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How Tears of the Kingdom’s Soundtrack Represents Its World

How Tears of the Kingdom’s Soundtrack Represents Its World

If you’re anything like me, you will have been somewhat unconvinced by The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild's sparse musical offerings when it released in 2017. “How can I possibly get fired up in the shower listening to this?” I wondered, lip quivering. 

But over time, my scepticism gave way to appreciation and eventually a deep, emotional connection to the atmosphere created by those deceptively thoughtful piano compositions. And let’s not forget the monumental slappers later in the game. Excuse me for a moment while I get goosebumps thinking about that Hyrule Castle theme…

Tears of the Kingdom Horse Castle

Unsurprisingly, Nintendo maintained a similar vision for Tears of the Kingdom’s soundtrack, but with two entirely new layers of Hyrule to score, something had to change. So how has the musical direction evolved? 

Much has been said about the Hyrule Field themes in Breath of the Wild, most of which still applies in the sequel, so we won’t dwell on that too much here — suffice it to say, the fragmented piano phrases elegantly reflect the shattered remains of the kingdom, the empty space between conjuring a palpable sense of loneliness. It may not be a hit for bathroom karaoke, but it sure is a mood.

In Tears of the Kingdom, Hyrule is being rebuilt. There are signs of life cropping up where only isolation could be found previously. Makes sense, then, for uplifting flute swells to now accompany and revitalise the trusty piano. They almost feel like beams of sunlight breaking through the cloud. Brightblooms in the gloom.

As we venture into the new layers of Hyrule, we find other instruments stepping into the limelight. The sky islands feature heavy use of woodwind, primarily the alto saxophone, although in a much more mellow capacity than the absolute hype fest of the game’s main theme. This is a nifty choice of instrumentation, drawing on the sax’s uniquely breathy quality to represent the high-altitude breeze atop the islands.

A more sneaky musical metaphor can be found in the composition. Again, we find serene textures drifting in and out to reflect the isolated islands afloat in the sky, but some listeners will notice that it can be difficult to discern a key signature from the chords; the exact tone and mood is sometimes ambiguous. This technique is often employed to help music sound more open and mysterious. In this case, the effect is achieved in large part by omitting the third degree of the scale, which would normally help to define the major or minor tonality of a piece. And here’s the kicker: in music theory, these chords are described as “suspended” — you couldn’t possibly represent a formation of mystical, floating islands any better.

Things get no less sneaky when we take a plunge into the depths. As Link plummets into a chasm, a descending piano sequence begins, with some harsh flute trills bursting through here and there; a little warm-up for the kinds of sounds we’ll be encountering below ground.

In the depths proper, things are a lot more sinister. Synthesised bass growls right out of a Skrillex track, primitive percussion that brings to mind empty bottles and old bones, and unsettling piano fragments combine to get you all nice and uncomfortable. Rather than caress your ear holes with gentle crescendos, the depths poke at you with more grating sounds that leap out from the silence like one of those bastard little Bokoblins lunging out from the shadows with a toenail on a stick.

You might expect pure atonality and discordance here, as it’s a tried and tested way to keep an audience anxious, but as always, Nintendo is too sneaky for that. There isn’t a huge amount of melodic material to go by, but what we do have outlines a C Dorian framework. The Dorian mode benefits from the melancholy tone of a minor key but swaps out the sixth in the scale in favour of the more uplifting major sixth. Effectively what this means is the music can evoke more nuanced emotion than just oooh spooky scary! It’s a less familiar sound for most listeners, which leads to added intrigue. The website composercode.com describes the Dorian mode as “darkness with a hint of light”. If that doesn’t perfectly and literally describe the depths, I don’t know what does. 

Sneakier than a Yiga hitman in a Zelda costume, I swear.

We’ve only scraped the surface here, and already it’s absolutely clear that Nintendo has put as much thought into this soundtrack as the predecessor. It’s just as emotive, just as creative, and might be even sneakier.

Adam Grindley

Adam Grindley

Staff Writer

Adam's favourite game is Mount Your Friends. That probably tells you everything you need to know about him.

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