[Music] Video Game Music Analysis

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Fair warning: this thread is going to be technical. If you don't know much about music, then this may not be very interesting for you. It might not be very interesting for you even if you do. I'm going to try and make it as accessible as I can but there's only so much I can do.

I thought every now and then I'd do an analysis of some game music, deconstructing how it works and, more importantly, how and why it works in a game. I'm not going to go super in-depth like a music theory major would do on a term paper or anything (probably) but I will dissect it thoroughly.

The frequency as to which I update this thread is variable. It can take quite a while to go through just one track, so I wouldn't expect weekly updates or anything. Or maybe it will be that often, who knows? My point is I'll just be posting when I feel like it.

I also won't be analyzing full soundtracks. At least, not all at once. I may come back to a soundtrack later on and analyze another piece of music, but if you're expecting an analysis on every single Final Fantasy VII track all at once then your expectations need to be lowered. Something like that is way beyond time consuming, and every track in a soundtrack doesn't warrant analysis to begin with.

I imagine the only people, if any, who would be interested in this are also musicians. If any of you have input or more importantly corrections, please post them. I am sure that I'll get at least a few things wrong.

At any rate, here we go!

Castlevania
Final Fantasy VI
« Last Edit: May 25, 2015, 06:13:16 AM by irock »
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I'm using the NES version as reference, although that's irrelevant.

Castlevania is one of my favorite series, and the very first game is from back in a time where Konami could do no wrong, unlike today when Konami can do nothing else except Metal Gear Solid and Pro Evolution Soccer. The music was composed by Kinuyo Yamashita (a woman!) primarily, and unlike a lot of video game composers of the time, she is actually a musician. So let's take a look at some of this music:

Vampire Killer
One of the most well-known tracks in the entire series and in video games in general is also the theme of the first level. Right away we're introduced to the signature Castlevania sound which I like to describe as rock music at a Halloween party performed by Dracula and the Wolfman. Most VGM of the time focused more on getting the player pumped instead of setting an atmosphere, but Castlevania games always managed to both (until later games, Lords of Shadow in particular).

The construction of Vampire Killer is pretty simple. We're in 4/4 time and mostly in the key of D Minor, perfectly fitting for battling the evil hordes of zombies and dogs and zombie dogs that await you in Dracula's castle. The key of D Minor is actually ambiguous here. The first chord is technically a D5, omitting the 3rd entirely, meaning that to the ear we don't know if we're in a major or minor key. The melody, however, does push towards being in D Major since it goes down to a B natural rather than a B flat. This is held over and reinforced in the next chord which is G. The next chord is Bbmaj7(omit5), though, which, interestingly, even though it's a major chord it makes the ear think we've moved to a minor key, partially due to the lack of the 5th to fill out the chord and the addition of a major 7th for some dissonance. The melody plays A-D-A during this chord which, with the Bb in the bass and harmony, points us towards D minor. The progression the ends with a C5 chord. So, here we are with the first chord being ambiguous, 2 major chords, and then another chord being ambiguous though leaning more towards C major because we have not encountered an Eb thus far. Going on it becomes more obvious the key is D Minor, but so far it could go either way. At any rate, this gives us a i5-IV-VI7-VII progression in the beginning.

After we go through that progression twice we encounter a little bridge section. There's no overt chords here - even less so than the ones before - but we do get firmly planted into D minor. Specifically Yamashita is using a harmonic minor scale meaning that instead of the D E F G A Bb C D scale of Aeolian minor we raise the 7th entry, making it D E F G A Bb C# D. This adds to the super spookiness of the mood and given the chromaticism of this section it fits quite well. The dissonance from the melody to the bass in the first measure and then between everything in the next also gives the music a jazz tinge.

Spoiler for:

After that, chords become much more apparent, with the bass holding out notes to give us a point of reference and the melody and harmony lines arpeggiating somewhat. Bbm+ - Dm - Bbm+ - Dm - Bbm+ - Dm - C#o7 - D5 progression, or vi+-i-vi+-i-vi+-i-viio7-I5 progression, building into the "chorus". Notice how the end of the second measure is an open loop: it leads us back down to the first chord, telling our ear that we aren't done yet, we need to do it again. But the end of the fourth measure goes up, which tells us the loop is complete, we're ready to move on.

