Friday, October 31, 2014

Horrifying Music of Halloween Playlist!

Happy Halloween from 90.9 WGUC! Don’t forget to tune in throughout the day for some of your favorite spooky classical sounds and then tonight at 6:00 for Tunes from the Crypt with Mark Perzel. If you’re looking for a few additional pieces to enhance your eerie day, I’ve compiled a “Horrifying Music of Halloween” playlist for your reference. Enjoy!

Tchaikovsky, “Swan Theme” from Swan Lake

Mussorgsky, Night on Bald Mountain

Stravinsky, Rite of Spring: Sacrificial Dance

Grieg, Peer Gynt: In the Hall of the Mountain King

Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath

Bartok, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta

Mozart, Requiem

Rachmaninoff, Isle of the Dead

Schubert, Erlkonig

Mahler, Kindertotenleider

Wagner, Ride of the Valkyries

Saint-Saens, Danse Macabre

Orff, Carmina Burana

Bach, Toccata and Fugue in d

Bantock, Witch of Atlas

Stravinsky, Firebird: Infernal Dance

Gluck, Orfeo ed Euridice: Dance of the Furies

Saint-Saens, Carnival of the Animals: Aquarium

Holst, Mars-Bringer of War

Bazzini, Round of the Goblins

Shostakovich, Symphony #10: Second Movement

Gounod, Funeral March of a Marionette

Chopin, Sonata #2: Funeral March

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Creepy Stories and Music

Going along with our spooky sounds of Halloween this week, today let’s listen to a few pieces that are associated with creepy stories that you may or may not be familiar with. First up is Dvorak’s Noonday Witch. Inspired by the poem “Polednice” by Karel Jaromir Erben which was based on the noon demon “Lady Midday” found in Slavic mythology, the story behind the music relates to a mother who warns her young son to behave or she will summon the noon witch. When he continues to misbehave, the witch appears, terrifying the mother. In fear and attempts to protect her child, the mother holds the boy close, accidentally smothering him to death. You can listen to Dvorak’s musical interpretation of this terrifying tale here:

Another haunting story comes from Goethe’s poem “Erlkonig” that Schubert (along with many other composers) set to music. This piece for voice and piano tells of a father and son riding on horseback through the night. As the son cries out in fear of the approaching, yet enticing Erl King, the father hushes him to silence, not believing the boy’s story. When the horse arrives to their destination, the father finds the boy dead in his arms. Schubert does an excellent job at conveying the different characters in this poem. The Erl King who is an enticing character, sings in a major key in order to sound positive and convincing. The father too sings in a major key, ignorant of the impending doom of his child. The boy and the narrator, on the other hand, aware of the ultimate fate, sing in an eerie and sorrowful minor key. You can listen to Jessye Norman sing this magnificent piece here. Can you hear the racing of the horse’s hoofs in the piano?

Lastly, let’s listen to the famous “Sacrificial Dance” from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring
Do you remember what happens during this primitive ballet? A girl is chosen as a sacrifice and must dance herself to death. You can watch a scene from this opera here. Notice the irregular meter and frequent alterations of notes and rests in Stravinsky’s music that help to depict this scene:

Monday, October 27, 2014

Horrifying Music of Halloween: The Dies irae

In light of Halloween this Friday, let’s talk about deathly sounds and spooky tales found within the classical music world. Coming up on Halloween I’ll even provide my “Horrifying Music of Halloween” playlist to accompany your evening activities.

Have you heard of the Dies irae? This theme comes from the Mass of the Dead and has been used by composers for hundreds of years as an underlying message or symbol in their own work. Today, I want to share three famous examples of where this Dies irae can be heard in the music of Berlioz, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff. First, why not familiarize yourself with this theme with a clip taken from a film that chose to foreshadow death through its soundtrack, The Shining.

During the 19th century, composers were fascinated with anything macabre and sought to incorporate deathly sentiments in their music. One such example is the fifth movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique known as “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.” Berlioz uses what is known as the idee fixe or “fixed idea” throughout his composition. This fixed idea is a musical theme that comes back in each movement, changing each time it appears in order to match the story the composer seeks to convey through his music. 

During this finale movement, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” Berlioz distorts the idee fixe and combines it with the Dies irae theme in order to depict a dream of his beloved appearing at his own funeral as a witch. As you listen to the excerpt below, listen for the distorted sounds of the idee fixe in the E-flat clarinet and the Dies irae theme that Berlioz weaves throughout.

Another example of the Dies irae can be found in Liszt’s Totentanz, a work for piano and orchestra. Many musicologists believe this work was inspired by a fresco Liszt saw while visiting Pisa. Created by Orcagna, the fresco was entitled The Triumph of Death.

