Trails in the Sky Music Analysis
This post was copy-pasted from my wordpress blog (which I hope to one day leave entirely.)
Hello! It's been a while, huh? Getting colder. And I'm getting… tired. Analgesic is actually taking a week vacation next week, because we're fatigued. Personally I've been working at least 4 days every week for the whole year, and I'm tired. It's good to take breaks. Maybe if I was younger I'd power through, but I'm not! So it's vacation time! Hahaha! Actually it's not good to work too much, even young…
Anyways, those fall leaves are changing color, so some old feelings of easing into a new school year, new classes, new faces, new romance, are coming back. I grew up in the Midwest of the USA, so this time of year means watching trees slowly hibernate or change color, it means driving home from after school class, watching the sun set over flat suburban soccer fields, it can mean driving over to a pumpkin farm to pick up some apple cider donuts before settling into some homework.
Ah, but I'm in my late 20s and literally like 6,000 miles away from that in a concrete jungle (just how I like it, right…?). So it just means I can just daydream about the good old days… just kidding! Autumn in Tokyo is great. It doesn't get colorful till November, but the cooler weather is already a welcome change.
Anyways, I've been playing the Trails series of JRPGs straight through. I recently finished Trails from Zero, but I've wanted to write about the music a bit from the previous games. So I decided to write about a few of my favorite songs from the Trails in the Sky trilogy. I'm in a bit of a music mood anyways, since for most of this month I've been churning out endless drafts of music for our next game, “S”, which is going well!
Originally, I had intended to write like, about 5 songs… but I ended up only doing 2, these posts take a long time.. I tried to break down things in a way accessible to non-musicians, but it might help to know some basic terminology. Please listen to the songs as you read!!
(Note: this post spoils Trails in the Sky Trilogy, in particular some aspects of the 3rd)
Trails in the Sky FC – Path of a New Journey
I think this song could be called “Estelle's Theme”.
FC opens with this song. The start of a gigantic, 10-game and counting series….
Mood-wise it's a straightforward optimistic, eurofantasy song with typical instrumentation, although the synthesized nature of various mallet sounds helps mesh the song to the game's 2D/3D visual appearance. These kinds of songs can easily sound canned as hell, but thankfully this song doesn't!
The strength of this song is is fusing different kinds of optimism in a very tight, pop-like package. To me it characterizes much of Estelle's character arc and personality.
The A section is the 0:00 to 0:16, opening with the flute. Even though the song never returns to the melody here, I like this section as it immediately set the high point of the song's energy, and it leaves you wanting to hear it again! Some notes…
- The mallets here form a really nice countermelody.
- There's also two types of washed out mallet panned to the left that acts as an echo of the main melody. Passing melodies between different instruments is an effective way of reinforcing a particular hook or motif without becoming repetitive.
- There's a guitar arpeggiation that reinforces the chords, but notably it doesn't play on the downbeat, and I think it nicely fleshes out missing meaning that the main melody can't carry alone.
- There's a really subtle accordion sound at 0:09 that is a direct harmony of the main melody. It's really subtle but I think adds to a sense of emotion/yearning.
B – 0:17 to 0:34: is some woodwind melody. The electric piano chords here are pretty active, which gives a lot of nice motion to the section. Overall you're likely to remember the melody here just because it's repeated in B'. There's a real sense of being comfortable and at home. The melody is based around a chord progression that repeats twice
B' – is a repeat of B, but with a flute melody and some interesting mallet accompaniment for a playful fluorish. The electric piano chords from B are still here, just much quieter with some harmonic flourishes here and there (there's a few notes in the left channel at 0:45 I like – it's a technique that can help add drama to a chord change in a subtle way). Why is B' a repeat of B? IMO it's probably to pace out the song better – a big emotional change sometimes works better if the listener's been anticipating it for a while. But also in this song's case, it would be weird to go from a woodwind melody to a brass melody instead of breaking that pace up with flute. It's also just a nice melody, so staying on the playful/home-ish feel for a while is pleasant.
C – 0:49 -1:10 This brings me to that the whole song feels like a theme of Estelle, who is the optimistic protagonist constantly contending with her insecurities and internalized pressures. There's a bassline here that plays on every eight note, giving a more energized/forward-moving feel. The choice of brass for the melody is very energetic and tied to ‘epic' music. I think the melody here is pretty elegant, it has a lot of movement, yet nicely transitions into the D section and manages to partially repeat itself once for ease of remembering.
