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Compositional Strategies For Programmable Sound Generators With Limited Polyphony

We are proud to publish the following article by Blake Troise (ThinkSpace, ProtoDome) as part of our contributor articles series. Feel free to leave comments, and do let us know if you would like to send us articles to share with the wider community!


Contributor: Blake Troise

A programmable sound generator (PSG) is an integrated circuit (IC) with the ability to generate sound by synthesizing basic waveforms.1 PSGs are often called sound chips, however not all sound chips are PSGs. PSGs were designed to be instructed by software commands and would usually be housed alongside a microprocessor as part of a computer system. The general benefit of the sound chip was that audio processing could be delegated to a dedicated system, freeing processing cycles for other functions, or simply, as Radio-Electronics magazine 1981 explains,  “[controlling] music or sound effects from software, without overtaxing the computer”. One of the main reasons for the popularity of PSGs was that microcontrollers capable of generating pitches had become cheap enough to manufacture at the beginning of the 1980s.23 This became a commercially viable option for computational sound generation as part as an affordable home system. As such, PSGs were commonly utilised in the video game systems of the 1980s to mid 1990s, for example the Nintendo Entertainment System (Ricoh 2A03/2A07)4, Atari 2600 (Atari TIA)5, Sega Master System (Texas Instruments SN76489A, Yamaha YM-2413)6 and numerous others. The chips were also included in early home computers7, especially those with gaming capabilities; the most popular example being the Commodore 64’s PSG, the SID chip8. Perhaps one of the main reasons for the ubiquity of PSGs in video game applications is the medium’s requirement for a multimedia experience9, with the desire for sound effects and music in electronic games predating software games10.


Due to the prevalence of inexpensive computers, the eighties saw the emergence of a synergy of both programmer and composer practices due to both software accessibility and thus increased development in entertainment software111213. Many of these musicians, such as Hirokazu ‘Hip’ Tanaka, treated the computer (in Tanaka’s case, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)) as a means of expressing ‘serious’ music and approached their composition as such14. Each PSG however, had a set of numerous musical limitations the composer would have to adhere to.15 One of the most compositionally influential of these restrictions (and defining characteristic of computer music of the period) is the PSGs limited polyphony.


The amount of voices a PSG could provide varied between the different chips. The NES’ Ricoh 2A03/2A07, had five separate ‘channels’ (individual functions for generating a single waveform16); two pulse wave channels, one triangle channel, one pseudo-random noise generator and a rarely used Delta Modulation Channel (DMC) for playing Differential Pulse-Code Modulation (DPCM) samples1718 (Figure 1). The Commodore 64 had four channels with a very similar set of waveforms to the Nintendo Entertainment System, however, unlike the NES, these were not restricted to a single wave function.19 Other chips such as the General Instruments AY 3-8910 (found in the MSX computer2021 and Sinclair ZX spectrum 12822, to name two popular examples) included very similar waveforms with a very similar amount of channels; in the AY 3-8910’s case, three square wave channels and a pseudo-random noise generator.23 The limited number of channels each PSG provided posed a significant compositional challenge as to how best to maximise the musical content with only a few voices.




Figure 1. Oscilloscope examples of the basic common waveforms various PSG provided. Top Left: Saw Wave. Top Right: Pulse/Square Wave. Bottom Left: Triangle Wave. Bottom Right: Noise.


Writing music with limited polyphony is not unique to the sound chip; for hundreds of years composers have written for three, two and even single voices.24 Pieces such as Adagio in Bb (for two clarinets and three bassett horns) by Mozart25, Jägerlied by Schubert (for two horns or voices)26, most of Bach’s infamous chorales27 and even solo piano works for a single performer, make use of a small collection of monophonic voices (or fingers!) to create music. Even commercial synthesisers during the seventies and eighties would occasionally be dedicated to producing a single, monophonic voice2829 and often, when polyphony was available, was still limited to a maximum of only eight voices.303132 What separates these composers works (and other electronic hardware) from PSG composition is the idea of necessity. Whilst traditionally the basic form of the woodwind ensemble is the quintet33, this is usually a creative choice and can be “expanded and contracted to meet the needs of the composer”. The piano composer in desperate need of further polyphony can simply add another performer to allow access a further set of ten (or more) notes. No such luxury was (in most cases34) available to the sound chip composer.


