My relationship with video games may not be as extensive as many others. I played what my parents could afford on the PS2 and Nintendo Game Cube. Games like Sonic Adventures, Crash Bandicoot, and The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker were all formative and important and I replayed them often due to my family not being able to keep up with games for me and my sister. One of the best parts about gaming for me as a kid, that extending into my adulthood was the music within the games. I loved it so much. From the comical intricacy of Crash Bandicoot’s music to the adventurous sea music in Wind Waker, music shaped my love of video games. So much so, I played the viola from age 10 until I was 22. I even went to music school in hopes that I would one day be either a film/game composer or a professional orchestral player for film and games. Due to a lot of extenuating circumstances, I had to drop my music major. However, when I saw the Video Game Music Theory 101 panel for PAX ONLINE, I was so excited.
Panelists Ben Kidd from 8bit Music Theory, Jules Conroy from FamilyJules, Sab Irene, and Insaneintherainmusic came together to explore what makes some of the most iconic video game music work on a theoretical level. Despite my having a fairly knowledgeable background in music, I think they did a really great job giving a basic understanding of music theory to the general public. In order for us to understand how video game music elicits certain feelings and moods, they gave us key information about harmony, tempo, and instrumentation. Harmony is how musical notes work together. The tempo is the speed at which a piece moves ie slow or fast. Instrumentation is which instruments are being used in a piece.
Music theory is the system that explains both how music works and how it is written. The panelists smoothly transitioned into explaining pitch, the individual notes, and rhythm, repeated pattern of sound. From here they establish how chords and cadences are musical punctuation. This leads into how certain notes/ chords feel like they want to move towards other notes or go places that our ears naturally want to resolve.
This leads, seamlessly, into common chord progressions we hear iconic video game music. The first chord progression they dive into is the 4, 5, 1 progression, annotated with roman numerals as IV, V, and I (note: capitalized Roman numerals signify a major key, which sounds bright and happy, whereas, lowercase Roman numerals signify a minor key, which sounds sad and strange to our ears). This progression in “Green Greens” and “Gourmet Race” from Kirby’s Dream Land, composed by Jun Ishikawa. These simple, yet sweet, melodies feel like they are moving forward with the motion. This IV, V, I progression that makes video game music can also be seen in Kingdom Heart’s “Dearly Beloved.” However, many gamers recognize the bittersweet melancholy tone of “Dearly Beloved” that our panelists explain is due to a resolution change. Instead of the steady IV, V, I used throughout, composer Yoko Shimomura, uses the IV, V, vi chord progression. That vi means it is a minor 6th chord, effectively changing the whole mood of the piece from not just forward emotion but motion with a dash of sadness. I am so happy that I finally understand some of the music theory behind why “Dearly Beloved” sounds the way it does, seeing as it is one of my favorite video game music pieces ever.
Another great subject they explored was the music theory behind the heroic sounding themes. They explained the 1, flat 7, 1 or I, bVII, 1 chord progression prominent within a lot of game themes. The way they illustrated just how fanfare this chord progression is was with the “Main Theme” from Pokemon Red/ Blue/ Yellow. One of the reasons I have always loved hearing the Pokemon Red theme, despite never playing it, was because of how adventurous and fun it sounded to me. In a completely shocking revelation, our panelists described another example of the I, bVII, I chord progression can be found in the “Chocobo Song” from Final Fantasy III.
Funnily enough, both songs mentioned sharing the same key signature. That means that they both use the same exact pitches. So, according to music theory, these two pieces feel the same because of the musical format used to evoke the adventurous, heroic vibes but are executed differently.
Overall, the Video Game Music Theory 101 panel was executed with such joy and clarity and it was a blast to watch. I am so glad that Kidd, Conroy, Irene, and Insaneintherainmusic delivered an interesting and digestible panel explain why some of the most popular video game tracks deliver the feelings and mood they do.