The Thematic Genius of Music in Zelda
Posted on April 15 2013 by Dathen Boccabella
The one thing that I’m a bigger fan of then The Legend of Zelda series is the works of J.R.R Tolkien. One of the main things that really made me appreciate Peter Jackson’s film interpretation of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is the music – composed by Howard Shore. I really admired how the simple themes of characters and locations evolved throughout the story. How at stages we hear the catchy Rohan theme in slow, shrill notes representing the enslavement of the kingdom to the will of Saruman, and then in full triumphant form when the Rohirrim ride to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. It’s just one example among many.
The exact same sort of musical integrity can be found woven all throughout The Legend of Zelda series. From its humble 8-bit beginnings the work of Koji Kondo has expanded drastically. Other composers have added to it, furthered it and made it more complex – to the point where not only is the music of Zelda intrinsic to the series, but is also a work of genius.
This is the series where not only ever character and location has a theme that all fans recognize, but even the sword has theme music. From Kakariko Village, to Zora’s Domain, to Princess Zelda’s theme, there are so many tunes that all fans recognize. Aspects of the upcoming Skyward Sword show the amount of musical integrity in Zelda, with the Goddess Song being Zelda’s lullaby rearranged in reverse, and with music varying depending on where Link stands – just like in Banjo Kazooie. In this study, we’ll be taking a look at instances in the series where the usage of music is just stellar. Consider this one of those rare instances when study can actually be fun.
One area that stands out in Zelda music is how, similarly to The Lord of the Rings films, one theme can be rearranged and reused to convey developments in the story. Take for instance the Hyrule Field main theme of Twilight Princess, which represents Link valiantly questing around the lands of Hyrule. A softer, slower version of this music is played on piano when Colin talks of wanting to be strong and courageous like Link.
Take also the theme of Hyrule Castle in Twilight Princess, which is also the King’s theme in The Wind Waker. As the theme music of Hyrule and its King, it has a grand and powerful sound to it. However, in the concluding moments to the Wind Waker a rearranged piano version of the song plays. It is both somber and triumphant, conveying that the King has faced his regrets, but also mourns for the lost kingdom of Hyrule as it washes away.
The instances throughout the series where we see similar usage of music makes for one long list. Next time you play a Zelda game, try and listen for the same tunes appearing in different places, and take note of how they vary to convey emotion. Look for times such as in Phantom Hourglass where the Ocean King’s true form is revealed, where an unrestrained ballad of his theme plays compared to when he was the old man Oshus. Listen for the variation of the Great Sea theme in The Wind Waker when Ganon curses the oceans, or when you replay the boss fights in black and white where the rearranged music just isn’t quite right.
Listen for the variations of Ilia’s theme in Twilight Princess, from timid to triumphant as she regains her memories. No music in the series is perhaps more notable on this topic then the two variations of the Stone Tower theme, however, I’ll lastly mention the final boss music of Spirit Tracks. In this fight with Malladus we hear the game’s main theme and the train overworld theme, now in their full glory, playing during this final epic showdown.
Another aspect of Zelda music that truly shines through for me is how a very simple tune becomes so much more. Music we play ourselves on the Ocarina of Time, Spirit Flute or Wind Waker all become full-blown musical pieces. Take the Sun’s Song from Ocarina of Time. Its property is that is changes the time from day to night, or, night to day. We also hear this tune as part of the game’s soundtrack in the “Hyrule Morning Theme”, also used in The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. The Sun’s Song is used at the start of the theme to convey the breaking of the day. Subtle and yet a very nice touch of consistency in musical themes.
Numerous other songs in the franchise have similar roles, where we can play the simple tunes with limited buttons on a controller, and yet they become so much more in the soundtrack. The Song of Time becomes the Temple of Time theme. Epona’s Song becomes the theme for Lon Lon Ranch and Malon. The Song of Healing becomes both the Clock Tower and Happy Mask Salesman’s Theme. The Oath to Order becomes the Four Giant’s theme. Through directly involving the players in actually playing the music of the games, we come to build deeper associations between music, places and characters.
The main theme from The Wind Waker is a great example. Using the conductor’s baton of the Wind Waker, players lead the two sages, Medli and Makar, in song. The two play with their respective string instruments, forming the two songs “Earth God’s Lyric” and “Wind God’s Aria”. Putting the two together, we get the basis for what forms the Wind Waker’s title theme. Similar is seen in Spirit Tracks where Link’s duet with Zelda on the Spirit Flute forms the game’s title theme. In ways, the Ocarina songs from Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask act similarly, where we play a simple melody and it becomes even more for the game mechanics, and what we take it to represent.
None of the Ocarina Songs have come to have a deeper meaning in the series than the Serenade of Water, and this is our third area. Where music is used continuously throughout the series, and carries a meaning that we can all recognize. The Serenade of Water is bound with the words “Time passes, people move…. Like a river’s flow, it never ends… A childish mind will turn to noble ambition… Young love will become deep affection… The clear water’s surface reflects growth… Now listen to the Serenade of Water to reflect upon yourself….” It is this growth of character, and self-reflection, that the song represents in its later usage.
