May 14, 2008
6/4/08 — One On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness piece added. (Hi, Brainy Gamer readers!)
5/20/08 — Two Road Rash 3 pieces added.
5/15/08 — Two Jet Force Gemini pieces added.
Most music theory nerds I know have a certain musical feature that really gets them excited — an unusual harmonic progression, a favorite chord, a particular rhythmic figure. For me, that feature is irregular meter. In my experience irregular meter is fairly uncommon in video game soundtracks, so I thought I’d collect what few examples I’ve come across here.
Remember the race results screen in Mario Kart 64? Most likely you skipped past it with barely a glance at the scoreboard, but if you stuck around for a moment you’d have heard this gem from composer Kenta Nagata:
Despite being in 11/8, I think this rhythm feels pretty natural. Kudos to Nagata for smoothing over the strange time signature.
Here’s something neat — take a look at this bass part from the Grammy-winning “Almost 12,” a piece by modern jazz quartet Béla Fleck and the Flecktones:
Notice anything? Aside from the halved time values, it’s metrically identical to the Kart 64 bassline — an eleven-beat pattern subdivided as 2+2+3+2+2. Even the rhythm is the same. (“Almost 12,” incidentally, was released about a year after Mario Kart 64. Maybe the Flecktones are Nintendo fans.)
The earliest example I could find of irregular meter in a video game is the final battle music from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, composed by Koji Kondo:
Nothing too complicated here. The bass arpeggio is fast and perhaps a bit hard to follow, but the percussion and the chords of stacked fourths reinforce the time signature pretty strongly.
In The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Kondo wrote a similar piece for the game’s penultimate battle (Link versus Ganondorf):
While this piece uses many of the same musical ideas as the Link to the Past one — the fast bass arpeggio, the descending melodic contour, the quartal harmonization — the rhythm has changed from merely “quirky” to “murderously complicated.” I had to slow down the tempo in an audio editor just to figure out what was going on.
In a nutshell, the bass’s 3+3+3+3+2 pattern has been replaced by the decidedly spicier 3+3+3+2+2+3+3+2+2. I’ve notated that as alternating 13- and 10-beat measures. Even better, the chords sometimes cut across those subdivisions (m. 3, 7), and the chorus’s part (m. 10ff.) seems to ignore the meter altogether. Good luck trying to perform this one!
My final example, also from Ocarina of Time, is the “fairy flying” theme from the beginning of the game:
The two main sections are a 13/16 part (subdivided as 3+3+3+2+2) and a 10/16 part (subdivided as 2+3+2+3). Thankfully the bass and string parts actually reinforce the meter here, so it’s pretty easy to hear where the beats fall. Heck, compared to that Ganondorf battle theme it’s downright elementary.
That’s all I’ve got for now. If you know more of video game pieces with irregular meter, I’d love to hear from you.
5/15 update: Thanks to a tip from Daniel in the comments, I’ve got two more irregular meter pieces for you. Both are from the Jet Force Gemini soundtrack, composed by Robin Beanland and Graeme Norgate.
Here’s a snip from the Water Ruins theme:
Since the rhythmic pattern is so long (30 beats), the metric subdivision isn’t particularly instructive here. (It’s 2+2+2+3+2+2+2+3+2+2+2+3+2, if you’re curious.) I think the easiest way to understand it is “7/8 with a 2+2+3 subdivision, and every fourth measure has an extra two beats tacked on.” (Tacking on extra beats every so often, incidentally, is another one of my favorite musical features.) For what it’s worth, this piece is big on mixing meters; immediately following the part I transcribed is a section in plain 7/8 (3+2+2, no funny business), and shortly thereafter is standard 4/4.
The boss battle theme has a similar case of rhythmic schizophrenia. This chunk falls between a duple 6/4 section and a triple 9/16 section (whose beginning I included; see mm. 13-14).
Yeesh. I slowed that one down in the audio editor too, if you were wondering.
Here we have a 24-beat pattern which subdivides as (deep breath) 2+2+2+3+2+2+2+3+2+2+2. More simply, we might call it “9/16 with a 2-2-2-3 subdivision, and every third measure loses the last three beats.” Even that’s a bit of a mess, but if you drum your fingers along with the piece you should be able to get the hang of it. At least the melodic line has the decency to use a reasonable rhythm, unlike the Ocarina of Time Ganondorf battle theme.
5/20 update: Two more quick examples for you, from the 1995 Genesis title Road Rash 3. The game’s distinctive heavy metal soundtrack was composed by Don Veca.
Here’s a snip from the Italy race background music:
It’s fast, but fairly simple. Note that the pattern can also be written in 21/8 without triplets if that’s your thing.
Here’s a snip the title screen track, which doubles as the Australia race background music:
This one is mostly in straight 4/4, actually, but every so often it skips a beat and briefly feels like 7/4 instead. This effect is most pronounced in measures 11-14 of the transcription.
6/4 update: Below is a snip from the splash screen menu music for Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, composed by Jeff Tymoschuk:
A five-beat pattern subdivided as 3+2 is pretty standard fare; in fact, that’s the metric basis for Paul Desmond’s “Take Five,” perhaps the most famous irregularly metered piece of all time. So why does this one sound a bit odd?
It’s because of the quarter note pulse in the middle staff. It stretches over the barlines and also shifts its position halfway through the transcription. (Look at where the quarter notes land in measures 1-4, as opposed to in measures 5-8.) The upshot is that the meter is ever so slightly concealed, giving the piece a layer of rhythmic ambiguity.