Deconstructing: The Theme of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

At this time of writing, I am one of many eagerly awaiting the release of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is now less than a week away. In the meantime, I’ve consumed an unhealthy amount of Breath of the Wild media (though avoiding spoilers!)—and of course, my focus quickly turned to the music. I realized two things:

  1. We’ve (with essentially full certainty, at least on my part) got the Theme of Breath of the Wild well-defined from the trailers that have been released, and
  2. I have a lot to say about it

So without further ado—let’s have a closer look at the Theme of Breath of the Wild!


This article and others like it are supported by readers like you through

Patreon

Thank you!


On Reading Music for Non-Musicians

 

Intro: Isolating the Theme

Before we analyze the Theme, we have to first actually define what it is, exactly. There’s no predefined or “correct” way to do this—but given the material we have, we can make a very educated and reasoned definition that we can then work with.

Most people are familiar with the Zelda Theme — but realize this is actually just the Theme for The Legend of Zelda for the NES. Almost every major Zelda game actually has its own Theme that is defined by its role in characterizing the game’s look and feel, and providing the motifs around which the game’s soundtrack is composed—this is especially true in the more recent Zelda games. For example:

If you listen through the soundtracks of these games, you’ll find the motifs from those Themes everywhere—from references in the Credits Roll to a variety of instrumentations and moods to fit different situations in the game. In short, we should be identifying the Motif(s) that keep cropping up, and using that to find our theme.

I took the 2 “Main” trailers that have released so far—from E3 2016 and the Switch 2017 Presentation—and looked for a recurring motif that would act as my starting point. Very quickly, this 3-note motif emerges:

Switch 2017 Presentation Trailer:

In the Switch 2017 trailer, this motif is the first thing we hear from the piano at 0:23. The music then builds to an orchestral swell, using quick, repeated, flurry of strings to build tension (1:07), until the cadence at 1:15, where we again hear the same motif from the piano. From here, the music slowly transforms into the original Zelda theme, with references from the piano at 2:13 to the full fledged theme at 2:52.

E3 2016 Trailer:

The music in the E3 trailer really takes off at around the 1-minute mark. At 1:20, the Shakuhachi (Japanese flute) comes in, building up to the 3-note motif at 1:24. There’s then a slow instrumental buildup to the moment at 2:04—which is where I believe the Theme of Breath of the Wild lies.

For the first time, we have a real melodic theme, starting with our 3-note motif—with a distinct beginning, middle, and end, a swell and fall, tension and release. Note too, how many times the motif appears in the melody. Not to let such a beautiful melody go to waste, we immediately get a repeat of the same theme at 2:19, with even denser instrumentation this time. To me, this is conclusive evidence that this is the Main Theme for Breath of the Wild.

 

Now that we’ve defined our theme, let’s look at it in detail.

 

Part 1: Word Painting and Invoking “the Wild”

Here’s a transcription of the Theme, with the main melody and bass line:

There’s a concept in music theory called Word Painting. The idea is simple—it’s the use of musical elements to convey the literal meaning of a song. There are plenty of examples in both classical and popular music—here’s the classic example, from Handel’s Messiah. Note how the notes are mirroring whatever is actually being sung about:

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4a/Every_Valley.jpg?resize=820%2C219&ssl=1

 

While the Theme of Breath of the Wild doesn’t have lyrics, I believe it invokes the feeling of “the Wild” through its unusual phrase structure and harmonic progression.

Now, before I go any further about this—let’s talk about musical structure.

 

The first thing to know is that, generally speaking, almost all musical phrases, across pretty much all genres, are separated into units of 8, 4, or multiples of 4. (Think about any sort of dance class you may have taken or even a depiction of one in a movie or TV show…they always count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8…)

And we’ve internalized this sort of macro-rhythm—this is something we all intuitively understand, regardless of tempo, instrumentation, etc. Let’s listen to another example from Zelda:

Wind Waker – Title Theme (transcribed melody from 0:06 to 0:17):

 

The above is a transcription of the flute melody that starts at 0:06 until 0:17. Like the Breath of the Wild Theme above, this is an 8-bar phrase.

