Sunday, August 19, 2012

Analysis: Music in Super Mario Bros.

Today begins a new blog label, Analysis.  Blogs under this heading reflect my own study, notes, reactions, and analysis of video game music.  Where to start?  At the beginning, of course, with one of the most popular game audio references of all time, Super Mario Bros.

Inspired by reading Wahlen's article, let's consider the classic NES game.  What aural elements does the game have?  In other words, during a playthrough, what does the player hear?  How many themes are there?  How long are they?  What sounds are there in the game?  Using a combo of myself playing and this game play video, here's what I discovered:

Considering sounds, I count 18 sound effects: jumping, coin collection, jumping on enemy, pressing start, breaking a brick, powerup emerging, powering up, fireball, 1up, fireball contacts monster/shell contacts monster, fireball hits wall/unsuccessful hit, going down a pipe, bullet bill shot, swimming action, sliding down flagpole, Bowser bridge collapse, and Boswer falling, and the casino slot sound of time adding into the score at the completion of each level.  

There are also six entities I'm calling fanfares: the death fanfare (:03), hurry up fanfare (:03), victory fanfare 1 (overworld flag) and 2 (boss castle) both lasting (:06), game over fanfare (:03), and the Mario theme intro (:02), which is also the intro to the ground theme and serves as a fanfare as Mario walks to transition between the upper and lower worlds.

Considering musical themes and lengths, I count six themes: the main theme (:90), the underworld theme (:13), the swimming theme (:26), the boss/castle theme (:09), victory/end game theme (:07), and the invincible star music lasts only (:03) but loops for the duration of the invincibility (:10), giving it time to loop just over three complete times.  All of these themes double in speed after the hurry up warning sounds, when one minute of play remains.  Each has a character appropriate to setting the mood for its location.

As far as I can tell, this video plays most of the musical themes in Super Mario Bros.   Here's a video so you can hear most of them (castle theme and victory theme are missing).  Bravo to the editor for syncing up the death music right at the end-- super cool.



Now, let's consider the longest, most iconic of these themes in detail, the "Ground Theme."

What's the scoring?  Three voices of synthesizer along with a synthesized drum track.  Considering the melodic channels, one is melody, one harmony (these two are homorhythmic-- meaning they have the same rhythm), a third channel is bass, and fourth is the drums.  When you perform an action onscreen that makes a sound, the harmony voice drops out and only the melody, bass, and drums persist along with the sound effect.  

My traditional, classical background has me wondering about the form of the ground theme-- in other words, its overall structure.  So what is it?  Intro-A-B-B-C-A-D-D-C-D-- repeating with no intro.  Got it?  If you're in doubt listen to it following the timings below.

Intro/fanfare (:00).  A (:02)-B (:12)-B (:21)-C (:31)-A (:41)-D (:50)-D (1:00)-C (1:10)-D (1:20). 


Wikipedia's got an article on the theme with excellent sections on both the creation and the legacy of the Super Mario Bros "Ground Theme", as well as a list of its appearances.