Deconstructing: "Secret of the Forest" from Chrono Trigger
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Original post here: http://jasonyu.me/secret-of-the-forest
The 11th track in the Original Sound Version (OSV) of Chrono Trigger is "Secret of the Forest" and is the subject of this Deconstructing article, where we'll take a look in detail at a work of music and break it down into its disparate parts, with the ultimate goal of enhancing the reader's experience with the music. As a composer/producer myself, I also find deconstructing songs very helpful for inspiring ideas in my own work.
Chrono Trigger is one of those games you'll always find on a list of Best Games of All Time. One of the many cited reasons is the strength of the soundtrack---which, especially for the time, contains a wealth of memorable melodies and specific sounds and timbres that were new for an SNES game.
"Secret of the Forest" is the 11th track in the OSV and is first heard in Guardia Forest (and later on in many of the forest areas). It's one of the most popular tracks from the game, with countless covers on YouTube, and sample credit on tracks by musicians like rapper Wiz Khalifa and electronic music producer Giraffage.
But enough talk about it---let's actually listen:
Secret of the Forest
A full cycle of the track (that is, how long it is before the musical material repeats) is 2:13---the track above plays 2 cycles. We'll look at a single cycle and look at the structure of the track within that cycle---so any time references I make will be between 0:00 and 2:13.
Macro-level Analysis: Musical Structure
0:00 - 0:25: Intro - 8 Bars
0:26 - 0:50: Theme 1 - 8 Bars
0:51 - 1:15: Theme 2 - 8 Bars
1:16 - 1:41: Theme 1 Recap - 8 Bars
1:42 - 2:13: Bridge - 8 Bars + 2 Bars
It's important when thinking about musical structure to remember that music, generally, has a narrative. There is a natural progression of musical content in well-written music that makes sense, that keeps the listener's interest, and so when we think about musical structure, we want to consider how the structure of a song helps tell a story.
So while I have, in pretty boring terms above, laid out what the structure of this track is, let's now look at it using more narrative-like terminology.
The main character in this musical narrative (and this is true of most music) is the main melody. This is the hum-able "takeaway" from a song---in a pop song, this would be the chorus. In this track, and most others, one can think about every other aspect of the song being constructed "around" the main melody. So going back to our original structure:
0:00 - 0:25: Intro - 8 Bars -- this sets up the harmonic backdrop for our melody to come in
0:26 - 0:50: Theme 1 - 8 Bars -- first iteration of our main melody
0:51 - 1:15: Theme 2 - 8 Bars -- a "foil" to our main melody---often contrasting in both shape and tone.
1:16 - 1:41: Theme 1 Recap - 8 Bars -- main melody comes back, "transformed" and "heightened"
1:42 - 2:13: Bridge - 8 Bars + 2 Bars -- outro
Now let's look more closely at each section.
The introduction for this track lays out the harmonic backdrop for this track. There are just 2 instruments here---a harp-like instrument that creates most of the harmonies, and a bass that supports the harmony, as well as providing some melodic and rhythmic interest.
First, let's look at what the harp is doing. It's playing 2 specific note patterns, on repeat---each ascending arpeggios of 4 notes, for 4 measures:
Though harmony is often strictly used to refer to the way simultaneous pitches sound when played together, in practice, harmony is often achieved through arpeggio patterns like the one above---where the notes of the harmony are spaced out (though not very far apart temporally). It's a way to give the music a feeling of motion, even though harmonically, it's moving quite slowly---at a pace of 1 chord per 2 measures:
But that's not all there is! Let's see what the bass is doing...
When you combine the two lines, what you really get are these two chords:
It's these two chords, alternating every 2 measures, that make up the harmony of the entire track, excluding the recapitulation and bridge.
Which means the chords themselves have to be pretty cool sounding, to be the basis of essentially the entire track!
Before we talk about chords---note that it rarely makes sense just to talk about chords by name alone. For example, I could tell you that the 2 chords above are Ebmin9 and Fmin9, but that doesn't really give us any insight into why these chords work together so well. We have to define what these chords are in the context of the piece---which is in Bb Minor.
In the key of Bb minor, Ebmin9 and Fmin9 translate into the predominant (iv9) and dominant (v9). What does this mean?
Well, normally, a standard chord progression looks like this:
A TONIC chord goes to a PREDOMINANT chord, which goes to a DOMINANT chord, which goes back to the TONIC chord.
- The TONIC chord is home. This is where you start, and this is where you end.
- The DOMINANT chord is the "diving board" back to the TONIC. When you hear the DOMINANT chord, the ear expects resolution toward the TONIC.
- The PREDOMINANT chord is just setup for the DOMINANT, or a way for the TONIC to get to the DOMINANT---it's not always necessary. Many songs spend sections just going back and forth between TONIC and DOMINANT and skip over the PREDOMINANT entirely.
