Video games: why the music of “The Legend of Zelda” marked so much

Do you know the link between the Bolero by Ravel and The Legend of Zelda ? The common point between his famous theme and that ofIndiana Jones ? The epic saga Zelda is a monument of video games whose music has also become a subject of study in its own right.

Its main theme, “Overworld”, has become one of the most famous tunes taken from a video game adventure. But from the moving “Lullaby of Zelda” through the Japanese melody of the Cocorico Village of Breath of The Wild, or the harp harmonies of the Fontaine des fées, the franchise launched in 1986 has much more to offer: musicologist Fanny Rebillard thus counts more than 1,700 pieces composed for the main episodes of the series.

On the occasion of the release on March 25 of his book Music in Zelda: the keys to a Hylian epic (Third Editions), The world spoke with this specialist in video game music to understand why Zelda so captivates our ears.

Thirty-five years ago, when “The Legend of Zelda” was launched on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), was its sound universe innovative?

Before the NES, a lot of games were only released on arcade machines. The principle was that of the short part, so there was no need for big themes. Also, people couldn’t really hear the music, the halls were too noisy. The work of composition was therefore very different: it mainly boiled down to small callsigns that change to say “Ah, ah, ah, you lost! “ or “It’s good, you won! “.

Zelda is thus part of the first games, with Super mario bros, Final fantasy or Dragon quest, which had a consistent musical accompaniment, with melodies worthy of the name. Without being orchestral, they were compositions which were inspired by the symphonic musics which one could hear in the cinema.

Koji Kondo, the composer of the main theme of “The Legend of Zelda”, often says that he reworked it at the last moment. Why ?

The title screen of the game was to be accompanied by the Bolero, by Ravel. But, about a month before the release, the team realized that the track in question had not yet entered the public domain. To avoid any copyright issues, Koji Kondo had to find a new theme urgently. He took a melody present in the game, that of the plain of Hyrule, and he modeled it on the rhythm of the Bolero to make a slower version, which is the one we know today.

On YouTube, Internet users had fun putting an 8-bit version of the Bolero, by Ravel, on the opening of The Legend of Zelda.

This melody has become one of the most emblematic of video games. What does it have in particular on the musical level?

It’s a theme that makes you feel a lot. It starts in B flat major and goes into B flat minor for a while. In classical music, we can use the term “exotic” to define this kind of somewhat unusual melodic movement. For example, we often quote Djamileh, by Bizet, or The Trojans, de Berlioz, in which this major-minor instability symbolizes travel and distant lands.

In cinema, we find this type of fashion change in general with John Williams (Star wars, Jurassic Park). According to Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Zelda, the team was very inspired, at the time, toIndiana Jones. John Williams was therefore also a source of inspiration: we are in the same kind of melodies, with lyrical flights.

The first bars of “Overworld”, from “The Legend of Zelda”.  The famous first notes of the main theme are noted in (3).  Depending on the episode, the theme is introduced by fragment (1) or fragment (2).

The theme of “Zelda” also has other meanings than that of travel. Which ?

The “Overworld” is interesting, because it is the symbol of the kingdom of Hyrule: it is the music that one hears when one explores the central plain. But over time, that theme slipped from portraying a single location to that of the hero who carries Hyrule’s fate on his shoulders, Link.

We must not therefore neglect the different orchestrations which correspond to the state of mind of the hero. For example, the main theme is orchestrated entirely in minor on the Termina plain in Majora’s Mask, one of the most tortured episodes. Or he is much more casual in the introduction ofA Link Between World, where it goes on a three-beat rhythm instead of four.

From “Ocarina of Time” (1998), why has the main theme of the saga been less emphasized?

Indeed, in this game the “Overworld” hardly appears, which is a first. We were in the fifth episode, the teams may have wanted a change, but there is also a technical reason: the theme of the plain has become interactive. Instead of being made up of a long melody of one and a half minutes that turns in a loop, it is in fact an assemblage of twenty fragments which last sixteen bars each. They follow each other in random order based on player actions. It was becoming difficult to fit a long melodic theme like before.

We always keep a quick reference to the “Overworld” in one of the fragments. It is from this episode that the main theme will regularly be simplified and reduced to its first notes, which are the best known today.

In “Breath of the Wild” (2017), the main theme has even almost disappeared from the game. Why?

Initially, the creators did not want to put music in the outer parts of the world at all, not least because it is gigantic. When there are such great distances to cover, wrapping up a single theme can be overwhelming for players.

But finally, the team retraced its steps so that the open world was not only a place of survival but also a place of walk or contemplation. And so, rather than putting a theme, they scattered melodic fragments all over the place.

We are facing a world that will seem quite empty musically, like the Hyrule, in which we are living, which has suffered a terrible plague and which is depopulated. It is not necessarily obvious to hear the main theme, which is only mentioned at rare moments, when you are on horseback.

Beyond this iconic theme, what constitutes the “Zelda sound”?

The sound Zelda Is not that easy to characterize. It has spanned eras from the 8-bit era to the orchestral today. Some recent songs even incorporate electro.

Zelda is placed on the same level as many series of role-playing games, the sole purpose of which is to make us travel, and that’s what will make the “sound Zelda »: Arriving in a place, not recognizing anything there at first then, suddenly, hearing a small melodic fragment which will remind us of something much older. Because Zelda is a matter of scriptwriting recurrence: it is interesting to see how the themes associated with places or characters are repeated, of course, but have also evolved over thirty-five years.

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