, Hotel Dusk: Room 215

Hi guys! We’re back with some more exciting analysis today!

In case you’re not in the know, I actually do take requests here at Game Music Theory. However, with the not-so-recent knockdown of content to two posts a week and a continuing stream of ideas for themed weeks I haven’t been able to get around to requests as often as I’d like. However, that’s going to change. From now on I’m going to try to get in a request week approximately once a month, and today we’re going to start things off with a request from tumblr user kalooey, who sent in the request for today’s piece.

To start off, I have to admit I haven’t played the game that today’s piece is from, but I am familiar with it, and my girlfriend is a big fan of the game, so I am aware of the premise. Hotel Dusk is a game from the “visual novel” genre, a style of games that is gaining popularity in the West and is wildly popular in Japan. The basic premise is a “choose-your-own-adventure” style gameplay model, however in this case you play as a detective trying to solve a murder in a hotel, and that’s about all I know about the game. Today’s track is the pause screen music from the game, which apparently has two titles: known either as So Noted or Bookmark of the Heart.

This track succeeds in establishing a pretty, mysterious atmosphere by avoiding strong harmonic resolution and allowing the timbre of the piece to envelop our ears one bar at a time. The harmonic palette of this track is comprised of major 6/9 chords and minor 9 chords, with the melody highlighting the extended harmonic tones constantly; meanwhile, the guitar ostinato that permeates this piece offers no harmonic pull of its own due to its repetitive nature. The melodic content itself is also very meandering, leaping and bounding in whatever direction is most colorful rather than most functional. It’s for this reason that the track doesn’t have a memorable melody, but rather a memorable mood, and that’s what sticks with listeners after the final cadence has played.

I would like to dissect this harmonic progression in detail for a moment. The track begins on Eb major, which as we’ll find out later is the tonic (which would be a fine assumption anyways due to the repeated Eb chord four bars later). The track then move to D minor, or what would be notated in Roman numerals as a minor vii. This kind of dramatic chromaticism is used almost entirely for color, particularly because we shift right back to the Eb chord. After that progression, the piece goes back to Eb, then to G minor, which is a diatonic chord in Eb. Usually a shift from I to iii is also a color choice rather than functional, but as it turns out the G minor chord is where the composer will slyly stage a complex ii-V pattern.

The G minor chord then shifts to Gb major, which is completely foreign to Eb major, until we see the follow up chord is F minor. The track then jumps up a tritone (a big red flag) to Cb major, which then moves down chromatically to Bb. The Gb and Cb chords here aren’t actually as dramatic as they seem: they simply act as chromatic passing chords in between the F minor and Bb major chords, which when isolated are a ii-V as clear as any other. The piece then ends on the Bb major chord, which we find features no extended tones or even a seventh, which makes the chord stand out clearly from the sea of extensions featured previously in the track.

That’s it for today’s analysis, I hope you guys enjoyed it! :)

Bonus Track: I don’t know this soundtrack too well, but just skimming through it earlier I found that a lot of the music is piano-driven like this piece. Check out this track and how it differs from So Noted, particularly in terms of the tonality and the importance of chord extensions.

((Here is the PDF of today’s track!))

