Music is one of the most powerful tools of communication, not only in games but in life as well. Things like key, tempo, density and tone colour play a part in creating an incredibly expressive and nuanced artform – an artform that is used to enhance the experiences found in games. This is something that The Legend of Zelda series is often praised for. Without exception, every Zelda game uses music as a form of communication to convey various and often complex themes. Composer Koji Kondo has cemented himself as one of the best composers in the video game industry, due in part to his work on the Zelda series. There is no better example of this than with Majora’s Mask, which effectively uses a combination of musical techniques to create an atmosphere and tone that is unparalleled, even today.
We’ll start with perhaps one of the more chipper pieces of music found in Majora’s Mask: the Clock Town music. Unlike a lot of the more powerful pieces in Majora’s Mask, Clock Town’s music is written in a major key, meaning that a lot of the chord voicing and musical phrasing is of a rather bright manner when compared to the sombre tone of the game it is placed it. This piece of music works in contrast to the state of the world, and communicates what is happening in Clock Town. The end of the Termina is coming and the inhabitants are none the wiser. They proceed with their daily lives and routines in ignorance to the impending doom. It is not until the second day where things begin the change. While the music is effectively the same, the change in tempo during the second day for Clock Town tells a story of panic; the residents have turned their gaze at the sky only to see the moon plunging towards them. The atmosphere of the town begins to shift. Residents go about their lives in a more hurried manner, some use the time to pack their things and say goodbye, whereas others use the time to tie up loose ends. Clock Town is no longer this central hub in Termina, where the people living there can be at peace. Instead, it’s the focal point of contention, parties that are usually friendly to one another have become increasingly hostile (just take a look at the interactions between the contractors and the guards in the mayor’s office) and the people are beginning to show how scared they are. All of these changes are consistent with the faster, frantic music. You genuinely feel like something terrible is happening and that you should do something about it.
Going beyond Clock Town, you’ll find a handful of melodies that Link learns with his Ocarina. The two most important pieces are the Song of Time and Song of Healing. The latter is one of the most brilliant uses of contextual dissonance that I have ever seen. To the unsuspecting, the Song of Healing should be a bright, joyful piece that instills happiness. However, this song is anything but that. Featuring the use of a minor key, the Song of Healing is an incredibly sombre piece that fits not only the atmosphere of the game but also manages to fit every situation that calls for the harrowing melody’s use. This musical piece is often employed when Link needs to help people impacted by turmoil of Termina; like the Darmani (the hero of the Goron people in Snowhead). Most uses of this song see a person’s soul laid to rest, leaving a void in the world where they once lived. The Deku kid leaves behind a grieving father who constantly mourns the death of his son. Darmani’s soul, entrapped in his burial site, embodies the hero in the green tunic and helps his own people, but at the end of the day the Gorons are only reminded of the hero which they tragically lost. Mikau leaves behind Lulu, the singer of the Zora band The Indigo-Go’s as well as seven Zora eggs. While it’s never actually stated that Mikau is the father of these eggs, he is portrayed as a father figure with the closeness of his bond to Lulu. In almost every instance, the Song of Healing heals those afflicted by redirecting its pain from one individual to the rest of the world.
Even if you remove all context from the various pieces of music within Majora’s Mask, the songs are composed to contrast against their originators. The aforementioned Song of Healing is effectively Saria’s Song played in reverse. The songs have a double entendre of sorts that Nintendo is willing to explore. There are even gameplay elements that use this concept, such as the Song of Time including the Reverse Song of Time that slows down the rate at which time passes, which makes it easier for the player to achieve more within a three-day cycle. It’s decisions like these that make the very intentional music choices considerably more meaningful.
As previously discussed in Part 2, Majora’s Mask has some excellent dungeons, few as they may be. Each dungeon’s atmosphere is built with music befitting of the environment. Even little things like the instrumentalisation of each song to suit the dungeons enhances the atmosphere. A personal highlight for me is the music for the Snowhead Temple, which features a bright, playful tone which also hints at its sly, ominous nature that lies beneath the mask (pun intended).
The way the music is written and used in Majora’s Mask just hits a point that most games do not. While most games employ an effective use of tonality and placement with their music, they often fall short when it comes to the density and complexity. It doesn’t take much effort to see that the most well-known pieces of music in gaming follow one fairly simple rule; a basic melody accompanied by chord and note phrasings that don’t detract from the intended mood. This often means that the most iconic songs in gaming are also the catchiest. Take a look at the theme music for the Super Mario games, Tetris, Sonic the Hedgehog or even Doom – none of these themes are so busy as to become distracting. This is not to say that busier pieces of music are bad but the simpler pieces of music fit Majora’s Mask better than busier pieces ever could. The simplicity of the music communicates how cold and empty the land of Termina can be when you are traveling between locations/landmarks.
If you’ve played through Majora’s Mask, you would be aware that each key area is in turmoil and you need to help the people whom are affected by whatever is plaguing each area. While these problems are active, the game plays a unique and unsettling piece of music. It’s a playfully dissonant piece which communicates the idea that something is awry and whatever sinister force is causing havoc on the land needs to be discovered and stopped. The most interesting part about this music, however, has to do with its use of different instruments. While subtle, the mysterious track that plays in the plagued areas has a unique instrument that corresponds to each area. It’s easy to overlook, at least until you hit the Great Bay, where the tone of the instrument can be different from the rest of the game. It’s a subtle difference that adds depth to the world and its problems – all the plagues are connected to the overarching problem facing Termina.
One of the most chilling pieces of music that Majora’s Mask has to offer is the Final Hours track which plays in… well, the final in-game hour of the three-day cycle. As discussed earlier, the music in Clock Town becomes progressively more frantic as the moon draws closer to the land. When you hit the last hour of the in-game clock, the entire atmosphere shifts to a haunting, melancholic tone. While the game does regularly communicate these themes through the music, the Final Hours track overrides every piece of music in the game. It’s a stroke of contextual genius that communicates the theme of impending doom, especially when you consider that in order to fight Skull Kid and Majora you need to be in the last hour of the cycle. You have to either beat these two antagonists and save Termina, or accept that you will meet with a terrible fate.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask stood the test of time and is still cemented as one of the most masterfully crafted games the industry has ever seen. Its writing is in a league of its own, setting the scene of a distant land far from the land of Hyrule that the Zelda series has grown comfortable with. Couple that with the immense game design that reinforces the importance of time and the three-day cycle, both mechanically and in terms of writing. The ideas and themes that Majora’s Mask puts forth are further enhanced by the beautifully composed soundtrack that not only suits every unique moment of the game but is incredibly memorable. There are not many game soundtracks that, if listened to separately from the game, allow you to relive each moment of the game.
I hope you enjoyed this three part deep-dive into what made Majora’s Mask so great. Be sure to stay tuned to Chillesauce for the next game I go in depth with.