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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:

Commentary on the American Federation of Musicians with update from Austin Wintory

Commentary on the American Federation of Musicians with update from Austin Wintory
By Ryan Thompson


On June 9th, composer Austin Wintory posted a video, announcing that he is facing a $50,000 fine from the AFM (American Federation of Musicians) union of which he is a member.  Wintory shares that because of a lack of a contract between AFM and game developers, “For almost two years now…no union member has been allowed to work on a new video game soundtrack as a result.

…After having successfully recorded the iOS game HORN with AFM musicians, I attempted to do the same with THE BANNER SAGA. The unusable contract forced me elsewhere, and I soon found the remarkable Dallas Wind Symphony. This collaboration happened as a direct result of the AFM’s unusable contract, and I am now being punished for simply doing my job under those circumstances.”

By coincidence, the next day on June 10th, AFM announced that they had reached a new agreement with Microsoft.  That agreement, which was reportedly in talks for 18 months, allows for the sort of buyout that the game industry was pushing for.  It did not address all of Wintory’s concerns (to say nothing of his $50,000 fine — I reached out to Wintory, whose comments follow this blog post), but is a good signal that many of us should soon be finding games with orchestral musicians again soon.

I argue this sort of arrangement — both Wintory’s situation and the union politics underpinning it — are important for media scholars to be aware of.  It falls under the broader umbrella of an issue largely solved within academia but remains an important question in other circles — whether or not we recognize games as a unique art form separate and independent from film and other media.  Part of that recognition includes separate legal treatment differing from other media, as Wintory points out in a YouTube comment:

“…secondary market-based royalty is rejected by the game industry because there is no secondary market. In film, if you’re released in theaters the subsequent DVD release would be  the secondary market, and AFM musicians (under the motion picture contracts) make 1% of those secondary market grosses. But games sales are the one-stop transaction. One might try to argue that ports or remasters are secondary markets, but I’d actually disagree. More like parallel primary markets. There is no equivalent in games to a film coming out in theaters and then, say, airing on cable a year later. As a result, the upfront risk for game studios is MUCH HIGHER than for film companies because all their eggs end up in one basket (this is a definite weakness in the business structure of the game industry, as reported by the rampant post-released layoffs lately). Given that there are many, many viable options for royalty-free recording (including very high-end expensive options in London which are regularly used), there is no need to for publishers to deepen their already-huge risk so they refuse to accept these mandatory royalties.”

I first thought of Final Fantasy X HD Remaster, the soundtrack of which I had the opportunity to discuss in a more pleasant context.  Some of the tracks are the original audio from Final Fantasy X, some are remastered, some are re-recorded, and some are re-orchestrated — all of which require different legal treatment.  As Wintory points out, the concept of the re-release is common to film, in which it’s not difficult to track down someone who owns the same movie across multiple formats — VHS tape, DVD, Blu-Ray, and a digital download, in addition to having gone to see the film in the theater (perhaps even more than one theatrical release, for a property like Star Wars).

Wintory is correct that the idea of a (post-launch window) port to another platform a la FFX HD is very rare — of the thousands of Playstation 2 games, only a select few have been re-released for modern consoles. Compare the list of PS2 franchises that have received similar ports (God of War, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, and the two Team ICO games) to the number of films available on both VHS and DVD.  Game developers often hope but cannot plan for their games to be as successful as these titles.  As Karen Collins warned many of us during her keynote speech at the North American Video Game Music Conference this past January, defining the entire gaming industry by a select few AAA titles is not viable in the longterm, neither for our own scholarly efforts nor for making legal decisions about a giant industry.

Though the agreement that was reached with Microsoft will work for many large studios, based on the numbers in the Variety article linked above, it remains unclear how the burgeoning indie development scene will be able to effectively utilize union musicians for their games.  It does seem that legal teams supporting both the AFM and game developers are realizing that games should be treated on their own terms.  While not an ideal arrangement yet, having a place to start allows game development to function and musicians to do their jobs. Games continue to cast an ever widening net — as they become an increasingly important part of our casual and social spaces, they will require more and more consideration from all perspectives.


P.S.  As mentioned, I reached out to Wintory for comment, and he offered the following, largely agreeing with my assessment of the situation.  No word yet as to his personal situation, though it’s important to keep in mind that 1) It remains a personal matter, so we should not expect any further updates necessarily — and 2) It is only tangentially related to the underlying point at hand as I interpret it above.


Austin Wintory:

I will add that I think the Microsoft agreement has very little chances for widespread success. The most it offers is the so-called “Franchise buyout,” which some companies (Microsoft, Blizzard) are ok with, but others (Sony, EA, etc) are not. Further, I think indies are unlikely to accept anything but a full buyouts, because they are put at financial risk in a way that’s out of proportion to their efforts. Why would a company like Stoic (developers of The Banner Saga) be willing to put themselves at risk for total bankrupcy (which unexpected new-use or re-use payments could trigger), over the music in their game, whilst having total unencumbered control over every other aspect of the game?

For mid-range studios I can sort of imagine that being acceptable risk (5thCell, or Double Fine), though I know they default to full buyouts. But it’s nonetheless a more acceptable proposition than to small indies who don’t have the administrative manpower to oversee AFM contracts.

So, I have hope for the Microsoft agreement, but only because I’m an optimist. Unfortunately the AFM’s behavior seems to only deepen the conviction that they are woefully out of touch, and disinterested in a long-term relationship with the game industry.

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:

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