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A Critical Ear #2: Anti-music

6:30 PM on 06.03.2010 // SWE3tMadness

[Editor's Note: SWE3tMadness brings us a great blog on how certain games use dissonance, abstraction, and other musical aspects that don't "follow the rules" to evoke certain feelings or highlight specific themes in the games they are featured in. Want to post your own article in response? Publish it now on our community blogs. -- JRo]

Music at its most fundamental level represents order. Nearly every single part of it -- melodies, harmonies, rhythm, and meter are all intrinsically tied to laws of physics and mathematical principles. In this way, it reflects the inner workings of the world around us and is aesthetically pleasing. 

However, when those same workings of the world go very, very, wrong, music can also be modified to represent that breakdown of order. Just think about it. Every scare chord in every horror movie relies on surprise and dissonance. The single loud, jarring note, or the shriek of grating violin strings all serve to pull the viewer out of a temporary lull and signify that something has gone awry in the normal life of the characters. Video games can also use scare chords to not only make you jump out of your seat, but also to create sustained tension and a feeling of otherworldliness. The dissonance is prolonged into an entire piece of “anti-music” -- a composition that deliberately breaks all rhyme or reason to reflect the in-game universe (or the character’s interpretation of that universe) cracking apart at the seams. In this article, I’ve chosen a few such pieces from various games in order to better illustrate the point. 

Hit the jump!

Beware: The following contains end-game spoilers for Silent Hill, Drakengard, and Earthbound!

Pokèmon Pearl/Diamond/Platinum versions: Arceus Battle 

I adore the soundtracks for the various Pokèmon titles, and one aspect that makes them unique is the great attention to detail. Specifically, the songs from the earlier titles on the Gameboy featured very complex melodies and supporting harmonies that blend together to create memorable tracks despite the very few layers available and relatively poor sound quality. That is mainly why this track was so surprising when I first heard it. All the melody has been stripped away except for random brassy chords that sound like a cat walking on my synthesizer, and backed by a continual and insistent timpani and snare drum. 

However, this does make sense considering what Pokèmon you’re fighting. Arceus is heavily implied to be the creator of the Pokèmon universe, the beginning of all things in existence. So it seems appropriate that its corresponding battle theme goes back to the beginning of music itself – percussion and rhythm. That primal beat combined with the synthesized screeching effectively convey the awesome intimidation of fighting such a powerful entity that is so far removed from the world the main character normally lives in. 

Drakengard: Twelfth Chapter Ground Mission

Drakengard is a fairly dark game, thanks mostly to its incredibly dark and bizarre plot. Your protagonist is a murder-happy mute with a blood-related sister that secretly wants to bone him, two of your allies are a pedophilic blind man and an female elf who likes to eat children, and together you all fight against an empire led by a demon-possessed six-year old girl. However, the really weird stuff doesn’t happen until the later missions; the canon ending is mainly your standard dark, gothic high fantasy. The soundtrack for these parts also reflects that tone with a loud, bombastic orchestra. But once all the seals have been destroyed, hell breaks loose and gigantic evil babies start raining from the sky (for those not familiar with the game, I am honestly not making this up), and the music changes to more appropriately match the look on the player’s face. 

The implication of all this is that the seals were what kept the “Grotesqueries”, godlike abominations that will royally screw over pretty much all of existence, from descending upon the world and doing just that. Without the seals, the babies start falling. Now that such an alien presence has been unleashed, the music still retains much of its orchestration, but now is cut, choppy, and interspersed with strange effects, or has segments that should belong in other songs altogether.

Silent Hill: Final Boss Battle, “My Heaven”

This boss battle is against the demon, Samael, that an old lady, Dahlia Gillespie, had been trying to resurrect through her daughter, Alessa. Alessa’s rage and anger at her situation (being stuck with a horrendously burned body and pregnant with an ancient demon will kind of do that to you) is mainly what creates the “dark” side of the town of Silent Hill. Of course, a lot of the plot is open to interpretation since the sources of most of it are fairly unreliable, or overly symbolic. Despite that, the one thing that you really can be sure of during this fight is that there’s a GIANT-ASS WINGED MONSTER TRYING TO KILL YOU. 

