Posted on March 25 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.
Combat has always been a fulcrum of The Legend of Zelda series, but Breath of the Wild takes Link’s blade work to a different scale. This game saw the addition of many new combat strategies, including the perfect dodge, shield reflecting, and even slow-mo! Naturally, this meant that Manama Kataoka, lead composer for Breath of the Wild, had to create battle music fit for these advancements.
Introducing the Piece
This track, number 3 from our Breath of the Wild: Sound Selections, ‘Battle (Field)’ can be heard in most regions of Breath of the Wild’s vast world. It is the first battle music the player will hear as they roam around the height of the Great Plateau, running into stray Moblins. The blasting trumpets in the later section can really amp up the intensity of a seemingly losing battle when our hero is armed only with a small, brittle sword and only a tattered cloth on his back for protection.
This piece, though fairly repetitive in theme, has an incredibly diverse roster of instruments, particularly from the percussion family. These numerous percussive instruments can be split into three categories; idiophones, instruments that sound by the vibration of their body; membranophones, instruments that sound by the striking of a membrane or head (more commonly known as ‘drums’); and one cordophone, instruments that sound by the playing of a string. Our first category, the idiophones, takes the monopoly for not only percussive instruments, but instruments in general in this piece. Our idiophones include; the marimba, the big wooden piano looking instrument (which I also happened to major in at university, so certainly no bias here…); castanets, also known as finger cymbals; various shakers; a crash cymbal (the big clapping concert ones, not the drum kit version); and finally the güiro, that tube looking instrument that you scrape with a stick along the ridges that kind of sounds like a frog. Our membranophones include the common orchestral bass drum, and a set of bongos, mainly the hembra (larger drum) and sometimes the macho (smaller drum). The least common percussive instrument type, the chordophone, is limited to one instrument: the piano. The piano is considered a percussive instrument because the keys cause a beater to hit the strings inside the piano, as opposed to the strings being plucked by fingers, like a guitar. This instrument, as we have noted before, is an integral instrument in the score for Breath of the Wild. The other instruments consist of various strings (violin, viola, etc.), and a horn section (trumpets and a trombone are featured).
This piece of music, I think, aims to embody the ambient feel of Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack as a whole. The instruments come in slow, alerting the player of potential danger without pulling them out of easy listening to abruptly. It encourages the player to chose whether or not to take the plunge into battle, preparing their ears for the rising instruments. It isn’t until about 33 seconds in that there’s any semblance of a melody, and not until 1:05 that the piece really starts to move. Horns in general have a way about them that heightens intensity, especially when their playing fast and repetitively like the aforementioned ostinato.
That essentially means the player is not leaving the ambient background unless they really want to. The high emphasis on percussion gives the piece a lot of forward motion, which is key in music that you want to go somewhere, like in a tense battle! It even gives you a couple sound hints that you should draw your sword! This is called “word painting,” when the music reflects what either the lyrics say (such as in musicals) or what is happening for the people involved (common in operas). The repetitive nature of the piece allows the player to ignore the music around them as they really dive into the battle mechanics.
Though the main emphasis of this piece is the impressive percussion section chugging along, there is still a lot of good stuff to pick at underneath it. For example, the piece does a lot of “word painting” (mentioned earlier) in the way it escalates. The piece starts in Ab-Major, a key generally used for slower, or more elegant pieces (see compositions of 17th century composers Chopin, Beethoven, Bruckner, and Dvořák). The somewhat odd 7/4 time signatures, however, puts the player’s ears on edge, subconsciously recognizing something is a little off. The piece then moves to concert C-Major, a fairly standard key that pretty much every instrumentalist learns first. This allows the ears to ground on something familiar, same as how the player can ground themselves in the familiar battle setting. Quickly though, in a spurt of sixteenth-notes (0:32), the piano (doubled by the marimba) takes us into E-Major, where the rest of the piece sits, just as the player has similarly decided to cement themselves in the battle.
Notice how the end of the run is the leading tone (Eb) into the new key of E-Major (as it is the enharmonic, or same not written differently, of F#)! Next comes the trumpet entrance, along with a solid key change into familiar 4/4, again resolving the player into familiar combat before shuffling back subtly to 7/4. Slowly, the music dies back down, as though indicating to the player that if they wish to leave the fight, now is the time.
I must say, and this may become a running theme, that I was disappointed with this battle music the first time I heard it. I couldn’t help but compare it to the immediately intense battle themes like in Ocarina of Time, or The Wind Waker, or even Twilight Princess. It felt kind of bland, like there wasn’t a lot going on. However, unlike the ‘Field (Day)’ track, my appreciation has not grown much for this battle tune. I still think it is lack luster, but not to anyone’s fault. It’s still a great composition, and I think it fits the overall feel of the game itself. Taking the time to actually analyse it has given me a greater appreciation for the thought behind the notes. I think what it lacks is “heavy” instrumentation like a contrabasso (upright bass) or the low notes on the piano to make it seam credible as a wild fight for survival.
These, of course, are only my opinions. Do you disagree with what I’ve said? Is this in fact one of your favourite battle songs in the Zelda series? What do you think Kataoka could have done differently to make it better, or should it be kept the same? Let me know in the comments 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!