The music of the 8 dungeons in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is the subject of this Deconstructing article, where we’ll take a look in detail at a work of music and break it down into its disparate parts, with the ultimate goal of enhancing the reader’s experience with the music.
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Something that’s often said about creativity is that it thrives in restricted conditions—that is, the act of working around constraints and coming up with clever solutions is often how good ideas come about. Link’s Awakening was made in 1993 and released on the original Game Boy—which meant that if you were writing music for this game, you were severely limited in a number of ways. The Game Boy’s sound chip had 4 channels—2 square waves, a noise channel, and one programmable wave channel. As the noise channel is primarily used for percussion and other sound effects, this meant that as a composer, you were limited to 3 simultaneous sound channels for melody and harmony, two of which were locked into a specific timbre (a square wave). It’s not a lot to work with.
And yet, the Zelda series needed to innovate. In the first two Zelda games (the original Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link, both for NES), there was essentially one track in each game that was used in all of the dungeons:
The Legend of Zelda – Labyrinth
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link – Palace Theme
Link’s Awakening was the first game in the series to have unique music for each dungeon. In order to keep each track different enough but still recognizable as a “dungeon” track, Link’s Awakening chose to compose the 8 dungeons as a Variations on a Theme—that is, taking a musical idea, or “Theme” and writing various versions of it, or “Variations.”
What’s so impressive and creative about the 8 dungeon themes from Link’s Awakening are the ways in which the composers took the limitations of the Game Boy sound hardware and formed these variations—despite, again, having lack of access to a variety of timbres and more than 2 distinct voices.
The “Theme” in this Theme and Variations is actually not the first dungeon track, but rather the standard “Cave” track:
Cave (track repeats at 00:17)
Well-written and interesting variations on a Theme take as many elements as possible from the Theme and include them in the variation. It’s easy to think that a variation is just a re-harmonization of the Theme melody, or the Theme melody with some additional embellishments (not that these are “bad” ways to write a Variation) but Variations are often much more interesting than that.
For this reason, it’s important to examine every element of the Theme, from the micro note-to-note details to the larger, macro-level structure of a Theme.
First, the easy stuff: I’ve highlighted in blue what you could call the “melody” of the Cave theme. It’s a 4-note, rising motif with the first 3 notes moving stepwise and the last jumping up an interval of a Fifth—easy to recognize.
Next, I’ve highlighted in red the musical response to the main melody—which is little more than a simple interval of an augmented 4th, or tritone. Let’s talk about tritones real quick:
A tritone is a type of interval—the relationship between two pitches. In traditional music theory there’s a concept of consonant intervals and dissonant intervals. Most chords and harmony that you hear in most music are combinations of consonant intervals which include thirds, fourths, fifth, and sixths. (These intervals can then be qualified further, such as major or minor.) The tritone on the other hand is considered one of the most dissonant intervals—so much so, that in the early days of classical music, it was nicknamed the “Devil’s interval.”
As a result of this association, the tritone has a distinctive sound that is commonly heard in “horror music” or music associated with something “evil.” So, it makes a lot of sense that it’s used in here in for the dungeons of Link’s Awakening.
Now it may seem like that the blue motif and the red tritone are all that really make up the Theme. However, there’s one more element that proves to be an important recurring idea, and that happens we zoom all the way out and look at the entire track, and consider what happens when the track is looped:
Using the colors, look at the interactions of the blue melodic motif and the red tritone response. Notice how as the track progresses, the interval of time between blue and red interactions become shorter and shorter, until the end of the track is reached and the interval is reset. If you plotted out this musical interaction, it would look like this:
Of course, the question here is, what is the musical purpose of this? What does this accomplish?
To answer that question, let’s listen to this very famous work of music:
To me, it appears that the Cave track is going for a similar (but more subtle) effect—using progressively shorter intervals of time between musical moments and increasing pitch to create a sense of looming danger, or that something is getting “closer.” Let’s call this the “Jaws Effect” and keep it in mind, next to our “blue melody” and “red tritone” motifs as we forge ahead…
Level 1 – Tail Cave (track repeats at 1:30)
Level 1 – Tail Cave begins immediately with a statement of the Blue Motif:
The way this track begins immediately makes clear the difference between this track and Cave to the player. The low repeating bass figure gives this iteration of the melody a lot more gravitas. Where the blue motif was lighter and mischievous in nature, this time the melody is almost menacing, foreboding—and as a player you immediately register that this is a much more dangerous area than your typical cave. The entire blue motif phrase goes until 0:32, where it then repeats the entire phrase again.
Then, at 1:04, we get the 2nd part of the track—a creeping, haunted repeating figure over the foreboding bass from before:
Here, outlined in red, we finally have the tritone’s appearance—in the relationship between the F-natural in the repeating figure and the B-natural in the bass.
