How much does it really matter what key a song uses?
If you’ve ever heard someone change a song from major to minor, you know how different it feels. Here’s a bit of the “Overworld Theme” from the original Super Mario Bros. [music]. Now here’s the same piece in minor [music].
Now, when a song changes from major to minor, that changes 3 of the 7 notes. So it makes sense that the song would feel different.
So what happens if you just change one note? How much does that change the feeling of the song?
And how can a composer use that to inject a song with the feeling it needs?
Welcome to Song Appeal, where we dive into your favorite songs to answer the question “Why do we like the music we like?” I’m your host, Hunter Farris. And on today’s episode, let’s take a look at one reason we like the “Lost Woods” theme from Koji Kondo’s score for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Thanks so much to my Patrons for making this show possible. If you want to support this show and get great perks like the full versions of the interviews from this episode and a brand new bonus episode about the Back to the Future theme that expands on these ideas, visit Patreon.com/SongAppeal.
If you like this episode’s analysis of Zelda music, check out the Tandem Legends podcast. The Hyrule Historia timeline has given players a whole new way to experience the Legend of Zelda video games. Join the hosts of Tandem Legends: a Legend of Zelda podcast as they play, discuss, and theorize their way through the Legend of Zelda series in timeline order, one game at a time.
Connecting themes, story threads, setting, and music from the earliest events surrounding the creation of Skyloft, the splitting of timelines, to the drowning of the Hyrule Kingdom and beyond, hosts Shannon and Joe invite you to take part in an open and friendly conversation around the Legend of Zelda games.
You can find episodes of Tandem Legends wherever you find your favorite podcasts, and you’re invited to join the conversation on Twitter @TandemLegends.
Hey! Listen! Don’t just listen to the music. Listen to the feelings in the music. [music] Does it feel adventurous? Fun? A bit uneasy? How did the music get that feeling?
When Koji Kondo wrote the “Lost Woods” theme, he wasn’t writing music for music’s sake. No, he was trying to capture the tone of the Lost Woods, to capture a feeling, to capture a moment in time.
And he probably knew that, when music is trying to have a specific effect, it’s dangerous to go alone, blindly crashing into different musical effects until the music feels like it’s lost in the woods. Instead, he went in knowing how the Lost Woods would feel, and he went in knowing what kind of music he needed to write to bring out that feeling in the “Lost Woods” theme.
The first question any composer has to ask is “What key should this song be in?” Not just “Eb or C?” but “Major or minor? Or something else entirely?” But instead of a more quote-unquote “normal” key like major or minor, Koji Kondo decided to give the “Lost Woods” the sound of Lydian. So let’s take a look through the lens of music theory and the lens of music psychology to see how that Lydian sound gives the song a sense of optimistic anxiety.
You’ve probably heard of scales like major and minor, but have you heard of the other scales?
Every once in a while, a music theorist comes across a scale that just picks the notes it needs and runs with it, like the whole tone scale [scale], the pentatonic scale [scale], and the awesomely-named Enigmatic scale. Cory Arnold (the music theorist and elephant cartoonist from the YouTube series 12tone) did this when he made up the Elephant scale and the Gummy Bear scale. Look, he invented the scale, he can name it whatever he wants.
Sometimes, a scale takes the same notes as another scale and just shuffles around the order of the notes. We have a special name for these scales. We call them “modes”.
Let’s take the white notes on a piano: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. You could start on C and get major [scale]. Or you could start on A and get minor [scale]. Or you could start on G and get Mixolydian [scale], which we talked about a few months ago on the episode about the Community theme. Or you could start on F and get Lydian, the mode that best represents the feeling of “Lost Woods”.
Put another way, Lydian is the same as a major scale, but with the 4th note sharpened. So if you were to look at C Lydian, you wouldn’t get the C D E F G A B C that you’re used to. You’d get C D E F# G A B C. And while F major has a Bb, F Lydian turns that Bb into a normal, natural B. And that B natural is the characteristic note of “Lost Woods”.
