2017 was a year FULL of incredible soundtracks. The amount of experimentation that occurred in game music this year was off the charts. Believe me, we’re going to be touching on all of these games eventually as there’s simply too much good information to pass up. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is probably my soundtrack of last year, and truthfully, it’s why I decided to start this musical journey. Breath of the Wild does an insane amount of good for the video game world, but how does it do it? And what inspiration does it draw from to do this? Let’s talk about Impressionism to find out.
Let’s get a timeframe of this concept first. Impressionism falls at a unique place in music history, and can be viewed from a few different perspectives on the timeline. Many subscribe to the idea that it falls as an extension of the Romantic Era (Beethoven, Chopin, Mahler, Wagner etc) and took harmonic extremities of the time to a new level by doing (somewhat) away with common music theory practice in western music. Others view it as a kind of bridging the gap between modernism and classical music innovation of the 1900s.
But it could also be viewed as the start of modernist movement, as the Impressionists were trying to break away from the shackles of the common man’s music. I like to think of it in this last way, even though the true answer is that it’s probably a combination. Regardless, there’s only two Impressionists in music history that we talk about: Ravel and Debussy. Going even further, I’d even say that Ravel blurred the line between Romantic and Impressionist.
Again, I want to state that Impressionists were trying to break the shackles of music history.
So, what is impressionism? The quickest explanation is that it’s painting pictures with music. Say that you want to paint a picture of a morning sunrise, what would it look like? Well, it would look like a morning sunrise. You’d be able to see it physically and say “Man, that’s a nice morning.”
This is what impressionists did with music. They would write music that would describe locations, people, or ideas through music alone. Using melody, harmony, rhythm and motifs they wrote music that was meant to describe something. By saying this, it makes it sound like all video game music is impressionistic, but it’s important to note that’s not accurate. Impressionism is more concerned with how the piece feels evocatively, rather than focusing on traditional music techniques. There’s a very particular feel that impressionism seeks at all times. It’s better to think of impressionist music asking ’Musically how does this feel?” rather than asking “How does this sound?”
So again, you’re probably a bit confused. Video game music exists to accompany gameplay, so of course you’re going to write music to the feeling of scenes, characters, locations etc. I would think of the separation in this context as impressionism describing experiences, while traditional video game music heightens experiences. Music in video games is meant primarily to heighten the experience for the player.
Zelda has a huge musical history of heightening player emotions through music. My god they have a practically non-stop touring orchestra that only plays Zelda music. The only other series I know that has this is Final Fantasy. Zelda music has been written to accompany every aspect of gameplay and story, and people will fight tooth and nail on what their favorite track, OST, or musical cue is from the game. From the huge sweeping orchestral scores, the beautiful melodies, and the implications behind them, it’s hard to argue against Zelda having some of the best video game music. I can talk about any Zelda soundtrack and tell you why it works from a traditional music standpoint, but in the end the answer just boils down to a few things.
· Memorable themes.
· Emotional connection to gameplay
· It’s simply good music.
So, what does Breath of the Wild do? It gets rid of a lot of themes, has silence for a lot of the soundtrack, and is considered by many to not be good music.
So. Impressionism in Zelda.
Breath of the Wild reworked EVERYTHING about the Zelda series. You’re given all of your tools in the beginning, you’re told to go kill Ganon instantly if you’d like, or you’re told to go in a direction. But you don’t have to follow this. You have an enormous landscape to explore that sprawls forever. Gone is the world music, gone is the character music, gone is the Ocarina or other instruments. It’s just you and the wild. Visually, no longer do you see a mountain off in the distance and ignore it as background information. Instead you might think “Oh. I can go there if I want.” So, you go there in silence.
You start climbing the mountain, encounter snow that quickly turns into a winter veil. And suddenly you realize that music has been playing for who knows how long. The music is far in the background, almost as far back as the mountain was when you first noticed it. There’s no singable melody, but it wouldn’t be called pure ambient music either. This music isn’t accompanying what you’re doing, where you are or who you’re with. It doesn’t do any of that. Rather, if the mountain had naturally occurring music, what would that music be?
It would be the music of a mountain.
This is Impressionism in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It’s music that you can’t sing, music that you might not notice, but music that describes your experience.
Impressionism describes, themes heighten.