Almost all music essentially follows this chord progression template. Let's take another track from Chrono Trigger as an example:
After a brief intro, we get our main melody at 0:08. The chord progression from 0:08 to 0:14 is actually a perfect example of what Tonic (0:08) -> Predominant (0:10) -> Dominant (0:11) -> Tonic (0:14) sounds like. Then, from 0:14 to 0:38, we actually get a lot of Predominant -> Dominant back and forth action until the final payoff at 0:39, when we return back to the Tonic. Note how this sounds, how the ear anchors the tonic as "home", and how that final chord resolution at 0:39 feels like a satisfying arrival at Home.
Now, knowing all that, what's weird about our chord progression here?
Secret of the Forest
That's right---there's no tonic chord at all! We're just constantly moving back and forth between predominant and dominant chords. The effect this achieves is that our ears are never really anchored. Think about the way the piece starts. Doesn't it feel mysterious, like you know it's going to go somewhere, though you don't quite know where? Compare that feeling to the way Peaceful Days sounds, especially the finality of the moment at 0:39. It's very different, isn't it?
On top of that, there's something else very interesting about these two chords. Check out the notes highlighted in blue:
In the first chord, the blue note is G-flat, in the bass. In the second chord, the blue note is G-natural, in the treble.
This is called a "cross-relation," and it's very weird.
In the key of Bb Minor, G-flat is in the key. Which is to say, it "belongs" to the key of Bb Minor. On the other hand, G-natural is an accidental in the key of Bb Minor, which is to say it is NOT native to the key and is a modification of an existing note in the key, G-flat.
A cross-relation is what happens when both the original "correct" note and its modified version are juxtaposed. Often, the result is a dissonant clash that the ear will naturally notice.
Now, without looking at the score, listen to the intro again:
Secret of the Forest
At 0:06, when we move into the 2nd chord, which note of the ascending 4-note pattern is the cross relation? Which one sounds off?
If you guessed the 3rd note, you're right! Take a look:
It's little things like this that add a subtle layer of interest and intrigue to a work of music. When everything falls too neatly into place, the ear quickly learns to predict everything that happens, which is how music becomes boring.
That's enough about the harmony---now let's get to the main melody, which comes in at 0:26.
The entrance of the melody is not marked only by the melody itself, in the form of the Japanese flute, but also the percussion, which is a combination of taiko drum and tambourine, and a strings line that sings above the flute melody to fill in the harmony and create a more full sound.
I find the main melody of Secret of the Forest quite sad---or at least wistful. This, I think, is a result of the falling chromatic figure that ends every phrase, as well as the macro-level falling of the phrase as a whole:
Note the falling chromatic figures in red, as well as generally how the 2nd half of the phrase is just a re-phrase of the 1st half, at a lower register. This macro movement is mirrored by the harmony, which also moves downwards with the bass line.
The phrase above gets repeated again, but this time with a different ending:
(Note the end of the phrase on the G-natural--we highlighted it once before, and we're highlighting it again here in the melody, making it stand out even more against the G-flat in the bass.)
If we now combine these two lines into one and look at the whole melody, you can really see the contour of the phrase and where the climax is...right near the end, at the peak of the melody (0:44).
What is so cool about this climax is the way the supporting instrumentals here deliver that musical moment. Here's the strings (black) and choral (green) line that's moving in parallel with the above melody:
The strings melody is very hard to pick out because it's quite close in pitch to the main melody line. However, if you listen at 0:51, you can hear this strings line quite clearly. Now, if you go back to 0:25 and search for that same sound, you should be able to hear it, tucked away behind the flute melody. Note that when the flute melody is hitting that climax at 0:44, this is the moment that low choral line (in green) comes in. That sudden addition of the choral line is what gives the climax here that extra "oomph." Although the instruments here are not very noticeable on their own, their effect on the feeling of the track overall is unmistakable.
Let's not forget about the 2nd instrument that comes in at 0:26, which is the drums. Generally speaking, percussion is used to add rhythmic energy to a track---thus, when a drum track enters a track for the first time, it's generally the point where the track really "takes off." Note that the drum pattern doesn't change at all---the melody and harmony are already doing so much to create tension and release that to have the drums play a fill pattern at the end of the phrase would sound redundant and overdramatic. I love that the "Moose Call" technique for the drums is incorporated here (example at 0:27, done by sliding the fingers across the top of the drum---though in the context of the game it sounds much more like an owl than a moose!).
At 0:51, we move into the secondary Theme of the song, played by the piano. This second theme usually contrasts in some sort of way from the first theme, and here, the contrast lies mainly in the rhythm. What I find really nice about this second section, is that for all the differences from the first, there's actually two big parallels between the two themes.
