from Chrono Trigger (SNES)
Composed by Yasunori Mitsuda
Like many gamers my age, I grew up with my ears awash in the enchanting sounds of the music of Chrono Trigger. Despite the aural constraints of 16-bit technology, Yasunori Mitsuda's debut as a full-on game composer managed to perfectly capture the feeling of losing oneself in a fantastical, pleasant dream.
One of the most beloved tracks from the score is "Corridors of Time", the mystical and supremely catchy theme that introduces the player/listener to a seemingly utopian kingdom of magically gifted humans living on immense islands floating high above the clouds.
In this analysis I don't intend to unpack and formally notate the entire piece. Instead, I want to highlight and explain various elements of the music that I found inspiring and have learned something from. Hopefully, these insights will be of value to you as well.
1. TONAL TUG-OF-WAR
The track opens with a Marimba (or some kind of malletophone) ostinato that serves as both rhythmic and harmonic grounding throughout the entire piece. The downbeats of the steady 8th note arpeggio trace a Bm(add4) triad in 1st inversion and firmly declare the piece to be in 4/4 time. (NOTE: I've accented to downbeats of the first two measures in the following audio clip so you can hear what I mean).
From this opening, it would be fair to assume the key of the piece is B Minor and all the upbeats are simply non-harmonic passing tones.
However, things get a little more ambiguous as the track plays on: a Sitar glissando outlines the first three notes of the F# minor scale. This would suggest the key of F# Minor. Yet the ostinato continues to imply the Bm(add4) chord, and the bass comes in on D (the 3rd of Bm). To complicate things even further, a choral pad enters with a simple triadic progression of F#m -> E -> C#m: a i -> bVII -> v progression in the key of F# minor!
So is this in B Minor or F# Minor? What's the tonic? What's the dominant? What are the chords and implied harmony?
If you look at the last measure of the intro, the choral pad is voicing a C#m triad. This is the minor V chord of F# Minor. And, sure enough, the triad resolves to F#m in the beginning of the A section. Additionally, the Sitar melody eventually lands on the note F#, which we can interpret as the tonic.
So...the piece is in F# Minor (Natural Minor or Aeolian, to be precise), right?
Well...yes and no. If we were to simply take the melody and the triads voiced by the choral pad, we would find a fairly standard Aeolian type harmonic progression that firmly roots the piece in a somber but contemplative F# Minor. Take a listen:
Yet, Mitsuda continues the ostinato and the Bm(add4) triad it implies into the above harmony, insistently juxtaposing these two tonal centers. Furthermore, the bass line - which traditionally gets assigned the root note of the chord being implied - emphasizes extended tones instead. In this case - in the first two measures - the note being emphasized is D, which is the b13 of an F#m extended chord! Listen now, with the bass and marimba added:
Not so simple anymore. Given the aforementioned juxtaposition, it could be argued that the even the "passing tones" in the ostinato are not passing tones at all, but additional extended tones that further deepen the complex harmony created by this "tug-of-war" between B minor and F# minor.
Another way to think about it would be a bridge between the two tonal centers, that bridge being built on extended chords that contain notes that serve different functions in both keys. It effectively blends and obscures tonality without losing it completely. Understanding this harmonic blending is the key (no pun intended) to understanding how this particular music achieves its intoxicating and near indescribable emotional appeal.
2. INTERLOCKING RHYTHM
Most 16-bit video game music is short and repetitive by necessity - the cartridges only had so much data! Even so, composers of this era usually took care to vary their percussion sections - a fill here, a variation there - to maintain variety and interest.
Yet, in this one, Mitsuda keeps the exact same rhythmic pattern going throughout, with only a tambourine on the 3rd beat of each measure being introduced as a variation in the B section. But does that mean the rhythm is static and uninteresting?
Hardly. The variation comes from the rhythmic fluidity of the melody and, to some extent, the choral pad in the B section. Additionally, the rhythm is so tightly crafted out of interlocking and complementary elements that - for a piece of this length that is meant to loop indefinitely - it strikes the perfect balance between simplicity and complexity.
So, let's take a look at some of the more granular parts of the rhythm to understand how this balance is achieved in more detail:
- At the bottom, you have the bass line, playing a 3+3+2 eighth note subdivision.
- Next, the tabla drum, playing a simple but catchy pattern in slight syncopation to 4/4 time. Notice how it "trades off" with the bass line in the middle of the measure. For this example, I've slowed the playback down and added a metronome to help you follow along:
- Then, the staccato chordal hits. These interlock nicely with the bass 3+3+2 subdivision, as they land on the "uh" of the 1-and-uh 2-and-uh of the first two bass note subdivisions. That was a mouthful, so here is a visual example to help explain what I mean:
- And, of course, we have the Marimba ostinato, serving as a metronome of sorts that grounds the piece in 4/4 to keep the ear from getting too confused. All together, the various parts fit like puzzle pieces and create a smooth and balanced composite rhythm.
Another nice yet subtle touch is the use of a diminished rhythmic motif in the Sitar melody. You will recall that the bass follows a 3+3+2 subdivision. Well, take a look at the first measure of the Sitar's part: it also follows the same subdivision, only in 16th notes instead of 8th notes. Hence, a diminution of the rhythmic motif. Take a look:
Not only is this a callback to the rhythmic motifs of other tracks in the score (like the Theme of Crono), but it is a deft way of creating thematic and structural continuity within the piece itself. It really goes to show that a large part of good composition is the creative and judicious re-use of established material.
There is a lot more in this piece that can be unpacked, but that's enough for the time being. Hopefully these two takeaways leave you as inspired as me. If you have something you'd like to say or share, please don't hesitate to leave a comment below! I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Peace and bunny rabbits,
- Seventh Sam