The Legend of Zelda series, like many of the popular NES games of the 80’s, has expanded into newer territory and evolved with its gameplay, mechanics, and rich mythology. One of the most notable aspects of the series that has continued to change and evolve is its music. What began as an ordinary soundtrack that played along with the game just as any other at the time gained a high level of popularity as the series progressed. As later games came along, that popularity grew and grew, leading to that music’s transformation into a major game mechanic and, beyond that, a traveling concert. Fans enjoy more than the game, they enjoy the music and replaying its tracks themselves.
The main theme of the original Legend of Zelda was no less memorable than that of other major releases at the time, and soon became synonymous with the series. After a while, people easily recognized the tune even if they were not altogether familiar with the game. And some time later, the series evolved and placed more emphasis on music, with more themes to accompany more regions, then personal themes to accompany the characters. With no voice-acting present in the game, music became a very prominent element; moods are set with the tone of the music supplementing the text-only dialog. And in certain games, playing instruments, or just the presence of certain themes, began to have serious involvement with the gameplay and story.
Early on in the series there were certain items that pointed to music being important to the lore. In the first game Link acquired a mysterious flute that summoned a magical tornado to transport him around the map. In other areas it could be used to reveal certain secrets hidden from the player. Later, this concept of a musical instrument was used again in A Link to the Past with another flute with the same purpose. And in Link’s Awakening, the main quest involved gathering up the various instruments from the dungeons so he could play the Ballad of the Wind Fish to wake said fish and allow him to escape the island. Link’s Awakening marks the first time a song had a title within the world.
Sometimes themes would reappear in later games either as a nod to earlier titles or, on some occasions, they would be involved with the story. When this is done as a nod, it’s meant to create a feeling of familiarity and function as a callback to earlier games. This creates a legacy and the music becomes well-known to the fans. In Majora’s Mask, the Ballad of the Wind Fish from Link’s Awakening was played by the Zora Band, the Indigo-Go’s. Another familiar tune is the often heard “Da Da Da Daaaaaaaaaaa” when opening treasure chests and discovering the secrets within. This was an update of the sound effect heard in the first Legend of Zelda when Link obtained an item and held it in the air.
But many times in the series, a tune from an older game is reused for more: To link events or characters and tell a story. In the beginning of The Wind Waker, the introduction sequence plays the familiar overworld theme while recounting the adventure of the Hero of Time. The theme of the Master Sword, first heard when Link draws the blade in A Link to the Past, is repeated each time he draws it again in Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker. The Serenade of Water from Ocarina of Time, linked to the Zora Tribe was heard again in Twilight Princess as the theme of Queen Rutela.
The most popular of these recurring themes is Zelda’s Lullaby, which first appeared in A Link to the Past as the Princess’ theme, but later on in Ocarina of Time was titled and said to be a song important to the Royal Family. In later sequels it continued to be the main theme of Princess Zelda, or occasionally used as special reveal theme when Zelda makes her first appearance in the game. An example of this is the first appearance of Princess Zelda in Twilight Princess, where the lullaby can be heard in the background. In The Wind Waker it was again played when Tetra was revealed to be Zelda.
Sometimes these recurring themes are easy to notice, and sometimes they’re subtly included into more original tracks. Sometimes fans will listen to these themes again, recognize part of them, and discover there’s more to them than what it seems at first. One example is two separate songs that are performed by the sages Fado and Medli at different points in The Wind Waker, which together actually form the intro theme of the game. This same device was used again in Spirit tracks when Link plays the title theme on the Spirit Flute in his song with Zelda. An especially interesting example of this, however, is a theme that seemed totally original but actually was a secret reference to the aforementioned Zelda’s Lullaby: The Ballad of the Goddess. Heard in Skyward Sword, this theme was discovered by fans to actually contain Zelda’s Lullaby when played backwards.
Music does more in the series these days than just provide direct enjoyment for the fans or build on the lore, however. Since its use for fast travel in early Zelda games and its gameplay usage in Link’s Awakening, musical instruments have become an even bigger gameplay device.
