Thursday, July 31, 2014

Game Score Forms: Linear

For those who have been following my articles, you know that most of the groundwork for my posts originated on my graduate thesis Examining Non-Linear Forms: Techniques for the Analysis of Scores Used in Video Games.  I want to explore an under-developed topic from that work, and that is the concept of form within a video game score.

My primary interest in game music analysis is “big picture” analysis: how do you examine the entire game music score and all its objects to make sense of it, and how does it help to inform other aspects of ludology.  I utilize game score graphs to visualize all the objects in a game or section of a game, and help to inform analysis of relationships and the score as a whole.

In doing these graphs, there are a couple of “forms” that begin to emerge.  These forms mirror the format of the games themselves, though sometimes these forms are not as obvious as the game design itself.  The first is Linear.  Before I dive to far in, I want to say that game scores are rarely just one type or the other, but usually some sort of combination of different styles. 

In a Linear game score form, the player is forced to experience the game music objects in a set order.  When the game score has a strong linear component, the composer has a much larger control over the musical direction of the objects and game itself.  One of the clearest, simplest example to look at is the original Super Mario Bros.  We will examine the entire Real Time Game Score Graph (RTGSG) of World 1 as we explore the linear form:

Super Mario Bros - World 1

(Click to zoom.)

For those who have not seen these graphs before, rounded objects are objects that loop, while squared objects are of a definite length.  Using Schenkerian terms, this is a very surface level look at the game score graph, as we are displaying each and every object.

When looking at an RTGSG, you can identify linear structures as structures that continue to move forward through various objects.  There is no central object that stands out as being the single return point.  One might argue that the “Overworld” object in this game is one such object, but if you look at the place and function of it, it holds the same weight per instance as the Underworld or Castle object as the predominant object for a section of the game.  The structure of the game, and therefore these objects, put us on a continuous fixed path throughout the game that gives this RTGSG a predominantly linear structure.

It will be more obvious if we reduce this RTGSG down to a more middle ground texture.  Borrowing concepts and techniques from Schenker, many of these objects can be reduced out of the surface level to give us a deeper structure of this game score:

Super Mario Bros - World 1 Middle Ground

Just as you would reduce out embellishment tones in a middle-ground schenker graph, these objects that interject within other objects can be reduced out as well.  Now the linear texture is much more obvious.

When looking to analyze larger sections of game scores, one technique is to identify what type of form the game score has.  That will inform the best way to approach a large scale analysis.  Now that we have gotten a core linear structure of Super Mario Bros: World 1, we can examine each individual object and its tonal center.

Much of the anaylsis of the individual objects is found in my thesis, so I will just summerize the tonal centers:

Overworld – C
Area Clear – C
Underworld – C
Castle – Minor/Dissonant but loosely G Centric
Level Clear – C (Ending on V)

So if you lay out the tonal centers in the linear order of the object, you can see the overall tonal progression from start to finish:

C – C – C – C – C – C – C – C – G – C

While this example is very simplistic, it is interesting to see how every object supports the C tonal center from start to finish until you get to the penultimate object, the castle.  The game score moves us to a tonal center on the dominant, which fights for the resolution, just as this level is one of the more challenging of the World, and the most tense.  The music reinforces the game play and inform the emotions of the player, so that when the level is completed and the Level Clear object plays, we finally get a resolution to C.

However, as we can see, the object that resolves ends in a half cadence, musically carrying us to the next World and its progression.  As you can image, this will continue until the game is won and the final Victory object is played, which ends in the most textbook perfect authentic cadence (melody going from re to do, and the bass from V – I).

I will discuss other types of game score forms in futures posts.  For now, I hope that this quick overview will help you start to conceptualize the entire game score as an object and give you tools to start working through larger pieces.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

SMB3 Music: Pre-Post Ship Music

So I’ve been having some difficulties with embedding audio in my posts.  I think I finally have something that works, and I’ll be looking into updating my older posts to get the audio running smoothly.

Now on with the game!  Today’s music object is a short little ditty, played before entering one of the battle ship levels in SMB3, and is also played after the boss is defeated during the fall back to earth.


Each measure of this object contains the exact same music for the upper two pulse wave tracks.  The lower triangle wave bass line is a seemingly logical harmonic progression with very strong voice leading tendencies, which seem to outline a I – IV – V – I progression.

