Music is a universal language of diverse rhythms, jumps in dynamics, and everlasting melodies that evoke hidden emotions. A favorite tune can immediately improve a bad day. For me, troublesome times dissolve the moment I immerse myself in the sounds of The Legend of Zelda, which surprises my friends; they just don’t think of video games and music as going together. The orchestral tracks that back Nintendo’s fantasy adventure series, though, are not only some of the most breathtaking works to be found, but also serve a major part in making Zelda as fantastic as it is.
Obviously, the backing compositions of a game play a huge role in establishing the emotions felt by the player at any given moment. When that Hyrule Field theme suddenly shifts to a more driven pulse with strong chords, you know that a battle is about to ensue. And just try playing the final hours of the Final Day in Majora’s Mask muted; it is in no way the same emotional experience without the haunting dissonance. I still cry every time I hear Fi’s piano lament, as well. The music, however, does more than just foster a feeling at a certain time. It helps to create the very atmosphere of an entire game.
Take The Wind Waker. A significant number of melodies in the game are driven by vocals, stringed instruments, flutes, low woodwinds, or a combination thereof. These music making devices are often paired together with upbeat rhythms to create happy sounding music, which, along with the bright cel-shaded graphics, lends itself into a childish excitement for adventure. Thusly, in a subtle fashion from the very “Outset,” the player is emotionally linked with the protagonist, a twelve-ish-year-old boy leaving his secluded island for the first time to embark on a quest. Instrumental to this quest, Link winds up with the sacred Wind Waker, allowing him to control the winds by conducting music in a ridiculous fashion. I would personally hate to be a musician following his arm strokes because they make no sense. There is no beat given in the middle. Ever. It’s too hard to follow. Yet by allowing the player to help create this music, he or she becomes further invested into the game and is more so incorporated into the atmosphere.
Nintendo utilizes this awesome interactive feature several other times in the series, most notably with a tiny blue ocarina. While the instrumentation in the second installment of Zelda for the N64 is far more varied than it is in The Wind Waker, the music of Majora’s Mask still has other patterns. The soundtrack is a war zone; the cavalries of bass instruments continuously charge across the endless staffs, ramming their low notes into the hearts of the higher pitched melodies. The result is a battle between different octaves, most noticeable in the Clock Town theme on the final day. While the familiar tune is playing happily, the bass below is bowing and blowing dissonant chords of equivalent force. The player can thus subconsciously realize the full depth of emotion in the game. Everything may seem full of life and in bright detail, but in reality there is a grave sadness burdening almost every NPC. The conflicts in the music emphasize the dark atmosphere of inner struggle that makes Majora’s Mask so powerful and unique.
Another relatively dark game in the series, though in more of a plot-related way rather than an emotional one, is Twilight Princess. I’m struck by how many solo instruments there are whenever I listen to the soundtrack. It creates an encroaching sense of loneliness throughout the game, a sense of loneliness that emphasizes the mysteriousness of the Twilight and embodies Rusl’s introductory words: “Tell me… Do you ever feel a strange sadness as dusk falls? They say it’s the only time when our world intersects with theirs… The only time we can feel the lingering regrets of spirits who have left our world. That is why loneliness always pervades the hour of twilight….” This atmosphere of serene solidarity is formed even before the game begins through the powerful title screen theme. The song kicks off with only female vocals singing the melody on top of a quiet background part, creating suspense; later a subsequent howl and solitary instrument playing Midna’s Theme over the final chord truly sets up the whole adventure. Indeed, without the music, the game just wouldn’t be as creepy.
Outside of the games, various arrangements have truly captured the essence of Zelda. Specifically, the Symphony of the Goddesses doesn’t feel at all removed from Hyrule. The Ocarina of Time movement provides an especially realistic experience of the game; the tune in its beginning bars reflects the civil war that ravaged the land in the years prior to the events of the plot. Chaos, amplified by the drastic volume shifts and dissonance of the low brass, emerges in the frenzied tempo. The phrasing of the fervent melodic lines and soprano runs instill within the listener the panic felt by any civilian caught up in the convulsive clash. The sudden quiet that ensues with the shift to the low, mysterious Deku Tree theme shows the danger posed to the kingdom of Hyrule, sending chills up the spine until later when the triumphant fanfare of Hyrule Field blazes forth. Its lively pulse and quick, light air mirror the wondrous sense of adventure that immediately forms the first time the player steps out of Kokiri Forest. A smooth transition into the Lost Woods theme further emphasizes the playfulness of the childhood map, only to then shift to the sadness that plagues the adult world when the tempo decelerates and instruments drop out. The finishing sound of the song is the questioning melody that begins the game’s direct sequel, Majora’s Mask, indicating that the adventure is not yet over. In just twelve minutes, this movement bottles up the emotions and atmosphere of its namesake quite successfully, and it is not the only tune from the Zelda Symphony that does so.
It’s not just the fact that the Symphony of the Goddesses transports the listener to the world of the game that truly makes it fantastic–that’s but a part of it. So many people uniting through auditory euphony illustrates the most incredible effect of the Zelda Symphony.
Personally, I’d wanted a live concert of completely Zelda music since I was quite young. The sheer excitement that I felt when I found out that this childhood dream would become a reality was unable to be suppressed. I had the privilege of attending the performance in Orlando last summer and will be attending another in Atlanta later this year. Going to these concerts and being surrounded by fans who are just as passionate about the series and just as pumped about the live music in a classical setting is remarkable. The fact that people from all walks of life are involved demonstrates exactly how powerful the music is in creating an experience which influences lives.
This shared passion for the series is also apparent in the musical works of fans like ZREO and OCRemix, among others. While their pieces don’t have the classic Zelda feel per se, their love for the series shines in the beauty and individualistic flourishes that they add to the well-known melodies. The raw emotion of the games is captured by these fan-made creations, as well.
Currently, I have over 1,500 songs from various Zelda games and adaptions loaded on my iPod. I have a playlist of my favorite tunes from this large list that acts as the soundtrack to my life. I can always find a song from Zelda that fits my mood and whatever I happen to be doing. The music is one of the major factors that keeps me coming back to the land of Hyrule. Music is a powerful force, a universal language understood by all Zelda fans.