Posted on December 27 2014 by Aaron Suduiko
In this installment of With a Terrible Fate, I analyze the music of “Majora’s Mask” through the lens of Nietzsche’s poetics.
(Disclaimer: this series is a work of theoretical analysis, which offers interpretations that are often outside of canon, and is not concerned with authorial intent. I hope that my work might all the same prove itself to be useful and enjoyable.)
“The Legend of Zelda” is renowned for the quality of its soundtrack, so much so that its songs are performed by symphonies. There are multiple reasons why the usage of music in the series is noteworthy, some of which include: the high symphonic quality of composition; the usage of the same themes across multiple entries in the series in order to facilitate continuity and points of contrast; and, perhaps most notably, music functions both as ambiance and as a plot device. “Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” is named after the musical instrument which drives much of the plot; over the course of the game, Link must learn a variety of songs from different characters in order to progress. The effects brought about by such songs vary from facilitating communication with Link’s best friend to unsealing the Temple of Time, thereby accessing the temporal architecture of the game and allowing Link to travel from the past to the future and back again.
I’ve already mentioned that part of the manifest strangeness in “Majora’s Mask” is because of how very different it is from other “Zelda” titles. In this edition of With a Terrible Fate, I argue that music is a prime example of how “Majora” is simultaneously familiar and terrifyingly different from the rest of the canon: it takes the significance of sound to another level in game design.
The center of Termina’s universe is the seemingly quaint Clock Town. When Link arrives in the center of town on the First Day, a whimsical melody picks up as ambient music. The player is eased into a sense of every day life, exploring the town’s four quadrants as time passes unassumingly. Move to the Second Day in Clock Town, and something happens that is characteristically ‘a little off’: the townsfolk are still going about their business, but the music is somewhat less relaxed than before. Perhaps, on first hearing it, we might think that it is more boisterous than its first iteration, as the tempo is far more upbeat. But this changes drastically on the Final Day, when the music runs out of control with the rest of Termina: not only is the pace of the music alarmingly manic, but deeply dissonant bass now plays underneath the melody, unequivocally signaling to the player — along with the earthquakes and enormous moon uncomfortably close to the earth — that Termina has derailed and is set to crash.
The impact on the player, as described above, is pretty transparent. What I want to ask instead as a way into the matter of music is this: can the citizens of Clock Town hear this ambient music? Ordinarily, we interpret the soundtrack element of media like movies and games as a component of the aesthetic experience for the player, which the medium has overlaid with the events of the story; so it is natural to assume, in other words, that the characters of a story usually do not hear the soundtrack. Yet I do not believe that this is a clear-cut matter in the world of Termina. At the heart of this question is a thesis that music actually constitutes the world of Termina in a substantive way, and we can turn to Friedrich Nietzsche to see why.
In The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, a young Nietzsche claims that “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified” (Section 5, trans. Walter Kaufmann). What Nietzsche precisely means by this is difficult to parse, and I will not attempt to do so presently. How I gloss Nietzsche’s claim is this: a nihilistic world can only be properly conceived through the embracing primordial sentiments and rejection of individual frameworks of meaning — and only art can achieve this. This is the interpretation of his thesis that I will be using for the remainder of this post.
What’s particularly salient about Nietzsche in relation to “Majora” is that he holds up music as the paragon of what I call primordial sentiment (what he calls ‘the Dionysian’). To Nietzsche, music was different from all other art, “because, unlike [other art], it is not a copy of the the phenomenon, but an immediate copy of the will itself, and therefore complements everything physical in the world and every phenomenon by representing what is metaphysical, the thing in itself” (Section 16, trans. Kaufmann — and here Nietzsche is explicitly recapitulating the philosophy of Schopenhauer). This is part-and-parcel of his idea of the world only being justifiable as an aesthetic phenomenon: the argument is that the primal force of existence is described by music because it exists prior to our imposition of meaning or artificial representation. But Nietzsche also knew that music and other, image-based art forms (what he calls ‘the Apollinian’) oftentimes coexist, and that “image and concept, under the influence of a truly corresponding music, acquire a higher significance… music incites to the symbolic intuition of Dionysian universality [through images], and music allows the symbolic image to emerge in its highest significance” (Section 16, trans. Kaufmann).
