Okay, hands up. How many of you have soundtracks from some of your favorite games? Sure, for many people, video game soundtracks are just background noise. Don’t tell that to Koji Kondo, though. Professionally trained musicians put their time and effort into artistically complementing the visuals of video games with an engaging soundtrack. Some end up as songs we probably never want to hear again, while others end up on our iPod as masterpiece compositions we want to listen to over and over.
Why do we like certain video game songs more than others? Maybe they’re catchy. Maybe they’re more varied than some of the looped sounds in other games. Or maybe there’s another factor no one’s aware of. More after the break!
I’m currently studying music theory under Dr. Zack Browning. One of the things he stresses is the existence of “golden sections” in contemporary music. What is a golden section? Well, it’s the point determined by the Golden Ratio, approximately 0.618. When you mark a line at this point, the shorter segment has the same relationship to the larger segment that the larger segment has to the whole line.
Another way to look at it is through the Fibonacci series of numbers. It’s the series of numbers where you add the two previous numbers to get the next one. The ratio between one number to the next just happens to be the so-called “Golden Ratio.” You can click the picture to the left to see how the ratio and Fibonacci series work. And for fans of classical art, Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man has golden proportions all over.
So what does this have to do with music? More specifically, what does this have to Zelda music? Well, the golden ratio is thought by many to represent a ratio of natural beauty. Buildings, human faces, and musical compositions that exhibit this ratio tend to be considered “beautiful,” regardless of whether or not the beholder realizes the presence of the Golden Ratio. In music, the golden section can be the measure that’s located at .618 the length of the song, and/or it can be the measure .618 the length of one section of the song, or the melody, or whatever. The fact that something significant lies at this point, dividing the musical piece or part of it into golden proportions seems to have a subconscious effect on the listener. The song seems to be a little closer to perfection, and the golden section is that “something” about the song that people aren’t sure why they love it. I’m pretty sure if you went through the top Billboard songs and checked, a good number of them would have some Golden Ratio significance.
Initially, there were many game themes I wanted to check for a significant golden section. Unfortunately, the Mario songs I checked didn’t exhibit this, but low and behold, several Zelda themes do. It seems most of the pieces that do are written as actual pieces, and not as short melodies meant to be looped over and over, and Zelda games have a lot of those. While I can’t say it’s for sure, Koji Kondo probably doesn’t incorporate the Golden Ratio consciously into his music, but the fact that Zelda music holds more of a masterpiece status compared to Mario music or other video game music likely isn’t a coincidence. Let’s look at the music from The Legend of Zelda.
The Legend of Zelda – “Overworld”
I’m reluctant to start with this, because due to the lack of cinematic-like storytelling during the NES days, the significance of the Golden Ratio in the main Zelda theme is entirely musically based, and I’m pretty sure most of you don’t have a background in music theory. There’s not much else in the music or game that’s easier for you to relate to, so bare with me, and we’ll get to the good stuff afterwards.
The basic Zelda melody – no introductions, no later arrangements – is essentially 20 measures or, simply put, 20 sets of 4 beats each. I’m pretty sure you all know the melody, and could hum it to yourself to double check that length if you wanted. If you take 20 x .618, you end up with the Golden Section theoretically being just after the 12th measure ends (so basically at the 13th measure). If you want to be more precise, you can say that the entire melody spans the equivalent of 80 quarter notes, and the Golden Section should be at 80 x .618, or the 49th quarter note (which is at the beginning of the 13th measure).
So what happens at this point? Well, the melody is in the key of Bb Major, occasionally borrowing from parallel minor scales (e.g., Bb natural minor, harmonic minor). However, at the moment in question, the theme goes into what seems like a major chord built on the flat second scale degree, or a bII chord. Depending on how you interpret the three voices, you could argue that it may be a Neapolitan 6th chord, or N6. While the rest of the theme stays in Bb, placing a bII chord smack in the middle of the theme makes it stick out like a black sheep. What does it do? It adds tension to the theme. Whether you understand music progressions or not, the fact that it’s not a naturally occuring chord in the Bb scale means that your ears hear tension in the chord, and want it to resolve back into the key of Bb. Koji Kondo places this anamoly of a chord right at the Golden Section, making it that much more intriguing.
Check out the edited clip below. I cropped it to 29 seconds for legal issues, but you should be able to recognize the theme. The big chord I’m talking about is the one that jumps out at you at 18 seconds into the clip.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past – “Hyrule Castle”
The Hyrule Castle theme is about as easy to figure out as the Legend of Zelda Overworld Theme we just figured out above. If you leave out the 4 measure introduction (as well as the 2 measure fanfare preceding it), you’re left with the basic, looped melody. The Hyrule Castle melody spans 40 measures from when the melody starts, and if you do the math, the Golden Section should be at the 24th measure. Low and behold, the 24th measure just happens to be the climax of the entire melody. The longest and loudest note. Right there. Plus, if you want to be even more specific, the exact ratio of 0.618 gives you the third beat of that 24th measure, which is when the previous chord resolves into a major dominant (V) chord following an 4-3 suspension (more music theory, but not really necessary for you to know).
Again, listen to a short excerpt from this piece below. The climactic chord happens at the 18-second mark in the clip below. That’s exactly at the Golden Section!
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past – “Staff Credits”
This is still my favorite Zelda composition and arrangement to date, and I’m sure many of you hold it in high regard as well. The “Staff Credits” music to A Link to the Past opens with an original melody that’s calm and soothing – especially if you play it on an acoustic piano – and is then followed by the Legend of Zelda theme arranged in a similar mood and orchestration to the beginning of the piece.
