Posted on March 25 2012 by Mases Hagopian
The Legend of Zelda series has always been heralded as one of the most musically oriented franchises out there, and it has certainly generated plenty of melodies that we all find ourselves humming from time to time. However, when confronted with the challenge of organizing and analyzing the music itself it can be extremely difficult to dive into. Of course, a lot of people have thought about it, but allow me to provide my own insight into the matter. Maybe I can provide some ideas that you’ve never even thought of, and if there is any that I missed, be sure to let me know.
First and foremost is the underscore. An underscore is a term usually associated with film music, but it can be also used in reference to video games (I am aware that there is other video game specific terminology, but I will not be using it). It refers to the music that you hear in the background of a film (or in this case, video game) and its role is to set a mood that augments the implied feeling of what is going in within the film or video game. For example, have you ever watched a horror film with the music muted? Without music, the ability to frighten you is lost because the underscore in a horror film is essential to creating and augmenting the feeling of terror and paranoia. But what about the Zelda games, what role does the underscore play there?
It’s probably no surprise, but Zelda games generally have pretty effective underscores. A really good example of this is Dragon Roost Island in The Wind Waker? Despite the fact that link is parking his boat on the shores of a live volcano with a pissed off dragon on top, you don’t get the feeling of death and destruction. A huge part of that is because of the music; the game developers wanted you to feel like you were embarking on to a new island with a culture full of life and energy, not walking into volcanic death trap. If you listen to the music, this idea is reflected perfectly by lively upbeat theme and tempo, along with the trading between simple triple (3/4) and compound duple (6/8) time signatures which give the music an implication of Spanish folk song.
Besides the underscore, there is also a type of music called source material. Again, this is a term used more of film music, but is still applicable to video games. Source material is the idea that when you see something making music in a film or video game, you can also hear it. For example, the cantina band in Star Wars Episode 4 is considered source material. Sure, they could have had John Williams write an amazing orchestral underscore for the whole scene, but it wouldn’t have fit with the film because you would have seen the band playing, but you wouldn’t have been able to hear them. Source material is extremely straight forward so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it. Suffice to say, every time you hear music that is being generated by in-game sound sources, such as the Indigo-Go’s in Majora’s Mask, or anytime link pulls out his trusty instrument, it is source material.
Now that I got that out of the way, I’d like to talk about a type of music that is unique to video games. I actually don’t know of a technical term for it (or if there even is one), but for the time being I will simply refer to it as active-input music. This is music that is controlled by the player’s actions/inputs in the game. The most amazing thing about active-input music is that it can overlap with both source material and underscores. For example, if you pull out your ocarina and play a warp song, you have to put in the individual notes to play the song. This is a great example of active-input music, but it is also an example of source material because you see link playing his ocarina and you hear him playing it as well. The Legend of Zelda games are notorious for requiring the player to use and instrument in order to warp to certain locations or simply to progress the plot through the use of active-input music. However, Nintendo has begun to slowly stray away from the complexity of active-input music that was found in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. In both of those games (and others as well), you can pull out your instrument at almost any time and play it with full control over every note. In contrast, newer games tend to limit active-input music in by only allowing the player to use and instrument at certain key moments and/or limiting your control over the instrument itself. Personally, I was a bit disappointed with Skyward Sword’s harp because it had almost no purpose other than pushing the plot along and when you did play it, all you had to do was swing the wii-mote rhythmically. I’d much rather use something like the ocarina or even the wind waker.
I have already mentioned how active-input music and source material can be linked together, but what about active-source material and underscoring. It can be a little hard to imagine, but let me give you an example. In The Wind Waker, the music during the Phantom Ganon fight is simply underscore that reflects the nature of what is going on, right? Wrong! Every time link reflects Phantom Ganon’s attacks the music rises in intensity and every time Phantom Ganon becomes vulnerable and get’s hit by link the music peaks before while attack cycle resets. The underscore is controlled by the player’s inputs, and how fast the music rises in intensity depends on how quickly the player is able to bring Phantom Ganon to the ground. The music you hear is both active-input and underscore. If you don’t know what I mean, or you simply don’t recall the music for that particular fight, I urge you to play the game again and pay close attention to when the music changes while you play. To be honest, I wish that Nintendo had more of this type of music; however, it is understandable why they wouldn’t. I worked as a composer for freeware games for about half a year, and it is an absolute pain to compose a piece of music that is so versatile that it can change at any moment.
So there you have it! A small survey of the different types of music in the Zelda series (the keyword is small; I could go on and on about this). There are mountains of examples and buckets of composing techniques that I left out, but I’m sure they will eventually come up in later posts. So what Zelda underscore is do you think is most effective? Do you see Nintendo using more active-input music fused with source material/underscoring, or do you see them taking a different route? Be sure to let me know in the comments!
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