Courtesy of 

Liszt begins this work with the Dies irae theme in the trombones. This theme, along with sudden shifts in dynamics and the use of low registers creates a creepy atmosphere for the listener. Listen here:

This past week, we had pianist Andre Watts in the WGUC studio prior to his performance with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. When asked to name his favorite use of the Dies irae in music, Watts immediately told us that, as a pianist, Liszt’s Totentanz.

Lastly today, let’s listen to Rachmaninoff’s haunting Isle of the Dead. This piece is based off of the painting by Arnold Bocklin that Rachmaninoff first saw a reproduction of in Paris in 1907. The composer felt uneasy as he gazed at the boat holding a coffin as it approached the eerie island.
Courtesy of

Reflecting on this as he composed, Rachmaninoff begins his piece with the sounds of oars in water using the dark sounds of low strings accompanied by timpani and harp. The music evokes a lack of direction and a sense of urgency as it progresses, the Dies irae appearing once the boat arrives at the island. This theme seems to win out over any sounds of joy in the piece. Can you hear the Dies irae? Listen here:

Join me next time as we look at creepy stories associated with various classical pieces!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

What do you think?

What do you think? This month we walked through ways music appears in various video games. Do you think this is an adequate area of study in musicology? Why or why not? I would love to hear your opinion whether you enjoyed this month’s topic or not!

If you are a fan of video games and the music, what is your favorite type of music usage within a particular game?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Video Game Music Scholarship and More!

As I mentioned earlier this month, video game music scholarship has taken off within the last decade. Now an accepted area of research amongst musicologists, it also exists as a very accessible topic for many people. One video game music scholar, Will Cheng, has an excellent book with more information on the topics I highlighted this month. If you find this topic interesting and would like more information, you can go to the following website and check out his book. 

One other area of music and gaming research worthy of note comes from scholar Karen Collins who studies music and gambling. Did you know that often times, the music used at casinos is intentionally written in such a way as to cause the player to believe they are doing better than the reality of their situation? Next time you consider gambling, you should be mindful of the music!

With the idea of video game soundtracks becoming so popular, the London Philharmonic Orchestra released a Greatest Video Game Music album in 2011 followed by a second volume in 2012.

 Zelda even has a traveling symphony that many of you may have seen when they performed at Cincinnati’s Music Hall last year. 

Join me next time as we wrap up our month of video game music!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Anything Goes: Music in Modern Games

Like many things in today’s modernized world, anything goes when creating a new video game. The types of music you may hear and how it’s used in newly-released games varies greatly. Today, let’s just look at a few uses of music in various modern-age games.

Today it is more common to have an actual composer write a soundtrack for a game rather than using a programmer to create background mechanical sounds. Some people relate video game scores to film scores when they are actually quite different to create. Many film composers know exactly what to expect with the film and have the clean and neat task of putting music to an already-set plotline. With video games, however, the story or progression is unpredictable since each individual player determines which direction the plot might turn. Many composers approach this difficult task by creating a score with flaps containing different ways the music may turn as well as different layers of instruments, adding more during intense moments.

Darren Korb, composer for games such as Bastion and Transistor is known for his excellent soundtracks and use of experimental music.

While some games use the old chip tunes, nostalgically choosing to pull sounds from the 80s, others use beautiful soundtracks (many people think of Halo when they want to hear a great video game soundtrack). One of my favorite soundtracks comes from Journey in which the main character is represented by a solo cello.

Do you dislike the soundtrack you hear in one of your games? Xbox players can plug their iPod into the console and create their own soundtrack!

Do you remember when we looked at diegetic and non-diegetic music during our film music month back in April? Well, these terms also apply to video games! As a reminder, diegetic music is music that the characters onscreen can hear (there is a musical source onscreen) while non-diegetic is simply background music. Bioshock Infinite shows a record player inside a house while Grand Theft Auto allows players to choose their own radio station inside the car, both diegetic examples.

Hopefully the expansive examples touched on above show you that music can be used in many different ways within modern-day video games. Do you enjoy the range of options currently on the market or do you prefer the traditional games of the 80s and early 90s?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Making Music in Guitar Hero and Rock Band

Have any of my readers ever played games such as Guitar Hero, Rock Band, or Dance Dance Revolution? Last week we looked at several examples of games in which players can control music. Today, let’s talk about games with the purpose of creating music.

During the late 1990s, Dance Dance Revolution entered the arcade scene introducing the idea of a “rhythm game.” A physically interactive game, consumers are given a “dance stage” on which they can step on various sensors as they follow a list of step patterns on the screen. Console versions were also made available for people’s use in their own living rooms.

This idea of a “rhythm game” sparked the makers of Guitar Hero to develop a similar gaming idea in 2005 in which players can “play” guitar on a guitar-shaped controller as they follow “notes” that scroll by on the screen in time to the music. An expansion of this idea came with Rock Band in 2007, which also included drums and vocals. These “rhythm games” provide a new type of video game in which the music itself is the game.