One note about C is that I feel like the B' to C transition is actually pretty surprising on a first listen, and juuust barely works. It's like a big shock of ‘loud hope' appearing out of nowhere. Maybe that's indicative of Estelle's outburst-driven personality, though… But once you're used to it, it seems fine! When remembering this song, remembering the B' to C transition was the hardest for me. Sometimes songs just call for those transitions, and it can be hard deciding whether or not a transition is working or not. Usually I just take solace in the fact that in a game people aren't paying suuuper close attention so as long as nothing overly jarring happens it's okay, haha.
D 1:10 – 1:30 – Straightforward, this is just a section to loop the song. I think the song could actually have looped immediately after C, but with D the song feels more ‘whole' and paced out nicer. The accordion-thing here acts to bring down the overall energy level that C was at, in preparation for the song to loop. The melody is a little meandering, to help signal that the song is ending its loop here, rather building to a new section. I actually don't really like the accordion instrument (I know it's not an accordion but I forget what it is…), but that's just my prejudice… I think it works pretty well for this section.
Overall I think this is just a song that has all strong sections that are really neatly tied together. I don't get to write music like this particularly often since our games almost never call for music like this, but it might be fun. It might also be really intense to write, though, because the tempo is so fast, and writing 4 separate sections for a 90 second song is fairly expensive as far as music budget goes! But this song sticks out to me as maybe The Theme of Estelle (and Joshua to an extent, the other protagonist), so writing for this context would be worth the extra effort.
Trails in the Sky: the 3rd – Parallel Universe
I would also call this as “Kevin's Theme”. Kevin is the protagonist of Trails in the Sky the 3rd.
This song plays in most of the areas of The 3rd (here on TC for Third Chapter) that consist of reprised towns from FC and SC. When you reach those levels in the game, it's a total surprise and very surreal since you're totally disoriented, seeing these very familiar spaces from other games. Moreover, you're juuuuuust barely starting to make some deductions about Kevin's character and what he's hiding. The universe of TC is set in (basically) a gigantic VR universe created by an advanced VR technology cube as well as Kevin himself (unconsciously). The form the VR universe takes is based on the character's memories and beliefs (this sounds familiar to me… hmm…), so in Kevin's case it forms 7 layers to hell! It sucks all the other characters into it as they puzzle their way out.
Overall… it's a somber song but it also has this ritualistic/religious energy to it. It also has a strong sense of being lost, but longing for some goal or past. But it's a pretty unresolved yearning, since all of its energy inevitably lops back to that vast sense of magic/ritual/holiness. And I think those aspects perfectly encapsulate TC's protagonist's, Kevin Graham, struggle that he eventually overcomes throughout TC!
First, the song uses a slow 6/8 time signature. That adds to the sense of drama, since the melodies are being built around the dramatic downbeats on the 1 and 4. So you get that nice ‘to and fro' swaying that 6/8 can sometimes bring.
A: 0 to 14: Introducing the mood
When writing game music a common way to establish a ‘holy' or ‘mystic' atmosphere is to do something like this song does – have a 6-note ostinato repeat over different chords. (The 6-note phrase that begins in the opening is what I'm referring to). When that phrase has the right notes (based on a certain scale) it adds a ‘harmonic backing' to the whole song. The ostinato functions similar held chords (like strings), but the texture is more rhythmic due to the notes being quickly played.
But on the choice of instrument for this ostinato: there's already a lot going on in this first segment! In order of frequency, from low to high.
- A bass drum, delayed to feel ‘epic' – delayed bass drums are good at creating a sense of ‘space' in the song. If you listen closely, every other 6 beats, a lower bass drum also plays, giving a very subtle echo to the first bass drum.
- The ostinato's double. In the slightly-left channel there's a really subtle, octave-down pitch of the ostinato. This is handy for thickening out a certain sound, while keeping the focus on that sound at a higher pitch.
- A really quiet, synthesized string patch. This is more to give a sense of wholeness to the entire song – it's hard to hear, but mostly in the right channel. The choice of note here, based on the song's key, I think is meant to give a very subtle sense of tension to the whole song right away.
- A synthy, metallic reverb hit. You can hear this at various pitches at the start of each measure. This adds to the ‘mystic'/'holy'ness of it. Sometimes these kinds of sounds can be used for an icy, snowy effect but in this case I think it's more to imbue a holy/magical atmosphere. There's a very very slight vibrato (the pitch goes up and down slightly) on these hits, too.
- A sparkly synth ostinato, mostly in the left channel, playing 16th notes. I think this is a really cool detail: a 16th note synth ostinato also comes in later (more on that later)
Overall it's a really strong start to the song. It's nothing super super crazy but it's effective!
