Games currently playing: Brave Frontier, Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Fire Emblem Fates – Birthright
In my music theory classes every week, I like teaching my students about an interesting instrument or genre/style of music that I really like and want to expose them to. So far this semester, we’ve learned about the steel drum, the erhu (my favorite instrument <3), keyboard percussion (specifically xylophone, glockenspiel, marimba, and vibraphone), bluegrass music, the oud, ragtime music, extended techniques on Western instruments, and this past week… Video game music! 😀
I loved seeing my students’ eyes light up when I announced “Today we will be learning about video game soundtracks!” I always play music from YouTube while we do our workbook assignments and quizzes, so most of my students are already familiar with some Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Kingdom Hearts music.
The point of the lesson this past class, though, was for them to remember the games that they play, and really think about the music in them. I did have to reign in their enthusiasm a little bit sometimes, reminding my students “We are talking about the MUSIC in these games!” To my surprise (or maybe not?) a lot of them had no idea who the composers were, let alone ever pay attention to the music in their games (at least as acutely as I do). A couple of them even said that video game music was annoying, and they would sometimes just turn it off. I gasped and said, “Wow, you might as well just stab me through the heart with that comment! T^T” 😛
I taught my students a few conceptual ideas that I’ve picked up from video game music over the years, about categories and aspects of music unique to video game OSTs. I will go more in-depth in this article than I did with my students in the classroom.
Video game music falls into a few different categories, some of which can certainly overlap. I generally play Japanese RPGs, so these categories are definitely not cut and dry for every single game out there—if you agree or disagree with any of the categories I came up with, or if you have any more to add, tell me in the comments! 🙂
- Menu: At the beginning of every game, you have your generally calm, sometimes ambient (sometimes not, depending on the type of game) music at the menu, while you fix your settings, set up your character’s name, traits, etc. This music is usually fairly low-key, relative to the rest of the game’s soundtrack.
- Map/Field: While your character is walking around, while doing nothing but traversing through a town or field, you have a generally calm, happy (again, sometimes not, depending on the game) soundtrack. This music can accompany casual, and non-pivotal plot conversations (excluding merchants, see below). Like the menu, this music is usually low-key, and is not very obtrusive.
- Shop: While the music will stay the same when your character walks into various houses in the town/village, the houses where the music actually changes are usually the places where the merchants live. Meaning, the places where you get to BUY STUFF!!! WOO HOO! This music is often cheerful and upbeat (AGAIN, sometimes not depending on the game) (I’m just gonna keep saying that), going for the same general positive effect that stores in real life have, too. In many RPGs, the shop music is quite drastically more whimsical than the rest of the score, to an almost ironic level.
- Acquisition of Something: This music plays when your character acquires something, whether it’s an item, a level up, or in the case of Ocarina of Time (and probably other games as well), access to a new place. These tracks are very short, and I almost did not add them in because some of them could be considered more of a sound effect than soundtrack, but some of the tracks that fit into this category definitely have a melody, some even have a chord progression, so I decided that it would fit under the category of “music”.
- Open Chest – Get Item (Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time)
- Evolution (Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald)
- Bolero of Fire (Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time) (I debated whether or not to put this one in this category, or in the last one [cut scene], but I decided that it would fit better in this category, because all of these songs you play on the ocarina are used to obtain something, whether it’s to transport you to a new location, or for something to appear. Plus, these songs are so short, and also do not always have a set scene that they play with, excluding the time when you first learn them.)
- Dungeon/Gym: Generally much more tension-filled than your map/field themes, the music in dungeons often conveys a sense of urgency, and sometimes mystery as well. Especially in the LoZ games, this music can either tremendously support or extremely impede the player’s efforts to solve puzzles. This music usually does not change when there are small, inconsequential battles—the music fits with both creeping around as well as beating up little bad guys!
- Mystery Unfolds!/Other Pivotal Plot Development: This music kicks in when a character either appears or someone already present speaks a key line that changes the story. This type of music accompanies key moments that require a significant change in mood, that the already present score does not convey necessary emotion for. This category could technically also cover the next category, but I will not put them together for reasons that I will specify in the next point.
