Author: Contributor

Princess Zelda, Her Lullaby, and the Virtue of Elusiveness

Contributor: Vincent E. Rone, Ph.D.

This blog post demonstrates how the harmonic accompaniment of a video-game character’s theme, “Zelda’s Lullaby” from The Legend of Zelda series, can parallel the portrayal of the character. Specifically, the harmonic accompaniment of the lullaby is ambiguous; it avoids tonic harmony and lingers on the dominant. The elusive tonality parallels the elusive nature of the Princess herself.

Image result for zelda ocarina of timePrincess Zelda. Fans of The Legend of Zelda series immediately recognize the name and the importance of the character. She is the Princess of Hyrule, the location of the majority of the games. She keeps the Triforce of Wisdom, one of the most powerful artifacts in the game’s mythology; she aids the protagonist, Link, in his quest to save Hyrule from the demon thief, Ganondorf. In the most recent canonical installment of the franchise, Skyward Sword, Princess Zelda even reveals herself as an incarnation of the goddess Hylia—talk about improving one’s seat.
For all of these accolades, Zelda is quite elusive and difficult to categorize. Although she is a towering figure in the games, she does not appear as often or as consistently as one might expect. She is both wise and powerful, but players never really get to see the extent of her abilities due to her checkered appearances. She also is a protector and guide, but she herself requires protection and guidance, as villains relentlessly pursue her (Ocarina of Time and Skyward Sword being good examples). In effect, Zelda defies neat-and-tidy description, which makes her character all the more interesting.
She also wears a number of hats. For example, in the original 1986 release, Zelda is Ganon’s captive whom Link must save. She only appears at the end of the game for about 10 seconds, despite the quest centering on her rescue. In the Ocarina of Time (1998), Zelda takes a more active role interacting with Link, but she absconds just when the game gets going and thenceforth helps Link disguised as Sheik. As Sheik, the princess constantly evades Link when he attempts to approach her until near the end of the game. In Twilight Princess (2006), players see her all of three times; she most often is mysteriously shrouded in a black cloak and remains a prisoner in her own castle. In Skyward Sword (2011), she’s portrayed at first as a student and Link’s best friend. When she disappears early in the game, Link devotes himself to finding her. There are moments when he comes close to reuniting with her, but something always prevents their reconciliation. Zelda consequently remains beyond Link’s reach. It is as if the power of her character comes from a spectral rather than from an apparent presence. More importantly, our experience of gameplay through Link’s agency creates a sense of tension sustained through every thwarted attempt to reunite with the princess.Image result for link ocarina of time

The musical theme, “Zelda’s Lullaby,” presents several parallels to the characteristics of the princess, especially with regard to elusiveness. Having written about the significance of the music in Twilight Princess for the fan website, I became quite familiar with themes, motifs, and their various iterations in the Zelda franchise.1 The lullaby debuted in the SNES release, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991), and has since increased in both utility and mythological importance, culminating in a retrograde iteration of the melody as the basis for Skyward Sword’s “Ballad of the Goddess.” Admittedly, I never really appreciated the significance of “Zelda’s Lullaby,” even though I must have played it hundreds of times in the Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple alone . . .


* * *

I analyzed the melodic and harmonic components of “Zelda’s Lullaby” and discovered that, while set against a tonal backdrop, the harmony is elusive, much like the princess. The piece evades a number of defining tonal features; chief among these is the absence of authentic tonic resolution (a perfect-authentic cadence). Although there are several instances when we expect the dominant to resolve to the tonic, we never really get it. Tonic resolution always sounds like it’s within reach, but it evades our aural expectations, much like how Zelda’s evades Link (and us). The lullaby, however, suggests a tonic, which reinforces the princess’s elusive or even spectral presence.
Since the piece challenges fundamental questions about tonality, “Zelda’s Lullaby” is a kissing (distant) cousin to Robert Schumann’s “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” (“In the Lovely Month of May”) from the Dichterliebe (1840). They both foreground tonal ambiguity, lingering especially on dominant harmony, and both pieces are part of larger musical works. Regarding the Schumann piece, many scholars have debated the question: “What key are we in?!”2 Well, give a listen to the brief Schumann piece, and decide for yourself.

“Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” is one of those pieces that almost every music student in college has had to analyze because of its ambiguous tonality. The opening measures of the piano accompaniment indicate a strong iv6–V7 movement in F# minor, but it never resolves there. Yet there are instances of V–I in A major throughout the piece. The most complex analytical component, however, is that the piece neither opens nor ends in either F# minor or A major. Rather, it ends on a C#7, which listeners often hear as a V7 of F# minor. That dominant-seventh chord becomes—at least to me—the one with the most gravitational pull and interest; it suggests F#-minor harmony. But C#7 is an unstable chord within a tonal context, one that promises resolution. Ultimately, we’re denied that resolution in “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai.” Schumann seems to put a lot of weight on dominant-seventh harmony by ending the piece on it. Fortunately, the following song in Dichterliebe offers a possible answer to this issue, but those are thoughts for another time. The jury consequently is still out on whether or not “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” is either in F# minor or A major, despite no shortage of scholarly ink spilled.
Like Schumann’s song, “Zelda’s Lullaby” achieves a similar effect in its privileging of dominant harmony, which makes it all the more apropos of the princess. First, take a look at the lullaby’s melody:

Koji Kondo: “Zelda’s Lullaby”


At first glance, nothing seems out of the ordinary. The piece is 24 bars and consists of three large period phrases of eight bars (the solid slurs), which themselves are made up of two antecedent-consequent phrases (the dotted slurs). So far, so good. The phrasing is regular and symmetrical, behaving like a good classical piece with an AAB form.
The melody also appears to be tonal, as it satisfies enough criteria to be in the key of G major. For example, every eight-bar phrase opens with a tonic-triad pitch, most often B. Several phrases end in what appears to be an implied half cadence (the A could be the fifth of the dominant D major). Only the phrases ending in bars 16 and 24 could connote tonic resolution in G major. In effect, this melody easily could accommodate I–V–I progressions with a couple of subdominants and secondary-dominants thrown in for good measure. Once again, the melody appears to have mid-to-late 18th century characteristics in terms of phrasing, contour, and implied harmony.
Now take a look at “Zelda’s Lullaby” with harmonization from what we’ve come to know and love in the games since 1991. Although the accompaniment usually employs lilting arpeggios in open voicing, I’ve rearranged the pitches of the harmony to closed voicing and have displayed them harmonically (please forgive the parallel fifths!):

koji-kondo_zeldas-lullaby_harmony koji-kondo_zeldas-lullaby_harmony2

This is, as they say, where the plot thickens. The actual harmony of the theme does not correspond easily with the implied harmonies of the monophonic setting. In fact, if we were to compare the implied harmony to the actual harmony, the only things that match are the half cadences (assuming we’re still in G Major) in measures 8 and 16.
Despite the unusual harmonization, there are a few musical elements that still suggest tonality in “Zelda’s Lullaby.” First, there’s a pedal tone on C in the bassline for the first four measures, which prolongs dominant harmony in 4/2 inversion. Its resolution in measure 5 is the one and only time that we hear a semblance of tonic harmony. In addition the bass outlines a chromatic descending progression from C to A throughout measures 1–7. The chromatic bass progression, in turn, prepares the half cadence (D7 chord) in measure 8 and makes the arrival of dominant-seventh harmony all the more effective and anticipatory of tonic resolution. All of this, of course, repeats in measures 8–16, which reinforces tonal procedures. In effect, there’s a lot of dominant harmony in this piece.
The rest of the harmonic interest, however, frustrates tonality, making the all-important tonic resolution even more elusive. One would think that the half cadences in measures 8 and 16 would resolve with a perfect-authentic-cadence (PAC) to G major. But V harmony in measure 8 goes right to IV+7 harmony in measure 9. That’s unexpected for tonal motion and also a text-book retrogression. Also, the only times we hear tonic harmony in measures 5 and 13 are in an unstable first inversion, have an added ninth, and are part of a linear progression. So, the appearance of tonic harmony is weak and appears fleetingly; it doesn’t give us that sense of resolution we’ve come to expect in tonal music.
The B phrase, measures 17 to the end, makes things even messier. I’ve analyzed it in both C and G major, but there’s no clear pivot chord to shift to C major. The accompaniment descends in step motion on seventh chords, which recalls or perhaps even fulfills the opening linear progression of the bassline in measures 1–4. Measures 18 and 22 also show what could be the relative minor chord (E minor), but it, like the G-major harmony of measures 5 and 13, is part of a descending linear progression. So, it doesn’t sound like a strong presence of the relative minor, which, again, frustrates identification of tonality.
Even in the melody line, one would think that the melodic leap of G–C–G in measures 22–23 in the treble clef would reinforce a G-major tonality. The high G at the end of the piece exceeds the range of the melody, which draws attention as the pitch hovers above everything else. Yet the underpinning harmony and the harmonic progressions that prepared the melodic leap don’t accommodate G-major harmony. Consequently, the high G sounds recontextualized and unresolved under—you guessed it—V7 harmony at the end of the piece, much like the Schumann piece. Unlike “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,” however, “Zelda’s Lullaby” is not followed by a fixed piece that might possibly answer the question about the piece’s tonality. Any number of musical queues could follow the lullaby, depending on the game and context. The tonality of “Zelda’s Lullaby” remains elusive.

