Jazz Influences in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
Modal Jazz and An Improvisational Spirit Add Color to Groundbreaking Game
Official Art for The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (Nintendo)
May 12, 2023 saw the release of Nintendo’s much anticipated sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild—The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, the twentieth main installment in the series that began in 1987 with The Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The vast open world game’s new mechanics like Ultrahand, Fuse, Recall, and Ascend were lauded as revolutionary, and a professor at The University of Maryland is even teaching machine design for a mechanical engineering course using the game. Tears of the Kingdom is now one of six nominees for the Game Awards 2023 Game of the Year, with its predecessor Breath of the Wild winning the top prize in 2017. The music of Breath of the Wild redefined the Zelda series with its sparse “environmental” solo piano tracks; fans were left guessing what the Zelda team at Nintendo would come up with next…for six long years.
A Link to the Past: A Familiar Musical Concept
Nintendo staff composers Manaka Kataoka, Maasa Miyoshi, Masato Ohashi, and Tsukasa Usui wrote the cinematic electro-acoustic score for the game. Similar to the new game mechanic, Tears of the Kingdom’s original music fuses acoustic instruments like piano and saxophone with electronic elements like synth pads and beats, and story beats that involve time travel are accentuated by mysterious and slightly unsettling reversed vocal samples. Some cues have a full orchestral scope with swelling woodwinds, brass and strings combined with choir, while others like “Sky Islands” are appropriately spare and minimalist. As in Breath of the Wild (2017), elements of modal jazz harmony and an improvisational quality can be heard in select cues, many of which feature ambient “environmental” music played by solo piano. The stylistic affinity for jazz in Nintendo games can be traced back to the original series composer Koji Kondo and his use of jazz-influenced melodies, harmonies, and rhythms in both the Zelda series and the Super Mario Bros. series.
“The surprisingly intuitive controls for these new mechanics reinforce an endlessly creative sandbox environment for the player that rewards experimentation and improvisational thinking.”
Ultrahand, named after a toy manufactured by Nintendo in the 1960s, allows the player to grab, reposition, and combine almost any loose object in the game using a sort of magical glue emanating from ancient Zonai technology in Link’s modified right hand. Fuse grants the ability to combine pretty much any object from boulders and enemy horns to raw meat with a melee weapon in the player’s inventory, modifying the weapon with enhanced physical characteristics like size, strength, and durability, and sometimes imbuing the weapon with elemental powers like fire, ice, and water. Recall sends a chosen object back through time on its most recent path or aerial trajectory. Ascend allows the player to travel upwards through solid objects like rock or ceilings at a certain height above Link, popping out on the other side like a Hylian Jack in the Box. The surprisingly intuitive controls for these new mechanics reinforce an endlessly creative sandbox environment for the player that rewards experimentation and improvisational thinking.
Tears of the Kingdom’s Main Title Music features the unusual choice of an alto saxophone solo over the orchestra, supported by an active solo piano part that harkens back to this instrument’s featured role in Breath of the Wild. This important instrumentation and timbral decision might have been influenced by the game’s focus on improvisation and spontaneous creation, similar to jazz.
The “Lucky Clover Gazette” in the Rito region of Northwest Hyrule is a newspaper hub that took over the location of a horse stable, so the Gazette’s theme music incorporates the plaintive stable melody from Breath of the Wild, but features spirited pizzicato strings playing a modified blues scale.
Modal Jazz Harmony in Hyrule
Modal jazz is based upon the old church modes—Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian, each of which has characteristic color tones that define that mode. Since ancient times, the Phrygian mode with its flat second degree has been associated with war. The Lydian mode is associated with magical and peaceful feelings, thanks largely to Disney and John Williams. Jazz theorist George Russell published The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization in 1953, which influenced popular jazz musicians like Miles Davis, who introduced the world to modal jazz on his 1959 album Kind of Blue. Modal harmony became a staple of music for film, television and eventually video games, since the modes have such evocative emotional qualities.
“…there are so many deeply buried references to past Zelda games and melodic and harmonic ear candy for the music aficionados among us that we should be excavating this treasure for years to come.”
The “tutorial” section of the game begins on the Great Sky Islands, where minimalistic woodwinds play softly with good helpings of space between each etherial chord. This chamber ensemble has clarinets and at least one saxophone in its ranks, differing from a classical wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, and bassoon) and distinguishing the musical timbre of the expansive network of floating sky islands well from that of the Overworld or the Depths (which has no jazz influences—not even a lone banjo).
The home base for Hyrule’s resistance is “Lookout Landing,” whose music is modified into a jazzy reharmonization of the original Legend of Zelda Theme after having completed part of the Main Quest at Hyrule Castle. Here, the ascending stepwise scalar motif in E-flat Major is played by solo trumpet, after which the strings come in with a rhythmic figure sporting more parallel harmonic motion. All of the chords in this progression have the same modal jazz voicing, and they are based on the Dorian mode (which is associated with medieval or ancient times).
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, “Lookout Landing (Post-Hyrule Castle)” Theme Excerpt, Transcribed by Scott Routenberg
Link’s main quest eventually takes him to the Gerudo Desert region in the southwest of the Kyoto-sized overworld map of Hyrule. After traipsing through the eastern mouth of the Gerudo Desert, Link first comes across a small, sparsely populated oasis named Kara Kara Bazaar. After crossing the outer boundaries of the oasis, the theme for Kara Kara Bazaar begins to play, featuring solo piano on a cool, laid back and jazzy chord progression.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, “Kara Kara Bazaar” Theme Excerpt, Transcribed by Scott Routenberg
The parallel harmony in this chord progression is typical of modern modal jazz; in fact, similar ascending whole-tone root movement can be heard in trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” (1970), albeit with a funky drum groove by Lenny White. Moreover, the colorful chordal extensions of 7ths and 9ths are representative of jazz harmony in a broader sense.
“Shrine of Light: Proving Grounds” also contains flashes of jazzy string harmony which brings to mind a re-contextualized Turtle Island String Quartet. The composers’ use of odd time signatures is particularly effective during gameplay, as the rhythmic groupings shift from 6/8+5/8 (11/8) to 6/8+7/8 (13/8) in short, unpredictable phrases, raising anxiety levels in the player. The mainstream popularization of odd time signatures in jazz can be traced back to the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s 1959 album “Time Out.”
The final boss battle with Demon King Ganondorf brings back some well known themes connected to this character, including the figure with parallel harmonization in the jazz style below (the first chord could be a type of dominant seventh/Mixolydian voicing if the root were D or A-flat).
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, “Demon King Ganondorf (Final Boss Phase 2)”, Harmonic Excerpt, Transcribed by Scott Routenberg
This has been just a small plunge into the deep dive that is all 190 or so tracks of music from The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, which has not been officially released as a physical soundtrack yet by Nintendo. Several themes for locations and environmental music have been brought back from Breath of the Wild, but there are so many deeply buried references to past Zelda games and melodic and harmonic ear candy for the music aficionados among us that we should be excavating this treasure for years to come.
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