“From the ritziest resort hotels to a single pile of straw inside an actual mud hut, there is no ill, no injury in the universe that cannot be cured completely by spending 1/30th of a minute in an RPG bed”
– The RPGenius, 2016.
Over time video games have developed a number of strange clichés, some of the most prevalent of which can be found in Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGs). Silent protagonists with gravity-defying hairstyles, walking into houses of complete strangers who seem largely unphazed as you peer into their wardrobes looking for money, that sort of thing.
One of my favourite tropes, as so wittily expressed by The RPGenius in his blog Thinking inside the Box, is the JRPG rest mechanic. Your wounded party finds an inn, the receptionist cheerily asks you if you’ll be staying the night (because there’s always space), and after laying your hands on a room for something absurd like a Gil/Gella/Gald/Euro, you are treated to a few seconds of darkness and a lush little musical theme.
“Good morning! Remember all those near fatal wounds you had? Well they’ve magically disappeared and you can now focus entirely on your angsty silence, hooray!”
It’s an endearing trope which dates back to around 1986 with the first title in the Dragon Warrior/Quest series. Endearing, in no small part thanks to the music.
If you’ve played a few JRPGs you’ll know that sleep themes are basically composed entirely from some universally agreed upon template with small degrees of variation between them, which, I like to think, is part of the charm.
In this article we’re going to take a closer look at what makes them so instantly recognisable by identifying similarities across several cues, and try to understand why we equate particular compositional devices with the concept of sleep.
Note: This article goes into music theory detail that some readers may not be immediately familiar with. I’ve tried to strike a balance by explaining certain terms and functions but have left out some of the more rudimentary elements so as not to disturb the flow of the article. If you do encounter a term you’re not familiar with, google is your friend.
First, let’s define the function of resting in JRPGs: A game mechanic through which the player regenerates full health.
There’s no need to actually experience an entire game world’s night of sleep just to convey that your party is rested, and representing sleep visually is quite a static affair since your character’s motivation at this point is to be unconscious. So, it’s down to the music to impart some emotion and purpose at this point. Let’s summarise the sleep theme’s role into two primary functions:
- To convey succinctly and emotionally the passage of time from one state (diminished HP) to another (fully restored HP).
- To embody musically the state of sleep/rest.
Now let’s look at how composers have achieved this in the past by zoning in on three musical techniques found in a number of classic sleep themes, starting with one of the masters of JRPG music, Mr Uematsu.
Technique #1: Ending on major seventh, ninth and added tone chords – Final Fantasy V
When we talk about Major seventh, ninth, and added tones we are describing chords that extend beyond the basic triad of root, third and fifth, which are the minimal requirements for identifying something as a ‘chord’ in traditional western music theory. These extended chords add colour to the plainer, neater triad – and help this humble trio of notes express subtle nuances which we’ll explore in more detail below. You can hear them at the end of a number of sleep themes from Landstalker, Breath of Fire, Lufia, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, and Xenogears.
Our FFV example below ends on a major ninth.
We’re in Db major so let’s take a look at the Db major scale to help us analyse our extended chord.
Db, F, and Ab (root, major third, and fifth as indicated by the roman numerals in the above diagram) make up the basic Db major triad, our tonic (home chord) in the context of Db major.
The final chord in Uematsu’s theme above is composed of these three notes (Db in the bass clef, third and fifth in the treble clef) but also a C (major seventh) and an Eb (major ninth). These extra notes give the chord its name of Db maj9.
The major seventh note C is a just semitone away from being an octave above the root note D (this quality is described using the term leading note, – we’ll cover this later on) and the pull and tension between these two notes creates an air of ambiguity. Similarly, the major ninth Eb is an octave and a whole tone (two semitones) above the root note.
Both notes serve to blur the finality of the Db major triad, and it’s this sense of vagueness that gives our Db maj9 its dreamy, wistful character.