#56: Character Select, Super Smash Bros
Hi guys! Back at it again with another post on this lovely Friday in Dallas! Seriously, it hit 75 degrees on my way out of work today. How jealous are you, rest of America? :P
Today’s post is a short look at a piece I’m sure everyone who has ever touched a Nintendo 64 is familiar with, and that is the character select music from Super Smash Bros. I wanted to close out the N64 retrospective with a piece that I’m sure everyone would be familiar with and I figured there’s no better place to look than the classic Nintendo crossover brawler!
One thing I find particularly interesting about this track is the lack of a dedicated melody voice. Due to the sparse nature of the piano colors at the top of the ensemble and the lack of a strong melody voice in the horn parts, it truly sounds like the bass takes on the melodic lead in this orchestration, however the bass is playing a very typical, repetitive bass part. Here, I think the repetitive nature of the bass allows it to shine through even stronger as a melody voice because the repeated pattern acts as a constant while the other voices change at varying intervals, keeping the track unified while many changes occur in contrast.
The track uses a harmonic pattern we see frequently in these short vamp tunes: moving from a tonic chord (generally a minor chord, usually with extensions (at least the 7th, if not the 9th)) to the flat II and then back to the minor chord. This works off of the the tritone substitution principle we’ve discussed in the past, where the V chord is substituted with the chord a tritone away from it, which is always the chord a half step up from tonic. Notice here that the bII chord is actually employed as a minor 7 chord instead of the dominant bII; what this signifies is that the composer wanted to use this oscillation from i to bii for the chromatic color rather than for a strong resolution.
Lastly, I’d like to discuss the piano colors used to adorn this piece like sprinkles atop an ice cream sundae. First I’d like to recognize that this embellishing line may look like a melody to some less-experienced readers, and I’d like to take a moment to dispel this point. A big reason why this piano part isn’t the proper melody is because of the mixing: the part is simply too quiet to lead the direction of the entire piece. It can also be argued that the line is too high in the register (actually sounding an octave higher than I’ve written here) to have a stable enough body to carry the melody. Lastly, the line has no melodic structure or coherent patterns to help make it catchy or memorable; this is a big part of why the bass feels like the melody here is because it’s super-repetitive nature lets it stick in listener’s ears much easier than this top melody line.
With that out of the way, the point I’d love to discuss about this piano line is the repeated half-step sound that we see in various points throughout this track. This may also confuse some of you new to music theory, as you may ask why a minor 2nd can be featured so prominently without sounding out of place. The reason here is because these minor 2nds always outline important chord extensions, usually the 2nd and 3rd or the natural (think Dorian mode) 6th and 7th. These dissonances actually sound very pleasing when highlighted in a jazz or funk context such as this one, giving the piece the edgy sound that these influencing genres are known for.
That’s it for this piece! I hope I shed some decent light on a surprisingly deep eight bars of music! :)
Bonus Track: I didn’t realize it before today, but the original Smash Bros actually has a very deep and awesome set of original pieces besides the arrangements of well-known Nintendo tracks. Check out this hip track from the Polygon Fight levels (if I’m not mistaken)!

(Click here for a PDF of today’s score!)

#56: Character Select, Super Smash Bros

Hi guys! Back at it again with another post on this lovely Friday in Dallas! Seriously, it hit 75 degrees on my way out of work today. How jealous are you, rest of America? :P

Today’s post is a short look at a piece I’m sure everyone who has ever touched a Nintendo 64 is familiar with, and that is the character select music from Super Smash Bros. I wanted to close out the N64 retrospective with a piece that I’m sure everyone would be familiar with and I figured there’s no better place to look than the classic Nintendo crossover brawler!

One thing I find particularly interesting about this track is the lack of a dedicated melody voice. Due to the sparse nature of the piano colors at the top of the ensemble and the lack of a strong melody voice in the horn parts, it truly sounds like the bass takes on the melodic lead in this orchestration, however the bass is playing a very typical, repetitive bass part. Here, I think the repetitive nature of the bass allows it to shine through even stronger as a melody voice because the repeated pattern acts as a constant while the other voices change at varying intervals, keeping the track unified while many changes occur in contrast.

The track uses a harmonic pattern we see frequently in these short vamp tunes: moving from a tonic chord (generally a minor chord, usually with extensions (at least the 7th, if not the 9th)) to the flat II and then back to the minor chord. This works off of the the tritone substitution principle we’ve discussed in the past, where the V chord is substituted with the chord a tritone away from it, which is always the chord a half step up from tonic. Notice here that the bII chord is actually employed as a minor 7 chord instead of the dominant bII; what this signifies is that the composer wanted to use this oscillation from i to bii for the chromatic color rather than for a strong resolution.

Lastly, I’d like to discuss the piano colors used to adorn this piece like sprinkles atop an ice cream sundae. First I’d like to recognize that this embellishing line may look like a melody to some less-experienced readers, and I’d like to take a moment to dispel this point. A big reason why this piano part isn’t the proper melody is because of the mixing: the part is simply too quiet to lead the direction of the entire piece. It can also be argued that the line is too high in the register (actually sounding an octave higher than I’ve written here) to have a stable enough body to carry the melody. Lastly, the line has no melodic structure or coherent patterns to help make it catchy or memorable; this is a big part of why the bass feels like the melody here is because it’s super-repetitive nature lets it stick in listener’s ears much easier than this top melody line.

With that out of the way, the point I’d love to discuss about this piano line is the repeated half-step sound that we see in various points throughout this track. This may also confuse some of you new to music theory, as you may ask why a minor 2nd can be featured so prominently without sounding out of place. The reason here is because these minor 2nds always outline important chord extensions, usually the 2nd and 3rd or the natural (think Dorian mode) 6th and 7th. These dissonances actually sound very pleasing when highlighted in a jazz or funk context such as this one, giving the piece the edgy sound that these influencing genres are known for.

That’s it for this piece! I hope I shed some decent light on a surprisingly deep eight bars of music! :)

Bonus Track: I didn’t realize it before today, but the original Smash Bros actually has a very deep and awesome set of original pieces besides the arrangements of well-known Nintendo tracks. Check out this hip track from the Polygon Fight levels (if I’m not mistaken)!

(Click here for a PDF of today’s score!)

#55: On the Beach, Yoshi’s Story

Hi guys! Giving a new schedule of posting on Wednesday and Friday nights a spin this week. I like having Monday off and this gives me Tuesday and Thursday as prep/transcription days, with analysis following them the following days. I think this’ll help me from overworking myself and trying to do a whole blog post in a day, so we’ll see how it works out!

For part 3 of the Nintendo 64 Retrospective we’re going to take a look at a game that, like Mario Kart 64 before it, wasn’t rated very well by critics but was adored by fans, particularly those of us who played it at a very young age: Yoshi’s Story. As a big fan of the green dinosaur I have very fond memories of this title (most of them consist of more than a few deaths, however), and I have particularly strong memories of the music, mostly due to the use of unique (at the time) samples such as whistling and children’s choirs (knocked out of tune to replicate the voice of Yoshi’s, of course). Today we’re going to look at an interesting piece of music that should be instantly recognizable for those of you who’ve played the game, and hopefully I can offer a bit of insight as to the interesting techniques involved in the composition of this track. Today’s track is Yoshi’s on the Beach, the level 1 music from Yoshi’s Story.

The first thing that we hear is the unique two-instrument texture created by the composer here. By using just a steel drum and a guitar (notated over two staves here to distinguish the bass line and the accompaniment, but they are played on the same instrument), the composer creates a beautiful summertime texture that is clearly borrowed from popular bossa nova performers such as Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joal Gilberto. To some of you this bossa nova music will sound like elevator music (and you’re not wrong with that assumption!), but I hope you’ll find that the more you listen to it the easier it is to get sucked into the lush, relaxed textures and see that this kind of music has plenty of merit on its own.

Onto the track itself, then. I find it interesting that the harmony begins very simply stated, using standard triads over a pedaled C to G motion in the bass. Using simpler harmonies over such a pedal tone allows the melody to speak out, as well as allowing the triads themselves to get more interesting, such as the D diminished triad in bar 8. This allows the triads themselves to become more interesting harmonies, hitting extension tones like the flat 9 in the mentioned bar. This technique also lets the harmony gradually become more and more complex over the course of the track, as we’ll see in the B section.

The melody throughout this entire track is a cute line, following the character of the Yoshis themselves. The A section centers around the G tone at the beginning, not rising high enough to create any significant dynamic shift until later in the piece. I like to think of the melody at A as a simple, playful and not incredibly significant line, and in contrast the melody at B gives the piece a great sense of direction and growth (this is not to say that one melody is better than the other: both melodies set out to complete very different tasks, and I think both accomplish those tasks superbly).