In Ocarina of Time, the inclusion of new music brought more than just more themes for the player to listen to. Building off the multiple playable songs of the Ocarina in Link’s Awakening, many of the songs were an important mechanic of the gameplay. With the game named after it, the small blue Ocarina of Time that closely resembles the one used in A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening is actually a magical heirloom of the Hylian royal family that’s acquired relatively early in the game. Over the course of the adventure Link learns a variety of songs that have various effects and can be used to solve puzzles. Each song requires a specific button combination to play and are often taught by an NPC. Some notable ones are the well-known Zelda’s Lullaby, the Sun Song, which can turn night into day, and the Song of Storms which will create rain when played. Each temple has a corresponding song to learn that will allow Link to travel to entrance. This is in contrast to the original flute, which had only one song, played with a single button, that took Link to a variety of locations.
The Ocarina allowed for more interactive gameplay through its unique controls. Instead of using spells common in other fantasy games, Link would learn new songs to play on the Ocarina that had various magical effects. Playing each song required the player to perform button combinations that imitate pressing one’s fingers against the holes of an Ocarina. This was repeated in the direct sequel Majora’s Mask. A number of the songs from Ocarina of Time returned as well as many new songs for players to master. The Ocarina remained a core component of the game — if not an even bigger part — and was necessary to complete many of the quests.
In the next sequel, The Wind Waker, they took this in a slightly different direction. Link did not carry a musical instrument but instead carried a conductor’s baton after which the game was named. Many of the same mechanics were used with the baton, however. Pressing the C-stick in different directions in tandem with a metronome would produce some of the same magical effects as the Ocarina. Using the Wind Waker was absolutely necessary for traveling across the Great Sea since it allowed for Link to conduct the wind and change its course. Much like the games before, certain songs could be learned from NPCs by watching their movements or discovered by the player through carvings. As it was a baton and not an instrument, Link would often use it to conduct the music of others instead of play by himself — though when played alone it does make noise, seemingly with the wind. This was the focus of a quest later in the game to awaken new sages to empower the Master Sword. Link conducted the music of Medli and Makar much in the same way the original King of Hyrule was said to conduct the music of the sages in the ancient past.
Of course, over the years, the quality of the music in the games improved. First in detail, and later on in how the themes portray separate cultures and peoples throughout the world. As the games began to include music for individual regions and individual tribes, or even specific characters, themes like those of the Gerudo Valley or Dragon Roost Island came about, which are meant to depict a certain unique culture separate from the ordinary Hylians. The early themes were meant to sound more like typical classical or epic music for a standard fantasy adventure. But the guitar of Gerudo Valley or the flute and wind instruments heard in The Wind Waker invoke a different feeling — one of a separate nation or different culture. And beyond these cultural distinctions, some themes also simply create certain moods. The lazy, soft tune of Lon Lon Ranch helps create a safe and everyday feeling, apart from the epic adventure music of Hyrule Field.
Skyward Sword marked the first time a symphony was used to record the soundtrack of a Zelda game. Before they were always produced digitally, within a studio. This greater emphasis placed on superior quality sound led to the fully orchestrated score for the game. The qreater quality and the growing number of fans of the music of the series influenced Nintendo to put more attention on the music themselves. It became just as important to the game for a new generation of fans as the graphics and story.
The game soundtracks have gained a popularity of their own, apart from how they impact the lore, gameplay, and feeling of a Zelda game. It is not uncommon to find fans of the series’ music that can easily name the track titles. Some have even learned to play the music of the games, and record their own versions. There are many remixes and modern takes on the classic themes, perhaps on guitar or in dubstep. This has shown that the music of the series alone has led to the creation of a fan community dedicated to recreating and recording the music, or just listening to it, apart from the games. Many musicians have replayed everything from the original overworld theme to the more complex Prelude of Light. The Wind Waker has been known to contain a large number of themes that have become fan favorites. Through the efforts of independent musicians and other groups such as Zelda ReOrchestrated, many have listened to the soundtracks of the games just as they would the soundtrack of a movie.
What might just be the ultimate expression of the overwhelming popularity of the music of the series is the traveling concert that has played worldwide, titled The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddess. Beginning with the series’ 25th anniversary, Nintendo announced that the traveling concert would be playing various songs from the series with an orchestra in major cities across America and throughout the world. Here fans can enjoy the classic and modern themes heard in many of the games performed in fully-orchestrated form. More than a year later the symphony has still maintained a level of dedication as they continue to travel and announce more tour dates.
What began as some catchy tunes in a simple 8-bit game evolved into memorable story moments and involving gameplay, and further into a traveling concert series. The music heard in the series is no less important and certainly no less popular than the games themselves. The sheer amount of fans reproducing and remixing the well-known melodies as well as the highly successful Symphony of the Goddess tour can easily attest to that.