* * *

Things don’t seem congruent in “Zelda’s Lullaby.” Something always evades something else. The harmonic progressions counteract the tonic contours of the melody. As a result, the piece, although beautiful and peaceful, eludes harmonic resolution and foregrounds the instability of dominant tension. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the tonic sounds within reach, but it escapes us. It’s like Link being in reach of Zelda, but, for some reason or another, she must evade him. The harmony of the lullaby is a fitting, deliciously unassuming tribute to the complexity of the princess.
With regard to broader musical contexts of The Legend of Zelda games, tonality represents but one feature of the overall soundscape. The accompaniment to some themes are stronger in their tonal motion than in “Zelda’s Lullaby.” For example, the iconic theme of the game—Link’s theme—has strong dominant-to-tonic movement, as does the “Ballad of the Goddess” from Skyward Sword. Other pieces are triadic but avoid tonal inflection to varying degrees. I think of the famous “Hyrule Field/Overworld” and “Midna” themes from Twilight Princess. Those pieces are more modal in character and have tonal centers but do not employ harmonies related by fifth and the tension that dominant harmony provides. Ganon’s theme, however, is saturated in chromaticism and employs ascending chord changes by half and whole-step and is the least tonal. Yet, compared to other major themes, “Zelda’s Lullaby” is uncommon. The theme features several tonal and voice-leading procedures, but it avoids the most important features of tonal harmony. It is therefore deceptive because it sidesteps tonic resolution.

Similarly, Zelda herself also is deceptively tricky (Complicated? Mysterious?) to grasp. She possesses many different and sometimes conflicting qualities, but we never see enough of her to fully understand why. Her lullaby, one of the most iconic themes of The Legend of Zelda franchise, offers listeners an aural equivalent. It has elusive qualities, as well. But, I suppose, their ability to evade expectations is what makes them all the more interesting and alluring, continuing to enthral players with each new addition to the franchise.


We welcome comments below.

Indie Games Concert – Sat. May 16th 2015 – Paard van Troje (The Hague, The Netherlands)

Indie Games Concert – Sat. May 16th 2015 – Paard van Troje (The Hague, The Netherlands)
Contributed by Than van Nispen tot Pannerden

May 16th 2015 will be the second edition of the ‘Indie Games Concert’. The Hague Residentie Orkest (Residence Orchestra) will play some wonderful compositions from legendary Indie Games, such as Awesomenauts (Sonic Picnic), VVVVVV (Magnus Pålsson), Minecraft (Daniel Rosenfeld – aka C418), Cave Story (Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya) and Machinarium (Tomáš Dvořák – aka Floex).

Part of the Indie Games Concert is an interactive programme with live interactive orchestral music with games such as J.S. Joust and a brand new crowd-game developed by students from HKU (Utrecht University of the Arts).

Tickets and more information can be found at the website of the venue Paard van Troje:

Making a Note Here

Making a Note Here: The Inaugural North American Conference on Video Game Music was a HUGE SUCCESS
By Steven Reale, Assistant Professor of Music, Dana School of Music, Youngstown State University

On January 18, 2014, about 50 people, including academics, college and high school students, and interested locals, arrived at the McDonough Museum of Art on the campus of Youngstown State University for the first North American Conference on Video Game Music, a two-day event featuring presentations by 18 musicologists, music theorists, and music educators on a wide variety of aspects of music in video games, including compositional approaches, analyses, studies of game narratives and genres, and applications of game music for pedagogy (program). Karen Collins, noted author of Game Sound, Playing with Sound, and From Pac-Man to Pop Music, gave the keynote address, “Game Sound Studies: 10 Years On,” wherein she spoke at length about the challenges facing our young subdiscipline, aspects of game music that are yet to receive scholarly attention (such as casino slot machines and musical toys for infants), and sparked a vigorous conversation about the term “ ludomusicology,” asking whether we as a burgeoning community of scholars do ourselves a disservice by placing a hifalutin linguistic boundary between ourselves and those from outside academia (including industry composers) who might be interested in joining the conversation.