Don’t let the name fool you, “My Heaven” is almost entirely made up of the most malevolent-sounding radio static in the history of electromagnetic waves. The game, as well as the rest of the series, utilizes radio static quite a lot to signify the presence of monsters, and this particular title also has a similar squealing noise when you leave the hospital. It seems fitting that the sound used to represent the danger and evil lurking in the town is also used in this fight against the ultimate incarnation of that same evil. 

Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Twilit Battle

Dark, alternate dimensions aren’t necessarily the sole domain of horror games anymore, and Twilight Princess thrusts Link into the unfamiliar and utterly alien world of the Twilight Realm as it encroaches on Hyrule. Here, you face packs of Twilit Beasts, bizarre-looking monsters with black and red-lined bodies and giant tentacled faceless disks for heads. They have a habit of screaming horribly to revive ones that have fallen, so the pressure to defeat all of them in one blow while being trapped in a confined space is reflected nicely by the chaotic sequence of noises that pass for “battle music”. 

Interestingly enough however, the Twilight Realm is not evil in and of itself. The beasts you fight are stated to be once normal Twili who have been twisted by Zant, the usurper, into the form that you fight them in. The realm itself, while foreign to Hyrulians, is home to Midna and other members of her clan, and Midna herself finds more comfort in its half-lit glow than in the sunlight of Link’s world. Similarly, the ceaseless motion of noise in these battles, and in the Twilight overworld itself, is unnerving to us, but is not necessarily malicious. It just doesn’t fit with any recognizable pattern of music theory that we are used to. This song is a good example of how dissonance can be “alien” without being construed as evil, unlike what the Silent Hill piece was meant to evoke. 

Earthbound: Final Boss Battle against Giygas

The four songs I talked about before this point all represent a specific aspect of “anti-music” and what it can represent in games. The Arceus battle theme is primarily meant to invoke the primal -- the void or chasm that existed before creation, but one that creation was borne out of nonetheless. The Drakengard mission music invokes a more Lovecraftian feel by representing the characters coming face to face with something that causes the order of the universe to break down in its presence. “My Heaven” from Silent Hill represents the evil that corrupted the once-peaceful town into a physical hell, and its embodiment in the final boss. And then the Twilit battle theme from Twilight Princess evokes an alien world and its inhabitants, but a world that is not intrinsically evil itself. 

The final boss of Earthbound, Giygas, is a weird fusion of several of these aspects. Giygas definitely has some Lovecraftian inspiration behind his design, seeing as in this game his physical body has been destroyed by his power and hatred, and now exists in the past and future as a giant formless mass of evil that is unable to be fully grasped by Ness and his party, similar to the ultimate threats of Drakengard and Silent Hill that were metaphysical, malevolent entities that corrupted and destroyed. But like the Twili from Legend of Zelda, he wasn’t always that way, and used to be a sentient, rational alien with psychic powers. It was his anger at being used by humanity that drove him insane. The battle also takes place in a place far removed from the normal universe, deep into the past, drawing a parallel to the Arceus battle in Pokèmon. More than one player has also noted the symbolism with Giygas’ form during the battle, almost resembling a fetus, the very beginning of life. 

Since Giygas in this battle is a being made of pure chaos and hatred, it’s only fitting that his music gets progressively more chaotic as the battle continues. It starts off creepy, but relatively peaceful, as Giygas’ form is stabilized and controlled by Pokey. Once he’s unleashed from the Devil’s Machine, the music becomes a mass of static and distortion. As he becomes even less stable and the background becomes more garbled and chaotic, the music continues to change as well until it sounds more like a long, unearthly scream than anything else. It is utterly terrifying because it is so far removed from our understanding of music, (or really, sound itself, since even radio static and other noises are at least recognizable) and so overwhelming that it really drives home what kind of entity your party is facing off against: the embodiment of evil itself. 

So, in conclusion, deliberately breaking the laws of musical theory can often be just as effective as a “normal” composition, especially if the composer is trying to evoke an alien, chaotic, or just plain evil atmosphere in a game. It is a very good way of scaring the player or building up a feeling of dramatic tension in ways that visuals and gameplay alone can’t accomplish sometimes. However, these pieces also draw a lot of their impact from the context in which they’re found; context that can drastically change the way the audience reacts to this “anti-music.” They don’t determine the whole mood of the game on their own, but merely build on other cues to create a more immersive experience, like all good soundtracks should.

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