The Zelda theme repeats again in the credits just about a minute and a half before the end, but this time a snare drum is added to give the theme that stately, or “marching,” effect – the kind of effect that makes you feel proud of yourself for being all heroic and saving Hyrule. Well, surprise, surprise! The snare drum enters in right at the Golden Section. It enters quietly before it does a crescendo (gets louder) in the SNES version, but is a little more prominent in the GBA version.
You can listen to a 29-second clip of the piece below. Once again, the snare drum (faintly) comes in at 18 seconds in and builds from there.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – “Staff Credits”
The “Staff Credits” music from Ocarina of Time, as one would expect, also exhibits some significance at the mathematical Golden Section – a few seconds before the four and a half-minute mark. You may recall the screen showing a montage of characters from the game celebrating Ganon’s defeat as the credits rolled on by. Just as the portion of the credits piece resembling the “Lost Woods” theme ends, the piece quiets down and smoothly segues into the “Chamber of Sages” theme. In contrast to the light-spirited and bouncy “Lost Woods,” this section opens with an almost “floating” ostinato (or repeating pattern) in the harp and bells, as the choir vocals come in a little bit later.
The “Chamber of Sages” theme begins right at the Golden Section, right when you start hearing the harp and bells. You’ll hear them at the 18-second mark in the clip below.
Why am I consistently placing the Golden Section at the 18-second mark in my clips? I’ll leave that for you to figure out.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker – “Staff Credits”
I love the credits music from The Wind Waker. It has that Celtic feel to it, and it uses the rare 9/8 meter (or 3/4 with triplets), which basically means you can count each measure as “1-2-3″ or you can count a fast “123-456-789.”
By the mathematical Golden Section in this piece (a few seconds before three and a half minutes in), we’re already well into “Princess Zelda’s Theme,” also known as “Zelda’s Lullaby,” of course laid on top of Wind Waker’s distinguishable 9/8 meter. However, the melody then proceeds into a ritardando (i.e., it slows down) as it hits the climax of the middle portion in the melody. Aside from the last note in the iconic melody, this climax exhibited at the 18-second mark in the clip below is the next highest note in the melody, and it at the most emphasized part of the slow down. So, it should be no surprise that this point marks our Golden Section!
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess – “Staff Credits”
This one is by far my favorite example of the Golden Ratio in Zelda music. Moreso than ever, games and movies are tying cues in the music to points of impact in the visuals and storylines in games and movies, and whether or not Koji Kondo and the rest of Twilight Princess’ development team worked on getting this example down perfectly remains to be seen. Be forewarned there are PLOT SPOILERS below.
While there is no official release of the end credits music from Twilight Princess, I’m working with a recording that seems to have been cropped properly at the music’s beginning and end, spanning just short of 12 minutes. As many of you know, the credits in Twilight Princess are split into two parts, with a cutscene involving Link, Zelda, and Midna thrown in between. Guess where the Golden Section occurs?
Prior to the point determined by the Golden Ratio, the first portion of the credits cease, and we begin the scene where Midna prepares to bid farewell to Link and Zelda at the Mirror of Twilight. Now, this portion where you have to keep pressing A through the dialogue is entirely silent, but since the music on either side of the silence suggests that it’s one piece, I’m going to assume there’s a rest, held by a fermata at this point and exclude its varying length (since it depends on your reading speed). The music picks back up again very quietly as Midna says good-bye to Link, and a single tear floats over to the mirror, cracking the mirror beyond repair.
Just as you realize exactly what Midna has done and as Link turns from the mirror to look at Midna, a powerfully moving orchestra/string line (in contrast to the quiet music preceding it) comes in as Midna ascends the stairs to be transported back to the Twilight Realm. The Golden Section occurs exactly when this fuller and louder string line comes in, just as you realize that you will never be seeing Midna again. Psychologically, it’s a powerful moment, and the change in dynamics (volume) and orchestration right at this Golden Section only help to augment the fact.
With that, we can END PLOT SPOILERS for Twilight Princess and the other games. The excerpt below once again shows how the orchestra comes in at the Golden Section of the entire Twilight Princess credits music, or at 18 seconds into the clip below.
On a quick note, why did I choose two in-game songs and four credits themes? Well, most in-game songs tend to be short melodies that are constantly looped or repeated, whereas most credits music are specifically composed as full musical pieces. As a result, credits music is generally more interesting musically, and the Golden Sections are a little more impressive.
That’s not to say more in-game themes don’t have significant Golden Sections, as many do. However, you’re more likely to find them in games that are often considered epic, simply because the musical composition for such games is usually taken up a notch. It’s in Yuka Tsujiyoko’s “Main Theme” from Fire Emblem. It’s in Nobuo Uematsu’s “Aeris’ Theme” from Final Fantasy VII. And it’s clearly in Koji Kondo’s music from The Legend of Zelda.
So, that’s my look into natural/golden symmetry in Zelda music. The Golden Ratio is generally not integrated into music consciously, especially pop music. Still, the fact remains that it’s there, as seen in the Zelda examples, and it could very well be a subconscious sign of beauty to both the composer and the listener. There are undoubtedly other examples of golden section proportions in Zelda music, other video game music, other pop music, and definately in art music. I do encourage you to look at music on your own to find these examples, and feel free to let us know about ones you find in Nintendo music.
Stay on the look out for more music-related articles from me here at The Tanooki in the future – maybe a month or two down the road. Twentieth Century music theory is sure to get me fired up with other crazy ideas!