Spoiler for:

The chorus returns to Aeolian and while it isn't really necessary, if you wanted to you could cite the chord progression here as I5-VI-VII. This, aside from the intro, is the most famous part of the song and most of what makes it work is the use of perfect 4ths between the melody and harmony. After two sections of semi-chromaticism and a little modulation, the chorus is made more powerful by the openness of the chords and the intervals between these two voices. Perfect 4ths (and perfect 5ths since they are of the same interval class) have always been associated with power and fanfare, especially when going from one pitch up to another by a 4th or 5th (although that technique isn't present here). There is a leap of an octave in the beginning of the phrase in the two melodic lines (both of which separated by a 4th) which helps greatly to make the music feel strong and make the player feel strong. "Yeah I can jump octaves and I can jump over you too, you stupid zombie dog, so suck it".

Now let's take a brief look at the rhythm. Most obvious when analyzing the rhythm of a piece is the percussion, of course, and to be fair, the drum track isn't all that special. The 16th upbeats on the hi-hats lends a dance feel to the music, which helps a lot in its catchiness. Otherwise the drums are pretty standard, not that that's a bad thing. The most unusual beat for the drums comes in the section leading up to the chorus, with the sustained bass notes where the snare hits on the upbeats of 2 and 4 rather than the downbeats while the bass drum stays solidly on 1 and 3, thus giving a bit of a weeble-wobble feeling.

The bassline throughout is solid and the rhythm of it keeps propelling the music forward. The octave jumps are a nice touch, too, lending to the catchiness. The melody and harmony lines themselves are also quite rhythmic and very syncopated.

Perhaps most important is to discuss why this piece works in a game: how does it relate to gameplay (if at all), how does it relate to what may be happening on the screen, how does it relate to where in the game it's used, etc.

It's not the first music heard in the game, but it is the first gameplay-backing music. The first level of Castlevania, of course, is the easiest. It shows you what the game is going to be like by giving you enemies with very basic patterns (zombies) to whip away at to learn how to attack. It gives you zombie dogs (I think they're actually just wolves) which will probably damage you first time playing, but is Konami's way of getting you to jump (hopefully over them) and to get you to get used to how attacking works while you jump because jumping while attacking in Castlevania sucks. And because shortly there are pitfalls coming up that you'll need to jump over while battling mermen. But overall the stage is pretty easy and you're supposed to feel like a badass going through it.

This is why Vampire Killer fits so well. The music gets you pumped up and, unlike the rest of the soundtrack, there aren't really any moments of tension or dread, just excitement. The easiest stage in the game gets the most accessible music in the game.

Unusually, Vampire Killer ties into the next stage's theme...

Stalker
The theme for stage 2 is basically a reworking of Vampire Killer, this time in a much more ominous tone.

The time signature once again, like all tracks in the game, is 4/4. The key is a bit harder to pin down, although the intro is entirely in C Major. Beyond that I'm going to go ahead and say there is no tonal center. The whole thing is too short and modulates to another key in almost every measure to give any key by itself. However, when you pair it with Vampire Killer the key seems most suitably D Minor, with some parts harmonic minor. In fact, our first chord after the intro is Dm, followed by a Bb7(omit5), which then becomes just a Bb chord. The remaining music is N.C.

So why is Stalker so much creepier than Vampire Killer if they both share so much of the same material? It doesn't take much, really. First there's the slightly slower tempo. Vampire Killer is about 128bpm while Stalker is about 112bpm. Then there's the variance to the music itself. It's the same notes (at least relatively) but this time, as shown below, we have those notes sustained.

Spoiler for:

In the first measure above there's also the chromatic descent in the harmony aiding the spooky "oh no something scary is going to grab me" feeling. Also notice that the 16ths in the harmony are different pitches than those in Vampire Killer: the first 3 are higher and the last one lower. This makes two of the digits, the strong 1st and 3rd digits of the beat, tritones between the melody and harmony.

