August 13, 2016 7:00 PM   Subscribe

Jason M. Yu analyzes music from Cave Story, Undertale (Part 1, Part 2), and Chrono Trigger at a friendly, hand-holding pace. (Major spoilers for Undertale!)

Cave Story, Counterpoint, Cross Relations, and Bitonality
What exactly is going on, then? The best way to describe what’s going on here (because these things are rarely black and white) is bitonality. Breaking that word down, bi meaning two, tonal meaning “harmonic areas,” what bitonality essentially is is the interaction of two musical objects, each in a DIFFERENT key. Typically in bitonal music, the two keys that are juxtaposed are usually similar. In “Labyrinth Fight,” the bassline mostly contains notes from G Minor, while the upper melody is in G Major. What this allows for is what you hear in “Labyrinth Fight”: sections of consonant harmony (because G Major and G Minor have many notes in common), with sections of “offness” (where G Major and G Minor clash). If we use a color analogy, we can say, for example, that “G Major” is made up of reds and oranges. “G Minor” can be made up of reds and purples. Where the reds coincide, there are no problems–but occasionally purple and orange will be juxtaposed, and that’s what we hear at 0:25.

It takes some knowledge of musical history and musical convention to fully appreciate it, but bitonality in music other than 20th century classical music is RARE. The fact that this kind of stuff showed up in a video game soundtrack is actually really amazing to me. It’s not easy to pull off well! Usually, taking two melodies from different keys and putting them together is cause for disaster. Cave Story pulls it off like no other.
An Examination of Leitmotifs and Their Use to Shape Narrative in UNDERTALE
Part 1:
The Overworld Ostinato

Unlike many of the other leitmotifs we’re talking about, the Overworld Ostinato is not what you would call a “melody.” Rather, the Ostinato provides a backdrop on which melodies are painted. For this reason, I think this is an often overlooked motif as far as the soundtrack goes, which makes tracing it through the soundtrack a particularly fun exercise...

Rhythmically, the motif is split into two 3-note groups. The first 3-note group in red outline the Tonic chord, or “Home Key,” of the motif. It’s the musical equivalent of a “You Are Here” symbol—it lets the listener know what key they’re in, where “do-re-mi” is, where the music can be expected to start, and where it can be expected to end. Let’s call this first 3-note group “Establishing Home.”

The second 3-note group in blue let’s call “The Rising Three.” The most important thing to note about this figure is its rising “1-2-3” shape. It’s a little motif that will alert the listener to the presence of this Ostinato again and again throughout the soundtrack.

Now let’s listen to the beginning of 031. Waterfall up to 0:13:

Do you hear it? The motif has been expanded on and fleshed out but the basic structure is actually all there. If we look at the Ostinato for Waterfall it written out it becomes apparent that it’s just a decorated version of the Overworld Ostinato:
Part 2:

Certainly one of the most straightforward themes in the game—but I love it because to me it represents Alphys’ personality so well. The first melodic phrase is just a simple and happy “do-re-mi-fa-so”, but the second phrase, almost as if in an attempt to outdo the first, jumps to a higher key halfway into the melody—which is actually an amazing musical representation of Alphys’ overeager personality. That’s all that there seems to be to her character, until you find the True Lab…

Here, Alphys’ happy melody has been transfigured and corrupted into something quite scary sounding. By simply adding Major thirds above each note of the original melody (in red), we get a haunting, unsettling version of Alphys’ Theme that perfectly complements the terror that is the True Lab.
Deconstructing: “Secret of the Forest” from Chrono Trigger
Now, knowing all that, what’s weird about our chord progression here?

That’s right—there’s no tonic chord at all! We’re just constantly moving back and forth between predominant and dominant chords. The effect this achieves is that our ears are never really anchored. Think about the way the piece starts. Doesn’t it feel mysterious, like you know it’s going to go somewhere, though you don’t quite know where? Compare that feeling to the way Peaceful Days sounds, especially the finality of the moment at 0:39. It’s very different, isn’t it?
(Title reference)
posted by J.K. Seazer (19 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

Anyway I love this sort of analysis of VG music so thanks for the post!
posted by curious nu at 7:36 PM on August 13, 2016

Oh god this is terrific. I was recently wishing for there to be an analysis of VG music, especially Earthbound.
posted by gucci mane at 7:42 PM on August 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Hey, this is great! I've been sort of itching to analyze stuff since leaving music school AND I grew up on Chrono Trigger, so this is a winning combo. Thanks!
posted by teponaztli at 7:44 PM on August 13, 2016