Perhaps the simplest (and most common) approach seen in PSG composition was to consider each channel as an individual instrument, a similar method to the aforementioned ensemble writing.35 The iconic Super Mario Bros theme36 by K. Kondo37 is a good example of this process (figure 2). All three pitched channels of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s PSG move together as a three part harmony for the first thematic section. In the second section of the piece, the triangle channel diverges from rhythmic unison and plays a very simple arpeggiating bassline. This approach can be seen in video game soundtracks such as Mega Man 2 (1988) by T. Tateishi and M. Matsumae (programmed by Yoshihiro Sakaguchi)38, Legacy of the Wizard  (1989) by Y. Koshiro39 and Castlevania (1986) by S. Terashima and K. Yamashita (programmed by H. Maezawa)40 (Figure 3). In fact, these soundtracks work so much like a traditional three part ensemble (with a fourth percussion instrument), they have a plethora of YouTube a capella covers (of varying successes) utilizing the original writing for each channel.4142434445


First thematic section.


Second thematic section.

Figure 2. Manuscript representation of the Super Mario Bros theme.


Figure 3. Manuscript representation of the Legacy of the Wizard ‘intro’ theme.


The ubiquity of this practice has resulted in the emergence of a common technique found in Nintendo Entertainment System music- dubbed the Famichord by chip musician Linus ‘LFT’ Akesson46 (Figure 4). The Famichord is essentially the removal of the dominant in a four note major or minor seventh chord (Maj7omit5 or m7omit5) to fit the NES’ three channel limit. Whilst not unusual in a wider musical practice, the fact many composers independently utilised this technique makes it distinctive in PSG compositional procedure. Examples can be found in the NES soundtracks to Mega Man II (1988)47, Duck Tales (1989)48, Super Mario Bros (1985)49 and various others (Figure 5).



Figure 4. Manuscript example of the C Major 7th Famichord.



Figure 5. D Minor seventh (b. 1) and C major seventh (b.3) Famichord in Super Mario Bros. ‘Invincibility’ theme.


The reason the ‘ensemble’ method of PSG writing was so popular was possibly because it was a very simple way of interfacing with the chip. Examining the documentation for the various sound chips, the way in which the microcontrollers expected to be instructed was with a simple ‘channel, pitch, duration’ format50515253, the way in which the MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) standard operates today.5455 A melody is easily built from instructions in this way and can be (and was often) very simply converted from score to code.565758 This could be done by either the composer himself, or given to a programmer to transcribe, which was common practice.596061 The downside to this technique is that the music is limited to as many instruments as there are PSG channels, resulting in a textually ‘thin’ soundscape. To fill the space, the prevalent mentality of trying to recreate externally composed music on the PSG had to shift to writing music for the PSG; treating the device as a unique, independent sonic medium.


The first technique to artificially expand the sonic environment is channel sharing, or splitting parts over a single voice.62 This technique is especially effective when two instruments can be distinguished from one another utilising the unique functions of the PSG channel. Often, each channel had an alterable amplitude for ADSR (attack, decay, sustain and release) envelope shaping63646566, and pulse waves frequently had the ability to alter their duty cycle (the percentage between the high and low of the wave cycle), both techniques for textural changes and emulation of instrumental transients.67 Even more basically, a change in pitch will dictate a sequence’s sonic responsibility (Figure 6). Figure 6 is a piece written by the author for a single beeper demonstrating the channel sharing procedure in its extreme. The bass line is separated from the melody mainly by pitch, however has the impression of being an individual instrument. Percussion is discriminated from other instrumentation by rapidly altering the channel’s pitch semi-randomly, with a negative correlation. The final element in the expansion of the soundscape is structural; by frequently altering the instrumental character in a rhythmic fashion, the listener has the impression that multiple voices are present, all achieved on a single voice. This false polyphony significantly alters the compositional process; the chip musician looks for ‘gaps’ in the melody in which to fill out the composition.