If this song were in F major, we’d start out with the first note of the scale, the (1st, 2nd) 3rd note of the scale, and the (1st, 2nd, 3rd) 4th note of the scale, [music] and… that definitely doesn’t sound like “Lost Woods”. Instead, they sharpen that 4th note on a scale [music]. On top of that, they put that sharp 4 on top of notes 1, 3, and 5 in a way that defines Lydian.
To get a better idea of this song’s Lydian nature, I interviewed an expert. [8-bit:] “I am 8-bit Music Theory. I run a channel called 8-bit Music Theory on YouTube where I take video game music and analyze it and try to figure out what makes it sound the way it does.” He told me that some music theorists disagree on whether this song is technically F Lydian or C major. After all, every mode uses the same note. So if you want to learn more about that, listen to the full interviews with these guests on Patreon. But whether “Lost Woods” is in F Lydian or not, [8-bit:] “it’s a great example of the Lydian Sound (capital L, capital S).”
And you can hear that same feeling in “Lost Woods”. [8-bit:] “The way it uses the #4 over that F chord…, and in the melody too: The melody jumping up from F to A to B, outlining that kind of Lydian Flavor, … That’s Lydian in a bottle.”
So whether it’s Lydian or not, it acts Lydian enough that it will teach us a lot about Lydian and how it feels.
So how does Lydian feel? After all, a music theory principle that can no longer be used is mere garbage.
To answer that question, here’s our second guest. [JT:] “My name is Joshua Taipale. I am a composer and guitarist and arranger, and I spend a lot of time thinking about music and talking about my observation. And I put those thoughts on my YouTube channel, Ongaku Concept”
He summed up the feeling of Lydian in 2 words: [JT:] “optimistic anxiety”.
Let’s break down the two sides of that phrase. [JT:] “First of all, it’s bright in a saccharine sense, where it’s extremely sweet. It takes the major scale and it dials it up to 11, because you’re raising the 4.”
Why does that make it happier? Most scales have gaps that are either half-steps [example] or whole-steps [example], which are just 2 half-steps. The wider the gap, the brighter the gap. The major scale, for example, gives us two whole-steps in a row before it gives us its first half-step. But Lydian gives us three whole-steps in a row before it gives us its first half-step. Those wider gaps right off the bat make the whole scale sound brighter and happier.
YouTube music theorist Adam Neely and music theory aficionado Jacob Collier each independently organized all 7 modes from brightest to darkest, and they both agreed that Lydian isn’t just bright, it isn’t just brighter than major, it’s the brightest mode.
But it also gives us a bit of anxiety.
First because it’s kind of ambiguous. Is it F Lydian? Is it C major? If professional music theorists disagree, this is definitely ambiguous enough to make a normal listener feel a little uneasy. Your brain is trying to figure out how each note should feel. Which note is supposed to feel like a resolution? Which note is supposed to be begging for a resolution? Which notes are supposed to be easier to process? And your brain can’t find easy answers to any of those questions.
And even if you’re sure something’s in Lydian, there’s still a lot of tension. Instead of giving us a nice, normal 4th, it gives us [tritone] a tritone. Ew. [JT:] “B is the raised 4 relative to F and so that does create a tension that further comments upon this mysterious sense of being in between those two states. When I hear it, I think of the wolves in the Lost Forest, kind of perking their ears up at something interesting.”
But when we talk about Lydian having a sense of anxiety, this isn’t an edge-of-a-cliff kind of anxiety. This is that Christmas-Eve kind of anxiety, when there’s that really big present under the tree with your name on it. That’s what Joshua Taipale meant when he said it’s an optimistic anxiety: [JT:] “When paired with the bright and optimistic nature of the scale and all of its raised tones, that instability often creates a sense of curiosity or wonder in it. There’s an uncertainty and an anxiety, but it’s an optimistic one, like you’re excited to find out whatever it is that you’re looking for, that you’re exploring.”
