JRPG Song Forms

I love classic Japanese console RPG soundtracks like Final Fantasy VII and Secret of Mana. The idea of writing in that style appeals to me. But one thing that saps my confidence is when I struggle to find a section to follow a fragment I’ve already written. I tend to grab at the first possibility, even when the connection is weak or forced.

It would be great to have a general idea of how sections are shaped and connected in these songs.

So today I’ve analysed ten of my fave tracks by Noboe Umatsue (Final Fantasy VII) and Hiroki Kikuta (Secret of Mana 2, Seiken Densetsu 3). I wanted to know:

  • How long are the songs and sections?
  • What elements are repeated, and how many times?
  • What textural and harmonic progressions connect sections?

I ended up with this giant chart (which you can see in full size here):

TMI

Let me try explain this crazy chart. As you can see, I laid out a timeline for each song, boiling down everything in it to the following abstract categories:

  • beats & riffs – 1-4 bars long:
    Sometimes riffs change their note content to match a chord progression. But I still view it as the same riff. E.g., the synth arpeggio in ‘Prelude’.
  • phrases – the units of melody, 2-6 bars long:
    Of course, the judgement of phrase length can be arbitrary. I just decided these cases intuitively, trying to avoid fussiness. So, my chart doesn’t show every little motif.
  • sections – the large-scale divisions

If you’re familiar with sequencer software, you’ll recognise where I got the idea for all this. It’s how these tracks would look in a sequencer’s “Arrange” window: horizontal lanes containing MIDI clips: short, repeated grooves and beats, and longer melodic or chordal themes.

However, I’m not representing every instrument. I use the “Ostinato” lane for any repeating figure or combination of repeating figures, and anything that I deem to be a melody or theme (whether single note, harmonised, counterpoint or chordal) goes in the “Phrases” lane.

I’ve done the jazz musician thing and reduced the harmony to chord symbols. I don’t condone this in general. It’s just to sketch out what’s going on for skimming purposes. And while I’m confessing sins, I also used mode names to describe chords. In a past post I complained about overuse of modes as an explanatory device. However, I think modes are the best explanation for aspects of Hiroki Kikuta’s music.

Let’s analyse!

Now, these are game soundtracks and the structure is first and foremost determined by having to loop indefinitely. Every one of these tunes has a section, the loop, that will cycle for as long as your game character stays in that location or game state (e.g. the battle screen). Four of the songs also have a preceding section that I call the intro.

The looping is part of the aesthetic, providing a hypnotic dreaminess, a melancholy, an escapism into something both boundless and yet safely predictable.

Obviously, looped music needs both variety and smoothness if it’s to avoid annoying the listener.

I never completed Final Fantasy VII (or even played either Secret of Mana or Seiken Densetsu 3) but I remember songs getting annoying when you had to redo a task too many times, like the Chocobo race. Or even the battle music, sometimes it’s the last thing you want.

Entrances and starts of sections are almost all square and on the beat. Melodic pickups are used for sure, and drum fills, but there’s never a sensation of skipping the downbeat or disturbing the start of a section. The music, after all, shouldn’t demand too much attention. It should provide drama and atmosphere, and depth for repeated listening, without snagging the ear. This doesn’t prohibit dissonance, strange sounds or unusual time signatures. But they must be safely contained in comfortable box-like structures.

Changes in instrumentation or texture are obviously important to provide diversity within the short loops. I tried to depict the instrumentation changes in the following chart:

4 songs have a (purple) intro section. Each cell of text stands for a musical texture. So, ‘Prelude’ has two textures, synth for the intro, and synth, strings & woodwinds for the loop. ‘Tifa’s Theme’ has no intro, but 5 distinct textures (instrument combinations).

Full size version here.

Again, I’m not happy with this chart. The bars look like a bar chart, but although I am depicting the song structures chronologically from left to right, longer bars don’t represent longer time periods: instead, they represent songs that have more instrumentation changes.

That’s confusing and I’d like to improve on this in future.

Generally there’s a lot of keyboards, woodwinds, strings, mallets. Bit of voice, reed instruments, plucked strings. And a leaning towards kitsch things like barrel organ, accordion, music box.

The orchestration is not dense. I counted at most five different instruments at any time. This has to do with available tech, of course. These tracks are in a sample-based format, similar to tracker music, with (I’m guessing) 8 or 16 simultaneous samples permitted at once.

I presume the instruments were sampled from Yamaha digital synths. It can be hard to tell if something is meant to sound “like a synth”, or like a synthesised version of something real. That kind of stuff gives a lot of the aura of these soundtracks. I’ve spoken about it a bit before.

All right, let’s get onto the structures!

About half of the tunes have a loop length below a minute, while half have a length from 1:30 to 2:30. If you are composing in this idiom, you’ll be writing stuff shorter than a short pop song. Maybe that’s part of the appeal: a bijou version of generally long-winded genres like classical, prog rock and fusion.

‘Prelude’, ‘Tifa’s Theme’, and ‘Fond Memories’ (Uematsu) and ‘Still of the Night’, ‘A Curious Happening’ and ‘Raven’ (Kikuta): all these have a roughly ternary form for the loop. Kikuta in particular uses an AAB form with no variation between the As, a couple of of times.

‘Few Paths Forbidden’ (Kikuta) and ‘Anxious Hearts’ (Uematsu) have four equal sections in the loop. ‘Sending A Dream’ into the Universe (Uematsu) has only two but the theme’s phrase form is compensatorily more complex. ‘Now Flightless Wings’ (Kikuta) is a special case which I’ll discuss later.

Five of the tunes use repetitions with variation. Strategies for variation are all very familiar:

  • add (or remove) a countermelody, as in ‘Prelude’ and the second part of ‘Now Flightless Wings’
  • octave shifts, that old classic
  • change instrumentation, like flute to oboe in ‘Tifa’s Theme’

Most of the tunes centre around a continuous chunk of thematic melody of around 30-50 seconds’ length. It depends on the tempo, but often that’s 16 bars long. Perhaps because I chose a lot of melancholy and pensive and nostalgic pieces, many of these tracks have a similar moderate 4/4 tempo. Both games feature some 3/4 or 6/8, but less than I expected.

8 out of the 10 tunes have an ostinato of some kind, so that’s definitely a technique to reach for. Of those 8, 6 of those have it basically throughout.

Finally, let’s mention rests and breaks. All of the songs except for ‘Still of the Night’ and ‘Tifa’s Theme’ and the tiny loop of ‘Now Flightless Wings’, feature a tag or a breakdown to rhythmic hits. This provides a relief from the main melody, within the loop. ‘Raven’ has two different rhythmic breakdown sections.

‘Tifa’s Theme’, ‘Few Paths Forbidden’, ‘Now Flightless Wings’, ‘Anxious Heart’ and ‘Sending a Dream into the Universe’ (all lyrical, emotive ones!) feature prolongations of melody endings by a bar or two, either of a V chord or a I. Nothing too surprising, but another little technique for the toolbox.

In the end, I think I’ve reached the limitations of this kind of analysis. I could try eke out some conclusions about the phrase divisions of these melodies, but we’d learn more by transcribing a couple and talking about them as, you know, melodies.

Okay, time to wrap up with individual comments on each tune.

I apologise for presenting the tunes in no sensible ordering. It’s because I (rashly) chose LibreOffice Calc to lay out my data. Putting the tunes in a sensible ordering would involve too much layout hacking to be worth it.

I gotta say, I haven’t been too impressed with Calc. I encountered a fair few tiny glitches and the export functions are unfinished: I couldn’t find a way to choose what page or what cells to export to image, and the pagination options in the PDF export appear to do nothing.

Anyway. Now comes the fun part!

‘Prelude’ (C major) – Noboe Uematsu, Final Fantasy VII

This is the first thing you hear when you start the game. Confidently, for 16 bars it features only solo synth arpeggios that climb and fall through 4 octaves with a calm wave-like effect. The synth is warm and woody in its lower registers and chime-like at the very top. An echo effect adds magic dust. The triads are decorated with 9s and, at the end, 7s, providing a bit of extra colour.

Harmonically, it’s a four-chord trick until the parallel minor chords – all familiar but powerful stuff. The mood is mystical but noble. After that full round of synth, a majestic theme, with full chords, in strings and woodwinds, begins.

One smart detail is the order of the theme variants: first a version with ascending countermelodies in the accompaniment, then a plainer version without countermelodies, providing some easing and rest.

‘Still Of the Night’ (A minor) – Hiroki Kikuta, Secret of Mana

This isn’t a million miles away from the hypnotic, chimey, magical mood of Prelude, yet Kikuta’s style is distinctive. It’s more mysterious and warmer, cheekier. This stems from a static dorian modality, alternating with major chords off flattened degrees like bII, bVI and even bI. That sense of mystery comes from the ambiguous voicings (there isn’t a clear bass note) and tensions created by the shifting, slow ostinato against a droning tonic note.

This particular tune is very open in texture though we’ll see him do busier stuff elsewhere. Sonically, we’re in chimy, dreamy land again, but Kikuta’s sounds are warmer. He famously crafted the samples himself rather than leaving it to an engineer, and the result is gorgeous.

‘Tifa’s theme’ – Noboe Uematsu, Final Fantasy VII

Wow, this is such a catchy theme, I’ve had it in my head all day. Like Prelude, it’s in a major key with some colourful chords from the parallel minor. Also like Prelude, the progression is basic and powerful. Legato orchestral sounds plus a near-constant vibes arpeggio combine in a mood I’d call soulful.

The strings are done in a bit of a hurry, I think, but we get some contrary motion from variations in the vibes. There’s some not-particularly-subtle symbolism in the melody textures, that nonetheless drew a tear from me, about how Tifa wants a man to love and a return to the happiness she had with her childhood friend Cloud: flute and oboe together, then flute alone, then oboe an octave lower with flute finally rejoining.

The loop back to the start harmonically goes to I from a II, although the melody does strongly lean on the V note. It’s as if the theoretically necessary, bridging V7 chord is only briefly hinted at.

‘Few Paths Forbidden’ – Hiroki Kikuta, Seiken Densetsu 3

What a groover! This one has an awesome syncopated drums and bass guitar groove, a warm hooting synth harmonised melody, with wheeling syncopated marimba riffage in the background.

We’re getting into Kikuta’s secret sauce here: notice how the marimba has a quiet lower harmony line which subtly contributes some pulsing bass activity alongside the expertly sparse bass guitar throbs. The slapback echo adds texture and emphasises the woody quality while pleasantly obscuring that lower line – just another example of Kikuta’s gorgeous (yet economical) sonic layering – pleasant depth like a bed of bracken.

The slightly out of tune mallet sound adds vibe and realism.

The pumping bass uses the slab-like weight of bass guitar as a powerful device in itself. This is a composer who gets it.

‘Now Flightless Wings’ (Ab major) – Hiroki Kikuta, Secret of Mana

This one’s a special case. From reading the Youtube comments, I glean that it’s the last song heard in the game and it’s there to deliver an emotional payoff at the story’s end. Tense strings chords get harmonically warmer, into a gorgeous glowing barrel organ and music box infinite loop. So, I haven’t played the game but even so the bittersweet life-is-sad loveliness is pretty affecting. I’d tentatively suggest that looping here is used aesthetically. The extreme shortness and simplicity of the loop makes it like a lullaby, childish, vulnerable and ephemeral. That said, some subtle counterpoint and harmonic variations bring depth and ornamentation so it’s not too plain. Brilliant stuff.

‘Anxious Heart’ (F minor) – Noboe Uematsu, Final Fantasy VII

This one starts with cinematic string swells. The harmony is tenser than in the other Uematsu pieces we’ve seen: minor to parallel major shifts with roots moving in thirds, featuring that awe-inspiring shift from a major to a minor 3rd degree. A lot of emotional payoffs in music happen on these type of big, simple colour shifts. So good!

Then it goes into what I think of as “rainforest” vibraphone, after this amazing Jay Hoggard exotica track that I’ve always loved.

The intro is in 5/4, I think, just to lengthen out the chords.

‘A Curious Happening’ (C minor) – Hiroki Kikuta, Secret of Mana

Swung sixteenths sleazy freaky noir funk. There’s probably something that could be said here about Japan’s relationship to African-American culture, but I amn’t informed enough to grasp it.

This track has very funky timbres. Both the synth and the xylophone in the intro vamp are primarily sonic/timbral. Although they’re outlining a Im6 to I-7b5 jazzy chord alternation, what we’re most aware of is the warm, nearly buzzing fatness from the synth, and dry niggling woody oddness from the percussion. Both are staccato sounds, putting that African emphasis (speaking very, very, very broadly) on note onset (and hence rhythmic expression) over the continuous pure tones of classical music.

In this context, the simple clave rhythm for the breakdown was the perfect choice.

‘Sending a Dream into the Universe’ (C minor) – Noboe Uematsu, Final Fantasy VII

This one has, I dunno, maybe “Celtic New Age” instrumentation? Keening woodwind, acoustic accompaniment, slow rock drums and synth pads.

There’s a cool programmatic sequence in the harmony. Three times, we change to a minor key a fifth above, via a pivot chord sitting a third away from each key. E.g. Cm Eb Gm. Then Gm Bb Dm. The effect is simultaneously uplifting and sad. Doing it three times in a row emphasises the theme of the title, with a feeling of hopefully, nobly surging upwards. Nice work, Uematsu-san.

‘Fond Memories’ (C major) – Hiroki Kikuta, Secret of Mana

It’s little wonder people get nostalgic about these games… they were made with a clear-eyed understanding of the mechanics and value of nostalgia! This sparkling gauze of single-note piano and faint accordion, with its shimmering delay effect, just gets right down to the business of plucking your heartstrings. Nice balance between the 4-bar major part and the 16-bar minor part. The harmony is triadic, diatonic then relative minor and finally just a bit of parallel minor in the form of a bVII to get us to a colourful and rather inexplicable, but definitely good VI7 chord before going back to the tonic.

‘Raven’ (A minor) – Hiroki Kikuta, Seiken Densetsu 3

This one’s a pure groove/riff tune. A foot tapper! Like in ‘Few Paths Forbidden’, Kikuta does his dorian two-part harmonising thing in the marimba, and also in the woodwinds. This tune just stays on one chord though, with a stomping rhythmic breakdown followed by an ominous, pulsing, pizz strings and flute tag, for variation.

Thanks so much for joining me. Hope these classic JRPG songs warmed your heart! And I hope I put these lessons to use some day soon myself!

P.S. Here’s a playlist of all the tracks I analysed, here’s the full Secret of Mana OST, here’s Seiken Densetsu 3, and here’s Final Fantasy VII.

A Composing Checklist

In my last post about my project to write a sketch a day, I talked about trying to compose purposely unfinished music, to stimulate players into completing it in performance using their improvisational spark and their knowledge of traditions such as jazz (or reggae, funk etc.). No sooner had I posted it than I figured out an obvious further thought:

That idea of provoking improvised reactions could be part of my composing practice. I could use my own music (or write new music, or use a piece from the repertoire) to stimulate further composing.

Absolutely nothing new in that idea as it stands – it’s called “development” or “contrafact”, or “sampling”. However, I realised that, in my practice, this process should take place using the exact dynamics I’ve been studying all along in this blog: the African and African Diaspora mode of improvised call and response within a groove. That is, the seed idea should groove and my spontaneous reactions should groove along with it. And there should be no limitation to the techniques or technology used – as long as there is this mutual grooving.

For example, I could:

  •  sample an old bass solo, loop the sample and improvise a bassline underneath
  • sequence a drum pattern and improvise chords on top
  • improvise a motivic solo over a standard, then take the best chorus as a melody and re-harmonise it
  • mash up a few cliched blues forms/song skeletons into a new form, then sing blues shapes over my form while playing it on bass to come up with a melody
  • dance to a dubstep mix and then subconsciously copy one of the drumlines (this wasn’t on purpose but it happened!)

The grooving stipulation directly combats my tendency to waste time idly fiddling with variations of a passage. Because now I’m forced to keep strict time as much as possible and also forced to make decisions in time (this is the essence of the jazz concept of “spontaneous composition”, I think).

By the way, such techniques as “jamming along to a recording of yourself” might seem trivial or even indulgent, but actually they bring new and worthwhile challenges. E.g. making a grooving and appealing-sounding recording of yourself!

There’s a subtle but very important function performed by all the examples above. I want to discuss it using a point of reference…. Seeing as my strategies are about finding inciting/provocative seed ideas and then reacting to them, the point of reference will be inciting/provocative gestures in groove music. Seeing as my seed ideas are meant to be beginnings for my creative process, I’ll look at beginning gestures.

Reggae drum intros are a great example of filling in to the top of the form; which is one of two basic options for kicking off a groove – the other being to just play a couple of rounds of the groove without the lead or without the full band. (More on that technique of layering here.) Fills are exciting, I feel, because they give a sense of an impending groove without revealing what it will consist of. Often, I’ve noticed they feature great timbre to convey an instant vibe – a notable feature of those reggae fills, but also found in blues, say:

I believe these gestures are comparable to hip hop snare drops, rap introduction cliches, and myriad rock’n’roll gimmicks. What do all of these do? They inject energy for sure, but also the set up the tempo, the feel (subdivision and microtiming), a vibe, the position of beat one and often a tonal centre!

My intuition is that seed ideas should contain all this info. To go even further, for my purposes (and in accordance with all of the traditions I’ve been talking about), the form is something that should be established in the seed idea – or at least, a clear tonal centre and length of cycle. The reason is that the type of interactive improvising – the “response” of call-and-response – that I’ve been discussing, happens when players can feel the underlying ground or form that they’re navigating.

Anyway, here’s a checklist for composing that I came up with two days ago:

  • Have a relaxed and open mind
  • Start with some technical practice on your instrument
  • All recordings must groove so use a metronome or just play with the fattest of feels
  • Try find a grooving coexistence of old (ground) and new (improv), e.g. improvise on a standard, sing over a bassline you wrote, interlock played improvisation with a tapped bell pattern, etc.
  • Look out for cool physical configurations i.e. unusual hand movements, combinations or instrumental approaches (for me this tends to emerge from technical practice which simultaneously warms up my hands, bores my brain and sharpens my awareness until I impatiently come up with something new)
  • Look out for cool timbre
  • Keep the harmony absolutely simple enough to navigate i.e. so you can visualise how melodic paths fit in the harmony in real time while devoting enough attention to treating them lyrically
  • Try ASAP to find the rhythmic cycle, top of form, feel and tonal centre
  • Feel how the harmony should move, and go with it if it turns out to be something familiar (I wrote an eight-bar section the other day without fully realising that it was “Donna Lee” chords)
  • Keep a notepad and recording tools immediately ready

It’s worked so far, although with the proviso that what comes out mightn’t be as hip as I’d wish for!!

I guess I’ll sign off here. I have more things to say but it’s best I write a few more tunes first. Thanks for reading! And please comment with your strategies for writing music.

Where I’m At

Today I’ll report on two projects: last month’s attempt to learn a tune a day, and this month’s attempt to write a tune a day!

My secret to achieving these is flexible scope: each day I can choose to do something easy (e.g. cop the bassline for the solo in Cissy Strut) or complex (e.g. write an AAB samba tune with hits).

Someone else might prefer to do a standardised amount of work each day, but I generally achieve things by getting immersed in an activity and can’t predict how much I’ll do in that state. That’s kind of unstructured, but to compensate I have the feeling of a daily routine contributing to a larger project.

My favourite bass parts I learnt were the basslines to Chet Baker’s “My Funny Valentine” and Bob Marley’s “One Love”. Some days I did a melody instead of a bassline.

Here are the songs I worked on:

  • In Walked Bud
  • Need Your Love So Bad
  • The Thrill Is Gone
  • Cissy Strut
  • Caravan
  • Summertime
  • My Funny Valentine
  • Nardis
  • I Feel Good
  • Wave
  • One Love
  • What Is This Thing Called Love
  • Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay
  • Chameleon
  • Mist
  • I Just Want To Make Love To You
  • ‘Round Midnight
  • Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City
  • In A Sentimental Mood
  • Have You Met Miss Jones
  • Like Sonny
  • Careless Whisper
  • Tonz ‘O’ Gunz (I learnt off the rap)
  • Cotton Tail
  • This I Dig Of You

I’m now 2 weeks into the next project, writing a sketch of a tune each day. As I’d hoped, I’m getting some data on what works and what doesn’t for me.

My ideal composing mindstate seems to be: getting emotionally fired up by the good qualities of what I’m making while staying clear-eyed about the bad. Excitement about the ideas gives patience to dig around inside them without getting sick of them or distracted. Awareness of problems pushes me to shape them into something better. Basically, the humility to follow your naive/wondering side plus the humility to note your failings. If that makes any sense… anyway, it’s a balancing act!

Digging inside ideas can turn into aimlessly toying with them. To avoid that I can either wait till I’m in a very creative mood, or try find some appealing structure within the music itself around which I can coalesce more material. Or, rely on genre conventions.

Suiting the tools to the task helps me a lot: sequencer, notation software, manuscript, piano, guitar, bass…?

I’m trying to stay in control of the material, i.e. not write stuff I can’t hold in my head or manipulate. This can be a frustrating limitation but I hope it’ll push me to improve my musical imagination.

My old arranging teacher in Amsterdam, Johan Plomp, always said to write 3 versions of every bit of material in your piece. Then again, the idea of this project was to write quickly so I don’t always take that time. This leaves me liable to what another composition teacher, Ronan Guilfoyle, used to say: “Needs more development”. The question of just how finished my pieces should be is one I’ll return to in a few paragraphs.

I’m only now getting back into jazz writing after over a year. In that time I became much more appreciative of good conventional harmony and melody, so I’m writing (somewhat) less gnarly stuff than before.

I also explored a bunch of concepts on this blog, all to do with physicality and interaction.

These mood-enhancing properties, like groove and timbral control, are not things you can notate. I have to find ways to provoke players into manifesting them. Some say good art needs vulnerability… I should be vulnerable to seeming ridiculous, unschooled, eccentric, or naive, in the service of achieving the ephemeral moods I’m after. (Previously, the desire to seem hip made me write overly complex music that didn’t groove.)

It’s hard. Although at the start of the month I listed out dozens of spicy ideas to use (e.g. “different instruments taking similar path at different rates” or “downbeat illusions a la “He’s The Greatest Dancer”“), I haven’t yet had the nerve. My first two weeks’ work resulted in mostly conventional jazz tunes.

Here’s where I want to return to the question of “how finished is finished”. While recognising that all of this month’s pieces will eventually need further development/arrangement, I suspect I need to start writing less finished music.

I once heard Vijay Iyer talk about a phrase from Paul Gilroy: “radically unfinished forms”. It took a few years for me to understand it. Gilroy and Iyer are talking about music where the pre-composed aspect is inadequate for performance… unless it is completed by improvisation in the moment.

This applies to most jazz, whether the pre-composed element is a cheesy show tune or a riff-based blues. (Even during the head of a jazz tune, improvisation is required in the rhythm section.) The written part is blatantly not enough. It incites improvisation by its (deeply intentional, hence “radical”) incompleteness. A solo break is the ultimate example of this aesthetic.

I believe these are the “ways to provoke players” that I should use.

However, what I only recently understood is that not only do radically unfinished forms call forth originality from the players, they call forth THE TRADITION. E.g. If you don’t have a clue how to play a blues, then the radically unfinished 2-note melody and breaks of “C-Jam Blues” will not stimulate anything special from you. If you do have an idea, that’s only because you have built a relationship with the tradition of jazz and blues.

So I want to write small pieces that, perhaps subconsciously, put players in dialogue with the tradition and each other. Provocative, allusive, appealing, pungent ingredients within a larger ritual. If I can manage it.

This requires that I’m honest about which parts of the tradition I like most, and how well I understand them. Because as I already said, I need to love what I’m writing and I also need control of it. The humility to write obvious or unfashionable stuff (as long as it sounds good to me) and humility to accept when something is not yet in my grasp.

(And I also want the music to express something personal from me.)

I’ll break off there. Alas I don’t yet have any music to post because, like I said, all these pieces will need further work. And then I have to record them. How my music should acknowledge the need for recording and distribution is something I’ve been thinking about recently… I’ll write about it soon under the theme of listening cultures. I also have a post brewing about this classic hard bop tune which I might as well link here because it exemplifies tradition plus joyful group interaction completing a radically unfinished form.

Thanks for reading!