Queen Rutela’s theme from Twilight Princess is an acoustic version of the Serenade, symbolizing Prince Ralis growing up and taking up his responsibilities, as well as Rutela being able to let go of her passing. Letting go is the exact type of growth that the Serenade of Water reflects. Letting go of the past and embracing the future. Letting young love go for deep affection. This is exactly how King Daphnes feels in The Wind Waker, were he lets go of himself and his kingdom, asking the Gods of the Triforce to grant a future for the children. As he makes his wish the Serenade of Water is sung by a male choir. Over the span of the series, one simple melody has come to symbolize so much, and it’s not the only one.
Just look at the introductory sequence of Phantom Hourglass. It really is only a mish-mash of various themes from the Wind Waker: the Pirates Theme, Aryll’s theme, Zelda’s theme, Ganondorf’s theme, the overworld theme, and then the Pirate’s epilogue theme. However from this, even without the visuals, we can piece together the story if we’ve played the Wind Waker.
It tells of Link meeting the Pirates, and going on a journey to save his sister, all the while it becomes more complex as Zelda is revealed and Ganondorf becomes involved. Then the overworld theme represents Link’s triumph, followed by the Pirate’s epilogue theme telling of their journey to find a new land. All of that is conveyed just by musical themes.
Of course, that’s not even the best example of where music tells a story in the series. While Skyward Sword’s introductory sequence does a great job, nothing can top the introduction to The Wind Waker. Combining the original overworld theme with entirely new music, “The Legendary Hero” theme conveys a story perfectly. The happiness of the pan flute, to the triumph of the Hero of Time, but then as the overworld theme fades, triumph gives into despair as the Hero of Time could not be found. As elsewhere in the series, the original overworld theme and series main theme become synonymous with Link, the hero, as his theme song of sorts.
The final area of stand-out music usage in The Legend of Zelda is its evocative and emotional nature. Just take the three simple tunes of Clock Town for each of the three days. The first day’s theme is cheerful, while the second day’s theme creates more tension, and the third day’s theme becomes so fast that it is somewhat unstable. Then there’s the final 12 hour music, which creates the perfect feeling of “the time is now”. It really conveys the dire nature of what’s happening. That it’s the end of the world if Link doesn’t stop it.
This feeling is one that I find so much throughout Zelda. Final boss battles almost always give a feeling of the severity of the battle’s repercussions. The final Ganon battle theme from Ocarina of Time is one piece of music that I find to really encapsulate the notion of living up to your destiny. It is Link at the end of his journey, from the fairy boy in the treehouse to the mighty warrior of legend carved onto that very treehouse.
The music of Zelda simultaneously conveys feeling within the game, as well as in our own lives. Ikana Canyon is full of emotion. From the somber soundtrack there then comes the somewhat overoptimistic music of the Music-Box-House from amidst the gloom. Then Link journeys into Ikana Castle, which has a theme song that to me is the very epitome of the word “grandeur”. For others, Midna’s Desperation on Piano is so full of emotion that it can’t be described.
Music can, of course, be evocative, but not necessarily emotional. For instance take the music used In Twilight Princess’s Hidden Village. It perfectly gives the feeling of an old western movie, or in other words, the cowboy-style-culture. Culture is another thing portrayed to a tee in Zelda music. For instance, the “Goron music” style is so easily recognizable in all of its incarnations, as is the tendency of Zora themes to be played acoustically. Gohdan’s theme from The Wind Waker perfectly conveys his technologically-advanced nature. It can go on and on – how much music conveys in Zelda. How Linebeck’s theme conveys his seedy nature, whereas Zelda’s theme is always a song of innocence, but authority. How the Great Fairy’s theme is a refreshing tune, yet the Light Spirits take it and turn it into a heartbreaking mourn.
All of these characteristics of the Zelda soundtrack are really just the necessary fundamental elements of a good soundtrack, and yet, such traits are so lacking in both movie and game scores. Many people won’t even consciously pick up on a lot of these connections and themes, but subconsciously the music still manages to implant its emotions and connections in the player. The Zelda soundtracks manage to continuously develop complexity and build upon the already laid foundation. From every handheld title to every console installment, the soundtracks never fail to uphold the thematical complexity that is Zelda.
The series’ music is consistently complex, and yet simple. It takes simple tunes, and weaves them complexly within the games, applying many meanings and connotations to every track. Through this, Zelda manages to avoid a boring generic soundtrack like so many other games and movies fall into the trap of having. There is so much to be found within Zelda’s music that compared to what was in my original notes for this article we’ve only really scratched the surface in this study. Zelda truly does have it all though. Standout gameplay, intricate stories, inspiring moral themes, and as we can now confirm, a catchy and meaningful soundtrack.