Figure 6. Scored extract from original composition for an ATMega328 microcontroller, using only a single voice. Percussion is created by rapidly changing pitch.


PSGs often had multiple channels however, and more waveforms than a single pulse/square wave. The Commodore 64 was particularly flexible as each channel could alter its waveform, allowing for a more freedom when composing for the chip.68 One notable example of this technique is T. Follin’s work on the NES game Silver Surfer (1990), regarded as one of the best PSG soundtracks of the era.697071 Follin utilises the triangle channel as both bass and drums whilst frequently switching melodic ‘licks’ between available channels.7273 Lead instrumentation is given to the first two pulse channels; handled by varying ADSR envelopes and altering pulse width, however, when a pulse channel is unused, it doubles up with the bass to provide a thicker texture. Each channel is always doing something helping to imply a greater polyphony than simply four voices.


The most common use of the channel sharing technique in other soundtrack writing was the utilisation of the pseudo-noise channel included in various PSGs7475767778, typically dedicated to accompanying the melodic or pitched elements with percussion, mimicking the characteristics of an acoustic drum kit (Figure 7).798081 This technique is popular as a repeated hi-hat figure is heard over a snare, kick or other percussive element, even though, when shared on a single channel, it is not present. Again, this fills the soundscape with a ‘false’ polyphony using listener expectation to ‘fill in the gaps’.



Figure 7. Typical PSG noise channel writing for a drum kit pattern. Kick, snare and hi-hat are all represented on a single channel. Vertical placement is representative of speed of noise randomization, which is perceived as a change in pitch.


Perhaps the most idiosyncratic and recognized feature of PSG writing is the super-fast arpeggio 86.82838485 Essentially, this is the same technique as instrumental channel sharing, however has the unique purpose of providing a ‘harmonic compression’; reducing all explicitly stated harmonic content to the fewest voices possible, liberating channels for other purposes. Both the Famichord and the super-fast arpeggio are solutions to the same problem, however the Famichord can only accurately represent a chord of four notes or less using all available channels whereas an arpeggio can cover any number of extensions by rapidly iterating through the chord on a single channel (Figure 8). This technique’s conception is sometimes credited to M. Galway with the score to Kong Strikes Back (1985) for the Commodore 64868788 and often appears in soundtracks throughout the computer’s lifespan.89




Figure 8. A variety of super-fast arpeggio forms, all based on a C Major 9th chord.

The main drawback to the super-fast arpeggio, and many of the channel sharing techniques, is that they are both more difficult to program, demand more processing power and use more memory than simple three/four part writing.90 The Famichord may represent less extended harmony, with a less elegant approach to wave function economy, however it requires only three channel instructions to the sound chip to create a chord. The arpeggiation technique requires multiple instructions to a single channel, in a very small space of time (Figure 9). Often, the read only memory (ROM) on software distribution media was very small91 and developers would limit their music data due to memory constraints.92 Gratuitous use of musical content would quickly fill the memory limits, encroaching on space needed for the rest of the software.

A l64 o5 @00 c e d g e b g >c

e g d e c d c e d g e b g >c <g b e

g d e c d c e d g e b g >c <g b e g

d e c d c e d g e b g >c <g b e g d

e c d

Super-Fast Arpeggio, C Major Ninth, 1 bar

A l1 o5 @00 b

B l1 o5 @00 e

C l1 o5 c


Famichord C Major Seventh, 1 bar

Figure 9. Comparison of a single bar Famichord command compared to a single bar arpeggio command in ppMCK MML.


It seems that, whilst PSG music was dramatically shaped by polyphonic restrictions, perhaps the main pervasive limiting factor is ultimately the available memory the composer has to work with. As with the Famichord versus the super-fast arpeggio scenario, the decision seems to be less founded in compositional choice but in a constant creative balance between musicality and pragmatics. Perhaps the main difference between the Super Mario Brothers and Silver Surfer soundtracks was not how well the latter utilised channel sharing, or the simplicity of the former’s harmonic writing, but how much memory was delegated to each respective composition.