Seeeaaaazer I just got Undertale two weeks ago, finished a Pacifist run three days ago, and have had very much trouble listening to anything but the soundtrack since. So basically it's like:

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posted by brett at 8:16 PM on August 13, 2016 [11 favorites]

Interesting that he studied Cave Story and Undertale. Some fans of Undertale were so upset about the similarities of the games that they created a petition to force them to admit that it is a copy...apparently unaware that Cave Story came out eleven years before Undertale.
posted by eye of newt at 10:00 PM on August 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

OK, I've just looked at that petition, and it really seems like a troll. Especially since the "letter" they're asking you to sign consists of the sentence "Make Cave Story acknowledge that it copied Undertale" and nothing else. (How many of the signatories are sincere and how many are wiseacres who signed because they think it's funny is an open question.)
posted by baf at 10:50 PM on August 13, 2016

It has occurred to me more than once that Metafilter has yet to have a really solid post about Undertale. I tried writing one some time back but ended up working on something else.
posted by JHarris at 12:07 AM on August 14, 2016

The funniest thing about analyzing the music for Cave Story is that the guy who made it had no real musical training, and just sort of trial-and-errors his way into something that sounded good, at least according to interviews from Very Long Ago Now
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:46 AM on August 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Cave Story is the Best Game.

Usually when I'm gaming I have the soundtrack dialed down to the threshold of audibility, but Cave Story gets to be an exception. It's the rare game that has replay value both for the twitch-fun and because it's like rereading a favorite novel or relistening to a favorite album.
posted by ardgedee at 8:18 AM on August 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

(I've played the free, fan-translated Cave Story, but the game was also, briefly, officially available on the Macintosh App Store for $10. I meant to buy it just to pass some money Pixel's way as thanks for his good work, but it was withdrawn by the time I could get around to it. Bah.)
posted by ardgedee at 8:20 AM on August 14, 2016

briefly, officially available on the Macintosh App Store for $10.

It is on Steam.
posted by eye of newt at 8:33 AM on August 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Star Wars is probably some of the greatest use of leitmotifs of all time as well. You can probably know the rough layout of who's good, who's bad, who's winning, who's losing just by the score alone.
posted by Talez at 9:18 AM on August 14, 2016

Haven't gotten to Undertale yet, but the others are among my favorite games + soundtracks (and I heard there's Earthbound in the mix?? Folks who would like a sweet Earthbound remix album will maybe like this sweet Earthbound remix album).
posted by grobstein at 10:36 AM on August 14, 2016

The Chrono Trigger entry was amazing - for my money it's the best game soundtrack in existence, with the possible exception of Chrono Cross. So I was glad to see a track analyzed in detail. Do you think a composer will actually have all of this running through their head as they're composing a track? Or is much of this analysis an after-the-fact sort of thing, and the composition process is more intuitive and messy? (I would think trial-and-error and happy accidents play a huge part for even very knowledgeable people)
posted by naju at 2:08 PM on August 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

It is glorious.

The composer, Mitsuda, also did a Chrono Trigger arrangements album in an "acid jazz" sort of style, called Brink of Time. There are about a million video game arranged albums out there (weirdly), but it's actually really unusual for the original composer to also direct the arrangements. (For example, of the hundreds of Final Fantasy arranged soundtracks out there, series composer Uematsu has worked on maybe one of them.)

You get the sense that Mitsuda is sort of extending his vision for the original soundtrack, with a wider sonic and formal palette. The original soundtrack is the true masterpiece, but Brink of Time is very good (well, it has a couple tracks I strongly dislike, but several I love).

Mitsuda also directed the arrangement of his Xenogears tracks on the Creid arranged album, which came out well. And this year, after a (to-me agonizing) ~15 year wait, he released an album of arranged tracks from Chrono Cross. Unfortunately, I find it pretty charmless. But I do love the original material.
posted by grobstein at 3:57 PM on August 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh man, Chrono Cross's soundtrack would be S-rank for me if it weren't for the battle music — the single most repeated piece of music in the soundtrack — having that awful screechy violin part near the beginning where you have to hear it EVERY TIME
posted by DoctorFedora at 4:06 PM on August 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I quite like the Brink of Time jazz renditions. Great relaxing album to put on. I hadn't heard about the Xenogears or Chrono Cross arranged albums he's done, that's exciting.
posted by naju at 4:11 PM on August 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

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