Monday, January 26, 2015

Secret of Mana: great melodies, varied repetition, and…Indonesian music?

Last week, I critiqued a couple of video blogs about video game music. One of the truest things said from these video blogs was: “A great game with an awesome theme song? That’s going to stick with you.”

One game like that is Secret of Mana (SNES, 1993). It was ported to Andriod last year and I just re-played it on my phone. When I mention that game in conversation, the first comment
usually is “such good music.” The music is by Japanese composer Hiroki Kikuta, who was about 30 when he wrote it. What I thought I’d do this week is look at some of the individual pieces (or music cues) in Secret of Mana and analyze why they are effective (although I could probably talk about the game mechanics for a while, but that’s not what this blog is for). There’s a lot of music in this game, especially for a fairly short game of 20-30 hours, so I’m just going to pick a few pieces to analyze—and I’ll really only scratch the surface on those cues.

Into the Thick of It

Now, video game music, especially from this era of video games, is built on repetition. The trick is to make something that is repetitive 1) reward repeated listening so it doesn't get old, and 2) fit the character of the on-screen action. Let’s start with “Into the Thick of It,” a traveling piece early on in the game. The music needs to be inviting and fun, but also characterize traveling through a new and strange forest. The music is built on a repeating pattern, or vamp, that runs throughout the piece. Although this pattern repeats throughout, the (at least 4) surrounding parts keep changing. There are three main sections, which I’ll call A, B, and C. A has the harpsichord-like vamp with some high flutes; B keeps the same harpsichord pattern, but the harmony rises and changes. In C, the music returns to the first harmony, but with new melodies on different instruments. The countermelodies and orchestration on this section (and the previous two sections) are subtle meticulous. After one round through, the all three parts repeat. Now, the differences between these three sections generates enough interest for the music cue’s purpose, but here’s where the genius comes in: after two full cycles of ABC, a fourth section (D) comes in. This D section still has the same driving tempo and the same bass part (though thrown up into a different register), but also several new interlocking vamps in new orchestration. It’s really interesting, but it also feels rewarding when the music cycles back to A again. As for matching the character of play, the driving vamp moves along like a walking traveler, while the moderately-paced flutes match a woodland feel. The harmonic rise in the B section provides a little bit of tension to mirror the unfamiliarity of the situation, but the harmony soon settles back.

Let’s look at another music cue: “A Bell is Tolling,” the music for the ice forest area. This music also has three parts (again, I’ll label ABC), and once again all three parts have shared musical elements: the harmony and the tempo is the same for all three. However, almost everything else changes. The A section is spare, with a crystal-like high melody over a legato chords, reminiscent of ice or coldness and also the solitude of a forest of dead-looking trees. The B section is a big contrast—three different very busy melodies all stacked on top of each other, the middle one staccato, the top one using a very effective echo between L and R speakers; the echo hints again at solitude and emptiness. The C section begins in a surprising percussion rimshot, and harsh percussion is added along with four new parts that all have very different timbres than the previous parts. This C section with its gritty percussion and increased dissonance seems to hint more at the danger of the situation (which the ice forest is). Finally, an extra few measures are added to the section and harmony to transition back to the placid A section, and the listener feels like they’ve made a journey or are at least reminded they are in an empty, dead forest.

So, there’s a brief analysis. Kikuta does a great job at creating something that is very repetitive also very interesting by sandwiching in lots of melodies and changing up the orchestration, all with keeping some musical unity; the music also matches the game action. I could go on and talk about the Buddhist-inspired music cue with two overlapping melodies that don’t seem to fit together (“Whisper and Mantra”), or the cue where the percussion take the lead and has an almost YES-like guitar solo (“Steel and Snare”), or the modern-tech cue with a the time signature of 11 (“Prophesy”), but in the time I have left I want to write about Indonesian music.

Indonesian music?

In 1993, when I first played the game, I didn’t know about traditional Indonesian music. But now, having played in an Indonesian ensemble for a year (and having recently joined another one), I realized two of music cues were inspired by Indonesian music. The first is Thantos’s theme, or “Ceremony,” which draws on classical gamelan, an Indonesian percussion ensemble. Just like a gamelan, this cue features gongs, a slow moving melody played in multiple octaves, and a second, faster elaboration of the melody. There’s some extra stuff, too, but it all fits in the character of gamelan music. The second musical cue (“Oracle”) uses kecak, which is an Balinese theatrical vocal form developed in the 1930s featuring interlocking vocal chants. This cues also features a very gamelan-like percussion melody.

Now that I recognize the influence, I’m torn between two responses: on the one hand, I’m impressed that Kikuta knew and borrowed from esoteric Indonesian music for a kids’ video game. But I’m also a little distressed that both these music cues are for the main evil villain, Thantos; the first cue for the areas he’s in, the second for when you fight him. Kikuta is using this strange, different, other music to scare us—the first cue in a “this is weird” way and the second in a more conventionally scary way, as people are shouting quickly at you while you are fighting a big skeleton that is on fire. Really, this music is just from a different culture, and I hope that others who heard this don’t associate mind-sucking liches with Indonesians. I lean toward my first response, though.

The awesome theme

But getting back too the beginning quote, what about the awesome theme song? This game had me at the opening credits. To end, here’s the opening theme, a.k.a “Fear of the Heavens,” presented without analysis. Enjoy!

(The theme is less than 2 minutes long, but this version just repeats a few times, because the listener always want to listen to it again)

Vocab: vamp, melody, harmony, legato, rimshot, gamelan, kecak


  1. OH THE NOSTALGIA. Thanks for this one, I really enjoyed it!

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  3. Very interesting and well written!

    1. Interesting? yes. Well-written? yes. But very? Too much. Quite though? very quite.