A Tale of Ludomusicology 2015

Contributor: James S. Tate

James Tate has very kindly approached us with this personal and fun account of his first experience of a Ludomusicology Conference. We’re proud to share it here, unedited!


Day 1: Wednesday 8th April 2015

I curse my alarm as it shrill tones cut through my pleasant slumber like a scream from the witch in Left for Dead. I’m instantly alert; you don’t hear that sound and not be!

Rushing, I dump all of my stuff in the car and set off for Newcastle airport from Durham where I’m based. It’s a gloriously sunny day and I actually get to wear sunglasses. It makes me look like Adam Jensen from Deus Ex: Human Revolution except without the stylish beard.

St. Martin's Cathedral, Utrecht

St. Martin’s Cathedral, Utrecht

Once through security, I aim for the currency exchange. Nothing like leaving things until the last minute! The flight itself barely takes any time at all and soon we’re touching down in Amsterdam. As per usual, baggage collection takes the longest and I feel like I do when I’m looking at the loading screen in Dark Souls II after I’ve died for the millionth time. Exiting the airport, I emerge into the central transport hub that is Amsterdam station and easily find a train to take me to Utrecht.

Once out of the station, I head to the university to see it ready for the next day and arrive at the Academiegebouw or Academy building. It’s spectacular. Donated by the city of Utrecht in 1896, it now serves as the university’s ceremonial centre where major academic functions are still held. Neo-Renaissance in its architecture, it’s quite foreboding, reminding me somewhat of one of the Castlevania castles, but in the bright sunshine I’m not expecting Dracula to appear just yet. From here, it was only a ten minute walk to where my hostel was so arriving, I met a very nice receptionist who showed me where all the facilities were before leaving me to it. Collapsing on my bed, I relax and email family/post on Facebook to say I’ve arrived.

Tate 1Once my body aches slightly less from the carrying of a laptop and a bag, I set out in search of food. Dodging cyclists galore, I meandered my way down various streets that looked suspiciously like ‘Delfino Square’ from Mario Kart Wii. Eventually I stumble upon Café Hofman and nervously ask the waitress if she speaks English. She does and happily translates the menu for me. I ask her what the most Dutch thing is on the menu and she points to a cheese fondue. Eagerly, I order for a) I like cheese, b) it is actually a Dutch meal and c) most importantly I’m hungry. It doesn’t take long for it to arrive and instead of being in a bowl, it is a bread bun (or cob, balm, roll, bap, balm-cake or any other version of that word) that has been hollowed out and then the molten cheese poured inside. On the side is a selection of fresh vegetables to dip into it.

Once I’ve eaten, I’m fully satisfied and with the sun fading, I make my way back to the hostel and begin this diary, writing as Alan Wake does in the game by the same name. Fortunately, nothing that I write comes alive and after a decent session, I turn in.

Day 2: Thursday 9th April 2015

A continental buffet starts my day and all for four euros! Cereal, bread, salami, cheese, a boiled egg and Nutella is consumed quickly before I return to my room, clean my teeth and head out into the bright outdoors. Feeling as if ‘The Traveller’ should be playing as I walk, (a crime that Soon Serenade was cancelled and Robby Mulvany’s music will never reach a wider audience) I arrive outside the Sweelinckzaal Room where Ludo 2015 will begin!

Meeting a variety of people, we have a brief chat about where we’ve come from and soon, collect our name badges and have a seat. The room’s magnificent. Georgian in style; the decor is very elaborate but there’s some noticeable hi-tech gadgetry on the tables that are shaped in a horseshoe. In one corner is where the speaker will stand and in the other is a 75 inch television on a stand that is acting as our display. Mark Sweeney, Michiel Kamp and Tim Summers introduce themselves – these are the three that have organised the conference and each one of them is as friendly, knowledgeable and approachable as the other.