As you might expect, this sonic quality of the major sevenths and ninths was observed way before the invention of JRPGs and video games. Almost 130 years ago French troublemaker/composer Erik Satie was using major sevenths in particular to similar effect in Gymnopedie 1: Lent et Douloureux, in which the solo piano sways dreamily between G maj7 and D maj7. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but Uematsu seems to channel a bit of Satie in Esto Gaza from FFIX…
So, composers have been using sevenths, ninths and added tone chords to express dreamy vibes for some time and we’ve explored why that is by dissecting the makeup of notes in our Db maj9.
But it’s when we look at this Db maj9 in the context of Uematsu’s theme as a whole that we really see how effective it is.
In the opening bar he creates tension by leading with a gloomy minor melody, followed by bar 2’s jazz-tastic major ninths descending chromatically with a downward motion that sounds like the musical equivalent of slowly nodding off as you succumb to an inescapable fatigue. These two elements make Uematsu’s final Db maj9 all the more satisfying as it simultaneously relieves us of that initial minor scale tension and capitalises on the drowsiness created in bar 2.
This also brings us back to the two primary functions we defined sleep themes had to fulfil. To convey the passage of time between low health (i.e. the tension in bar 1-2) to full health (resolution in bar 3), and to embody musically the state of sleep; achieved by the use of a major ninth.
To leave you in no doubt of the potency of the major ninth, let’s listen to the two clips below: One is the Goodnight theme you know and now – after painstaking musical examination – love, and the other is the Goodnight theme if Uematsu had earlier spent all day writing Clash on the Big Bridge, thought to himself sod this it’s 5 seconds long and just went with a Db major instead.
You could argue the Db major sounds more conclusive, but the Db maj9 with its extra notes has a richness of texture that helps put across those subtle nuances that make it so great at conveying sleep.
Technique #2: Borrowed chord progressions and leading notes – Xenogears
Yasunori Mitsuda’s Xenogears sleep theme is the perfect cue to demonstrate our next technique. Dozing Off is in the key of C major, however if we look at the chords available to us in this key you’ll notice that the two arpeggiated chords in our score, Ab major and Bb major, are not there.
And yet they sound lovely and fit together in the context of C major?…
Fear not, spikey-haired mute man, this is actually a well known compositional device called borrowed chords where composers use chords from the parallel key to the one the piece is written in to make chord progressions a little more interesting.
Basically, parallel key signatures share the same root note so in the case of Xenogears which is in C major, the parallel key is C minor. Ab and Bb major are the VI and VII chords in C minor. Mitsuda plucks these chords from C minor and plonks them down into our C major cue, but not without cause. In fact, it actually makes a lot of harmonic sense, and here’s how.
Used here, the arpeggiated Bb major chord in bar 2 leads us perfectly into the C major in bar 3. That last F from the Bb major (highlighted in red) prepares us for the impending resolution and moves down to an E, becoming the major third note in our C major chord.
In this context, the F is called an upper leading note.
Typically, a leading note is the term used to describe the major seventh scale degree resolving or ‘leading’ up by a semitone to the tonic. When the note resolves or leads a semitone down instead it’s called an upper leading note, as is happening in our Xenogears example.
The F is telling our ear exactly what note to expect next, hence the term “leading” note, and that is why this resolution sounds so satisfying.
The outcome here, is that Mitsuda’s borrowed chord progression gives us a sense of propulsion and grandeur from its explicit rising momentum, almost as if to suggest a significant passing of time, which leads us right back to our aforementioned sleep theme primary functions, how about that!
The concept of borrowing chords has been around since the Baroque era, but this bVI-bVII-I progression in particular is heard in a lot of rock music, anime OP’s, and in a number of video game sleep themes; including Ar Tonelico, Tales of Phantasia, Tales of Symphonia and Atelier Iris EM~Break.
That final C major chord has an extra surprise in the form of a ninth interval (which, if we remember from our first technique is a scale degree an octave and a whole tone above the root) added on top of the regular C major triad. We call this chord the add9.