This is the exact experience I had when the soundtrack really clicked for me. It’s music that entirely describes the Breath of the Wild experience. On a mountain, what would you hear in nature? Probably wind, snowstorms, footsteps, and animals among other things. As I mentioned in a previous post, sound can have musical qualities, but isn’t in and of itself music. Music can be written through sound design, but these occurring sounds wouldn’t be music. How would these sounds be translated into traditional music?
I think the answer is through Impressionism. The music at this point in the game was answering the question “What would the naturally occurring music on this mountain be?” And much of the soundtrack is structured around these ideas! There are more traditional tracks in the game, but most of the environmental music is this way.
However, environmental music isn’t the only type of music that employs these techniques. A couple of the battle themes use similar ideas too. Take for instance the Guardian music. It starts off with a very skittish piano solo, and then brings in some more instruments at seemingly random intervals. It occasionally has a full sound, and features many syncopated rhythms. This is definitely battle music, but it doesn’t really feel like it accompanies battle. I’ve heard many people describe this music as frightening, and I think that’s very accurate! Guardians are something that you don’t really know a lot about, and even late in the game they can kill you extremely easily. Every time you encounter one of the large, quick ones, this frantic piano leads us into battle.
It sounds scared, mirroring what you’re probably feeling and doing as you try to distance yourself from the guardian to form a plan of attack. And throughout the track, it maintains a sense of fear, but the repeating piano starts to seem a bit braver as well and have staying power. The music appears to get more comfortable as you make it longer in a fight. Which is really neat, because the longer you make it against a guardian, the better you know how to fight them and the higher your chance of victory, meaning that even though the fear of death is still there, you know you’re capable at that point. The music reflects on this feeling. There’s some other stuff that happens in this music, but we’ll talk about that at a later date
The music is battle music, but in no way is it traditional.
The harmonies and melodies used by impressionists were very unique too, and in listening to the music, the compositions reflect this. There’s long pauses between notes, harmonies move in parallel fifths or fourths at times, or there might only be a few notes. Scales used are often non-traditional and often have no resolution.
The Impressionism in Breath of the Wild has a strong impact on the overall game score. There are definitely other examples of impressionism in game music, but I think this is one of the best. I truly believe that a score like in the Zeldas of old simply wouldn’t work in this case. Location specific music wouldn’t make sense in most places, and an abundance of character themes would clutter the score.
Even themes that represent feelings or emotions such as The Song of Healing, The Song of Time and The Song of Storms are absent. A few of these unique mainstay themes are used at different moments in the score, but overall they’re replaced with short ideas or musical cues to represent the same feeling.
I believe that Impressionism has a huge, and mostly unexplored place in the video game music world. Impressionist ideas shouldn’t be placed into every soundtrack, because the ideas won’t always fit. But in making games that feature exploration, or games that have a lot of ambiguity, I think Impressionism is an excellent technique to provide a bit more wonder and uncertainty to the world.
This might have been a lot of confusing information, especially for non-musicians, so here’s a short breakdown.
· Game music often heightens the experience for the player, Impressionist game music describes player experience.
· Impressionism is a powerful form of music used to evoke emotions, ideas or pictures through sound.
· Impressionist music can be used for both specific and non-specific location music, but I find it to be most effective for non-specific locations.
· Impressionism is best served alongside a world that allows the music to accompany the world, and the world to accompany the music.
· As with any genre of music, the best way to understand is to listen.
· Look for locations in the game and score that can describe rather than accompany.
· Impressionistic cues can be especially powerful, and often shouldn’t sound out of place next to a more standard soundtrack.
· Experiment with scales and harmonies outside of the common practice period.
It’s important for both developers and composers to remember that if the music sounds right, it probably is right. It’s hard to break molds of what we’ve already established, and that’s why we’re encountering a lot of backlash from much of the Zelda fanbase. What these people don’t understand is that if we had a score similar to Twilight Princess, Breath of the Wild wouldn’t make sense. The gameplay, story, graphics and world design of Breath of the Wild are all very Impressionistic as well, so it only makes sense to have a soundtrack that partially follows in the steps of Debussy.
This isn’t to say that Impressionism is the only style used in Breath of the Wild. We’ll be revisiting this game very frequently to explore other musical styles, and we might even do some analysis of the music at some point to find out specifics of what makes the music great.