The world is a lonely and dangerous place, empty but for a small town and remains of an inscrutable society. You and your only daughter, afflicted with an incurable disease, struggle day to day as mysterious ephemeral beings threaten to take away what little you have. Only the gentle plucking of an old guitar and a soft voice, singing a delicate but despondent song in a language no one understands, carries you along your struggle to survive. No hope and no meaning are to be found here - only the tragic and downtrodden people of this world anxiously awaiting their uncertain but inevitable deaths.
This is (an admittedly dramatized version of) the world of the video game Nier. Released in 2010 to mixed reviews, Nier was polarizing as many critics were off-put by the game’s bizarrely depressing story, mediocre graphics, and clunky gameplay, while others hailed it as a unique masterpiece despite its flaws. Despite not finding commercial success, the game has gone on to establish itself as a cult classic, inspiring numerous tribute albums, an upcoming official sequel, and some wild fan theories, such as Aaron Suduiko’s enormous 20,000 word analysis from a Buddhist perspective (https://withaterriblefate.com/2015/06/18/nier-will-teach-you-everything-you-need-to-know-about-identity/).
The surprising long-term appeal of the game can be traced in part, much like its publisher’s bigger franchise, Final Fantasy, to one key element: Its gorgeous music. Almost all critics agreed that the soundtrack to Nier was astounding and beautiful, carving out its own niche by incorporating vocals from the excellent Emi Evans (who also sang the credits music to Dark Souls) into a medium that has been primarily instrumental for decades, save for outlier themes for openings and/or credits (like the infamous Castlevania: SOTN ending). Composed by Keiichi Okabe, who was previously known for his driving electronic works for the Tekken series, the soundtrack has developed a life of its own, culminating in a live performance of the soundtrack in Japan in 2016. In fact, if it were not for the overwhelming praise for the soundtrack (which I actually first found in the comments section of a TAY article!), this paper would have never been written, as I wouldn’t have even heard of the game.
As is customary with music reviews by non-musicians, however, very few of the critics who praised the music gave insight into exactly why the music was so excellent beyond its surface level beauty and melancholy. This paper will attempt to fill in that omission by examining ways in which Okabe reuses certain motifs to create unity and seamless flow throughout the game, while also examining ways in which the unity is disrupted to better suit the narrative.
I was surprised in my analysis to find that each song is really just a series of 30-50 second loops with varying orchestration. Unlike some games, however, Nier does an excellent job at maintaining the illusion of seamless continuity and hiding its simple structure. Due to the fact that every track is built on a relatively short loop, the in-game implementation of the soundtrack allows for one track to accommodate an entire scene without being boring or overdramatic by seamlessly adding or subtracting instruments from the orchestration as the scene demands. For instance, in the scene in which the track “Cold Steel Coffin” plays, the player enters a seemingly empty town and the orchestration is nearly all voices with few instruments, creating an ominous and uncertain feeling. As the action picks up and the scene shifts towards conflict, the voices remain but are accompanied by driving percussion, heavy brass, and running string lines, effectively transforming the same ominous chord progression and melody into an invigorating song for a dramatic battle.
Disclaimer: The notation that will be presented from this point on are not from the official or original manuscript (as I did not learn until near the end of the process of writing this paper that an official book of scores surprisingly does exist for the soundtrack, but I have not acquired it yet due to the importing process). Instead, the notation depicted is a combination of original transcription work and extrapolation from transcriptions created by other users online -A special thanks to Musescore user Zokque in particular, who had uploaded transcriptions of many of the songs and gave me an excellent starting point.
The pervasive emotional state of Nier’s music can be described as melancholy. Composer Keiichi Okabe, discussing the direction given to him by the game’s director, explained, “I was told that the feel of the world and the atmosphere of the story were ‘sad and gloomy,’ and so I did my best to bring out a sense of melancholy in everything. But I didn’t want the music to be just gloom, so I focused on expressing various sadness and gloominess, from a quiescent sadness to intense sadness, and so forth.” The goal of this paper is to figure out exactly what makes the soundtrack so effectively melancholy, primarily focusing on the harmonic gestures that are used throughout the entire soundtrack.