- Reasoning (Persona 4) (mystery!)
- Who’s There? (Persona 4) (creepy mystery)
- Borderline of Madness (Persona 4) (super creepy and dramatic mystery)
- Base C (Fire Emblem) (this track plays in preparation for one of the battles, but it also plays during a very significant conversation between the main character and an important sage, so while it does serve multiple functions in the game, I will stick it in this category!)
- Chronicle of Fate (Chain Chronicle) (sad, sentimental, teary-eyed confessions)
- Danger/Help!: Often startling and fast-paced, music in this category cuts through abruptly, conveying an urgent sense of danger and always directly preceding a battle (see below). This sort of track is usually a fairly short loop, and is accompanied by snappy and quick dialogue. Although it does not fit exactly with the above criteria, I will include the many “Trainer Notices You!” tracks from the Pokémon series into this category. I did not put this category with #5 because I believe that there is a large enough stock of tracks that could fit in this category alone. Plus, music in this category always precedes a battle.
- Battle / Victory: Everyone’s favorite—battle music!! I was hesitant at first to put these two in the same category, but after much consideration I decided that they do go hand-in-hand: you don’t ever hear the victory theme without first battling, and generally speaking, more often than not your character does win a battle, so you hear the victory music after a battle. I would say victory themes are generally shorter than battle themes, and in some games the victory music contains variations of the battle theme as well.
- Main Battle Theme (Final Fantasy X) (this one, similarly to Brave Frontier’s Metal Parade theme, has a certain rhythmic aspect that I will discuss more in-depth in a later post! 🙂 )
- Gym Leader Battle (Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald)
- Night of Fate (Kingdom Hearts)
- Field Battle (Fire Emblem Fates) (this piece also deserves its own post, for the ingenious and seamless variations depending on the player’s PoV)
- Battle for Justice (Chain Chronicle) (a discontinued game—will be posting my commemorative piano suite sometime soon!)
- I’ll Face Myself (Persona 4)
- (this list could literally go on FOREVER—comment with your favorite battle themes below! 🙂 )
- Character Theme: These themes usually have very strong, memorable melodies, and often have tons of variations throughout the game. Often a game’s theme song will be tied in with a specific character (see below: FFX, Fire Emblem Fates). These themes are played when the character is first introduced, and when that character has an important part in terms of development. Variations in character themes can often be so heart-breakingly beautiful!
- Zelda’s Lullaby (Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds)
- Yuna’s Theme (Suteki Da Ne) (Final Fantasy X)
- Namine’s Theme (Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories)
- Lost in Thoughts All Alone (Japanese version) (Fire Emblem Fates) (in some ways you could say this is Azura’s theme, as she is the one singing it and it is most strongly associated with her character; however the first melodic line of this song appears in so many different places of the game, whether Azura is in that place or not, that I would say that it’s more a theme song of the entire game than her theme.)
- Cutscene/Opening/Ending Credits: I put this category at the end, and when I wrote these categories on the board for my students, I wrote it in a different color, because of the characteristic that this type has that is not in the other categories, which is a lack of looping. Cutscene/opening/ending credit music, unlike usual gameplay, takes a set amount of time; therefore the music does not necessarily have to loop, and goes along exactly with what’s happening on the screen. Cutscene and ending credit music will undoubtedly almost always have reprises/variations of other themes that were played throughout the game. Conversely, opening music can also contain future themes—a bit of musical foreshadowing! 🙂
- Simple and Clean – PLANITb Remix (Short Edit) (Kingdom Hearts I – opening) (my first post was “The Game That Started It All”—this song’s subtitle should be “The Song That Started It All”!)
- Ending Theme (Final Fantasy X)
- The End Credits (Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask)
- Ending Theme (Pokémon: Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire) (I chose the remake of this one because of its inclusion of town themes)
- Ending Theme (Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening)
Again, these categories are not cut and dry—I mainly play JRPGs, so if you think of any others, please leave a comment and share your thoughts! 🙂