Let’s start our journey of looking at concepts of new ideas in music by first focusing on everyone’s favorite animal life simulator, Animal Crossing. But Kyle!? Why Animal Crossing? That’s so laid back, how does the music do interesting thing?! Because not only is it my favorite game, but because it’s a great example of using thematic material! Also, the soundtracks are surprisingly large, and this leaves us a lot of inspiration and ideas for us to use. Granted, there’s better music out there, and much of the Animal Crossing soundtrack is similar, but the importance of this music shouldn’t be overlooked. Ideas gained from the music of Animal Crossing can be applied across all genres of video games and music.
And where else would be a better place to start off with other than with our favorite in game dog musician: K.K. Slider.
K.K. is honestly who I believe conceptually the entire soundtrack revolves around. But these concepts are hidden behind who exactly K.K. is as a musician. His songs are so specific in nature. You walk up to him on a Saturday night and say “Hey K.K.! Play me a ballad!” Or you want parade music? You got it. His songs are named are named true to the genres as well. Most of his songs are titled “K.K. Rock, K.K. Bossa, K.K. Love Song” or something similar. Thinking about it on the outside, this is all there is, but diving into the compositions, I believe name becomes more than just a name.
K.K. Rock is…well…a rock song. It’s nothing more. And nothing less. Is it a good composition? Sure. It’s fine, it’s rock music through and through. It doesn’t break any ground as rock music, instead the piece plays it safe. This to me could be a musical definition of rock music in its absolute purest form. Taking this definition farther, we could say that this is K.K. Slider (And Totaka effectively) answering the question “What does rock music sound like as a concept?” This “concept” is so important and is not thought about often in my opinion. K.K. Rock captures the essence of an art form, and being able to do that shows a level of mastery that I know I don’t have. This is a piece meant to be played in your home in-game. If rock music is your favorite genre, it’s very likely you’ll have it playing in one of your rooms. And the brilliant thing about all of the other “K.K. Insert Genre Here” songs is that each one does this exact same thing. Animal Crossing is a game about communicating in so many different ways. But above all it’s a game about communicating yourself. Each of these tracks incorporates something that an individual could use to define them, and they do it through music that the listener will probably like if they’re a fan. And that’s really cool.
This concept doesn’t stop here though. In all actuality, I believe that the rest of the Animal Crossing soundtrack is structured around the idea of writing to concepts. The true genius of the soundtrack lies in the main theme of each game. Main themes are critical to understanding what a game is about, but in many ways the main theme of Animal Crossing is almost more important, and even more all encompassing. Example: It plays at every hour of every day in every game. The main theme of these games have to be written in a way that you never get tired of them. And they do this in a brilliant way. First of all, the main theme has to be good. Really good. You can’t pull this off if the theme itself gets annoying. The main theme of each game is present enough that you hear it, but background enough that it quickly fades to the subconscious. They’re melodies and harmonies that are easily understood by the human ear. Naturally though, even the best written melody will become tiresome if it’s all you hear. That’s why for each hour of the day, the main theme is presented in a different arrangement. Each hour has a different feeling when compared to each other, and adjacent hours often share similarities in musical style or concept. To me the music answers the question of “If music was playing around me at this point in time, what would it sound like?” This is the true brilliance of the sound track. It answers questions such as: “What does 7:00 am sound like? What about 12:00 pm? Why do these hours sound that way? How are they different? What about 7:00 o’clock, how are am and pm related at this time?” In addition to this, each track needs to be appropriate for every season of the year! Writing tracks that encompass so much with such simplicity is the true magic of this music.
Each hour is a different arrangement featuring the main theme or fragments from the main theme. All of the arrangements are different enough from each other that the main theme never gets tired. At the same time, answering the question of what this time of day sounds like allows the player to be drawn farther into the world subconsciously. This musical glue is in many ways a key feature of why I believe Animal Crossing can be played in long bursts for days on end. This concept goes back to the idea of K.K. Slider and answering what a genre of music would sound like in the purest form. Animal Crossing has music that puts ideas into a musical space, allowing our brains to make sense of what we’re playing. Going even further, there’s a slight alteration of each hour for when it’s snowing or raining! The variety is endless! Animal Crossing is a series that has marketed itself as the game that never stops, and this movement of music overtime plays right in to that idea.
Tired yet? There’s a couple more concepts left!
Next, let’s focus on the town tune. I’ve seen people either love this idea, or never really pay it any mind, but in the context of Animal Crossing’s music it simply can’t be ignored. For those of you who aren’t familiar When you move in to town, there’s already a town tune, but to put it bluntly, it’s not good. This encourages players to change it early on, adding some immediate sense of your personality to your town. Some people write original compositions, some put in their favorite Nintendo music, or maybe even a pop song. But whatever it is, it always reflects the individual. The neat thing though about this composition you write is it plays constantly. Well, not constantly like the hour music, but you get the idea. Walk into a store? There it is. Oh the hour changed? Here’s the town tune. Going to talk to a villager? Cue your song. This is truly the anthem of your town. But similar concepts have been done before. So let’s talk about the way it’s presented. Every time you talk to an animal, your town tune is going to play, but never the same. For every animal in the game, the town tune has a different sound to it. This often reflects the type of animal you’re talking to. If you walk up to a duck, the tune is going to have some quacking quality to it. A mouse is likely to be high pitched with some squeaks, and a dog is going to greet you with a barking rendition. In addition, each personality type will influence the sound as well. This once again takes something that we know all too well and shoves it to the back of our mind because we never hear it the same way. There are TONS of characters in Animal Crossing, so there might be some repeats among villagers somewhere that I don’t know about, but even so there are countless versions! And if you happen to ever get tired of the song you wrote? Well…it’s good that you can go change it!
Animal Crossing is a game about defining yourself while escaping from real life. The music in the game is all about this. It strikes this truly unique balance between defining what you know and characterizing what’s happening, but it finds ways to use repetition over and over again so that you don’t notice repetition. This allows both the game and the music to help blur the distinction between world and game. This is awesome to see a game do, and it provides so many unique ways for us to think of repetition in our own games.
Concepts such as these are easily applicable in our own games and music. Varying melodies or rearranging them is extremely common in games, but it’s often only presented in a few ways. Writing all encompassing melodies has been done all throughout music history (more on that in future posts), but I find it to be extremely effective when a melody is used to such lengths. The challenge comes in making it sound consistently fresh to the player and listener. Something though that I think should be done more is the idea of writing to concepts. I’m going to be talking about this a lot over time, which is the true reason why I wanted to start with Animal Crossing. So much video game music is written to accompany battle, story, or location that I think it’s easily forgotten that there’s other ways to enhance game play through music. I think Animal Crossing presents these ideas in a more approachable way than other games I’m going to talk about. As we go over other examples of writing music to concepts, not everything else is going to be as easy as “What does a rock song sound like?” And even with answering that question, answers are sure to vary! I’m not necessarily here to provide answers at all times, but give different ways of looking at music. Again, music is a subjective topic while possessing objective qualities. I want innovation to happen, and without conflicting ideas innovation is going to remain something that is all elusive.