“Majora’s Mask” closely adheres to Nietzsche’s ideal relation between music and imagery. We already have considered Clock Town’s music as a model of the universe’s apocalyptic decay, but the relationship between Termina and music goes far deeper than that: Termina’s metaphysics are directly related to music. We only need to consider the Song of Time to confirm this: the melody essentially allows Link to access Termina’s source code, changing his relative position along its timeline. Not only can Link use the Song of Time to return to the Dawn of the First Day: he can also use variations of the song to slow down the flow of time (the ‘Inverted Song of Time’) or to move forward in time in discontinuous bursts (the ‘Song of Double Time’). What’s more, the only way in which the player can genuinely save progress in the game is by playing the Song of Time. This means that even the player’s immediate relation to the game in terms of recording their in-game actions in the game’s history is governed by music. (I use the term ‘genuinely save’ because players can also save their game at Owl Statues throughout Termina; but these saves are described as temporary in that the game is exited upon saving, and the save marker is deleted when the save file is reopened. Thus, the very design of the Owl Statue suggests that it only provides the player with an artificial and indirect relation to the game’s universe, in comparison to the Song of Time.)
Termina is a world defined by time, and time in “Majora” is metricized through music. We can even frame the basic tension of the game through music: the story of “Majora,” on one level, is the push-and-pull of the Song of Time against the Clock Town Theme. The accelerating, manic juggernaut of the Clock Town Theme is the underlying tendency of the game’s universe toward extinction, and the Song of Time is manifest will, the agency of humanity staring into inevitable demise and asserting themselves in the face of extinction. On a Nietzschean reading, every other component of the game is derivative of the counterpoint between these two musical themes.
Additionally, the only resolution of the game comes from playing a song — the Oath to Order — which you learn from the first Giant at the beginning of the game, and do not use until the climax against Skull Kid in order to call all four liberated Giants to hold back the falling moon. So on a different musical level, the entire game is a quest to play one song: the Oath to Order. And of course, we see that Majora then possesses the moon and threatens to crash it into Termina in spite of the Giants, thereby suggesting that Order cannot ultimately be achieved (this conclusion, I believe, collapses into the primordial conflict between the Song of Time and the Clock Town Theme, but I will not pursue a proof of the reduction now).
When we conceive of the game as metaphysically musical, the difficulty of the question posed at the start of this discourse (“can the citizens of Clock Town hear this ambient music?”) becomes clear. It is no longer apparent what the question means, or if we can even coherently pose it. The music is only ambient inasmuch as the entire universe is ambient. And this is key: the model of a musical universe breaks down our traditional understanding of background music as any sort of “background,” because the music reveals itself as fundamentally inseparable from existence in Termina.
Here is one way to prove that the citizens of Clock Town must ‘hear the music,’ so to speak: the next time you are alone in a sufficiently quiet environment, close your eyes and just listen. You will not find that the world is silent. In fact, composer John Cage was famously inspired to write 4’33 in 1952 after visiting a sound- and echo-proofed room: in the room, he found that he could hear his blood flow and heart beat, and concluded that silence cannot truly be experienced. So it is not reasonable to conceive of a world as silent, unless the world otherwise somehow directly stipulates that this is the case. Now, given that the citizens must be hearing something, what is it that they could be hearing? We just examined how the most fundamental nature of Termina is musical; everything physical within Termina is, as Nietzsche would put it, symbolic of that primordial content. Similarly, I pointed out in my previous post that the lives of characters within Termina serve as a microcosm of the macrocosmic apocalypse that is Termina. So on every level, the lives of these people are ending; and therefore, even if they do not literally hear the music which constitutes the Clock Tower Theme, they must symbolically hear it because Clock Town itself, like Termina, is a performance of the Clock Town Theme.