Notice now that the upper voices contain the pitches [A, C, E, G, B, D].  Sure, it is a C major scale without the leading tone.  I find the arrangement of the tones in the measure interesting.  They seem to evoke two harmonies at the same time.  The staggering of the rhythm allow our ears to pick out one set or another, and the changing notes in the bass allow our ears to float between the different the different harmonies outlined in the upper two voices.

I am moving towards a larger picture here with the SMB3 objects, but I have a few more objects to examine before I can look at that big picture.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

SMB3 Music: You’ve Found the Princess


NB: All my analysis of SMB3 is from the NES version of the game, not the SNES Mario All-Stars remake.  There are very significant differences between the two, which may be the subject of future posts.

Now this object has a lot of notes in it but it is designed to give an echo effect.  If you take away the composed echo, the object looks more like:


This is a non-looping object that goes right into the credit music when it is over.

Those who are familiar with the early Mario series will recognize the first phrase of this tune.  This was the “You’ve Found the Princess” object from the original SMB.  It was originally scored in three parts with a solid bass line, and looped the four bars over and over again.  This object is much more developed, removing the bass line for a very simple rendition, almost anti-climatic to the ending of the game after facing so many challenges. 

Harmonically the opening is rather predictable: I – ii – V – I.

The object gets interesting after the opening phrases.


The E:iv in the second measure of this example is very interesting in that it can also be heard as a bII of E or even a I6 in F.  The removal of the bass line allowed for some amazing compositional flexibility, tricking our ears in to hearing different harmonies, all the while the music is really an amazing display of counterpoint:


The “mode” of the counterpoint changes on the interval of an octave or sixth, preceded by either a leap of a fourth/fifth or a stepwise motion.  While that statement described pretty much the entire history of tonal music, it is fascinating to see this at work here, in a video game object, at with such interesting key relationships.

The object’s key is C Major, with two bars in E major and two bars in F minor.  I – III – iv – I.

The I moves to III via a LP transformation (for you neo-Riemannians).  This transformation actually happens in the music. Though it is disguised as an anticipation, this is the moment of transformation:


III moves to iv via a sequence.  A typical modulation via a pivot chord and secondary dominant “brings us back to do” as they say.

Take a listen to the object now and see what you think:

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Map Music: SMB3–Warp Map



This is a cute little object that appears if you are lucky enough to find one of the warp whistles hidden in the early levels of the game.  Upon activating the whistle, you hear the first measure of this object, a little melody that seems have a b minor feel, (though there are a couple other ideas around that).  Then you are transported to the warp map, where these four measures are repeated over and over until you select the world you want to warp too.

One interesting melodic tidbit to pay attention to is the turn around at the loop.  Notice the chromatic decent from Bb to G.  This is the same melodic profile of the flute melody (D chromatic down to B, four descending semitones). It is a nice musical relation between these objects which are obviously related in game play.

Its nice a simple, alternating between C and Db Major chords, with C as the obvious central harmony.  This is due mainly because at the loop repeat the melody descends chromatically to, emphasizing the prevalence of that harmony (C major).

Fans of a bit of reduction or prolongational theory might be interested to see that this is just one big C major chord that happens to be embellished by a chromatic upper neighbor:


Saturday, March 10, 2012

8-Bit Zelda Title Themes: A Comparative Analysis Continued…

By request, I’m going to take a look at the comparison of The Legend of Zelda (NES) and The Legend of Zelda: Links Awakening (NGB).

The Comment was on my previous post: I'd be more interested in hearing your analysis between this and the theme music for The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. After the cinematic portion, it's the same tune, but it's played differently.

I love this comment, because this is EXACTLY how I got into doing this research.  One of my many theoretical interests is the analysis of similar objects within a series of games (see my article on the analysis of Overworld objects in Zelda).

But I digress… lets look at the differences between these two objects.  Below is a transcription of the title screen object from The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.


These two objects are very similar.

To recap from my previous posts, the LoZ title music is structured in the following format:

4 measure intro | 6 measure bridge | 8 measure Phrase A | 12 measure Phrase B

In contrast, the LoZ:LA title music breaks down as follows:

4 measure intro | 8 measure Phrase A + 1 measure extension

It is significantly more compact that the original theme.  Harmonically, the tunes are exactly the same.  Melodically, the biggest difference is the use of dotted-eight/sixteenth rhythms instead of the familiar triplet pattern.

