Posted on March 04 2019 by Matt Pederberg
Music is a defining feature of The Legend of Zelda series, so much so that it becomes its own character. The soundscape molds Hyrule around Link and his friends, giving character to those he interacts with and helps the player connect with them on an emotional level. The awe-striking music from The Legend of Zelda played a significant role in why I chose to pursue Bachelor’s Degree in music, and it is why I have decided to take an in-depth look at different tracks throughout the scores that inspire me as a musician. I thought a good starting point would be Breath of the Wild, one of the soundtracks that I am least familiar with. Now, seeing as Breath of the Wild has a little over 4 hours worth of music (that’s 211 tracks, wow!), I figured I would start with working my way through the Sound Selection CD included in all limited editions of Breath of the Wild’s original release.
Introducing the Piece
To kick things off, let’s introduce the tune! Track 1, titled ‘Main Theme,’ was composed by Breath of the Wild lead composer, Manaka Kataoka in early 2016, predating the game’s official release by about a year. This is owing to the fact that it was actually written for Breath of the Wild’s trailer at the E3 of the same year. Kataoka used a wide variety of instruments, which greatly impacts the uniqueness of this main theme. The piano opens and closes the piece, which is an important statement as the piano becomes the voice of the pretty much the entire game. Along side it are other common European instruments; strings; horns; percussion; and the less common (put still prominent) accordion; as well as a quite modern synthesizer, but woven in are two less known instruments in the Western world.
A prominent feature in the piece (at about the 0:21 second mark) is the shinobue flute (right). This Japanese flute is traditionally made of bamboo and characteristically gives off a sweet, high registered sound. The other traditional instrument Kanatoka utilized is the ehru, a double stringed Chinese fiddle (left). This melodic instrument is featured after the first big swell (around 1:04, right after the “annoying” abrupt halt (we will talk about that later)) mimics the human voice and is usually a solo instrument, but as Kanatoka proves with this piece, works just as well as an ensemble instrument.
These choices of instruments were quite an intentional choice by Kataoka (as was much of her crafting of this piece), as the juxtaposition of modern synthesizers and ancient traditional instruments reflects how Link experiences the world: a strange combination of unfathomably old technology that is far advanced beyond anything Hyrule has ever seen. Kataoka understood the history behind Hyrule and let the theme reflect that.
Coming back now to that little break at about 1:03 (as promised), many people who listen to the piece are often thrown by the sudden stop, throwing them out of the music. I myself thought maybe my disc had a scratch on it! However, this slight pause was actually a very intentional rest by Kataoka, meant to represent Link’s first breath after 100 years of stasis. It symbolizes the jarring divide between Link’s experience of Hyrule both before and after his slumber. After this break, Kataoka begins featuring more common, yet still “out there” instruments to reflect the different races of Hyrule (the accordion for the Rito, marimba for Goron, etcetera).
In this section, we’ll be going to dive into some technical analysis of the piece (beware, you might learn some musical theory!) The piece is primarily in a 3/4 time signature and remains in a major key for the most part. It begins in Ab Major but makes a point of cruising through quite a few key changes along the way, including G Major and Eb Major, which I think really accentuates the ‘Wild’ factor of the game’s title. If thought of in sections, the piece can easily be broken into 8 measure sections, known in this case as “call and response” sections. One section acts as the “call” (0:05):
These 8 bars are then followed with the “response,” or second idea (0:22):
These ideas are constantly calling back and froth throughout the piece (0:38/0:52, 1:07+1:21/1:36), which allows us to easily grasp the main concept while still feeling like its new material.The piece builds anticipation to the final note by using the aforementioned key changes. These excellent key changes are accomplished by using what we call “borrowed chords,” chords that are normally harmonic (uses notes found in the key signature’s scale) in a different key but used in the current key to make a key change (or harmonic shift) seamless into the new key.
The example above shows the first key change (0:38). The music comes in on a Db Major chord, IV (as in Ab, Bb, C, Db in the Ab scale) in the key of Ab (with a fun Eb suspension!), which also happens to be the V (fifth) of G Major (the VII of Ab Major), the new key. For those of you not in the know, the V of a key is one of the nicest chords on the ears to shift back to the tonic (or I). It helps our ears feel a lot better because our brain doesn’t need to work as hard to figure out what just happened. This piece is filled with lots of other cool stuff, but I think I’ll stop there for now.
This ‘Main Theme’ quickly became my personal favorite title them in the Zelda franchise, due to a certain “freshness” it seemed to have from the other themes. I loved the way it brought me in with its gentle beginning, then really hits you with its heavy tones after Link’s awakening breath. My favorite part of the composition comes right at the end with the final swell, the gentle stop, and the final note gently floating in for a few beats, then away. I remember almost falling off my seat while watching the E3 trailer. The theme captured the essence of the game and what was happening on the screen. It truly did take my breath away.
I hope these insights into Breath of the Wild’s Main Theme have helped you understand a little better the work and thought that went into its composition. What was your first experience of this piece? Where does it fall in your list of favourite Main Themes? Let us know below!
Matt Pederberg is part of the Writing Team at Zelda Dungeon, holds a Bachelor of Music, and has used that knowledge to develop his love of excellent music in excellent video games!