NACVGM 2020 – Traditional Japanese Modes in Video Game Soundtracks

From the Abstract

Liam Hynes-Tawa (Yale University)

Traditional Japanese Modes in Video Game Soundtracks

Game music composers in Japan are, like most other musicians in Japan, trained primarily in the use of Western tonality, just as musicians in the West are.  But growing up in Japan does nevertheless expose one to various traditional music as well,  and so some of the scales that predate the arrival of Western tonality in Japan end up being available as compositional resources to Japanese composers of nearly all genres.

These are not resources that are called upon very often in most video games, though they are worth learning to recognize because of the affective meanings they often encode.  I begin this paper with a brief introduction to Japanese tetrachordal theory, which has been acknowledged as the most productive way to analyze Japanese traditional music since the 1950s,1 and then demonstrate some examples from Sakai Shōgo’s score to Mother 3, because its uses of traditional scales are quite obviously deliberate, and in one case even parodic. 

From there I proceed to less obvious cases from Pokémon and Yume Nikki, and eventually a few edge cases in which a traditional scale cannot be said to be in use literally , though having it in our analytical toolbox will allow us a fuller understanding of many forces acting on the music in question.

1 Koizumi Fumio. Nihon dentō ongaku no kenkyū [Research on Japanese traditional music]. Tokyo: Ongaku no Tomo Sha, 1958.

Source: Bardic Knowledge

Source: NACVGM

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