In music, there is a concept of a downbeat and upbeat, or “on-beatvs “off-beat.” What both these concepts are really capturing is the idea that for any given musical unit, you can divide that unit into two parts, where the first half is the more emphasized, or stressed beat. This concept is often true no matter how far you zoom in or out of a musical unit. Let’s take the phrase above.

When you were listening to the Title Theme earlier, you may have been tapping your foot or nodding your head with the beat subconsciously. If you were doing so, you likely were doing it with the first note of every bar—go ahead and see if that’s the case. If you are, your mind has intuitively designated each measure as a “musical unit” and has separated it into 2 parts—the downbeat, or the first beat, and the upbeats, or the 2nd and 3rd beats of the bar—and your body naturally wants to nod with the downbeat of the measure.

You may notice, also, that within your 8 nods, you may be “favoring” certain nods more than others—in which case it would likely be with the first note of bars 1, 3, 5 and 7. And this too, makes intuitive sense to your body and makes sense with our rule of halves—if we make our “musical unit” a 2-bar phrase, then it follows that the first bar in each phrase would have more emphasis than the second. (This is supported by the instrumentation of the piece too—notice how on measures 1, 3, 5, and 7, we get a big strum of the Lute compared to on the even beats.)

If we zoom even further out, we can see that this 8-bar phrase is made up of two 4-bar halves that act as a call-and-response to each other—note how each 4-bar phrase starts in the exact same way.

Let’s look at one more example from Wind Waker briefly:

Wind Waker – Dragon Roost Island (transcribed melody from 0:09 to 0:16):

 

Note how this 8-bar phrase also follows the exact same structure we laid out above. We have two very similar 4-bar phrases in a call-and-response format, with more emphasis on the odd-number bars. Again, note how the guitar strums are stressed on the first note of each odd-number measure (and how there’s not even a note that sounds on the first beat of bar 8!).

 

Okay, now that we’ve talked about musical phrase structure and understand what a typical 8-bar phrase sounds like, let’s look at Breath of the Wild again:

Breath of the Wild Theme (transcribed melody from 0:00 to 0:14, then repeats from 0:15 to 0:28 with minor differences in measure 8)

 

Did you try nodding your head to that? Was it easy to find the downbeat? If the answer’s no—well, that’s my point. Why is this melody unusual?

Knowing what we know about odd-numbered measures and the emphasis placed on them, the first notes of measure 3 and 7 should stand out—but they don’t exist! Highlighted in red above, these notes are being carried over from a previous measure (half-A press joke, anyone?), which means that on the actual downbeat of these measures, there is no melodic activity, which heavily de-emphasizes these measures and creates a vacuum of sorts in the rhythmic structure of this phrase. The result is that save for the opening 3-note motif that we identified earlier, the rest of each 4-bar phrase in this theme feel very improvisational, unpredictable—or “Wild.

 

What adds to this feeling of unpredictability is the ambiguity of tonality. Simply put, it’s not always entirely clear what key this theme is in:

If you don’t know what these weird symbols and letters mean—don’t worry. Let’s talk about tonality real quick:

The vast majority of music that’s made and listened to in the world is made from notes in the 12-note scale. However, it’s rare for any one song to contain all 12 pitches in the scale. Rather, music typically exists in a certain key, or tonality, which essentially limits a song to using only about 7 out of the 12 notes in the scale. You can think of a key as a color palette—and the 7 out of the 12 notes as a selection of colors that look good together, out of an entire spectrum of colors.

The theme of Breath of the Wild, as notated above, is in the key of C minor—and all the symbols/letters represent the harmony, or chords, at that given point in the music. The chords spelled out in black are in the key of C minor, which means that all the notes that make up that particular chord are notes within the 7 out of 12 as dictated by the key. This is standard, and the majority of music out there is pretty good about following these rules.

The chords in red, however, show a departure from the key of C minor. Here, we’ve actually shifted into the parallel key of C Major, which shares some notes, but not all, with the original key of C Minor. These red chords are known as Borrowed Chords, where we are “borrowingchords that would normally belong in the key of C Major, and transplanting them in the key of C minor instead.

Talking about the harmonic theory of this Theme can make this all seem very abstract, but I encourage you now to actually listen for when this harmonic shift occurs, at 0:09:

 

To me, that moment is jarring and unexpected (and really beautiful). By using borrowed chords, the Theme’s harmony adds to the feeling of adventure, the unexpected, and the “Wild.”