The reason it’s labelled C ‘add9’ and not C ‘maj9’ like the Db maj9 from our extended chord analysis earlier is because of the absence of a major seventh in the chord. Without it, chords that use extra scale degrees like the ninth are simply labelled as ‘add’.
But like Uematu’s Db maj9 from earlier, the C add9 with its extra notes clouds the finality of the C major triad. The result is a day-dreamy sound, very similar to what was being done at the end our FFV cue!
Technique #3: Effective instrumentation
Not a technique as such but instrumentation plays as important a role as seventh chords and borrowed chord progressions in conveying sleep.
Composers can express all manner of things through compositional techniques but choosing the right instrument(s) is also a very direct way of communicating musical meaning. Over time different instruments have come to be associated with representing specific emotions and states and as you guessed, JRPG sleep themes also have a distinguishable instrument palette.
Note: Since we are largely talking about early video game music I use the word ‘instruments’ here to cover all computer programmed emulations as well as real recorded instruments.
As suggested by the two cues we’ve studied the majority of sleep themes are composed of either solo instruments or small ensembles. This could have its roots in the fact that early game consoles had a pretty limited sound palette due to hardware constraints and only a finite number of bleeps and bloops could be played simultaneously.
More likely to me is that a small amount of instruments simply better mirrors the intimacy of sleeping. The fact this suits early sound chip channel limitations seems more of a happy accident then anything else.
The instruments that re-occurred most in my research were flute, harp and Fender Rhodes (Electric piano), and the reasons why become apparent when we examine their shared timbral qualities. They are all capable of smooth, rounded attacks (the way a sound is initiated) and the harp and Rhodes in particular have warm, low registers.
You can hear a lot of this low register from the Rhodes in soul, funk and jazz from the 70s (I Can’t Help It and She’s Out of My Life from Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall come to mind). Uematsu too, is clearly a fan, using it in four of his sleep themes and in numerous tracks during his time on the FF series.
The warm quality of the harp’s sound has long been part of its association to the world of dreams, no less as the musical trigger for every flashback/dream sequence in TV since forever. The creation of the ‘flashback’ as a cinematic technique is generally accredited to everyone’s favourite 3 hour-plus film director, D.W. Griffith, but its musical origin is – perhaps fittingly – a little more shrouded in mystery, which is a fancy way of saying I found nothing online.
The flute is also no stranger to portraying sleep and dreams. One of the most well known examples in classical music is the languid opening melody of Impressionist composer Debussy’s L’apres-midi d’un faune, a piece based on Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem about a faun who is enchanted by nymphs and drifts off to sleep filled with colourful dreams.
So as we can see right from the start of JRPG history, the harp, flute and Rhodes were already primed for becoming the instrumental bastions of sleep themes. Their use in conveying rest in video games is simply a continuation of their long histories in pop culture and classical music.
JRPGs have always had a strong sense of identity attached to them and as we’ve explored in this article the sleep mechanic and the accompanying musical theme is a very distinct and effective component of this identity, in no small part thanks to some great compositional foundations established early on by composers like Nobuo Uematsu and Koichi Sugiyama.
The genre has obviously gone through some changes in recent times and the movement towards more realistic/cinematic game worlds and emulation of western RPG elements has seen classic JRPG facets like the sleep mechanic fall out of use, though it did recently get a nod in Breath of The Wild.
Still, analysing sleep themes as we have here will hopefully be seen as more than just a nostalgic curiosity; There’s a lot to be learned from deconstructing game music and the associated game mechanics that can teach us more about the wider discipline of game development as a whole.
So, I hope that whatever your relationship to video games and music, you found something interesting to take away from this article! I’d love to hear your thoughts; if you have anything to say on the subject, just drop a comment below and let’s talk.
Thanks for reading!
Quick shout out to the RPGenius for generously allowing me to quote him in the intro. I do recommend reading the rest of the article it comes from; it’s both scathing and hilarious in equal measure. If you like what he does he’s also on Patreon.