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I'm analyzing composition techniques in the music of the older Zelda games. I'm really trying to understand the decisions these composers make when writing these tunes. For example, in Oracle of Ages, the Crown Dungeon has a song which I find interesting,

It has very chromatic harmony. The upper register harmonies are mostly minor and major 3rds. But the monophonic bassline ostinato tends to create minor, major and augmented triads when combined with the upper registers, with a few ambiguous chord clusters here and there. How do they come up with this stuff? What type of music does this tune and era reflect most? Classical, jazz? I'd like to learn to write stuff like this.

Another tune is the final level of the 1st Zelda. This one seems more complex to analyze.

The upper registers and monophonic bassline separately are pretty simple. The upper registers I believe is all Augmented 4ths, tritone. Yet combined with the repeating bassline they collide in interesting ways to create more complex harmonies. The very first chord implied seems ambiguous, 1st result on the Piano Companion app is C Major 7 sus4, obviously in the song it's missing a fifth. The melody jumps around and "resolves" on a diminished chord. This is the first 4 seconds of the song.

Then the motif repeats, with the only change being the bassline dropping a semitone. But the harmonic consequences are astounding to me. The bassline does a unison with one of the upper register's notes, kind of emphasizing that tritone sound, perhaps even resolving some of the tension and confusion caused within the previous 4 seconds. Then the melody jumps around, landing on and "resolving" to B7, fifth omitted. Something Koji Kondo likes to do in some of his other dungeon music, he will have diminished harmonies that seem to find some resolution in Dominant 7th harmony.

So is this influenced from late Classical or Jazz? Maybe somebody out there has something to add to help me understand this style of composition better. Maybe you know of similar techniques that composers have used. I'm really interested in how this atonal stuff can still sound good even without the the familiar chords and progression of tonal music. Thanks everyone.

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I must disagree, if more than one person writes something using an unusual combination of notes/noises/effects, you can bet your heinie somebody's written a book or article and consequently made it a "technique". Furthermore, I recognise many of the sounds and I studied these techniques back when I studied composition...

The genre is possibly the same, somebody out there, especially in academia, is bound to have categorised it already.

Dane Aubrun said:

I don't reckon there is any technique or genre to this (other than the track meeting the requirement of a game). It sounds like the performer has enough musical savvy to string a phrase together, probably made a few notations then dribbled out a "learned" improvisation. He needed it to sound weird and knows how to get that effect in his/her own fashion. There's no form, the "bass" is a mess and the nearest I can recognise is that it's through composed from the little I listened to. Trying to find form or logic enough to pinpoint technique is a grail hunt. If there are hints of serialism they're coincidental.

The best that can come out of it is the O/P coining some name for it. 

You can smack your hands on a piano keyboard then analyse the result coming up with all kinds of erudite-sounding analyses, often specious. (Anyone who's read one or more volumes of Die Reihe will know that the commentary on why and how was usually far more interesting than the piece being featured (assuming it was available to be heard)!)

Right, I spent the weekend going through all my books from when I used teach at Uni and I found what you're looking for! It's called Twentieth Century Harmony by Vincent Persichetti, you can find a free copy here:

Although it might be nice to buy it to support the author!

Oh never mind, his dead...

Claude Werner said:

Right, I spent the weekend going through all my books from when I used teach at Uni and I found what you're looking for! It's called Twentieth Century Harmony by Vincent Persichetti, you can find a free copy here:

Although it might be nice to buy it to support the author!

The easiest answer to the initial question ("how do they come up with this stuff?") is that they don't. They simply figure out some basic methodology, which by the way you seem to have reverse engineered with enough accuracy to make use of it yourself... and then they let the idea run its course to see what happens. Experiment with it enough and you'll have a large stack of sounds. Connect them in any way, observe the results. Some of the sounds will probably not feel quite right compared to others - you can try and analyze exactly what the difference is, you can make minor tweaks that deviate from the initial recipe but seem to fix the issue, or you can just toss the blunder out the window. And of course any small progression you deem suitable can then be transformed - transposition, inversion, two-layer transposition because why not (move top voices by an interval and the bass by another interval, see what happens), add counterpoint, stretch, retrograde, blah blah blah.

If you want a sound like in Crown Dungeon, probably all you need to do is come up with a recipe that ensures your harmonic flow can't find any particular key (so the constructions should be based on intervals and not scales). And then you blast off. If you randomly produce a very consonant chord, mess it up until it feels right again.

If you want to study video game music, these guys talk about it pretty extensively. I found their podcast on iTunes, but I'm sure it's also other places.

Perhaps a useful idea is whether the composer themselves was thinking in your terms and consciously constructing from theoretical concepts or just writing music to sound a bit errie and strange. I would say it is the latter. Theory after all exists to explain what has been already written.

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