The morning is split into two sessions: the first, “Game Music Audiences and Interpretations” and the second “Technological Intersections” separated by a coffee break in the middle. I won’t go into any of the individual speakers because I’ll never do justice to what they had to say, except that absolutely everybody did themselves and their respective institutions proud. The coffee break I must mention though, because as this is my first conference, it was really great to chat with people. As I got to find out, many of us are in a similar situation – we’re either the only one, or one of only a handful studying videogame music wherever we are in the world. I devour some Celebrations that have been put out – did you know that the Dutch name for a Galaxy chocolate is Dove!? I mean, I’ve heard the expression “Wash your mouth out with soap, but eating it!?” – Apologies for those who don’t get that pun.

At lunch, a group of us congregate to ask where any of us would like to eat standing around like not particularly useful NPCs from Oblivion. Nobody seems to be able to make a decision so I suggest Café Hofman as it’s only about a two minute walk away. Ordering a ham, cheese and tomato panini and a beer, we eat surrounded by what is most definitely the European Café culture. It’s relaxed, people are enjoying themselves and life seems good.

The afternoon session is as good, if not better than the morning for people are more relaxed now that they know the format. During the coffee break I have a chat with one of my academic heroes – Karen Collins. Yes, I realise I’m a sycophant and if she reads this, I can imagine raised eyebrows, but suffice to say we have a laugh and talk about a number of things. She markedly points out when I say to her that she’s the foremost expert in ludomusicology that although that may be the case, it’s depressing that it’s such a small field. But I have hope having seen so many presentations today. We are her disciples; all of us have referenced her books in one form or another and although she is the pioneer of videogame academia that is still small, new works are coming out all the time. It is up to us, the next generation of videogame academics to push the field in as many different directions as possible. After listening to the presentations today, I am positive that this area of study will grow. Composers, audio engineers and academics alike can use our work to make sure that videogame audio gets the recognition it deserves both today and in the future.

Pancakes at De Oude Muntkelder

Pancakes at De Oude Muntkelder

After the break, we have the day’s keynote delivered by David Roesner who talks on the topic: “’Beyond the Score’ – A Performative Approach to Music-Based Gaming”. His fantastic presentation is sadly the last of the day and so with a round of applause, the hard work for the day is done. We have two hours before the evening meal and so we each part ways to drop back bags/laptops at our various places of residence looking forwards to a conference dinner at De Oude Muntkelder.

I don’t know what to expect, but I’m delighted to learn as I take my place that it serves sweet and savoury pancakes! It was a difficult decision, but in the end, I opted for a goat’s cheese, pine nuts, apple and honey pancake which was delicious! Lively conversation ensued but eventually, like with all good things – for example Half Life 2: Episode 2– they come to an end (or not!!! Where is Episode 3 Valve!?). And so it was that Thursday became Friday.



Day 3: Friday 10th April 2015

Again, I’ll resist the temptation to describe everyone’s excellent talks and I’ll skip to Richard Steven’s ‘A Practical Demonstration of Game Music Implementation Methods’. This, as the title suggests was a practical demonstration of how to integrate audio into games either via middleware such as wwise or directly into a game engine itself such as Unreal 4. Taking us through various real world examples, he shows us the good, the bad and the ugly. Highly informative, I have wanted a talk like this for a long time and here, finally, I have the chance to learn – even if it is a whistle stop tour through various capabilities of the programs.

And then it was the talk we’d all been waiting for: Karen Collins’ keynote and it more than met the occasion. How do I begin? Well, perhaps with a comment. As if she doesn’t have enough on her plate with just her university commitments, she is the director of a new videogame-audio documentary coming out in 2016 called Beep.

Citing the fact that 80% of the audio and knowledge about it in silent films have been lost, you can see her passion and determination when she says that she will NOT let this happen with games. We see various pieces of raw footage of various interviews she’s given. It is awe-inspiring stuff – composers, audio directors, vocal artists – they all want to tell their tale. And Karen is providing them with the means to do that. I hope you will forgive me within this account of citing a website, but I felt this is too important to just brush over, so therefore please – reader of this journal – please check out

After lunch, we return to the conference room for the final afternoon of talks and I await my turn to speak. Finally, it’s here: my analysis of Nobuo Uematsu’s One Winged Angel. Half an hour is nowhere near long enough to talk about this piece – I could have happily spoken for twice or maybe even three times that amount! But the reaction I got at the end was brilliant; I truly felt part of a community and that I had presented something that could be useful to people in the future.