Indeed, as the lead organizer for the event, one of its most rewarding aspects for me was the enormous excitement and interest in our work—on the one hand, by the large number of conference participants from outside of academia, and, on the other hand, media outlets including local newspaper and television coverage, an Associated Press piece that, at last count, popped up in well over 100 national and international news outlets, a story on the event that appeared on, and radio interviews that were broadcast on BBC5 and National Public Radio. This is encouraging; it suggests that in an era of widespread public resentment toward higher education, the work that we are doing is facilitating conversations and creating possibilities for engagement both inside and outside the academy.

Therefore, I must acknowledge the groundbreaking work performed by the UK Ludomusicology Research Group, who demonstrated that this field really is ready for prime-time, and the guidance that Tim Summers, Mark Sweeney, and Michiel Kamp offered when I asked for their advice in how exactly to go about putting on an event of this nature. I also want to offer my sincere thanks to Neil Lerner and Will Gibbons for their work on the program committee and for rendering me support with the snags that crop up any time you try to organize a project of this nature, as well as to my wife, Haley Reale, and my student, Cory Davis, for their tireless assistance during the event to help make sure everything ran smoothly.

Now, for some photos:

Creativity in abstraction: beyond the film/game parallel

Iain Hart (Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Eine Kleine Pwnmusik)

C.S. Lewis wrote, in his science fiction novel Out of the Silent Planet,

“To every man, in his acquaintance with a new art, there comes a moment when that which before was meaningless first lifts, as it were, one corner of the curtain that hides its mystery, and reveals, in a burst of delight which later and fuller understanding can hardly ever equal, one glimpse of the indefinite possibilities within.”

I had this moment when I was sitting in a film music lecture and realised that the music of the video game Left 4 Dead used similar musical devices to the music of the film Psycho, and used them for the same purposes. It was a first glimpse, not of the fact that video game music was emotive (I had felt that already), but that it was deliberately expressive and powerfully designed. I’ll never forget that moment. I can’t. It’s permanently changed the way I think about game music, so as a student of game music it’s always before me. And with it, the notion that game music and film music are kindred spirits, doing the same things in the same ways.

But as I’ve studied the parallel between film and game music, the less satisfying I have found the parallel to be, and the more I have realised that the differences are as myriad as the similarities. Yes, game music does many of the same things as film music, but it also does many more (chief among them: respond to the player/viewer). And there are things film music can do that game music can’t, or that game music is only just beginning to do. Likewise, although game music and film music sometimes have the same function (space-filling, for instance), they often achieve this in astoundingly different ways. No film I’m aware of selects background music at random while you’re watching it, but this is a standard—even simple, suboptimal, obsolescent—method for keeping game music interesting. And the language used to talk about game music is subject to the same difficulties. Film music terminology can accurately describe many aspects of game music (diegesis, motifs, etc.), but it struggles to describe the effects of something as utterly crucial to gameplay as interactivity. The film/game parallel only gets us so far.

We know so much about music in films, and a lot of that knowledge informs our understandings of the music in other media, and even of music itself. It’s only right that where a parallel exists, ludomusicologists should take advantage of it and learn what we can. But that should never prevent us looking for other parallels. For instance, I have found Markku Eskelinen and Ragnhild Tronstad’s chapter “Video Games and Configurative Performances” (from The Video Game Theory Reader, Wolf & Perron, 2003, pp. 195-220) helpful for understanding the player’s role in the game because of their comparisons between games and configurative theatre. I am not a scholar of theatre, but the comparison to a performance artwork helped me reframe the argument in light of my experience with music—and, ultimately, prompted me to start making comparisons with other non-filmic media.

In some ways, music is the most artistic thing I know anything about. In school I was far more interested in scientific and technological pursuits than art, at least from a vocational point of view. I was an advanced computer user before I was an advanced computer player (and I’m still not sure I’d call myself that). I know my way around a computer quite well, and I know a bit about how its hardware and software work, and work together. This doesn’t hinder my research of music in video games; rather, this helps me understand the fundamental elements of the medium, and helps me understand why parallels to other media can be drawn to it at all.