One is the contour and macro-level phrasing of this 2nd theme. Note how this second theme also "falls"--how the 2nd half of the phrase is just the 1st half, but at a lower register (highlighted in red):
The second parallel is the strings-choral accompaniment pattern. Again, the strings line remains the same, wavering between F and G-natural, with the choral line making an appearance in the last 2 measures of the phrase (highlighted in green). Note that in the Theme 2 section, the choral line is not only doing more melodically, it's also appearing at twice the rate---from appearing once at the end of one 8-bar phrase in Theme 1, to appearing twice at the end of two 4-bar phrases in Theme 2. That increased frequency of appearance contributes to the overall building of energy and tension to its ultimate resolution at 1:16:
Theme 1 Recapitulation
This is the climax of the track---something, as a listener, we don't really need to be told. The musical elements make this very obvious---the return of the main melody (albeit in a different key!), the most instruments and most "filled out" sound yet, the raised pitch of the main melody, and the buildup before it all signal to us that this is the "point" of tension resolution in the music.
Until now, the strings have sat in the background adding texture to the harmony. At the Theme 1 Recapitulation, we finally get them center stage carrying the main melody:
2 main differences stand out between the first iteration of this Theme and its recapitulation. One is that while the first iteration of the Theme was in the Dominant key (F minor), the recap is back in the original Tonic key (Bb minor). The key change (and the resulting raised pitch) of this recap melody gives it its "heightened" status over its first iteration, which is accentuated by its grander, fuller-sounding strings treatment. The second difference is the ending of the phrase---while the first iteration ends on an a high note, suggesting further progression, the recap slows and winds down at the end, setting up for the Bridge and ending of the cycle.
For the first time in the track, we get a different harmony from the back and forth of Ebmin9 and Fmin9. By taking the same melody and laying it over a new harmony, the differences in harmonic color really come out. Because it's the recap and climax of the track, the harmony we get here is far more complex and dynamic than we've had it so far. To see this, we need to examine the harp and bass lines (which have been playing the same repeating pattern up until now):
Note how here, the harp is playing up-and-down arpeggios, rather than just upwards---just another minor difference in treatment that tells us this iteration of the theme is "different." More importantly, the harmony here moves faster than before. If we were to condense all the notes in the 8 bars above into chords, it would look like this:
For the entire track so far, we've had 2 chords, switching off every 2 bars---whereas here we have a new harmony almost every bar.
For the first 4 bars above, we still have the 2 chords from before, Ebmin9 and Fmin9. The difference now is that we've stuck an extra dissonant chord in the middle, which is really a "passing chord" that bridges the two, instead of just jumping from one to the other like before. The result is an added richness in harmony, which again, gives this recapitulation moment its heightened status. In the last 4 bars, we are expecting the same progression as before, but instead of going to Fmin9, we go to Cmin7 and then to F7, which sets up the transition into the Bridge. There is a sense of progression this time around, which contrasts with the very unanchored, unmoving progression we've had before.
Notice, also, that the macro-level movement of the bass line is no longer back and forth between 2 notes, but rather downwards (in red), which matches the "falling" nature of the main melody line. The effect is that you feel as if this new harmonization is a better fit for the main melody than the more static harmony before, and as a result, the experience is more emotional and climactic, which is exactly the point!
Finally, the bridge at 1:42 closes out the cycle, winding down the track and preparing us for the next cycle. It gives a lot of the instruments that have been in play the whole time (percussion, harp, strings) a rest to really highlight the bass line, which has an awesome solo here, with piano providing the harmony:
If we condense this down into chords, we get Bbmin7, Gmin7, Ebmin7, and Fmin7. What's surprising and interesting about this progression is that it's the first time in the entire track we've heard the Tonic chord, Bb minor (if you remember from above, the "home" chord). The chord right after, the Gm7, is also interesting because it marks the return of the G-natural cross relation we talked about before. This chord in particular, out of the 4 chords here, should stand out to the ear because again, it doesn't belong to the key of Bb minor. The last two chords are the two chords we've heard through the song all along (Ebmin7 and Fmin7), but because now they're anchored by the introduction of our Tonic chord at the beginning of the phrase, they have context and a sense of movement and resolution that they didn't before.
As a composer, some of the takeaways I had from looking at this piece in detail are:
Your chord progressions don't have to be that complicated. This piece uses two chords for most of the track, adds a passing chord between those two chords for the climax, and then saves an actual normal Tonic -> Subdominant -> Dominant chord progression for the bridge at the end.
Larger, structural ideas are supported throughout the song by different instruments, in different sections. The Main Melody of this track featured a "falling" melody. That "falling" idea becomes a structural theme that appears in not only the Main Melody, but the Secondary Melody, the bass line of the Recapitulation, and the harmony in the Bridge. Similarly, the cross-relation established early on in the harmony (the G-natural) has an important role in both the main melody as well as the harmony in the bridge.
Hope you enjoyed this article! Let me know if you want to see more stuff like this (and which songs you'd like to see it for), or if there are other topics in music theory you'd like to read about in the comments below!