Thursday, February 28, 2008

Modes and Video Games Music

There's a very useful classification of music which helps explain why pieces sound dramatically more happy or sad: the major and minor scales. The major scale is the staging ground for most of the peaceful or upbeat music you'll hear, whereas the minor is a little darker and used for more music with some conflict or sorrow inherent to it. Darth Vader's theme from Star Wars and Captain Jack Sparrow's theme from Pirates of the Caribbean are both written in a minor key, and the major key dominates the lullaby scene and most tension free music.

The reason music sounds so different depending on which scale it's written in has to do with the different notes that make up the scales, the minor scale has a few lowered notes which give it a less pleasant sound. The root chord, which is what a piece has to end on in order to sound resolved, has a darker sound in the minor scale, and the two different scales work out to different chords and progressions appearing in the music, such as the major scale's classic "A-men" IV-I progression, which appears in a lot of hymns.

The vast majority of music falls into one of those two categories, and our system of musical notation is designed around the properties of those two types of scales. However, those two types of scales are just two examples of a general type of scale called a mode, and including those two, there are seven types of modes that have been historically utilized in music, as far back as the Greek Era.

The Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, in pontificating about the way people ought to live took the trouble to recommend certain modes over others, believing some to have properties best suited to laziness or drinking songs, and others more fit for inspiring music in times of warfare. While scholars are not entirely convinced of how their seven modes relate to our modern ones, Greek philosophy being easier to come by than Greek music, popular interpretation suggests that our modern major mode was of a type Aristotle specifically condemned as making people stupid, and both philosophers favored only using the Dorian and Phrygian, two modes which are largely extinct in popular music, for worship and times of war respectively.

A few technical points, three modes have a major root chord: the Ionian(or major), the Lydian, and Mixolydian, and those last two differ from the major only by a single note(all three characterized by Plato as too light, incidentally). Three modes have a minor root chord: the Aeolian(or minor), Dorian, and Phrygian, and those last two differ from the minor by a single note as well. The seventh mode is the Locrian, it differs from the minor by two notes, has a diminished root chord, and is largely theoretical simply because it's so uncomfortable to work with.

Some styles of jazz make use of the atypical modes, and artists like the Beatles have been known to explore the different scales, but for this entry I'd like to give examples of the different modal possibilities from a different branch of popular music, video game music. Well-known for songs that have to stand up to inordinate amounts of repetition and being forced to rely on synthesizers in the days before hardware and budgets allowed for orchestral renditions or licensing out pop artists, video game music happens to be something I'm quite familiar with, am in an easy position to analyze, and possesses a surprising amount of variety.

It has some similarity to TV and movie soundtracks, with pieces being written for specific settings and scenes, and frequently uses leitmotifs as a recurring cue to mark the presence of a character, a device dating back to opera. But while video-games can focus on story and character like other mediums, video-game music is unique in that it is written to accompany an activity rather than a fixed story, and it often times has to be dynamic, randomly choosing which section to play next, or changing in instrumentation/speed/tone depending upon feedback from the player. The following seven pieces represent music designed for six consoles and six series's, and aside from the absence of a good heroic theme, I think it serves as a good representation of some of the medium's musical styles.

i. Ionian(or major) (C D E F G A B C) Still Alive- Portal(PC). This is the game industry equivalent of a credits song, and the only one of this set that doesn't accompany actual gameplay. It's played upon the successful conclusion to the game, although the melody itself is foreshadowed in the game. It is sung by a major character in the game to represent their last bit of character development, which in context may remind the well-informed of a scene from Kubrick's 2001 A Space Oddysey. It's written in two major keys, and the lyrics provide an interesting contrast to the otherwise happy/peaceful melody.

ii. Dorian (D E F G A B C D) Temple of Time - Zelda: Ocarina of Time(Nintendo 64). This one is a chantish/worshipful sounding piece. One feature of this particular game which influenced its music: a few songs, including this one, had to be performed by the player on a virtual instrument tuned to the key of C, making relying on alternate modes a natural way to vary the styles of the music.

iii. Phrygian (E F G A B C D E) Magus's Theme - Chrono Trigger(Super Nintendo). The major scale has a half step from its seventh note to its root, which makes hearing the seventh note slightly tense because you're expecting it to resolve into the root since it's so close. This mode, with a lowered second, has a similar effect in reverse, with a half step leading down into the root. This piece is an intense/dark theme serving as the motif for a sinister yet not entirely evil character.

iv. Lydian (F G A B C D E F) Space Junk Galaxy - Super Mario Galaxy(Wii). Back into major-related territory, this is a mellow piece which, like a lot of these songs, uses an atypical mode to create an ethereal or exotic sound. Wikipedia is of the opinion that the Lydian mode is most often used for dreamlike music in soundtracks and video games, and while the game above uses it a few times, I haven't noticed that many other instances.

v. Mixolydian (G A B C D E F G) Home Termina - Chrono Cross(Playstation). This piece serves as the background music for a city in its game, and is meant for a different style of explorative gameplay than most of the others in this set. I tend to associate the Mixolydian mode with this style of folk music, which has a certain dance-like quality to it. Lowering just one note on the major scale allows a number of interesting chord progressions to appear that you don't otherwise get.

vi. Aeolian(or minor) (A B C D E F G A) The classic minor key. One Winged Angel - Final Fantasy VII(An orchestrated version of a Playstation piece). While this one is a bit more chromatic than your typical minor piece, the main themes are clearly identifiable as minor. It also happens to be one of the more popular modern video game pieces, apparently serving as the encore for at least two video-game themed concerts. With a few lyrics "borrowed" from the Carmina Burana, this is the theme for the villain of the game.

vii. Locrian (B C D E F G A B) YYZ - Rush - Guitar Hero 2(Playstation 2). The bane of music students everywhere, the Locrian mode is largely considered theoretical just because everything naturally sounds dissonant, and the closest example I could find from the video game world is a rock piece, used in the guitar hero soundtrack, which has a locrian synthesizer part. If you know of any better examples, or feel like writing one, feel free to let me know!

And finally, in researching these examples, I came across a couple video game pieces that don't belong to any of the seven classic/medieval modes:

Phrygish(aka Phrygian Dominant or Spanish Gypsy Scale)(E F G# A B C D E): Forest Temple - Zelda:Ocarina of Time (Nintendo 64) This mode differs from all the modes above in that it has three half-steps between its second and third notes, which is a longer interval than is allowed for in any of the classical modes. It bears some similarities to the Phrygian, from which it gets its name, it's essentially a Phrygian mode with a raised third, which puts it in a major root chord again. The lowered second and the long interval give it an unusual sound, and it's apparently used in some Middle-Eastern music, particularly Hungarian music and the works of Franz List.

Mixolydian Flat Sixth (G A B C D Eb F G): Daryll's Theme -Final Fantasy VI (Super Nintendo)
and Setzer's Theme - Final Fantasy VI (Super Nintendo)
This mode could be characterized in a few ways, it resembles a major with a lowered sixth and seventh, or a minor a with raised third which would essentially put it in the major, or even a mixolydian with a flat sixth, as the "official" name would suggest. Regardless, its root chord is major, but the sixth and seventh notes which typically distinguish the major from the minor, match the minor key. The first is a bit of a bittersweet melody, and the second is a somewhat triumphant variation which still has a bit of tension, it's an interesting mix.

This article led me to a number of other thoughts about music/modes, and the number of modes that are even possible, but since it gets extremely technical, I chose to place it on my main webpage instead for those interested: