This originally appeared as a series on my now-defuct games and music blog Cruise Elroy in 2008, and an abridged version appeared in issue 5 of Kill Screen in 2011. Thanks to everyone who has offered corrections and suggestions over the years!
In a 2005 interview with Nintendo Power, composer Koji Kondo spoke a little about The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time:
I had to create all of those memorable tunes with only five tones of the classic do-re-mi scale. Specifically: re, fa, la, and ti (and the higher-scale re). Since each of those songs, like Zelda’s Lullaby or Epona’s Song, had a particular theme, it was quite challenging, but I think it all felt really natural in the end. Then as soon as I was finished with those Ocarina songs, I had to create even more for Majora’s Mask—I got a lot of milage out of just five tones!
A lot of milage indeed. Let’s look at how much!
Ocarina of Time is the first game in the Zelda series to feature a playable in-game instrument. Five of the controller buttons correspond to different pitches on Link’s ocarina (some Easter egg controls allow the player to get at the notes in between for fun), and he must play various songs to progress through the game.
Link learns twelve songs over the course of Ocarina of Time, not counting the improvisatory “Scarecrow’s Song”: six as a child and six as an adult. All of them are ostensibly based on the pitches D, F, A, and B, and D an octave above.
Why ostensibly? Because although Kondo laments his compositional limitations, he has more freedom than it might initially seem because of how the in-game ocarina works.
To have Link perform a song, the player presses a button to take out the ocarina and then plays the beginning of the melody—a motive five to eight notes long, depending on the piece—using the five buttons on the controller. Playing this section, which I’ll call the trigger motive, causes the game to complete the rest of the tune automatically with what I’ll call the answer motive. The upshot is that Kondo is only limited to the five-tone palette for the beginnings of the ocarina songs, since the answer motive does not rely on controller input. Kondo uses this behavior to his compositional advantage.
All of the ocarina songs are either filled out with orchestration when triggered, or are heard elsewhere in the game as part of the background music. In other words, these melodies are not only written to be ocarina solos — there are harmonic considerations too. I’d like to suggest that that the the tonal restriction Kondo mentions influenced how the pieces were written.
Let’s start with one of the simpler songs, “Song of Storms.” Here’s a transcription of the piece as Link plays it (I’ve put a double bar line between the trigger and answer motives):
There’s not much harmonic wiggle room here, even without any orchestration. Kondo uses the octave Ds to firmly establish the tonic, and the flatted third (F) in the trigger motive sets up the unambiguously minor answer motive. (We’ll see D used as a tonic quite often; having it available in two octaves is useful compositionally.)
Here’s the Kakariko Village Windmill background music, which features the “Song of Storms” melody (click any of these longer transcriptions to view a larger version):
The Em chords in the harmony indicate that we’re borrowing from the Dorian mode here. The Dorian mode has the notes of a natural minor scale with a characteristic raised sixth scale degree; with its complete D minor triad and B natural, it is the mode most strongly suggested by the available ocarina pitches. As such, this is perhaps the most obvious solution to Kondo’s compositional puzzle.
Not all of the songs are so simple, though, and things get more interesting when Kondo explores other tonics. Let’s look at “Epona’s Song.” Here’s the solo ocarina version:
Out of context, this is a harmonically vague phrase. The tonic is most likely D, but not necessarily; even so, there’s no third, so it doesn’t obviously suggest major or minor tonality like “Song of Storms” did.
More importantly, note how Kondo continues to use the same pitches in the answer motive, even though other options are available. In other words, the piece is composed—intentionally, perhaps—so that we can’t discern the key from the ocarina solo alone.
Now let’s look at the Lon Lon Ranch background music, which uses the “Epona’s Song” melody:
The harmony reveals that the song is in D major, but as we saw above, we couldn’t determine that from the first four bars of the melody. My theory is that this delay is intentional.
Because there’s no obvious key to the “ocarina solo” portion of the tune, the harmonic content of the first phrase unfolds relatively slowly. (Indeed, if we look at the melody alone, the key doesn’t become unambiguous until the eighth bar.) This protracted development creates a richer, more nuanced melody than “Song of Storms,” which repeats a single phrase ad nauseam. That melody, in turn, provides a basis for the modulation into F major during the second section.
And thus Kondo’s stated difficulty with the restricted palette ends up helping him out here. Limitations breed creativity!
“Zelda’s Lullaby” is a similar example. Here’s the ocarina melody:
And here’s a harmonized version, transcribed from the Hyrule Castle Courtyard background music:
This is a nice harmonization—there’s a great chromatic bassline from C down to A in measures 4–7, seamless modulations between G major and C major, and a somewhat rare (for Kondo) tritone substitution in the penultimate bar. But that’s not what I want to focus on here.
With the conspicuous absence of the iconic “Hyrule Overture,” “Zelda’s Lullaby” is the closest thing Ocarina of Time has to a theme song. Link is required to play it more often than any other piece, and the melody appears during several major plot points.
Significantly, it’s also the only ocarina song that isn’t an Ocarina of Time original, as “Zelda’s Lullaby” first appeared in A Link to the Past. That means it’s the only piece that we know predated the five-note restriction.
Why is that significant? Given its preexistence and prominence, I think it’s very likely that “Zelda’s Lullaby” dictated—at least in part—which pitches were chosen for the five-note palette. Kondo would know he needed A, B, and D for “Zelda’s Lullaby;” picking another D and F for the other two notes gives him a) a minor triad, and b) two octaves of the same pitch. Both of those are important compositional tools that he uses extensively in the other ocarina songs.
Next let’s look at “Song of Time”:
There’s nothing too complex going on here; in fact, this phrase functions very much like “Song of Storms.” The trigger motive is an inverted D minor triad (A–D–F) which firmly establishes the tonality, and the answer motive continues in the same vein.
Here’s the Temple of Time background music, which features the “Song of Time” melody:
There are three things to note here, and two of them are obvious just from looking at the score. First, there are no chords—just a single line of unaccompanied melody. (The music theory term for this is “monophonic texture”). Second, the phrases are of irregular length. You’ll note that I transcribed the piece without meter, and if you count up the number of beats in each phrase you’ll see that there are consistent metrical divisions. (The bar lines are just to separate phrases.)
The third point of interest is the strong sense of modality. While “Song of Storms” mixes modes by including B♮ and B♭, and only featured those notes in the harmony, “Song of Time” is Dorian through and through. All of the sixths are raised, and every time a B♮ appears Kondo approaches it by half step from above to emphasize it. The upshot is a much stronger Dorian “flavor” than the borrowed E minor chords in “Song of Storms.”
The monophony, irregular phrase length, and strong modality are all characteristic of a genre of music called plainchant, of which Gregorian chant is the best known variety. Kondo has captured the spirit of the style quite well here.
Back to harmonized pieces! This is “Saria’s Song”:
Like “Epona’s Song,” it’s tough to pin down a key here without any harmonic context. The trigger motive outlines a tritone (F to B), which is an inherently ambiguous and awkward interval. and the answer motive ends with an arpeggiated E minor triad (B–G–E), which doesn’t seem to function as a tonic given what came before.
All becomes clear in the Lost Woods background music, which features the “Saria’s Song” melody:
Surprise! It turns out that we’re in C major.
The harmony itself is pretty simple. (So simple, in fact, that several chords sound to me like they’re missing thirds; I’ve made some assumptions based on the melody and context for the sake of clarity.) Still, C major is one of the more unexpected keys for an ocarina song given the available pitches; while it’s true that most of the notes are diatonic to C major, those notes are scale degrees two, four, and six—not exactly the easiest starting point, as Kondo can’t use a single note of the tonic chord in the trigger motive!
His solution is to stick that outlined F–B tritone on top of an F major chord, which actually emphasizes its awkwardness by creating horizontal and vertical dissonances. This, combined with the insistent “ti-ti ta” rhythmic pattern, is a great hook, and helps make this one of the catchier songs in the game. There’s a remarkable amount of intensity generated in a very short amount of time.
Finally, let’s take a look at “Sun’s Song”:
This is one of the stranger ocarina melodies to analyze on its own. The trigger motive outlines a D minor triad like “Song of Time” does, but when played back along with its answer motive it doesn’t seem to be functional—there’s a sudden ascent to a high G, and no clear harmonic context for what’s happening.
The “Sun’s Song” melody doesn’t have a corresponding looping background track like the other child songs, but it does appear in the short “sunrise” theme that precedes the Hyrule Field music at dawn. Take a look (and excuse the lazy rhythmic transcription of the flute part):
The F in the trigger motive is essentially a red herring; it’s demoted to a grace note here, and doesn’t have any particular harmonic implications. And since the entirety of the “Sun’s Song” melody plays before the rest of the orchestra enters, like a birdsong fanfare, there are no especial harmonic considerations aside from matching up the key signatures.
You can almost feel Kondo straining against his limitations here. The only reason that note is an F♮ instead of an F♯ is because F♯ isn’t available on the ocarina; its (presumably unwanted) non-diatonicness is glossed over by making it a grace note.
The six ocarina songs Link learns as an adult are used to teleport around Hyrule. From a gameplay perspective, they work the same way as the earlier ones — the player must perform a trigger motive using the controller buttons, and then the game takes over and finishes the song. There are a few important differences, though.
First, the warp songs are orchestrated as soon as they’re triggered, instead of appearing elsewhere in the game in background music.
Second, the trigger motives themselves are more varied. All of the child songs feature a six-note motive made up of a repeated three-note pattern; the warp song trigger motives vary in length from five to eight notes, and may not repeat.
Third, the warp songs all have the same call-and-response structure when orchestrated. Sheik states the trigger motive melody on the harp, and Link repeats it on the ocarina. The piece then quickly moves to a cadence, often with both instruments in unison. Each piece is only six or eight bars long.
Fourth, the warp songs actually stop. All of the child songs except “Sun’s Song” loop indefinitely in their harmonized background music incarnations. This structure requires that they be harmonically open—they end on a dominant chord, or something similarly unresolved, so that the harmonic progression can cycle back to the beginning. The warp songs, by contrast, are self-contained and have full cadences at the end.
Let’s move on to the specific examples. First up is “Prelude of Light”:
Take a look at the
E♭ma7 chord in the sixth bar. Typically when there’s a chord built on a flatted second scale degree, it’s a tritone substitution for a dominant chord. I’ve left this one as
♭IIma7 because it’s a major seventh chord, not a dominant one, and therefore functions a bit differently; it doesn’t have the tension-filled tritone between the third and the seventh.
So how does it function? I say it’s closest to a subdominant minor. Take the upper three notes of the
E♭ma7 chords and you’ll have G–B–D and G–B♭–D, which are G major and G minor. Analyzing those gives us
IV-iv-I, which is a very common move in pop music. (See, for example, “In My Life” by The Beatles, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon & Garfunkel, or “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis.) I think that minor subdominant feel is the harmony Kondo is after here, and the bass notes are just there to provide a chromatic descent to the tonic.
I want to look at these next two pieces together. Here’s “Serenade of Water”:
And here’s “Minuet of Forest”:
As you can see from the Roman numeral analysis, these songs have the same chord progression! (Well, “Minuet of Forest” actually just has a bare fifth for its tonic chord, but I’m inferring minor harmony from all the ♭3s and ♭7s in the melody.) This may sound like a bit of a copout, but note that the progressions are in different keys—which, given that Kondo had to write trigger motives for both using the same five pitches, is pretty impressive.
“Serenade of Water” is pretty straightforward. Its tonic is D, so it has scale degrees one, three, five, and six available; as discussed earlier, the minor triad and the raised Dorian sixth that the ocarina notes provide create a clear path forward.
“Minuet of Forest,” though, uses E as its tonic, so the pitches translate to scale degrees two, four, five, and seven. Those are not easy pitches to write with, to put it mildly—and, indeed, the trigger motive sounds a bit off as a result; played without the underlying harmony, it sounds like it might be in G major. The interest of the piece, then, comes from the tension between the melody and its slightly awkward harmonization.
Speaking of awkward harmonization, let’s look at “Nocturne of Shadow”:
This is a doozy—it’s the least tonal of all the songs in Ocarina of Time. For the first four bars there’s no functional harmony to speak of; the strings move in chromatic parallel fourths and don’t imply a tonic. This harmonic uncertainty is what gives the piece its characteristic uneasiness.
My favorite part is the F in bar 2 (and again in bar 4). It’s coincident with a A♭–D♭ fourth in the harmony, which creates a D♭ major triad (D♭–F–A♭)—the most innocent chord imaginable. In context, though, it sounds incredibly dissonant. Kondo has pulled off a very cool trick here; it’s quite difficult to make a major chord sound so “wrong.” Even better, he then finds a way to end the piece in D♭ major, making it sound consonant just a few bars later!
One more thing about “Nocturne.” The
♭VI-♭VII progression—a favorite of Kondo’s—is used twice in a row here, one a half step higher than the other. This is a technique that an old professor of mine called “planing,” and is a common move in jazz; see, for example, Charlie Parker’s “Blues for Alice,” which has four consecutive
ii–V progressions that descend chromatically. Its usage here is a good example of how broad Kondo’s influences are.
Next let’s take a quick look at “Requiem of Spirit”:
I’ve written this one out fully instead of doing my usual attempt at a quick piano reduction. The top staff features the melody, played on the harp and ocarina and doubled by strings; the other three contain the various accompanying string parts.
Harmonically there’s nothing to write home about here; I just want to draw your attention to the second staff. Starting in the third bar, you’ll notice that there’s a contrapuntal idea exactly identical to the trigger motive, but at half the speed. (If you’re not a great music reader, you can verify this with careful listening; listen for the string part that begins right when the ocarina takes the melody). This is what music theorists call rhythmic augmentation—the extension of a musical idea in time. Normally counterpoint like this is difficult to do well, but since the motive here is just an arpeggiated D minor triad, there’s not really any way to mess up the harmonies.
Anyway, nothing too special—just a fun bit of trivia.
Finally, here’s “Bolero of Fire”:
I’ve transcribed the percussion part here as well, and if you’re a classical music fan, you can see why.
There’s a snare drum ostinato in Maurice Ravel’s famous Boléro which is repeated ad nauseam throughout the entire piece. Here’s a sample:
Kondo, as you can hear, has appropriated this pattern for his own bolero. Sneaky!
Here are some trends I noticed while analyzing the ocarina songs, along with a few miscellaneous observations that didn’t fit in anywhere else:
- Seven of the twelve songs use D as their tonic. “Epona’s Song” and “Prelude of Light” are in D major, while “Song of Storms,” “Song of Time,” “Serenade of Water,” “Requiem of Spirit,” and “Bolero of Fire” are all in D minor or D Dorian.
- Four songs use tonics that are not part of the trigger motive palette: “Zelda’s Lullaby” (G major), “Saria’s Song” (C major), “Sun’s Song” (G major), and “Minuet of Forest” (E minor). “Nocturne of Shadow” is a special case; it has no functional triadic harmony until the end, when it suddenly cadences in D♭ major.
- All six of the warp songs end on major chords, despite the fact that only one of them (“Prelude of Light”) is actually in a major key throughout. The others use what’s called a Picardy third to create a major ending to a minor piece.
- “Prelude of Light” is the only ocarina song that doesn’t end on a triad. (It ends on a major seventh chord.)
- Five songs have trigger motives consisting entirely of the pitches in a D minor triad (D–F–A): “Sun’s Song,” “Song of Storms,” “Song of Time,” “Requiem of Spirit,” and “Bolero of Fire.” Of these, “Sun’s Song” is the only one that isn’t harmonized in a D minor mode.
- The Lon Lon Ranch theme and the Hyrule Castle Courtyard theme, based on “Epona’s Song” and “Zelda’s Lullaby” respectively, are the only pieces of the twelve that modulate.
- The guitar part in the Lon Lon Ranch theme is swung, but the vocal part is not. (This sort of rhythmic clash is occasionally exploited in popular music, such as in “Girl” by The Beatles.) Also, the Lon Lon Ranch theme is the only place swung eighth notes are found in the entire game.
- Even though it’s in the key of G major, the Hyrule Castle Courtyard theme only actually has one G major chord—and even then it’s during the modulatory C major section, so it’s functioning as a dominant. The piece therefore has the odd distinction of never using its tonic chord “normally.”