The B section is where the bossa feel really kicks into high gear. The guitar line is simply dripping in bossa nova while the melody leads the way to the climax of the piece. It also helps the bossa nova flavor that the harmony starts to get into jazz language here, relying on chord extensions for color and following a standard ii-V-I pattern (cycled in a variety of ways, mind you). The track eventually builds to a very cool moment where the guitar plays an effective Gsus9 chord in lieu of the proper V7, eventually resolving the sus voicing to an equally unresolved Ab#11 chord. However, my favorite part of this sequence may be how they bring us back to tonic, which is with the simple C to Bb lick that permeates the entire Yoshi’s Story soundtrack. I feel the lesson to be learned there is that a memorable line can be the most powerful form of resolution there is if used properly.

That’s it for today! Thanks for stopping by guys! :D

Bonus Track: Click here to listen to some of the other unique colors to be found in the Yoshi’s Story soundtrack!

((You can find the PDF of today’s score here!))

#54: Blue Resort Theme, Bomberman 64

Hi guys! Back at it again with another exciting analysis!

Today we continue with part 2 of our exciting spotlight on Nintendo 64 titles, and today I decided I wanted to find a game that perhaps not as many people are aware of. Of course, today’s title feature a protagonist who used to be a major household name, however his stock has taken quite a tumble in the past five years, leaving us with only fond memories of how wonderful his games used to be. That protagonist, of course, is Bomberman, and today we’ll be looking at a track from his debut game on the Nintendo 64, appropriately titled Bomberman 64. The track is titled Blue Resort Theme and you can listen to it here!

The first point I want to make about this track is a point that I believe I’ve made on at least one blog post before, or at least I bring it up in everyday conversation a lot, and that point is that the accordion gets a bad rap. So many great artists and composers make beautiful use of the accordion (see the Ratatouille soundtrack, as a common example, or Maria Schneider if you’re into jazz), and our culture labels it as a corny polka instrument when it has the potential to be so much more. The accordion used in today’s track is a MIDI file from the 90s and it still has a powerful effect on the timbre of this track. Accordion is and will continue to be one of my favorite instruments for unique soundscapes, and this track only serves to entrench my opinion in that regard.

Speaking of the timbre and soundscape of this particular piece, the composer uses the cascading accordion, along with a bell-based melodic voice and some rising and falling harp lines to give the track a winter-y feeling. This pleasant timbre fits in perfectly with the funk beat in the drums and keyboard accompaniment, creating a lovely timbre that also has plenty of motion and room to grow.

I want to talk about the harmonic choices implemented in this piece because I feel many people with a basic music theory background may be confused by the lack of concrete resolution here. The composer purposely dodges solid V to I relationships in his chord structures exactly because they would be too concrete. The choice of moving chords stepwise throughout the A section gives the relatively inactive melody some tension and keeps the piece moving forward. When the accordion takes over the melody at the B section (bar 21) the harmony moves to a circle-of-fifths progression, because the more active melody and countermelody keeps the piece moving forward in place of the harmony.

That’s it for today guys, I hope you all have a fantastic weekend!

Bonus Track: I think you guys will like this short-but-sweet Stage Select Theme from Bomberman 64. You can directly hear the influence that Final Fantasy’s intro theme had on this composition, all while hearing the influence this may have had on OSTs such as the Phoenix Wright soundtrack.

((Here is the PDF of today’s track!))

Tonight’s post will be postponed until dinnertime or so tomorrow.  Sorry for the delay, but trust me when I say that it’s worth it, because the track we’ll be looking at is super cool :D

Also this will serve as a semi-test to see if pushing posts back a day and then posting them earlier in that day gets more hits.  I’m more of a night owl myself so I don’t mind posting new tracks around midnight or so but I have a feeling more people will see the post if I get it up earlier in the day.  We’ll see how it works out tomorrow :)