 

Part 2: Economical Composition and Foreshadowing

One thing that I’ve always enjoyed about the music in Nintendo games is that the composers are very economical with their material. While that may sound like a nice way of saying that they’re lazy (and nobody’s pretending it doesn’t save them time), the re-use and re-purposing of musical material means that there is an honest-to-god pedigree of music that can be traced all the way back to the earliest games in a series. (And even within the same game, the reuse of musical motif can be used to accomplish some really amazing narrative and world-building effects.)

And of course, this is true for Zelda. Here are just some examples off the top of my head (this is a super brief list with simplified explanations):

Ocarina of Time – Kokiri Forest (opening melodic motif at 0:09)  –> Wind Waker – Outset Island (same opening motif at 0:00, then at 1:06)

A Link to the Past – Hyrule Castle –> Wind Waker – Hyrule King Appears

Ocarina of Time – Goron City –> Twilight Princess – Death Mountain

While some of this thematic recycling is obvious, some is less obvious (I would say the Outset Island one is somewhat subtle). But you’ll notice that themes are always recycled with purpose—Kokiri Forest and Outset Island are both the starting area for their respective Zelda game, for example. In the case of “Hyrule King Appears” from Wind Waker, the return of the classic Hyrule Castle theme invokes the feeling of returning to something ancient, something from the past.

 

So does this mean that the Breath of the Wild Theme we’ve been talking about is also derived from an existing Zelda theme? Of course it is!

 

Ocarina of Time – Song of Time

 

The Song of Time is a simple melody—which makes its two primary features very easy to track in its new form in Breath of the Wild.

The first feature is the opening motif, highlighted in blue. Notice how much this motif repeats in just one iteration of the Song of Time—3 times! The first note almost feels like a bell, ringing throughout this melody—the first note in every measure. In the same way, this opening motif repeats itself in the Breath of the Wild theme—4 times, in fact— and again, we hear that same first note ring out at the start of every measure:

Breath of the Wild Theme

 

 

The second feature is highlighted in red. What’s happening there could be described as a turn, or a reveal of sorts. If we go back to our concept of tonality and consider the Song of Time:

It’s very clear from the beginning and end of the melody that the song is in D Minor. But the last of the 3 red notes is a B-natural—an accidental in the key of D Minor—or, simply put, a note that doesn’t belong in that key. Like in the case of the Borrowed Chord, the appearance of this note is somewhat jarring if you’ve never heard this melody before—it’s a departure from what the ear naturally expects.

That accidental in the Song of Time, when modulated to the key of the Breath of the Wild Theme (C Minor), becomes an A-natural—the note that not only shows up at the end of the melody, but defines the “Borrowed Chord” section we discussed earlier. Where this accidental represented a subtle turn in the melody in the Song of Time, its re-purposing represents a big shift in tonality in Breath of the Wild. To me, this is undeniable proof that the Song of Time was the source material, or inspiration, for this Theme.

The really exciting part about all this is that we get to wonder what this actually means for the game. As I mentioned before, Themes are not re-purposed willy-nilly—there’s thought and purpose behind these musical decisions. This, combined with the fact that a lot of the early footage we were given access to involves the ruins (?) of the Temple of Time, makes me think that the concept of Time plays a thematic role in Breath of the Wild.

 

It’s not every day that I get to come up with theories and predictions about a game purely from listening to its music—but this was a unique opportunity afforded to me by the nature of how Zelda music is composed, and admittedly by my own (unbearable) excitement for the game. I hope you found this analysis interesting! Please let me know your thoughts below, if you agree, disagree, or anything else (but please keep it spoiler-free!). Thank you for reading!


If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting me on

Patreon

Thank you!


One thought on “Deconstructing: The Theme of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

  1. Really enjoyed reading this Jason! Looking at things that little bit more analytically can help deepen the appreciation you have for something and I feel that’s the case here. Borrowed chords seem to have an interesting history in video game music, I remember encountering them in Final Fantasy VII’s main theme, where I guess you could say they are being used similarly to convey a sense of adventure.

    Looking forward to hearing more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*