Games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band provide an avenue for players to do something that they may be incapable of in real life. These games allow people to feel like skilled rock stars even if they may be tone deaf. It’s interesting that these games have created tension amongst many “real” musicians who cannot understand why people spend their time mastering a toy-version of an instrument rather than practicing the real thing. What are your thoughts on this?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Making Music in Video Games

Continuing our look at video game music this month, today let’s focus on the idea of making music in video games. Has anyone played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, released for Nintendo 64 in 1998? This particular game features an ocarina that gamers must play in order to beat the game. The ocarina is an instrument that you receive during the game and it can be played by using button presses and bending the pitch with the analogue stick. As players progress, they learn various songs they can then play on the ocarina.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is an example of a game balanced between ludo and narrative. If you are like me and unfamiliar with gaming terminology, you may be wondering what this means. Primarily, ludic games emphasize game play, like Angry Birds, Pong, and Tetris. Narrative-heavy games emphasize story elements, as Heavy Rain and The Last of Us do. Many games, like Ocarina of Time, are a balance of both elements. By making music using the ocarina, players further the plot and solve puzzles.

Ocarina of Time is one of many games that involve making music as part of the game. Other examples include Twilight Princess (players use a whistle to call a horse), Skyward Sword (players can strum a harp), and WindWaker (players can direct patterns with a conductor’s baton).
Have you ever played a video game in which you could make music? Which one?

Join me next time as we continue looking at making music in video games by examining Guitar Hero and Rock Band!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Opera in Final Fantasy VI

It is video game music month on Clef Notes and I would love to hear any fun anecdotes from game enthusiasts out there! Last week, we touched on arcade games as well as early consoles. Today, I would like to expand our NES discussion to include the Super NES that came on the market in Japan in 1990 and the U.S. in 1991.

With the development of the new and improved NES in the early 90s came the use of a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) system in which programmers had the option to use different instrument sounds within a game. The Super NES also contained eight stereo channels (16 channels total) which was certainly a jump from its predecessor.

With the Super NES came the use of music in various roles within gaming. While games continued to contain soundtracks that served to accompany onscreen action, several also incorporated music into the game’s plot. One example of this is Final Fantasy VI during which an actual opera takes place. This opera was composed by Nobuo Uematsu for the game. Uematsu also uses leitmotifs throughout the game (a constantly recurring musical theme that usually represents an object or character). In the video clip below you can see the opera scene from the original Super NES version of Final Fantasy VI. Notice that at this point in time, technology did not allow for the usage of a human voice so we still experience chip tune music accompanying on-screen lyrics.

Join me next time as we take a look at making music in video games, specifically The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Burying Video Games in the Desert?

Do you enjoy video games and their soundtracks? Then join me this month as I explore a brief history of video game music. Last time, I began by discussing the first known coin-operated game with sound, invented in 1897, and went on to talk about arcade games of the 20th-century. Today, let’s move on to look at early consoles that people could actually take home and play.

Many of you first-generation gamers remember the Atari Corporation that began in the 1970s. Did you know, however, that their failed attempt to create an intriguing E.T. game following the release of the major motion picture caused consumers to second-guess whether purchasing consoles was even a good idea? This major video game bust led to Atari burying over one million copies of the E.T. game in the desert!

Due to this video game crash, sales drastically decreased between 1983 and 1985, right around the time the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) came on the market. Hoping to improve the gaming industry following the crash, NES marketed their product as entertainment rather than a video game system. They also promised to buy back their systems from any consumer or retailer who lacked satisfaction.

With the invention of the NES came a huge leap forward in gaming technology. This new system contained five sound channels, enabling it to accommodate more complex music than what we saw with Space Invaders during my last post. Below, you can watch wave visualization videos from the NES containing the theme from Super MarioBrothers and The Legend of Zelda, both by Koji Kondo.

The music you hear in the clips above became a stylistic trend that people today can immediately relate with video game music. In fact, many modern-day games purposely use what composers call “chip tune music” in order to evoke the sounds of the early 80s. It is now an artistic choice, however, rather than a technical restraint.

Wrapping up today’s post, I wanted to mention a fun video game music fact discovered by a scholar at Ohio State University, Dana Plank-Blasko. During the early video game industry, developers rarely hired composers, so oftentimes, the music you hear was actually created by a programmer rather than a musician. Because classical music is not under a copyright, many programmers pulled from historical composers to accompany their games. One such example is the Captain Comic game released by NES in 1988. Using Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor, the programmer forgot to include the key signature and accidentals (sharps and flats) in the music, causing Bach’s beautiful work to sound completely butchered! You can hear a good example of this if you skip to 8:35 in the clip below.