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There's a Symphony in There! - Super Mario World


Doo-doot doooo doo-doo DOOT!

When the SNES was released in North America in 1991, it represented a quantum leap in terms of what it could do for game audio. We finally had the capacity for some serious music composition. (For more info, check out the original Monthly Musing that inspired this series.) However, Nintendo didn't really come on board until a little bit later with great soundtracks like Link to the Past or even F-Zero. With its pack-in title, Super Mario World, Nintendo showed some amazing possibilities in terms of graphical upgrades, transparencies, Mode 7 and colorful worlds. The music? Sure, it was a step up, but Koji Kondo - primary composer for the Super Mario series for 25 years and counting - didn't really understand what tools he had at his disposal. There is some debate about the quality of the samples (to me, they sound rather drab compared to other games developed by some third parties) but one important aspect I'd like to discuss is monothematicism.


All the term here means is that one theme is used over and over again. This isn't anything new compositionally, but it's used to a bit of an extreme in Super Mario World. Let me give you some historical context to the idea of thematic use. A great example is from Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet.


Hear those low brass notes, the chords of the beats in between and that rising string line? That's the theme of the Capulet family (and if you don't know who that is, then please pick up some books!). It's used every time Juliet's family arrives, even for the ball when Romeo first spots her. There's nothing antagonistic going on dramatically at the time, but it's such a distinct theme that you know what it's for. (A shorter version of a theme is known as a motif, but that will be another discussion.

On top of the Prokofiev theme being really cool, it proves a point that a singular tune is evocative, and can be used to great effect. Many RPGs feature different themes when a character arrives, or the generic "danger" theme. It's an operatic/cinematic compositional device to let the audience in on something through the music.

Super Mario World was composed with really only one theme. It's morphed and warped, but it's almost always present regardless of what level you're playing.

The Big Kahuna

The bright, boppy, happy theme. The song itself is going to be repeated in a number of forms. It starts out primarily as a descending triad, then becomes an elaborated arpeggio (the chord is played going up then down), only becoming a scale at the cadence (the end of the phrase, kind of like a musical "punctuation mark"). The second part of the theme still riffs on the main triad descending like the opening - it's almost like a motif in this regard - but it's harmonized not with the chord being outlined, but with the subdominant (fourth note of the scale), chromatically descending in the bass until we can make a ii-V-I cadence. (NOTE: The Roman numerals represent a chord built on top of each note in the scale. An upper-case letter indicated a major/augmented triad, while a lower-case letter represents a minor/diminished triad. In a major scale, it generally goes I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-vii-I.)

There are a few other important points to bear in mind with the piece overall:

1) The piece is in F Major.
2) The intro harmonization goes I-vi-ii-V-I.
3) The underlying bassline goes I-iii-IV-#IV-iii-biii-ii-V
4) The secondary "theme" in the B section is really indistinct, riffing more off the harmonies underneath.

Each one of those points is going to have a huge bearing on the rest of the music in the game. Let's start checking out other tunes in the game:

Deja Vu!

This is the music for any water level in the game. The ONLY difference here is time signature. It's gone from 4/4 time to a waltzy 3/4 time. Notice that the key is the same, the bassline is the same, the harmonization is identical. Not really a big change. How about this one:

Here is it again!

This is the underground theme. It may have a different vibe to it, but it's a very simple bit of composition. There are two ostinato lines (repeated short melodic/harmonic fragments) in a xylophone/marimba sound, and then the theme comes in around :11.

Notice anything?

It's the same. Same key, same pitches. It's missing the harmony, and the final cadence. Why would that final cadence be missing? Lack of harmonic underpinning. Since there's no real chords, and since the bass notes aren't really doing a heck of a lot, there's no tension built and thus don't require the release of said tension.

Not the Ghost House!

Yes, the Ghost House. This whole tune is built on three big ideas: the tritone, chromatic atonality and monothematicism. The tritone (two notes with three whole tones between them) was widely considered to be the "devil's chord" for the longest time, and is the most dissont interval we can have in music. The two notes that dance about over the melody - the ostinato of the piece (don't you feel smarter now!) - are repeated tritones that move chromatically about the entire time. When the melody does finally come in, it's a tritone away from F Major - this time, in b minor (around :26).

The piece doesn't settle, and continues with the chromatic moves. The theme is repeated a whole tone lower, this time in a minor. A little more ostinato, and the theme repeats once more down a whole tone, in g minor. After this third repetition of the opening line, the piece loops.

More theme

The castle theme at least tries to do something a bit more with it. The main theme does appear again, and in f minor. But there's a neat recap of the theme starting at 1:09 in c minor. It has some series movement in both tempo and bassline activity. It brings back the shape of the original line. But then goes into small sequences around the 1:30 mark. What's neat here is the use of the opening triad as motif, rather than directly restating the melody. It's a nice shift.

Back to your regularly scheduled program

The Athletic theme of the game is the same as the original level theme, just a faster tempo, different orchestration and it's in the dominant key. The tonic-dominant relationship is important in music, and I'm sure it's no coincidence here.

The bassline follows identical notes to the original theme as well, with no attempt to change or re-orchestrate. The chord changes, too, are the same. It's literally a higher, sped up version.

I'm out of caption ideas here.

The Switch Palace music is a bit simplified for the opening, as it's just trying to be a cheery I-V to give a celebratory air. The second phrase is identical, bassline, chords and all. But once again, we're in the same key as before, F Major.

Picking up on the few cues, you can see how we're able to get almost an entire soundtrack out of very few ideas. They don't even have to be themes! They can be chord changes too. Check out the overworld map music:

Last one, I promise

The predominant overworld theme. There's no real melody to speak of. But if you listen to the bassline and chords, the big chord shifts I mentioned all the way back at the beginning are there: I-vi-ii-V. In fact, that's pretty much all that's there.

Why all the repetition? My guess is that Koji Kondo wasn't used to the immense freedom that the SNES allowed compared to the NES. Perhaps it was an attempt to weave a cohesive whole (see the repeated keys, or close key relationships) given a very small cartidge size. Perhaps he just didn't know what to do with all the different possibilities given the number of locales that needed music.

What is clear, though, is an effective soundtrack can be composed using the barest of means. Bigger doesn't necessarily mean better, and Super Mario World is living proof of that.
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About bassbeastone of us since 11:53 AM on 11.14.2006