So while there is still a lot of syncopation like before, it's less outright noticeable because so much of the notes are sustained this time, and are slower. There's still a groove but it's like the creepy nightmare version of that groove. Even the drums don't give us much of a dance or rock feeling here. There's a stream of 16ths on the hi-hat occasionally but it's not constant. There's no accentuation of the downbeats by the bass drum and snare; in fact there's not even a bass drum used at all. It's entirely hi-hat and snare.

The last two measures before repeating also seem to be original as well. The melody and harmony play 4 short notes each time with the bass doing a similar 5 notes. The melody and bass lines both play a total of two pitches separated by an interval of a minor second, with the harmony doing the same but the interval is a major second. This is sort of a recurring theme in this track (if it's even long enough to have a recurring theme) in that many of the notes are spaced very closely together. Usually the figures are chromatic.

Stalker, as mentioned, is more tense than its predecessor. That's because stage 2 is filled with more tension. There are a lot of death pits to jump over and stupid Medusa heads and stairs and AUUGGGHH throughout this fairly short stage. That's probably why it's reminiscent of Vampire Killer. You've left that stage feeling like a hardcore buttkicker only to come to the terrifying realization that you're about to die a lot. The music is like a reflection of this realization. That buttkicking aspect is still there in the form of the quotations from Vampire Killer but they're more hesitant and transformed.
« Last Edit: March 17, 2015, 03:20:13 AM by haloOfTheSun »
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This is really interesting and useful as someone who writes video game music but doesn't really know what he's doing most of the time. It's good to know what a composer did, but it's even better to know why they did it. What you're doing helps form contextual links between compositional snippets and various moods. You're helping expand my bag of musical tools.

I feel like the first analysis had more contextualization than the second. I hope you don't feel obligated to rush these. If you're feeling tired, maybe set the track aside until you feel like resuming the analysis.

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Yeah, I did get tired of doing it towards the end, but I didn't rush it. There just really wasn't a lot to say about the second track considering it's mostly reused material. It really isn't a very remarkable piece except for the fact that it's a rearrangement of Vampire Killer which is the only reason I went ahead and included it anyway. But in the future I will try to elaborate more.

I'm glad you've found it helpful! Starting on the next analysis tonight.
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Back in the SNES days, Square was practically unstoppable in the RPG department (at least outside of Japan, where Dragon Quest was/is king), and not just with the Final Fantasy series, but also with Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, and Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. More importantly for this post, the music in these games are often pointed to as some of the greatest of all time.

I've stated many times that Final Fantasy VI has my favorite soundtrack in a game, so I'm already very familiar with the music, composed by Nobuo Uematsu. But I've always wanted to take a deeper look at it, so let's get started.

Kefka

Leitmotif is huge in Final Fantasy VI, so each playable character gets their own theme, as well as the main villain, Kefka. This is the first game in the series to do this extensively and it fits into the feel of the game as well considering artistic influences and inspirations for the game, one being opera where characters often have their own theme music.

Kefka is in cut time, or 2/2 with a measure of 3/2 in the beginning and the key of B♭ minor. This is interesting because no other piece of music in the entirety of Final Fantasy VI is in this key. Considering the amount of music (61 tracks) you'd expect Uematsu to use each of his keys chosen at least twice, especially if one track references another, but it would seem he deliberately chose to save the key of B♭ minor specifically for Kefka. Some people consider that key signatures don't matter, and they only influence range and difficulty for specific instruments and that they all are relatively the same, while others believe that each key has a different sound to it and can invoke different moods and feelings (studies show that those in the latter group have a better sense of pitch, for what it's worth). Uematsu seems to share the thought that each key is different and, knowing how special the villain is compared to other games, decided to show this by setting aside this one key.

The theme starts out with an oboe and what sounds like is supposed to be a marimba, which are then joined by a snare drum towards the end of the first phrase. Both melodic instruments are playing the same notes, albeit in different registers, and are not forming any chords. Right away the music gives the feeling of being playful, yet off-kilter. That sense of being off is helped by the bar of 3/2, although it isn't as awkward as it might appear on paper.

Spoiler for Example 1:

The first 3 measures are repeated with a 4th still in 2/2, only this time with what I'm calling a harp before transitioning into the B section, where the strings enter. Some really interesting chords happen: B♭m - C7(#5omit3) - Fmaj7(#5sus4) - G♭(add9) - G♭ - B♭m9(♭5) occur in the first four measures, followed by G♭ - G♭7(omit3) - G♭(#9) - G♭(#11) - G♭(#9) in the next four. I'm going to be honest, I'm not entirely sure how to put a couple of these into Roman numerals but here goes: i, II7-5o, V7-5osus4, VIadd9, VI, i9-+5, VI, VI7, VI9o, VI(11o), VI9o. At any rate, we can see that there's a lot of complexity and added dissonance, though none of it so bad as to be unappealing. Note that the last two measures move into harmonic minor, due to A being natural.

Spoiler for Example 2:

There's a two measure tag afterwards where percussion jumps in and the flute, strings, and (strangely) timpani play a little melody before repeating the B section, although this time with brass, percussion, and harp. The material, and therefore the chords, are ultimately the same this second time. The only added part of note is the harp, but it's simply arpeggiating the same chords played by the rest of the orchestra. This version of the B section is played twice before the same tag from earlier, and then moves into the C section of the piece.

The first 5 measures of C are short notes from strings and French horn. Each of the first four measures ascends (except for the French horn part) before laying silent on the 4th beat and starting again. The fifth measure continues to ascend on the 4th beat and moves into a more grand, somewhat sad little section before the piccolo leads us back to the beginning of the piece, looping again. Much of this, the first 6 measures anyway, are in the harmonic minor scale. The chords from the second half of C are B♭m - Ao - B♭m(omit5) - D♭6(omit3) - B♭5(♭13) - G♭maj7 - G♭13(omit3), or i, VIIo, i(omit5), III6(omit3), I5(13o), VImaj7, VI13(omit3).

Spoiler for Example 3:

Kefka is an excellent example of music made to fit a character in a game. To start with, it embodies his personality exactly. It's fun, yet menacing. It sounds pleasing, but there's something off about it. When Kefka is formally introduced to the player (not the prior flashback sequence), the theme, Kefka is also heard. His dialogue tells us everything about him that his theme music does as well. At this point, he's basically comic relief. It's made fairly clear that he's not entirely sane - he's on his own volition dressed as a clown, makeup and all, for starters - and you can't be quite sure what he's going to say next. This is reflected in the music from the bar of 3/2 in the beginning, throwing things slightly off, and the "extra" measures in the C section: two phrases of 5 and another measure for the piccolo at the end to close the loop. Groups of 4 measures are commonly expected, especially in video games, and especially from a composer like Uematsu who was known for writing "catchy" music. Kefka is also a general in the Empire, which also is incorporated into the music with the march feel.

At this point in the game, there isn't much known about Kefka. In fact, it isn't even known yet that he's the main villain of the game (spoiler alert). But there is something else about him that is reflected in his theme, and that's the end of it. The last several measures have a larger, grander feel to them and are written in a way to be noticeably more emotional. It's commonly said that Kefka is ultimately supposed to be a sympathetic villain. He went insane from experiments performed on him, and then he lost the ability to find any meaning in life, instead filling that void with destruction of life. He also could not understand the concept of love, nor could he feel it. In the game of Final Fantasy VI this is huge because literally every character in the game has at least one person they love and someone that loves them, whether it be romantic, friendship, or familial love. In the entire world Kefka was the only person that did not have that, and seeing that literally everyone else did - even after he destroyed the world - filled him with anger. So it's easy to see why the player is, in the end, supposed to feel sorry for him. It's a sad story.

Starting the piece of somewhat quietly with just two instruments playing the melody is a good choice. Every time it starts it makes you wonder what it is Kefka is about to do because it sounds so mischievous. You know that trouble is coming.

Like much RPG music, this theme doesn't have any affect on gameplay because there is no gameplay when it's heard. It's strictly music for cinematic sequences (although, I may be wrong, but I believe the sequence in Thamasa when you control Leo has Kefka playing as the background music, but if that's true there's nothing significant for you to do other than talk to Kefka and start a battle, anyway). The music isn't exactly made to reflect what's happening onscreen, either, like cinematic music would since it's used more than once, other than just reflecting Kefka's personality. The idea of supporting the actions on screen during dialogue sequences and cinematics was very rare in the SNES days, anyway, and wouldn't become very common until the PS2-era.
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Very nice. :)