But there’s something else going on here too—as you listen to this section, note the changes in timbre and dynamics to the repeating figure. The repeated notes are constantly moving in and out of focus—the composers have programmed the change in volume to match the change in note length, and the result is a great variation of the “Jaws Effect.”
Level 2 – Bottle Grotto (track repeats at 0:56)
Bottle Grotto is the 2nd dungeon in the track, and for the first time, we don’t immediately get the Blue Motif. Instead, we get this:
I think what’s immediately noticeable here is actually the “Jaws Effect” and how the repeated high-pitched note moves in and out of focus, starting quiet and brittle before quickly building up to an almost alarm-like sound (0:00 to 0:02). Notice, too, how the repeated note starts out playing at a rate of 8 notes per beat (or 32nd notes), but when it reaches peak volume, the repeated note rate slows down by half and become 16th notes—in this case, it’s the dilation of time in addition to changes in dynamics that creates the “Jaws Effect.”
What’s less noticeable about the repeated note phrase is this:
When the repeated note speed slows down to half speed, we actually get a 2nd note coming in below it—at the interval of a tritone, our Red Motif.
The phrase above repeats twice before we finally get our Blue Motif, this time in the bass:
Notice how, again, the rate of blue-red motif interaction here increases twofold in the last measure above, and how the blue motifs continue to move upwards in pitch to the climax at the end of the phrase. The key thing to appreciate here is how every musical element is contributing in some sort of way to the building of tension via the “Jaws Effect.”
Then, at 0:35, we move into the second half of the track, characterized by the menacing bass ostinato. Again, the first immediately noticeable part of this bassline is the “Jaws Effect,” this time created by gradually lengthening and shortening of note lengths in conjunction with changes in dynamics. At 0:40, we get the blue motif again, alternating with an eerie melodic figure that mirrors the bassline (and sounds suspiciously similar to the Ghost House theme from Super Mario World: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fCx1m0tQT0), before the track finally loops back around to the beginning.
Level 3 – Key Cavern (track repeats at 0:39)
This time, we actually get both the blue motif and red motif together from the beginning of the track, albeit in somewhat altered forms:
The upper voice starts with an up and down arpeggio, highlighting a tritone, while in the bass, an altered version of the blue motif is played with the last note shifted down an octave. Then, at 0:22, we get the two motifs together again, this time much closer to their original forms:
This time, the blue motif is above, while the red tritone motif plays accompaniment below.
The “Jaws Effect“ in this track is more subdued than before, although it exists on multiple levels in the track. At one level, it’s embodied in the little musical figure that appears at 0:04 and 0:15:
Not only is this figure literally the Jaws Theme inverted, but it also uses the same rhythmic pattern to drive its effect home—here, after two iterations at the same rhythm and interval apart, hearing the last iteration a beat late at double speed adds an element of surprise to the music.
Level 4 – Angler’s Tunnel (track repeats at 0:14)
Funnily enough, this track is exactly the same as Cave, just an octave higher and slightly faster (120%). I guess they got lazy with this one!
Level 5 – Catfish’s Maw (track repeats at 0:56)
As we progress farther in the game, the dungeon tracks begin to resemble the original Cave theme less and less. Here, the tritone and “Jaws Effect“ remain prominent features of the track because of their incorporation into the repeating bass pattern, which persists through the entire track. The tritone is highlighted in the first 2 notes of the pattern, and again we see both note duration and volume being used to great effect:
The blue melodic motif is less seen, making only an appearance at 0:28, in a sped-up, altered, yet still recognizable form:
Level 6 – Face Shrine (track repeats at 0:51)
When I first took notice of the similarities between the various dungeon level tracks in Link’s Awakening, I assumed they were all variations on the same theme—the blue and red motifs, and the “Jaws Effect” as I have laid out above. However, as I began to notate each track and actually marking the various motifs, I noticed that the last 3 dungeons of the game had taken on some new musical features. At first, I was disappointed—perhaps the points I wanted to make about how motifs create unifying structure and allow for variety, while keeping things recognizable, were about to be a lot less potent.
However, the fact that these were not 3 randomly scattered dungeons, but rather the last 3, made me consider another perspective—to look at the narrative of the game and see if there was a reason to be found there.
Once I had decided on that course of thought, the big question became: What changes between the 5th and 6th dungeon?
Well, if you’re familiar with the game at all, the answer is actually quite a lot. The first unusual thing actually happens before you even leave the 5th dungeon—right after you defeat the Nightmare, Slime Eel.
While a few of the Nightmares talk, Slime Eel is the first Nightmare to have something to say AFTER you’ve defeated it. (In fact, the track “Boss Warning”, which plays during this dialogue, is right after Catfish’s Maw in the tracklist.) And here’s what he has to say (by the way, spoilers if you haven’t played this game, but I’m going to assume most people reading this have, or at least know about the plot):
"TSSSK, TSSSK! You don't ssseem to know what kind of island this iss... KEEE-HEE-HEEE! What a fool... KEE-HEE-HEH!!"
Of course, the Nightmare is referring to the fact that the entire island on which the game takes place is a dream, and that your quest to wake the Wind Fish spells doom for not only the Nightmares, but for you and everyone else. Here, he’s only hinting at that and taunting you about it—and the Boss Warning track again uses the “Jaws Effect” to drive the creepiness of the statement:
There’s little needed to be said about the importance of the dream concept in Link’s Awakening—but one thing that I think is overlooked is that the dream actually has a musical representation in the soundtrack. It’s a single chord, and it’s first found, appropriately, in the Dream Shrine:
The opening arpeggio in Dream Shrine Entrance, as well as the arpeggios in Falling Asleep and Dream Shrine are all the same chord—a minor major seventh chord. Let’s call this the Dream Chord:
The Dream Chord is established fairly early on as the Dream Shrine is accessible as early as after the 3rd dungeon—but it makes a significant reappearance at the Southern Face Shrine, where the major revelation of the game is made:
TO THE FINDER... THE ISLE OF KOHOLINT, IS BUT AN ILLUSION... HUMAN, MONSTER, SEA, SKY... A SCENE ON THE LID OF A SLEEPER'S EYE... AWAKE THE DREAMER, AND KOHOLINT WILL VANISH MUCH LIKE A BUBBLE ON A NEEDLE... CAST-AWAY, YOU SHOULD KNOW THE TRUTH!
The music that plays during this revelation is as straightforwardly motific as you can get—the ostinato that provides the backing here is just the Dream Chord broken up:
while the main melody is a version of The Ballad of the Wind Fish in minor—which perfectly accompanies the revelation here.
Level 6 – Face Shrine (track repeats at 0:51)
With that new context, we can now look at the music of the 6th dungeon, Face Shrine. In truth, there is pretty much zero new musical content here—this track takes the same Dream Chord breakout from the Southern Face Shrine, without the main Wind Fish melody. What’s different this time is how the track is layered—you’ll notice a certain “blurriness” to the way this track starts. This effect is achieved by having one voice play the melody, while a second voice plays the exact same melody one note behind, acting as the “echo” for the first voice. Layered on top of each other, you get a blurred, out-of-focus effect:
This “blurriness” stays in effect until 0:09, where suddenly the melody becomes much more clear and focused, until 0:15, where it again splits into two, out-of-sync voices.
Of course, this is again an example of the “Jaws Effect,” where this time, it’s not simply a swell and fall in dynamics, but also a change in the texture of the sound itself. By simply layering two out-of-sync voices over each other, the composers were able to create a new “timbre” without actually having access to that type of timbre normally. It’s yet another example of creatively using the tools available to create something novel and interesting to listen to.
Level 7 – Eagle’s Tower (track repeats at 1:45)
Eagle’s Tower has the longest cycle length of the 8 dungeon tracks—in part because of the very long introductory section, in which we see the ostinato figure repeated six times:
Note how the figure starts out in unison, increases in volume, and then fades away while also splitting into 2 separate voices, offset from each other. Again, the ostinato going in and out of focus achieves the “Jaws Effect” here.
Finally, when the upper voice comes in at 0:45, we get the full harmonic makeup of this track—which is, of course, the Dream Chord:
The track ends with a little musical footnote reference to the Blue Motif at 1:30—this is really the last time we see it.
Level 8 – Turtle Rock (track repeats at 0:39)
If Eagle’s Tower said goodbye to the Blue Motif, Turtle Rock says goodbye to the tritone. In fact, Turtle Rock is made up of little more than repeated tritone arpeggios that move up and down. In the same way as Face Shrine and Eagle’s Tower, the “Jaws Effect” is achieved here by the two voices coming in and out of sync.
Other thoughts on this track—the repeated rising arpeggios of 4 notes is very similar to the very original Zelda dungeon track from the first game—though the notes have been changed to really highlight the tritones here.
I think more than any other set of tracks from the pre-3D Zelda era, the 8 dungeons of Link’s Awakening exemplify a compositional tightness and creative use of sound that is hard to replicate nowadays with composers being given so many more options.
While we usually think of motifs in terms of melodies (like the “Blue Motif”), the dungeon tracks of Link’s Awakening are actually tied together much more by harmonic motifs—by the harmonic color of the tritone and later by the “Dream Chord” (minor-major 7th). They’re also characterized by a musical effect that exists independently of melody and harmony entirely—the “Jaws Effect”—which can be achieved in a wide variety of ways including note length, dynamics, phrase length, and more. For me, the variety of ways the Jaws Effect is achieved in these tracks brings a great deal of interest and depth that would not be there otherwise.
—and that concludes this Deconstruction article. I hope you found it interesting and educational, and I hope that it will enhance your enjoyment of these tracks that I love so much.
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- thoughts and ideas that I may not necessarily want to commit to a whole essay but are interesting enough to want to share
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