Out of all of the Pokémon games, Gen V (specifically Black version) was and is my favorite. Although Gen II (specifically Gold version) has a very special place in my heart, being the first Pokémon game I ever played back in 2nd grade, Gen V’s storyline and substantial involvement of gym leaders and rivals as actual, dimensional characters blew me away. If that wasn’t enough to make the game so memorable, it also featured the most adorable and incredibly clever choices in sound design, and also the best music (not by much though) (lookin’ at you, Gen II).
Today’s article is going to highlight the parts in sound design and music that really caught my attention in Pokémon Black version. While playing through it for a second time earlier this year, I kept a running list of parts that intrigued me that I wanted to write about. The original title of the list was “places where music changes depending on things that your character does”, but I also included some musical cues that I simply found to be interesting. I have yet to play White version, so this review will focus on Black version’s sound design and music. But since I haven’t played White version, I don’t know if there is even a difference! X’D
All pictures unprofessionally photographed by yours truly with an iPhone directly from my Nintendo DS… 😄
Route 1 – March and Play That Tambourine!
The very first route you encounter, Route 1, incorporates one of the cutest interactive elements of sound design that I’ve heard in a Pokémon game. The music is already very bouncy, light, and fun, with its chromatic notes in the main treble melody, quickly moving bass line, xylophone and flute-like trills. That is what you hear when your character is stationary.
When your character starts moving, however, a little tambourine track is seamlessly added in! If you stop moving again, the tambourine disappears. It’s this kind of tiny little attention to detail that makes this Gen’s music stand out to me.
Route 1 music, with tambourine:
Accumula Town – Little House of Musicians
One of the first towns you come across on your adventure is Accumula Town. The music that plays is quite cute, as are most beginning towns in the Pokémon games. It starts out with a flute-like leading instrument, accompanied by sparse, syncopated bass, and some guitar arpeggios are added in when it gets to the second part.
The most endearing part, though, is what happens in a small house in upper right. You walk into this house, and you see three things: a Minccino, a drummer, and a pianist.
Go up to the drummer, and he says…
If you say “Yes”, he will say “My! Heart! As long as my heart beats! I will keep! On! Drumming!!”, then percussion will begin to play: a constant sixteenth-note snare drum beat, with accentuated open and closed hi-hat hits, and some claps (not exactly drum-set sounds, but lololol), and cymbal crashes. No matter where you are in the background track, the percussion layer comes in.
Go up to the pianist, and she says…
If you say “Yes”, she will say “Hee hee! Please listen to my music.”, and again like the drummer’s, a piano track will be added to the existing musical layers. This one is a little bit harder to hear at first, as the piano is for the most part playing the same rhythm as the accompaniment bass and guitar.
But near the end of the track, the pianist starts to do a bit more free-styling, which adds an extra flair and interest. And for the rest of the time that you’re in that town—in their house or not—those two extra musical layers will be playing. Simply adorable!!
Here’s Accumula Town in full:
Route 2 – Whistle While You Walk
Travel through the gate, check the bulletin board, and head out to Route 2, where you are greeted by another adorable track, featuring some kind of reed/horn instrument as the lead, with pizzicato strings underneath, a lovely counter-melody in the lower horns/strings, and then a xylophone added in during the second section.
This Route music has a few different points of interest. Not only does the track change depending on whether or not your character is moving (like Route 1), it also has four different variations, for spring, summer, autumn, and winter! The variations’ differences are mostly in how the track opens.
The unpitched percussion that is added in whilst you are walking or running is the same in each version: snare drum rolls and hits, crash cymbals, and a samba whistle.
The Spring variation opens with an uplifting flute trill.
The Summer variation opens with soft string tremolos.
The Autumn variation has a nice mid-register piano intro.
The Winter variation has a sweet, very high-register music box playing at the beginning.
Quite honestly the samba whistle is a bit obnoxious, but I suppose it adds a touch of whimsy and fun, since it’s still very early in the game and we haven’t seen much of the darkness to come (yet).
Gym Leader’s Last Pokémon – Victory is Right Before Your Eyes!
I’ve always loved Gym Leader Battle themes. The thing that is different and interesting about Gen V’s gym leader battle though, is that when the leader sends out his or her final Pokémon, the music changes!
The initial battle music is decisively more minor-oriented, with strongly driving percussion, and variety in leading instruments, both in terms of timbre and register.
When the leader sends out their last Pokémon, the track picks up speed slightly, and includes a variation of the TITLE SCREEN music‘s main theme! Who would’ve thought to do that!?
While we’re on the topic of battle music, I wanted to include this next track very briefly. I say briefly because it is undoubtedly the MOST ANNOYING one in Gen V. When your Pokémon’s health went into the red zone, this OBNOXIOUS track would play. Yes, it did kick my butt into making the decision to switch Pokémon, use a potion, or just LET MY POKéMON DIE TO STOP THE MUSIC—this track was indeed motivational. I just found it SUPER ANNOYING to turn the already irritating DEE-doo DEE-doo DEE-doo DEE-doo into a musical track, with some electronic remix elements. Oh dear I don’t even want to include the link, but I will.
Luckily there must have been enough of a complaint, that not only did none of the future gens include that theme, but they also shortened the DEE-doo DEE-doo. Thank you.
Nacrene City – How do you like the sound of accordions?
The next city has a very jazzy, laid-back feel, with its syncopated percussion and upright bass parts, and chromatic note-filled leading vibraphone.
It is quite a pleasant track already, but the fun part is that while you approach the Café Warehouse, you will see a man with glasses playing an accordion outside. If you get close enough to him, an accordion layer will be added! ^_^
The accordion track is very subtle, playing mostly in unison with the vibraphone.
Skyarrow Bridge – What!? MOVING… CAMERA… ANGLES…!? O________O
I remember the first time I played Pokémon Black, and got to Skyarrow Bridge. As someone who grew up playing all the other games and getting used to the fixed camera angle throughout the entire game, having the camera spiral around as you run up the bridge’s ramp, then having the camera pan out for an absolutely majestic view of the bridge… It was just breath-taking. The music was so fitting, too, especially the opening piano solo.
Castelia City – Now Hiring: Narcissistic Saxophone Player
Just after the best part visually in the game, we have to arrive at this city… Can someone tell the saxophonist to please share the leading melody? Oh man, if I were to write an Across the Generations article about each Pokémon game’s most irritating track, this town’s theme would be the one to single-handedly inspire that article. The god-forsaken saxophone part continually hits a wailing Ab, and since this is midi, the Ab sounds exactly the same every time. It’s just very grating on my nerves.
Many would disagree with me on this verdict, as I read in the comments on that YouTube upload, but my opinion still stands. It’s short, repetitive, has the most obnoxious leading instrument, AND to top it all off, Castelia was such a huge city that you were bound to spend a lot of time there, and therefore stuck listening to that track over and over and over and over… This is the one and only town in which I would actually turn off the sound.
Route 4 – Sand in my ears is better than cheesy Saxophone in my ears!
I love just how valiant some of the Route themes in these games are. It’s really the triumphant Route themes that stick out most in my heart and mind—they are the musical tracks that play between most major plot developments, and are the background music to most level-grind sessions. They are the tracks that support the feeling of adventure.
Another percussion-while-moving track, in addition to having seasonal variants, Route 4 was fun also because of the sandstorm sounds! Whistling winds aside, let’s compare the four different tracks that played, depending on the [in-game] time of year.
Like Route 2, the Spring version has some nice flute trills.
The Summer variation has more of a horn polyphony (different melodies and rhythms played simultaneously) going on.
The Autumn variation starts with an enthusiastic xylophone melody, with some fun trills.
Somewhat typical (but oh-so okay in my book!) of icy themes, the Winter variation includes some steady music box notes.
I especially like the middle section (in each variation) where the percussion drops out a bit, leaving the strings and horns to just soar. This is one of those tracks where I put down my DS and let the music play while I go do something else (eat, read something online, etc.)
Watch Out! There’s TWO of Them!! – Strong Wild Pokémon Battle
Another pretty cool addition to the gameplay of Gen V was the darker-colored double grass feature, in which there was a chance that you could be attacked by TWO wild Pokémon at the same time!
And naturally, what’s the fun in having a battle variation with no musical variation as well?? The differences (like the seasonal variations) occur mostly (if not entirely) in the opening of each track.
The regular wild Pokémon encounter’s beginning is more bass-heavy, with the usual descending flurry in the treble.
The double grass wild encounter certainly has a more pronounced treble part, with the descended flurry switching between the left and right channels, adding to the whole double-encounter concept. I always got super excited when I heard this track begin, knowing that I’d get to do a double battle! :3
This might be a good time to add, that while the Pokémon Musical contests did have some particularly alluring tracks, I am not including them in this article because I wasn’t a big fan of the contests in this Gen. The only non-battle feature I really got into was Gen III’s contests, because I really liked seeing Pokémon moves’ different uses. So if you really liked one or more of the Pokémon Musical contest themes and wanted them to be included… Heh, sorry! ^_^’
Anville Town – A Lullaby for the Sleeping Trains
I have to admit, I had never even been to Anville Town before I started writing this article. After seeing its two different tracks in the soundtrack playlist I’m using, though, I finally went to the Subway in Nimbasa City and took the train to this quaint and charming—but somewhat useless—city.
The reason why I am adding it into this, though, is because it is a wonderful little tune that includes one of those adorable street musicians, this one being a flutist. The flute part is almost identical to the piano part, and they play in unison pretty much the entire time. But it is oh-so very cute, so I have included it simply because it is a very nice track ^u^
And lucky for us, as a bonus track on the OST, we were given another version that includes a real flute! ^U^ At 2:42 we have a ragtime, distorted piano part, playing the main theme a hell of a lot faster. The flute comes back in after though, so if you’re not into it, just be patient 😉
Route 6 – You know the drill
Route 6 also included some variations at the beginning depending on the season, and by now you can already guess what they are! Spring: flute trills, Summer: more horns, Autumn: more flurried pitched percussion, and Winter: our favorite music box. Here are the four variations:
Chargestone Cave – The deeper you go…
Aside from being the most visually beautiful cave in the entire Pokémon series, I also found the music to be very mysterious and exciting, from the celesta-like lead in the first part, pizzicato strings, crescendos, and sparse egg-shaker percussion, to the second part’s bassoon-like leading instrument and strong bass strings… In a pulsing 6/8 time signature, the starting melody (just the first five notes) is filled with peculiar dissonances, with two tritones in a row.
The strangest and best part of this cave’s music, however, is that it becomes slower, and deeper in pitch, the further you go down into the cave. The first level starts out on an Eb, the second level starts on a C (a minor third lower), and the third level starts on an Ab (another minor third lower). The first level is at 72 beats per minute, the second level is at 66 BPM, and the third is at 60 BPM (decreasing by 6 BPMs each time).
For those of you who love graphs and tables as much as I do, here is the same information in table format:
Make sure you catch yourself a cute widdle Joltik, and an elusive Tynamo (if you have the patience), and let’s move on to the next city!
Icirrus City – What’s the time signature!?!? …Who cares, let’s just clap and dance!!
One of my favorite town themes is most definitely the one in Icirrus City. Not only do the alternating accordion, flute, and violin leads strike my fancy, it also has one of the most fun rhythmic patterns to try to figure out (and clap along to, if you’re a nerd like I am).
I remember first arriving to this city, and being smitten with the beginning syncopation—as well as the adorable square of dancing, clapping children—then thoroughly enamored when the second section rolled around and I couldn’t figure out when the downbeat was going to come.
The claps are only heard when you’re near the square of children, similar to the accordion player in Nacrene City and the flutist in Anville Town.
I had originally written that I still couldn’t figure out the time signature of this town’s melody, but after many more listens, I have finally figured it out! See if you can listen to it and count along with me! ^o^
0:00 – 0:28 we are in 6/8 (think a fast 1-2-3, 1-2-3, just like I’m saying)
0:29 – 0:34 we have three measures of 5/8 (think 1-2-3, 1-2 / 1-2-3, 1-2), then ONE measure of 6/8 again
0:35 – 0:38 we are in 5/8 again for TWO measures
0:39 – 0:45 we are back in 6/8
And although after 0:45, we have a different leading instrument, and more harmony is added, the basic rhythmic structure is exactly the same as the first 45 seconds.
Shopping Mall Nine – You thought we got rid of the Pokémart theme FOR. GOOD. DIDN’T YOU!?
Gen V is the first Pokémon game to combine the shop and Pokécenter, meaning… The first game that—at first—did not have the wonderful Pokémart theme! I was so sad… While it was certainly convenient to have the shop INSIDE the Pokécenter, I also just loved the shop music (especially Gen III ❤), so seeing that gone was extremely disheartening.
But alas! Shopping Mall Nine! You have come to the rescue! Though you came late in the game, we can finally have our Pokémart theme again!! I absolutely love the jazzy, slowed-down version of this theme, with the bass lead-up in the beginning. The trumpet and piano duet is simply wonderful. The small breaks at 0:20 and 0:24, where everything stops and the triangle plays one note, is just heartwarming ^U^ The slower tempo also allows for this track’s juicy chord progression to really shine.
Victory Road – Show me your badges!
Now this. This is my favorite part of the music and sound design in the game. At the gate before Victory Road in every Pokémon game, you always have to pass some sort of “test”, where the gate keeper checks to make sure you have earned all 8 gym badges before proceeding. In previous games, it was simply one gate, and one person who would check that you had all 8, and you’d be able to pass through.
In Pokémon Black, however, they drew out this process—in the most glorious way—and made it so that you have to pass through a total of 8 gates, each one visually representing the Pokémon type of each gym badge that you’ve earned. Visually it’s very exciting, because each gate is very different, from grass and rocks, to literally floating across.
The best part for me, though, is that with each gate you pass through, one more musical layer is added on. It’s absolutely brilliant. Note that I took these pictures after I had already beaten the game, so the gates are already open.
At the very first gate, you only hear the sound of howling wind. You show your Trio badge and pass through to the next gate.
A steady snare drum begins to play. Walk under a vine-overgrown trellis, and across a bridge to the gate keeper who checks your Basic Badge. Pass through the next gate…
As you walk through the grasses—some of them darker, double grass—a very subtle timpani bass line is added in. Show your Insect Badge to the gate keeper, and move on through.
Climb up the stairs across the back of a giant insect statue, and enjoy the added tuba track layer. This track for the most part has a rhythm very similar to the timpani part, at least in the first section. When the two bass instruments begin to branch off however, it’s quite enticing. At one point the tuba goes up to a beautiful higher register, adding a tiny bit of intensity. Present the Bolt Badge to the gate keeper, and continue onward.
Make your way across a metal grate, sparkling with electricity, and listen for the added string bass part. This is the third bass instrumental layer, but as a whole this line is a bit more mobile than the previous ones. While the string bass doesn’t go up as high as the tuba, nor does its voice break through as clearly, it certainly adds a bit more substance to the piece. If I had been making the decisions, I think I would have actually switched the tuba and string bass parts. Anyway, talk to the Ace Trainer if you want, then show the gate keeper your Quake Badge and trek on to the next part.
As your character traverses through a small canyon, our first treble musical layer is added. It is very subtle at the beginning, and it isn’t until the final section that the pizzicato strings appear. Although the pizzicato technique allows for fast-paced notes, this particular track features more steady pizz, which makes sense in the context of the piece. Have the gate keeper check your Jet Badge, and walk on through.
Approach a daunting crevice, streaks of wind and leaves blasting upward. As you float across, the next mid-register layer is added in, contributing more luscious harmonies into this intrepid Victory Road march. In the first few parts, this layer adds rhythmic and harmonic variety, then finally begins to play a nice countermelody to the tuba. If I had to take a guess as to what instruments we are hearing at this gate, I would say that in the beginning parts it sounds like a cello/viola section (first group of instruments thus far), then at the end it sounds like it could be a trumpet/trombone section. Either way, this is my favorite layer so far. Show your Freeze Badge to the gate keeper, and go forth!
Challenge an icy sliding mini-game, and take in the tubular bells/chimes that add in an extra layer of juicy epicness! In college, when I was part of our school’s wind ensemble for one quarter, I had the privilege of playing a chime part, and I felt absolutely hard-core. The chimes have such a rich character to their sound, and they add in such a sense of foreboding and drama. You don’t need much, as this track shows, for the chimes to make a powerful impact. Skate across and present your final badge, the Legend Badge to the gate keeper.
Reminiscent of the final gym, walk across the path with two giant stone dragon heads keeping their eyes on you. The final layer is added, where we now have our leading melody. It starts off with an instrument that sounds somewhat like a French horn. In the final section, we have a violin section carrying the main melody, with the rich accompaniment of every other layer that we had heard previously.
Oh my goodness, this is just so good. I absolutely love listening to musical tracks separately—with any piece of music—then listening to how they all sound together. It is simply genius that the sound designers and composers incorporated that into this game, and in such a purposeful way. If every track had been playing from the start, it would not nearly have been as impactful.
N, Can your theme be the anthem of my website?
I chose to put this theme near the end of the article, because I wanted to talk about the original track and its variation at the same time. As the most interesting character of Pokémon Black, N’s Theme is also one of my favorite character themes of all time, tied only with Naminé’s theme, from KHCoM. Coincidentally—or not—they’re both in 3/4 time, with a somewhat confusing last couple measures lololol X’D
N’s Theme plays when you first meet him, in the first city we discussed in this article, Accumula Town. It instantly captivated me, with its *~whimsical~* nature. The strong strings, percussion, and leading music box make this theme very bold and in-your-face.
When you enter N’s room, within his castle, once again you hear his theme. It’s not in the same key, but it does have the same leading music box instrument. It is a tad slower, and also features only music box, as both the lead and accompaniment. It is both haunting and charming, just like the character.
N’s Farewell – Here Come the Feels
If there was one track from this game that gives you the feels, it’s undoubtedly this one. This gentle piano piece is absolutely gorgeous, with its minor IV and applied dominant chords. It is so very fitting for a bitter-sweet ending, with its soft string accompaniment and piano’s delicate reverb/echo.
Sniff… Wait, why is this a new heading? I thought we said farewell! We’re not done!?
That’s right! There’s more! After beating the terrible Ghetsis and thwarting Team Plasma’s evil plans, there is still more content! Oh Pokémon, you and your bonus content, your fake endings, how you troll and excite us. Lololololol
Route 11 / 12 – More seasonal variations!
While there is still a sense of adventure in this track, the chimes and swelling strings add a layer of calmness and simply beauty and appreciation that definitely fits with post-ending content. I also like that the variations in Route 12 are included all throughout the piece, and are very much more present, in comparison to the other Route variations, whose differences lay mostly in the opening measures.
The Spring variation features flurried arpeggios, with some type of lovely harp instrument, overlaid throughout the track.
The Summer variation includes… Oh no… Saxophone, is that you again? Sigh. It’s okay, the saxophone is doing a nice, subtle countermelody, softly in the background. Not nearly as annoying as in Castelia. In fact, I’d say that this track causes me to make amends with the saxophone midi sample in this OST. Saxophone… I forgive you! T^T
Autumn’s variation has an electric keyboard layer. It’s similar to the Spring variation, but it’s not as fast-paced and fluttery.
The Winter variation is quite subtle, and is not simply an addition of music box X’D This one does have a pitched percussion layer added, but its purpose is more so harmonious echo than anything else.
Village Bridge – The Most Unlikely Band
I am admittedly not a fan of the harpsichord. The reasoning behind this opinion is that most music I’ve heard that uses the harpsichord is Baroque, and… Even though I am a music teacher, I am NOT a fan of Baroque music. It just sounds too mechanical for my liking. Sorry, all you Bach and Handel fans.
The Village Bridge theme, however, uses the harpsichord in a very slow, gently swaying manner, and it is actually quite relaxing, and I enjoy it very much. As you walk around Village Bridge, you encounter many solo musicians that add in their own instrumental layer. The extra cute thing about this town music is that you can talk to the musicians again, after they’ve started playing, and they’ll stop playing, usually making an apology of sorts, that they’ll do better next time. Luckily you can talk to them again, and they’ll start playing/singing again.
Here’s the Village Bridge theme, with just harpsichord and occasional egg-shaker percussion:
In the upper left corner, there is a guitarist, Aickman, who adds in lovely single-note plucking patterns.
Perhaps my favorite layer is next, when you walk across the bridge. The guy you talk to, Russo, is… A beat-boxer! A freakin’ beat-boxer! It sounds hilarious with the harpsichord, but somehow still works. I love it.
Once you get to the other side of the bridge, go down and under the bridge, you will come across a sunglasses-donning grass flute-player, Derleth. He adds in what I like to think of as the main melody…
Surf across the water (those sweet programmers let the town music continue to play, instead of having it change to the Surf theme ^_^), and make your way to the enka singer, Koontz. While I am a fan of the enka singing style, I am not so much a fan of how they made his voice sound super stuttery and mechanical. Yes, I understand it is midi, but it’s still a bit annoying 😛
It is pretty cool though how one can actually decipher some Japanese words!
Here is Village Bridge, in full:
Undella Town – Precious Lullaby / WHEEEE SUMMER!!!!!11!1!1!!!!
In the spring, autumn, and winter, Undella Town has the most relaxed and calming town themes in the whole game. Like a lullaby, it begins with soft ocean wave sounds, a fleeting high-treble flutter and electric keyboard playing the slow main melody, accompanied by steady string bass. Some more strings come in, during the middle section.
They say that “silence is golden”… This theme really showcases that sometimes silence can indeed be more meaningful than sound.
During the summer, though… The town completely transforms! Now we have lots of fun percussion, a steel drum, and some funky brass! There are much more people in the city now! People are partying! It’s so much fun!
Farewell (For Real This Time)
And now we are finally at the end. If you’ve gotten this far, thank you! Thanks for reading my musical geek-out and thorough review of Pokémon Black’s astounding soundtrack. This game means so much to me, on many levels—musical, and others.
I will leave with this bonus track, an absolutely majestic version of the Farewell piece. Enjoy!
Shout-out to PoketMonstersMusic, for compiling all the Black and White OST tracks into one playlist, which I used in every musical track included in this article! ^_^