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A Charming, Musical Box Adventure
What is scurrilously called ragtime is an invention that is here to stay. That is now conceded by all classes of musicians. That all publications masquerading under the name of ragtime are not the genuine article will be better known when these exercises are studied… Syncopations are no indication of light or trashy music, and to shy bricks at “hateful ragtime” no longer passes for musical culture. To assist amateur players in giving the “Joplin Rags” that weird and intoxicating effect intended by the composer is the object of this work.Composer Scott Joplin in the opening of his book School of Ragtime
Amidst the anxiety of growth that was New York City in 1910, on 128 West 29th Street, Composer Scott Joplin was finishing his opera, Treeminosha. Writing only a quick jaunt from Tin Pan Alley, ragtime music was the life, and hope, for Joplin, an African-American man attempting to encapsulate experience into music. A sort of living music to demonstrate, “Patience, industry, thrift, and usefulness,” – the sort of maxims Booker T. Washington lived by in his search for equality (Great Expectations, Smithsonian Institute, 2010).
However, for Joplin, writer of the treatise School of Ragtime and composer of Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer, his music would be forgotten for the next 60 years, left to the wayside of “frivolity”. Frivolity, however, was not the final word for Joplin – in January 1972, his musical Treeminosha would finally be showcased in Atlanta, and in 1973 the movie The Sting would future The Entertainer as its main motif. Joplin’s name and influenced surged, sparking a wave inside a niche and far from frivolous brand of music. His imperatives on upbeat conductors would be, however, cherished in a far from niche way.
In 1960, Koji Kondo was born in Nagoya, Japan, quickly assuming a music career of his own. He was playing the piano by age five, introduced to rock music in his middle years of education, and by the end of high school was enjoying jazz fusion and the captivating waves of synthetic tunes of games such as Donkey Kong. Only then had he begun to delve into the world of BASIC programming language for music when he applied to Nintendo, allegedly the sole work application he has ever submitted, and was hired. All six songs for Super Mario Bros. were written by Kondo; the success of the game and the millions of people who can hear those tunes in their head, enshrined Kondo into a legendary category of composer.
Kondo himself is a quiet, almost stoic man, leaving several apt questions on how his formative years were musically shaped. His early years at Nintendo consisted of him, Hirokazu Tanaka and Yukio Kaneoka being the music department, although they had responsibilities elsewhere in the company. Kaneoka taught Kondo how to program and became a vital second member of the team, ensuring the engineering side of the music video game venture was a seamless transition. Kondo now is an audio director at Nintendo and has yet to compose a solo soundtrack since The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. His inspiration, and stoic fingerprint, however, is still found on all Nintendo tracks.
That fingerprint is one, however, which would not be possible without Scott Joplin (Schartmann, Example 15, 2015). Due to Kondo’s early years being largely a mystery, stating Joplin influenced Kondo would be mere speculation; in many regards, it would be easier to state that Joplin did not directly influence Kondo. However, the Joplin and ragtime ‘frivolities’ were passed through the bright and artful spirit of the artists who taught Kondo. And in that regard, Joplin’s wave is inseparable from Kondo’s wave. The classical harmonizing swing, each note, “scrupulously observing the ties” to derive the intoxicating effect of music, quoting from Exercise One in School of Ragtime, can all be found in music. A peppery ensemble of songs that inspire, motivate, and delight. And in these principles, there is no better example than arguably one of the best games of all time Super Mario World.
Super Mario World is a game that is abundant in personality. Each portion of Dinosaur Land is sectioned into distinct themes, slowly progressing the player alongside a grand adventure. Thanks to Kondo’s focus on composing interactive music, this principle can be discussed from a game design perspective and a music design perspective. In the SNES era, with limited technology, the interactivity concept was strictly limited to the environment and pacing of play jiving with the music. This concept will be exemplified at length, as the musical concepts interweave intricately with the player. To iterate a modern example, the concept of interactive music is fine-tuned with goombas jumping on the down beat in New Super Mario Bros. levels.
Base Concepts of Super Mario World Music
Before moving forward to specific songs, it would be best to establish the (simplified version of) techniques Kondo uses to make Super Mario World a perfect mix of orderly video game jazz. The song which is best used to hear all the below concepts is the Overworld theme.
The first concept at play here is repetition and familiarity. In this transcription by Matt Kenyon, the central motif to the music of Super Mario World is outlined (the portion of the song playing from :05 to :06). This central motif will be the theme to listen for throughout the entire game, setting the quick pace for the athletic levels and being drawn out in the ghost house via motivic transformation. In the SNES era, this was a technique to work around limit storage. Hence, one base theme would be radically altered through chromaticism, tritone substitution, syncopation, and other techniques. The music would stay simple enough for the hardware, whimsically altered on Kondo’s genius.
Chromaticism and syncopation might be the most important concepts Kondo uses throughout his music; this is how the music adheres to the peppiness of Mario’s jump and stays engaging, in spit of the repeating motif. In short, a chromatic line is where a second note from the same key operates as a base coupling between two chords. The allusion at hand is Kondo’s music loves to jump off a waterfall, a fairly radical step of faith in the safety of the situation. Thus, to make it safer (sound more pleasant), the step chord operates as a first landing, so the overall fall is not as great. Thus, the music is perpetually cheery, not a sudden jump of fear.
Syncopation is the concept Scott Joplin pressed in the six exercises of School of Ragtime, the concept of, “Each note [receiving] its proper time…” Syncopation plays notes off-beat and off a standard rhythm. The chord, harmony, melody, and bass will not align, ensuring the music is, designed, to be all over the place. In this manner, the music is jumpy as Mario and Luigi are.