Always, at the back of my mind, is the understanding that a video game is a computer program. A computer program looks a bit like this:

#include <stdio.h>
int main(void)
printf("Hello world\n");
#include <stdio.h>

int main(void)
printf("Hello world\n");

This is a very simple program written in the C programming language. Its sole function is to output the text “Hello world” on a command line (the first steps of learning a programming language often involve displaying the text “Hello world” somewhere). It’s functionally trivial, but it can teach a student about the basic structure of a program written in the C programming language and get them to understand how the computer can be controlled by their instructions. However, for the computer to run the program it has to be compiled, after which it looks like this:

01111111 01000101 01001100 01000110 00000010 00000001 00000001 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000010 00000000 00111110 00000000 00000001 00000000 00000000 00000000 01000000 00000100 01000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 01000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 01111000 00010001 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 01000000 00000000 00111000 00000000 00001001 00000000 01000000 00000000 00011110 00000000 00011011 00000000

This is the first 64 bytes of data from the compiled “Hello world” program file (the full program file is 8.32 kilobytes). Each binary digit represents one bit of data: a “1” represents an “on” state of an electronic circuit, while a “0” represents an “off” state. Computers and video game consoles are electronic machines containing billions of transistors and complex arrays of circuits, and a program or game is a set of instructions that direct the machine to perform certain calculations or manipulations on a given set of data. For the computer to manipulate data, that data must be in binary format. Anything that is stored on or manipulated by a computer—photos and images, sound and music, documents and games—must be interpreted from a human-readable form for the computer to work with it, and then must be interpreted back into a human-readable form for us to understand it. But programs, apps and games also require interpretation from a human-readable plan or ideation into a programming language (an engineering process) before being interpreted into binary format for the computer to use. Compare this with shooting a film, where (computerized assistance aside) a scene is created and then captured on film as a series of images; or to writing a book, where (again, computerized assistance aside) the words scrawled on a sheet of paper are set into type and are never ostensibly not words. These art forms use engineering processes to capture, manipulate and preserve human-readable elements, but a computer program or video game is engineered in such a way that it is, at several stages, unreadable to most humans.

This is the nature of our medium: at its core, a video game is decidedly abstract. It is, at its most basic level, a mathematical construct, an intensely imaginative piece of engineering. Inasmuch as we interact with a narrative, view images and are affected by a soundtrack, we interact with series upon series of mathematical calculations and algorithms of which we are blissfully unaware. The ever more film-like scenes, the epic soundtracks, the carefully-planned audioscapes, the gut-wrenching stories, are all added purposefully and artfully to a foundation of electronic engineering. And they are entirely optional. The creativity behind a video game starts long before any aesthetic elements are put in place, allowing extraordinary variety in aesthetic, gameplay, narrative, musical, and sonic formulations. For example, Pong didn’t necessarily need a graphical interface to be a reaction-based game. Adventure didn’t need to be humorous to be a caving simulator. Quake didn’t need a Nine Inch Nails soundtrack to be visceral (I should know, I only ever played the music-deprived shareware version when I was growing up). Portal didn’t need the promise of cake to make us play. Left 4 Dead didn’t need to aim for a filmic aesthetic in order to be a survival horror game. But these elements were included in order to shape the game into the developers’ vision and to provide an enjoyable, relatable experience to the player. It is through these included elements that we can draw parallels to other media, whether film, theatre, books or even games of another genre; but they are all additions to the game’s electronic foundation, and are there not by necessity but by conscious choice. If we study the filmic in video games, we have to start by understanding that nothing filmic winds up in a video game until someone chooses to put it there.

Video games are not films made interactive; they are computer programs made beautiful. Their aesthetic elements are pinned to abstract constructs that, from their very invention, have been more receptive to the products of imagination than to the limitations of the physical world. This is why we can see in them an inexhaustible potential for creativity, engagement, innovation and wit; why their storytelling potential is beginning to defy the pessimistic predictions of even just a few years ago; why their music can be filmic or procedural, or both, or neither, and draw us into an imagined space for hours on end. As ludomusicologists, we study just one element of this abstract medium, so we already know to seek out the parallels between music and the other elements of a game. There is no reason why we should stop there, nor why we should be content to rest on parallels to film music (strong as they are) when developers of games have no such restrictions. Instead, we should relish the opportunity to follow this technical, artistic and novel art form wherever it leads. Moments of revelation still await us, and our studies will continue to provide glimpses of innumerable possibilities as we become more acquainted with this new art.

%d bloggers like this: