It has been said by the great Yoko Shimomura herself that “Dearly Beloved” is her favorite composition. An absolutely gorgeous track, simple yet oh-so poignant, “Dearly Beloved” tugs at the heartstrings of and evokes powerful nostalgia in all Kingdom Hearts fans, especially die-hard fans that have been invested in this saga since the beginning 15 years ago.
What strikes me the most about this piece is that while it has shown up in every Kingdom Hearts game as the main menu music, each time it makes an appearance, it is never the same. Whether the genius is Shimomura-san or a different person (perhaps the orchestrator/arranger), it is without a doubt an exquisite work of art in variation.
What is variation? One of my favorite compositional techniques, variation is when a musician takes a piece of music and makes changes to it, but such changes that keep recognizable features of the original. In some “Dearly Beloved” variations, the rhythm is changed while the chord progression remains the same, and in others, the chord progression is changed slightly. Each version has different instrumentation as well, some of them just slight changes, and others very obvious and drastic differences.
For purposes of simplicity and succinctness, I will be comparing the versions of “Dearly Beloved” that showed up first in Kingdom Hearts I with the version that is in Kingdom Hearts Unchained X / Union Cross.
Let’s listen to the original “Dearly Beloved” first, from Kingdom Hearts I:
Now, let’s listen to “Dearly Beloved” from Kingdom Hearts Unchained X / Union Cross.
Very different versions! I’d even go as far as to say that these are the most different from each other. The overall melody is the same, but everything else—tempo, instrumentation, rhythm, overall mood/atmosphere—is completely different. The very beginning of this version sounds almost identical to the “Dearly Beloved” of “Birth by Sleep”, so we are going to focus just on the faster part.
“Dearly Beloved” from Kingdom Heart I has some very gentle, sustained strings, piano (the main melody + faint, off-beat high treble notes), and relaxing sounds of ocean waves. Here’s what the main melody looks like (without the faint high treble notes):
“Dearly Beloved” from Kingdom Hearts Unchained X begins with a similar feel, with soft, sustained vocals and piano, but starts to take a turn when the cello solo comes in. Then it takes a SHARP turn when suddenly the BPM (beats per minute) skyrockets from 60 to 150, the leading instrument changes, there is a steady beat, the main melody introduces a lot of extra notes, and the cello plays a new counter-melody that has not been heard before in any other version of “Dearly Beloved”.
Here’s the main melody line of KHUx‘s “Dearly Beloved”:
When I first downloaded Kingdom Hearts Unchained X, like many mobile games it had a somewhat long download wait time, maybe 15 or 20 minutes, if my memory serves me correctly. This track was playing the whole time, and once I heard the new direction that the piece took, I was instantly hooked. I left my phone on “auto-shut off: off” and let this new and innovative “Dearly Beloved” play endlessly.
While KHUx’s version is radically different, it is still without question the same piece of music, because of the following similarities to the original:
- same time signature (simple quadruple time, 4/4) (read my article about Hollow Bastion and irregular time signatures here!)
- same overall melodic contour (same notes in the same order, just different rhythms)
- same chord progression underneath the main melody (IV / V / I / I / IV / V / v / v; specifically Ab major, Bb major, Eb major, Eb major, Ab major, Bb major, c minor, c minor)
I had originally written “same key” as the first aspect that indicates similarity, but I decided to take it out because if you transposed this piece into any other key, it would still remain similar enough because of the OTHER factors (time signature, melodic contour, and chord progression). None of those other factors are affected by the key that the piece is in.
This compositional technique—variation—has been and continues to be used extensively in all kinds of music, especially film scores, video games, and musicals. Variation is arguably what makes some of the most emotional scenes in visual media that much more emotional. When a character is introduced, and her theme plays, we subconsciously (or consciously!) register that melody as being connected to that person. Then, when that character undergoes a significant change during the course of the story, the theme may play again at a later time, but with a variation: the tonality may be different (perhaps in a minor key, when the original was major), the time signature may be different (perhaps in a waltz 3/4 style when the original was in a slow-moving 4/4), instrumentation could be different (main melody sung by a full choir, when the original was simply a violin and piano duet), etc.!! There are plenty of other ways that one could vary an original theme; it all depends on what mood the composer/orchestrator is trying to achieve.
When familiar themes come back at a later time, it evokes a feeling of familiarity, which we all instinctively are drawn to, but the changes that come with the variations add a degree of surprise and unfamiliarity that we are ALSO instinctively drawn to, and supplies a bit of thrill and excitement as well.
Now, while the Kingdom Hearts main menu itself does not inherently have a story, perhaps the purpose of the variations is to transport players into the world of Kingdom Hearts, and show us that although this installment in the series is new and different, the heart of the game is still in the same place. ♪
Stay tuned for more Single-Track Analysis Articles of tracks from Kingdom Hearts Unchained X / Kingdom Hearts Union Cross! One article every day in the month of April 2017!