April 6, 2008
I had to create all of those memorable tunes with only five tones of the classic do-re-mi scale. Specifically: re, fa, la, and ti (and the higher-scale re). Since each of those songs, like Zelda’s Lullaby or Epona’s Song, had a particular theme, it was quite challenging, but I think it all felt really natural in the end. Then as soon as I was finished with those Ocarina songs, I had to create even more for Majora’s Mask—I got a lot of milage out of just five tones!
A lot of milage indeed. In this series of posts, I’m going to try to see what he’s up to. If you’re up for a little musical excursion, read on.
There are twelve songs you learn in Ocarina of Time (not counting the improvisatory “Scarecrow’s Song”), and all of them are ostensibly based on the pitches D, F, A, and B, and D an octave above.1
Why ostensibly? Because although Kondo laments the four-pitch limitation, he has more freedom than it might initially seem because of how the game works.
To have Link perform a song, you take out your ocarina and play the beginning of the melody — a motive five to eight notes long, depending on the piece — using the controller. Playing this section, which I’ll call the trigger motive, causes the game to complete the rest of the tune automatically with what I’ll call the answer motive.
The upshot is that Kondo is only limited to four notes for the beginnings of the ocarina pieces. This is a significant distinction.
Take a look at “Sun’s Song,” transcribed below. I’ve put a double bar line between the trigger and answer motives.
As you can see, the trigger motive is constrained by the four-note palette, but the quick run in the second part has other pitches. After the player triggers the melody, the limit is removed, and Kondo has more compositional flexibility.
Why am I making a big deal about this? Well, “Sun’s Song” is an edge case; it’s the only piece you learn to play that never gets harmonized. Every other song is either filled out with orchestration when you trigger it, or is heard elsewhere in the game as part of the background music.
In other words, these melodies are not only written to be ocarina solos — there are harmonic considerations too. I’d like to suggest that that the the tonal restriction Kondo talks about influences how the pieces are written.
Let’s look at “Song of Storms.” Here’s a transcription of the piece as Link plays it, with a double bar line as before:
Even without any orchestration there’s not much harmonic wiggle room here. Kondo uses the octave Ds to firmly establish the tonic, and the flatted third (F) in the trigger motive sets up the unambiguously minor answer motive.
Here’s the Kakariko Village Windmill background music, which features the “Song of Storms” melody:
The harmony indicates that we’re in the Dorian mode, which is the mode most strongly suggested by the available pitches; there’s a complete minor triad (D, F, A) and the characteristic raised sixth (B♮). In layman’s terms, Kondo has found the easiest mode to compose in with these notes and exploited it. “Song of Storms,” then, is one of the most basic ocarina pieces; Kondo has allowed the pitches to dictate the trigger melody, and the consequent phrase in the Kakariko Village Windmill theme doesn’t break any new ground.
Everything can’t be as simple as the Dorian mode, though, and things get more interesting when Kondo breaks out into other harmonic areas. Let’s look at “Epona’s Song.” Here’s the solo ocarina version:
Out of context, this is a harmonically vague phrase. The tonic is most likely D, but not necessarily; even so, it’s impossible to pin down a key using only scale degrees one, five, and six. Without the third, we can’t even definitively say if it’s major or minor.
More importantly, note how Kondo continues to use the same pitches in the answer motive, even though other options are available. In other words, the piece is composed — intentionally, perhaps — so that you can’t discern the key from the ocarina solo alone.
Now let’s turn to the Lon Lon Ranch background music, which uses the “Epona’s Song” melody:
The harmony reveals that the tune is in D major, but as we saw above, we couldn’t determine that from the first four bars of the melody. My theory is that this delay is intentional.
Because there’s no obvious key to the “ocarina solo” portion of the song, the harmonic content of the first phrase unfolds relatively slowly. (Indeed, if we were to look at the melody alone, the key doesn’t become completely obvious until the eighth bar.) This protracted development creates a richer, more nuanced melody than “Song of Storms,” which repeats a single phrase ad nauseam. That melody, in turn, provides a basis for the modulation into F major and its new musical idea.
And thus Kondo’s stated difficulty with the limited pitch material ended up helping him out. Restriction breeds creativity.
I hope you all could make some sense of this. I’ll have a few more posts about music from Ocarina of Time over the next couple of weeks; in the meantime, I look forward to your responses.
- Looking at those solfège syllables, it seems like Kondo’s a fixed do kind of guy.