B1: 13 to 40: Introduces the main melody.
The melody carefully approaches a sense of drama, but it always kind of ‘cowers back'. The melodic loop here ends on a sadder chord. So you have a combination of mystery, sadness, holiness, trying to escape your current status… it's a very simple melody but I think it captures a lot.
Here, a louder strings sound also comes in, as well as some choral breath-like sweeps. The melody is probably two synths in one – a more ‘synthesized' sound (which is what you probably recognize as notes), and then a more mallet-like percussive texture. Near the end there's a really cool ostinato at a lower pitch than the melody that comes in and pans across the stereo field.
B2: 41 to 1:07 –
The ostinato I just mentioned gets a lot louder here. It's not the focus, which is why it kinda flies around the stereo field. Its function (to me) is mostly to keep the energy going to the C section, because the melody alone can't carry the energy through another repeat of itself. Also, the ostinato's timbre is a bit mysterious and technological, which is an interesting contrast against the other less ‘rough' instruments so far.
C: 1:07 to 1:35. This is a pretty tricky section to think about… it's interesting because it's simultaneous kinda climactic and not! Of course we have the percussion being introduced (which is kind of indicating the energy peak of a song, at least in game music that starts out without much percussion). At first the section feels climactic, but then the melody and chords start leading into *another* raising of the 'emotional energy' of the song.
I think overall.. I'd say this section really helps bring in the ‘tragic human' aspect of the theme. The horn(?) instrument used here is a lot more dramatic and showy. Honestly it would be irritating if you start off the song with this kind of instrument: it only works because it's been built up to. Doing that with a horn, to me, feels kind of like starting a JRPG story off with the universe being annihilated… who cares? I wouldn't even be invested yet!
C's melody takes a pretty common chorus approach, which is to just repeat a small set of notes over and over for catchiness and drama. Personally as a composer it's not super super fun to do that but it's really effective, and often being effective is more important than something super exciting/original. In particular, C's melody is built around small loops of melodies (with some variations), which draws focus to the chords that are doing some emotional movement below. Then, when C's melody DOES make a change, there's a really emphasized drama to it, because the melody is now really moving/acknowledging what the chords are doing.
The percussion in C emphasizes the 4th beat of the 6/8 time, mainly to more keep reinforcing the ‘big open space' that the song has been creating up to this point. In this song's use of 6/8 having percussion emphasize that beat gives a sense of the song always ‘echoing out' against some huge walls, feeling very expansive.
Energy peak of the song. This is just the song cashing in on all the layers its built up, by re-using the melody it started with in B1.
Repeat of B3-1 for memorability and keeping the ‘mood' up. Sometimes when writing music, it's nice to repeat a section, EVEN if not much development in the chords happen, simply because the current moment of the game calls for it and you want to emphasize the emotions happening in that section of the music the most. Or maybe you just want to pad out the OST time a bit, hehe…
As a result of all this repetition, what motif are people probably going to remember from this song…? The one from B1, B2, and B3!
SURPRISE This is just C again! But more layers! I feel like here you can start to notice your ear wearing out a bit. The song has been at HIGH HIGH energy level for a long time now, and it just keeps going… maybe this is my one complaint of the song haha. But it does transition back to the A section nicely. The thing is though, this IS the climactic melody so it would be weird to not end the climax of the song on it. If C2 was skipped and we went to A, I think it'd be weird. It's like skipping the period on a sentence
I think, if I were to edit this song… I wouldn't touch much, but.. maybe I'd see what would happen if I removed B3-2? I'd also definitely add an “A2” section right at the end with even less energy than A2, before building back to A. I think the ear could use a little more time to rest.
But overall it's perfectly executed and does a TON for TC and Kevin's character. It would be fun to write a song like this one day…
I hope that gave some insight into the music of the game or music in general! Really, writing songs for games… is about just coming up with the right seed or seeds for the song… experimenting with melodies, sound design, figuring out what kind of emotions the chords need to move through… Once you've got that down, it's fairly straightforward to expand that into the needed number of sections based on the context!
Tune in next time! There's some other songs I'd like to write about – Zeiss (FC), Rock on the Road (FC mountain pass field theme), some songs from the end of SC (Liber Ark themes… woo), and maybe a few other field themes from TC.
Or if there's a song you'd like to hear about… maybe leave a comment? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
If you liked this post, maybe you'll like the Trails series! https://store.steampowered.com/app/251150/The_Legend_of_Heroes_Trails_in_the_Sky/
Or my game music… htch.bandcamp.com/
Or some of our games! https://store.steampowered.com/developer/analgesic
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