This blend of optimism and anxiety is a great description of what music theory says Lydian should sound like.
Now, when I hear that music theory says Lydian “should” sound like a mix of happiness and uncertainty, I wonder “what makes you happy, does it make others happy too? What makes me anxious, does it make others anxious too?”
So let’s put music theory to the test.
One of my favorite music psychology experiments started when Ian Straehley asked the question [IS:] “How does the music we listen to convey specific emotion? And what are the tools that composers use to get those emotions across in the music, whether they’re trying to do that consciously or it’s just something that comes up in the creation of the music?” So I started thinking about “how could I study this in a scientific way?””
So he designed a study. About 35 people each sat at a computer and listened to about 100 melodies, melodies that covered each of the 7 modes. To control for variables, he decided [IS:] “we would start with the most basic sound we could think of, which was just a sine wave. And then we also made the rhythm very straightforward, just, like 8th notes.” They even gave every tune the same speed. So a participant would start this study and the computer would play 100 melodies that each sounded more or less like this: [music].
Once they heard a melody, they would step right up to Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion. [IS:] IS: “So basically it has 8 primary emotions, which are Joy, Trust, Fear, Surprise, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and then Anticipation. And then there are also stronger or lesser versions of those 8, so 8 times 3 gives you 24 emotions.”
With that many people listening to that many melodies and comparing how these melodies felt, Ian Straehley was able to get a pretty good sense for how Lydian usually makes people feel. So what did he find? [IS:] “It was most strongly associated with surprise and also anticipation and a little bit of joy.” Surprise? Anticipation? Joy? Sounds to me a lot like optimistic anxiety. Just like music theory said it would.[IS:] “It was all randomized, so very scientific and amusical, and even with that people were pretty much across the board able to say “yeah, I think it feels more like joy or more like anticipation” and that was consistent.”
So not only did music theory predict that Lydian would make people feel optimistic anxiety, but music psychology confirmed that there really is a mysterious power in these notes that makes people feel optimistic anxiety.
That feeling is exactly what we want when we play a game like Zelda. We want a fun challenge. We want a puzzle we can solve. We want optimistic anxiety. And the Lydian sound in the “Lost Woods” theme is perfect for making us feel that, according to both music theory and music psychology.
It’s easy to gruble, grumble that music theory is too restrictive, or that it can get in the way of making better music. And sometimes, music theory is taught that way. But I think the “Lost Woods” theme brings out another way to look at music theory: [8-bit:] “to me, what makes music theory so interesting, what makes it so practically useful as a musician is that you can give yourself tools, not just to make music with, but to understand music with, and to take apart other people’s music with.” Music theory gave us the tools to say “That is the sound of Lydian”, and more importantly, it showed us that the Lydian Sound is a tool. If a composer or a songwriter wants a sense of optimistic anxiety, they can plug in some Lydian. [8Bit:] “That’s the whole point of using modes or learning modes is to be able to pull out these different colors and sounds.”
Music theory is what makes this song work. Music theory makes me enjoy this song so much more. And music theory is what drew out the feeling that Koji Kondo needed for the Lost Woods.
Thanks so much for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com for more episodes.
Thanks so much to my Patrons for making this show possible. If you want to help support this show, visit Patreon.com/SongAppeal, where you’ll find some great perks like access to the full interviews with all of my guests and a minisode about more effects of Lydian in the Back to the Future theme.
You can find more from 8-bit Music Theory on his YouTube channel, 8-bit Music Theory.
You can find more from Joshua Taipale on his YouTube channel: Ongaku Concept.
You can find more from Ian Straehley on Twitter: @IanStraehley
If you want to learn more about scales like major and minor and why we use them in the first place, check out Coursera’s course “Music As Biology: What We Like To Hear and Why” at Bit.ly/MusicAsBiology.
Again, thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day. And enjoy your music.
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