We see that the universe of “Majora’s Mask” is constituted as a musical discourse, and this in my mind already sets it apart from the design of most other games in terms of musical composition; but “Majora” does even more than this. It is not enough to say that the physical universe is a symbolic image of music; “Majora” also explores the nature of just what that symbolic relation entails. Consider that in each of Link’s four “main forms” — when he is a Hylian child, and when he is transformed through a mask into a Deku Scrub, Zora, or Goron — Link possesses a different instrument. He only possesses the literal Ocarina in his Hylian form; otherwise, he wields brass pipes, a guitar, or a set of drums, respectively.
These instruments all have unique sounds and unique names: they are the Ocarina of Time, the Pipes of Awakening, the Guitar of Waves, and the Drums of Sleep. Aside from adding texture to the gaming experience, the difference in instruments are significant on a few levels, two of which I enumerate below.
1. The difference in musical instruments imparts substance to otherwise flat identities. Link assumes the form of the Deku Scrub, Zora, and Goron through masks, effectively adopting them as personas. Yet in the case of the Zora and Goron, these masks are derived from healing the pain of a dying Zora hero (Mikau) and the ghost of a Goron hero (Darmani; these are stories which I will closely examine later on); the characters who knew these heroes in life mistake Link for them when he wears the appropriate mask. Thus, there must exist some relation between the flat persona and the entity from which it emerged. The instruments give us a link between the two (no pun intended): just as they are unique, Link learns different songs in each of his forms, which are appropriate to the context of the lives of the progenitors of his masks. To take one example, a main quest when Link is in the land of Gorons requires learning a lullaby that the elder of Darmani’s tribe used to play for his son. The result of this is that each of Link’s forms bares an ontologically unique relationship to the universe: because existence is constituted by music, their knowledge of different songs justifies their individual identities in a world which would otherwise render them superficial.
2. The ability of each instrument to play Link’s entire library of songs creates a deep tension between individuality and homogeneity. Despite this first level of significance, each of the four instruments can be used to play all of the songs that Link knows, regardless of the context in which he learned them. This returns to the Nietzschean idea of music as a language that transcends the barriers of language itself, in that all can immediately apprehend it. So, by engaging in this common language that precedes individuation, the musician is able to commune with the essential form of the universe irrespective of identity. This not only makes Link’s masks feel artificial, but makes Link and entities in general feel artificial. When Link plays hide-and-seek with the children under the tree at the very end of the game, as I described a few articles ago, each child poses hauntingly enigmatic questions to Link when Link finds them. One child asks Link: “Your true face… What kind of face is it? I wonder… The face under the mask… Is that your true face?” There questions drive to the heart of “Majora,” and, though I will consider several ways to formulate answers to them as the series continues, one way to both motivate the questions and respond to them is this: as long as we have a face, we are false because we are differentiated from the universe. Our true face is that of music. If you find yourself doubting that so strong a claim follows, consider this as well: the mechanism for healing the spirits of Mikau and Darmani (and many others in the game) is a song: the Song of Healing. Link heals the pain of people by recalling them to the universe of music, reminding them of their loved ones and dissolving their acute individuation and loneliness. To paraphrase Darmani, the sorrows of the suffering melt away into the song.
You can stumble upon any Zelda song and be swept away in the feeling of the epic, and the imminent sense of heroism; yet I cannot think of another game within the canon that is so inherently musical as to articulate that our true face is musical, at once formulating music as the nature of existence and as the ultimate technology of the self. We ought to seriously study the musical form of “Majora,” if for no other reason than that it recapitulates the content of the game. Clock Town’s Theme is not an ambient loop — rather, it convinces the player that it is timeless, until its degradation through time demands the player’s attention and asserts a simple truth which is too easily ignored: all songs must end.
(For reference purposes, please note my version of the relevant Nietzsche: Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1967. Print.)
Want to follow the analysis and theory? Read on at With a Terrible Fate.