LoZ:LA lacks a percussion track that was present in the original.  It also uses the bass line as two voices, often jumping between registers to provide harmony for the lead track and then a harmonic foundation.

There are little obbligato sections in the middle line that add a different flourish to the tune. The alternating octaves and bouncy eighth-note rhythm of the bass line add a much lighter tone to the object as a whole than the original, which was much more driving and serious.

Some of these differences could be due to space and or sound limitations on the game boy.  I find is so interesting that this object completely lacks the triplet figure so associated with many of Zelda’s musical themes across the all the games.

I’m also a very big fan of this one measure extension that was written into the LoZ:LA object.  There is no real good reason why they could not have just had the final measure be exactly like it was in the original.  Yet, they decided to change the harmony slightly and add a one measure extension to throw us off.  The best explanation I can come up for why they chose to do this was to make us think that something different was about to happen.  It helps put a period on the object in such a way as to mark the repeat.  We are so used to this melody continuing on to a second and longer phrase, but this time it does not, and the change at the end of the phrase defines that point.

So really the biggest difference between these objects is style.  Yes the melody is almost the same, the harmonies are exactly the same, yet there are some very interesting differences.  Listen two these two objects back to back, specifically listening for the style differences in the way the bass lines are different, as well as the lack of triplet rhythms.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Map Music: SMB3 – World 8


So just three lines here.  The Triangle Wave and one Pulse wave track are identical in pitch and register (slightly different timbre). 

I am mostly interested in intervals with this object.  The object can be heard as centered around F.  The half step decent at the repeat from Gb to F draws us back to F as our tonic pitch.

In the score below, I have boxed several intervals.  All the blue boxes are half step motions and the green boxes are tritones.  Notice how all the intervals between the lines (vertically) are P5s except for measure 4, where they chose to use a tritone.


So some very interesting patterns here.  Measures 1-3 and Measures 5-7 are transpositions of each other of ic3.  Measure 8 leads back to m1 with a semitone descent.  So how does measure 4 set up measure 5?  Well, there are two prominent harmonies that contain tritones: diminished chords and dominant 7th chords.  If this were a dominant 7th (C7), we would expect the following chord to have something to do with Tonic.  We could hear it as a i7 chord.  However, it most likely has a function akin to a diminished or diminished 7 chord, which is used often to modulate from one section to another since they can resolve in so many different ways. I can easily hear measure 3 as a edim7 to an Ab triad.

So what can be learned from looking at all these map objects together?  Is there something on a higher level that connects these objects together?  That and more coming soon!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Map Music: SMB3 – World 7

As we continue with our series on Super Mario Bros. 3 Map Music objects, we come to this lovely tune.  Though its written rather straight here, the tune is heavily swung in reality.


So this is a great little object.  Makes you feel like you are in a smooth jazz club sipping on a drink, enjoying the combo playing on stage.  At first I looked at this and did not see anything terribly interesting.  The object is a lot of open fifths.  So I set out to look at key and harmony.

By looking at the bass line, you can discern that the object is in the key of F.  C moving up to F is a great fifth motion to imply a dominant-tonic relationship.  The addition of the Eb seems natural for this music as often as we have seen the use of the bVIII functioning as a dominant harmony.  I tried looking at the pitches between the two lines, but there is nothing really to note.  At the core, it’s a feeling of F major with a lot of jazz color thrown in the mix.

So I set about harmonizing the piece with chords of my own.  I’m still playing around with some different options, because the object lends itself to be heard with some different options.

The harmonic rhythm of this melody, as I hear it is:


With the bass dropping out in measure two, our hears continue to hear the F ringing underneath the ornamental figure in the upper two voices.  I like to hear this object as rocking back and forth between a dominant and tonic sound.  It’s the dominant sound that I am having difficulty deciding on.  There are three dominant areas and two tonic areas in this object.  Two of the three dominant areas could be heard with either a V, bVII (add6), or v7.  However, the final dominant area is most certainly a v7, so I have extracted that backwards to the other two.  The fact that the object loops over and over again will force the ear to hear it this way as well. Listen to the object with this harmony superimposed upon it.


Nice simple back beat to the object, but a rather syncopated harmonic rhythm.