Nintendo Minute hosts Kit and Krista had the chance to interview the prolific composer of video-game music, Koji Kondo, whose list of works include several iterations from the Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda series. Kit and Krista’s subject for the interview was Kondo’s “compositional process.” Borrowed from scholarly discussions about music, the term refers to the methods and/or steps by which composers write a piece of music from conception to the finished product. In other words, it addresses the question: How do composers compose? As may be imagined, compositional processes can be as personal and varied as the musical works themselves. So here is Koji Kondo’s take on it, interlaced with some retrospect and reflection.

The interview opened with the interviewers, Kondo, and translator Tim O’ Leary, who works in

Nintendo Treehouse (Treehouse Live). Kit and Krista first asked what it was like having to composing music for such classic, iconic games. Kondo responded that he had to come up with catchy themes and work with them at length. It seemed that Kondo had a fair amount of autonomy to accomplish that task. While some creators, directors, or producers can be quite detailed in articulating the kind of music they want, Kondo recalls that Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Aonuma allowed him the freedom to work on a theme and bring it to them when he had finished.

The conversation then took a trip into Kondo’s past when the interviewers asked what got him interested in music. He studied the electric organ at a young age and, as he got older, interested himself in playing arcade games that incorporated more music. Upon graduating from college, Kondo wanted to try his hand at video-game music and consequently joined the Nintendo staff.

Since Kondo has become such a presence in the video-game music world, Kit and Krista were curious to know which his favorite composition was; he responded with

Super Mario Bros. 3! As 2015 will mark the 30-year anniversary of the game with the indefatigable, roly-poly Italian with the most durable head of all time, the video focused on Kondo’s music from the Super Mario Bros. franchise.

Kondo reflected that he had to play the original

Super Mario Bros. first before composing any music. He quickly realized that the score needed to have the speed and liveliness of Mario himself, which explains the rhythmic verve of the game’s themes. In addition, Kondo had to compose all of the sound effects. That task, according to him, was a difficult process. It required a lot of creativity, imagination, and trial and error—because who really ponders what getting a 1-up mushroom would sound like?

One of the final areas Kit and Krista addressed was how Kondo rendered the worlds in

Super Mario Bros. immediately recognizable for players through the music. Indeed, Kondo believed that the music had to match the world or area. For example, the underground should sound uneasy, which is why the theme has a monophonic line (single melody line) and many instances of silence. It thus sounds sparse and a little unpredictable. Most astonishing is that, due to NES’s 8-bit capabilities, Kondo only had three different timbres (sound or tone qualities) at his disposal. Consequently, rhythmic and melodic ingenuity became all the more important and challenging for Kondo. In the end, however, the music of Super Mario Bros. is memorable precisely for its rhythmic drive.

As an aside, the discourse in this video touches on an idea of music history, one that reaches back at least to the mid-1800s. The notion of a theme formally attributed to a person, place, thing, environment, and so forth—a

leitmotif—began with Richard Wagner’s The Ring of Nibelung: an epic opera cycle of gods, goddesses, heroes, villains, and mythical creatures. Sounds just a bit like The Legend of Zelda, doesn’t it? Characterization through musical theme became one of the most important innovations in the history of music; it paved the way for movie music and also for video-game music. When we think of Darth Vader, we may start humming the “Imperial March;” when we think of the Lord of the Rings, we may think of the “Fellowship” theme (or several other themes). When we think of Zelda herself, “Zelda’s Lullaby” might not be too far away. Koji Kondo’s use of leitmotif in everything from character to scenery taps into a two hundred-year tradition of musical composition, which invites us to appreciate his music all the more.

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