On a high, I spent the entirety of the break that followed my presentation talking to other people about it and trying to answer any questions that they had. A Skype talk with Stephen Baysted – the composer of Project Cars along with his collaborator Tim Summers followed and then after two more presentations we were at the end. Two days, eighteen talks and several million new ideas discussed. Sadly, as is often the case, some people had to dash off straight afterwards due to flights, but for those of us that were staying around, the organisers – Mark, Michiel and Tim had organised one final treat – a pub quiz at an Irish Pub, all about videogames!

Getting there just before eight o’clock I half expected to hear ‘A Watering Hole in the Harbor’ from The Witcher 2 as I enter O’Leary’s Irish Pub and Restaurant. A warning to all future Ludomusicology attendees: Tim takes no prisoners with his questions. I mean seriously – name that tune… answer, Super Tennis for the Sega Mega Drive!!! Swine Tim, swine…

So sadly, upon finding out the winners, losers and everyone in between like a particularly manic game of Team Fortress 2, we began to say our goodbyes. But as we began to part ways, I know that it’s not the end; these people around me are no longer strangers. They’re colleagues, fellow academics but perhaps above all, friends. At the end of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, you hear the piece ‘Cloud Smiles’. This is the piece that needs to be played at this moment. Touching and heartfelt.

Day 4: Saturday 11th April 2015

My flight is at 12:15 and I need to get to: a) Utrecht Station, b) Amsterdam Schipol, c) Newcastle Airport and finally d) home (Durham). Easy!

It starts off well. I leave the hostel like you leave Candlekeep in Baldur’s Gate although in fairness, not under quite as mysterious circumstances. Although having said that, two guys at the hostel were drinking port and 7:30 in the morning. Strange things happen in Holland…

I make my way to Utrecht station – all is going according to plan. I buy a ticket to the only Amsterdam option available (thinking nothing of it) and get on board the train. Arriving in Amsterdam Central, I think to myself that I just need to go one further stop to Amsterdam Schipol. So I stay on board until a female ticket conductor comes into the carriage and orders me off! I learn at this point that there’s engineering works between here and the airport and this is as far as the trains are running.

I leap off the train with ‘Bombing Mission’ from Final Fantasy VII thudding through my mind and head down the stairs to the ticket desk to find out what’s happening. Fortunately there is a replacement bus service and I just need to go one step on another train and I’ll find it there. I buy a ticket and discover I have 20 minutes before the train leaves, so seeing a piano in the entrance hall of the station I began to play ‘Fear of the Heavens’ from The Secret of Mana. I recently discovered this track and it’s nice and easy to play but it’s a beautiful melody and the Dutch public seemed to love it. I moved onto some jazz soon after and got cheered on. But then, like Batman in Arkham Asylum, I quickly evade their detection and got the replacement bus.

The flight was without incident and soon I was back in England after a fantastic four days.

  • Cue ‘Faith’ from Dreamfall: The Longest Journey.


Author’s note:

I wrote this account as a memory for those people I met at Ludo 2015 and the fantastic time I had there. To Mark, Michiel and Tim – these three guys truly deserve a massive round of applause for organising such a tightly run conference and even though I was a newby at the conference, I felt very welcome and appreciated.

But I also wrote this journal for those people who might be contemplating about whether to come to Ludo 2016. Please do. The above account is from someone who had never been to a conference before, let alone spoke at one. But I am truly glad I did. I got such a lot out of it and to meet people like Karen, Steven and David – three truly knowledgeable people in this field was an honour. Please join us next year and help push the academia of videogame music and add to the knowledge of ludomusicology.

James S. Tate
April 2015

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.


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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:

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