Although not the same concept, the bass line of the Overworld theme exemplifies the spirit of syncopation, racing up and down the scale. Allowing the bass to drive is a jazz concept, motivating the pizazz and emotion of the music. The importance of this is to imagine the song without any rotating bass line, simply a standard line of dialogue with the harmony that doesn’t proceed anywhere. The eighth notes at section B (refer to second page of the transcription) really stand out as a change in the flow, engaging the song in a certain amount of new energy. Syncopation allows each note to shine, driving the song, and equally, the player along their adventure.
The last concept to iterate here is the tritone substitution. This is where a chord will step up irregularly three-whole steps up, building a dissonant sound, then resolving on the base one chord associated. In the overworld theme, this is stepping up from the C chord to the F# chord, then resolving to the F chord. In simplified terms, the dissonance this adds is the important aspect of this concept – the inorganic sound keeps the player on their toes, adds a bit of the jazz formula Kondo loves, and operates as procedural fun. (Listen for this at the :06 mark of the World Map 2 song.)
The Art of Introduction
The prerequisite for using chromaticism and motivic transformation to compile an entire soundtrack is variety in pacing and atmosphere. Standard music tracks do not rely on these concepts as much due to the lack of a background adventure being the medium to carry the music; whereas, video games have a natural change of pace in game environment allows for these concepts to work in video game music so well. See for example the underground, ghost house, and water theme. Each of these are rather simple ensembles, again prying off the central motif discussed earlier; they do, however, cast off the denaturation of simplistic songs by making the environment they supply music for, come alive.
See first the Yoshi song. In any edition of the Yoshi song, Kondo utilizes drums to add a stepping and dance rhythm. These are early allusions to the Yoshi Island proper music, which was inspired by African drum music Kondo stated he was studying. The rhythm of the drums adds an accent to Yoshi’s new ability to move – a blatant change in the music but not a different song, notating to the player Yoshi is not like an invincible star (short-term, different song for a short-term item), rather, is an added layer to the gameplay.
The other way Kondo can hook a player is through the classic hook of an introduction. Notice in the Overworld theme song Kondo throws at players, a quick stair case ending on a dissonant note, leading into the piano swing. This is a quick introduction, giving enough time to establish a baseline. However, in the ghost house theme, the central motif is not inserted until :25. The underground theme holds off on the central motif until :10. The underwater theme is a slowed down version of the overworld theme, using slightly different instruments. These extended introductions establishe the setting of the level the player is about to enter – a brilliant adjustment to maintain the central motif while building new expectations in a few seconds.
The fortress theme is a brilliant edit to the central motif, erasing most of the syncopation and chromaticism to make the song sound indecently haunting. Several examples of dissonance can be heard throughout this song, especially at :40 to :58 – the song never resolves, holding the player in psychological suspense and tension. Even as this brief interlude concludes and descends into the C section of the song, the song becomes a chaotic organ ensemble. The hook never stops for the player and just moves them along the chaotic journey until the fortress clear song is played.
Mapping the Tune of A Map
Star Road might be one of the most compelling songs of the game, breaking the rules of maintaining a distinct central motif. Instead, Kondo implements a lovely jazz piece that loops, and is easily engrained into the player’s mind. The elevator music for Star Road personifies simple magic in chromaticism and syncopation. The Special World song does much of the same, but instead of concluding on a fast triplet, pauses and puts a cerebral marker, without syncopation, on where the start and beginning are. Again, in both songs the bass drives the song along, fitting perfectly with the overall force of Super Mario World’s Music. (Wait until two minutes for a special rendition of the original Mario Bros. song).
The Forest of Illusion is a special song for the amount of dissonance and paralleled structure Kondo builds in one piece of music. The entire concept is a rise which doesn’t conclude until it receives the consecutive, parallel rise, only to move into another portion of the song which is dissonant. The final chords of the notation are a perfect example of what tritone substitution can do to a song to make it completely enrapturing, nerve wracking, and entirely charming in that classical Kondo essence.
Fitting Koji Kondo into one box is near impossible, but Super Mario World may be the closest example of his work to those attributes which make him a legendary composer. He has a knack for building worlds into his music and making those worlds come alive for the player. He takes native concepts of the original motif and expands upon them to make everything a cohesive picture of the adventure players are about to embark on.
- Matt Kenyon’s Transcription of Super Mario Bros. Overworld Theme
- Matt Kenyon’s Notes for Composers – based on Koji Kondo
- Thesis from Guillame Laroche, McGill University, Analyzing Mario-Media: Variation in the Music of Super Mario Video Games
- Thesis from James Fox, ‘It’s a-me, Mario!’ Exploring dynamic changes and similarities in the composition of early Nintendo video game music
- Library of Congress – Scott Joplin Profile
- March, 2007 Wired Magazine interview with Koji Kondo (archived)
- December, 2014 IGN Interview with Koji Kondo
- Scott Joplin’s School of Ragtime (public domain book)
- November, 2011 Games Radar+ Interview with Koji Kondo and Eiji Aonuma (focused on Legend of Zelda music)
- GDC 2007: Koji Kondo and the Art of Interactive Music by Andrew Yoon – Engadget
- Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack – Book Excerpt from Andrew Schartmann on Google Books
- Super Mario World Analysis – Matt Kenyon (video)
- Why Does Mario Music Sound “Fun”? – 8-Bit Music Theory (Video)