But first, a brief primer. I wrote this paper for an upper level theory course which doomed it to be filled with jargon that will fly past a lot of readers. In addition to the notation in the original paper, I will include links to the audio excerpts mentioned. Many people are great listeners who just haven’t learned the terminology to put what they hear into words. In short, melody is the part you sing/hum/whistle, whereas harmony is just about everything else with a pitch that you hear. Harmony creates the foundation of tension and release in music, and Keiichi Okabe excels at manipulating this in Nier’s soundtrack. So, when listening to the audio examples, try to listen to the sounds further in the background, instead of just the part that sticks out the most obviously.
Also, if anyone would like to take a look at the original paper with all of the terminology intact you can find it here:
Continuing on -
The most readily apparent motif used in the soundtrack is a melodic or harmonic motion that descends by a half step and then moves back up at the end of a chord progression/loop. This gesture finds its way into 30 of the 33 tracks on the soundtrack, and gives Nier a characteristic sound that greatly enhances its seamlessly looping structure. In layman’s terms, this is the sound at the end of a chord progression that feels suspended, a very royal and majestic sound, usually affiliated with church music and dramatic organ parts. This final chord lets the audience know that the progression/loop has reached the end, setting them up to hear either a new chord progression or a change in orchestration. This motif, combined with its nearly excessive pervasiveness throughout the whole work, creates the seamless flow of Nier. In addition, with only one exception that will be examined later, every instance of this motif leads to a minor chord – in other words, the tension it builds always resolves to sadness.
Ex.1 presents the motif in its purest form, holding all voices except for the critical note that creates the motif. At this point there is nothing to hear except for the motion from the C to B, which immediately informs the audience that the end of the loop has been reached. In this particular track, the three voices switch from a longer and smoother motion into aggressive and short attacks, while the percussion, which was subdued for the previous chord cycle, bursts forth to create a new driving motion. This seemingly sudden and drastic change in orchestration does not come as a surprise, however, because the motif establishes that something new is about to happen within the same framework. Ex.2 from the final boss theme, “Shadowlord”, shows the same motif at its strongest and most dramatic.
It’s worth noting that the beautifully crafted reveal trailer for Nier: Automata uses this motif at the precise moment that director Yoko Taro’s name appears on the screen, confirming without a doubt for fans of Nier that this is an announcement trailer for a sequel. It’s one of the best instances of manipulating musical familiarity that I have heard, and I know I wasn’t the only one who got chills from that trailer.
The second most prominent motif in the work is the use of a chromatic ascent (moving by half step to a note outside of the key) in one voice, usually the bass, to destabilize the major chord and move forward. This one is generally a spine-tingler, creating a sudden dissonance that immediately demands to be resolved. Of all the motifs in the soundtrack this simple half step lends the most melancholy of sounds to the work as a whole. As noted previously, all but one song in Nier is written in a minor key, and this motif most commonly presents itself in the middle of a chord progression after landing on a major chord. In other words, this motif turns a happy chord into a deeply sad one in an instant, creating the feeling that happiness, represented by major chords, is a fleeting concept that can quickly and easily be taken away. (SPOILERS) The game itself revels in this theme, as in when the Shadowlord snatches Yonah away from you at the halfway point in addition to later killing Fyra, the Queen of Facade, on her wedding day. (END SPOILERS) Indeed, in most songs that this motif appears in the disrupted major chord is the only hint of major to be found in the track.
Ex.3 demonstrates this motif in the fourth measure, where the bass motion continues up a half step to E natural to make a chilling and unstable fully diminished chord.
Ex. 4 uses the same chord progression and is very similar, but it is different enough in its rhythmic structure that this moment avoids the impression of mere reuse or laziness, but subtly lends the sensation of familiarity.
The third motif also centers on bass motion, as is the hardest to hear without an explanation, so I’ll let the examples do the talking.
Essentially, in a sort of reverse from the previous motif, a downward motion in the bass voice turns a minor chord into a major chord. However, this motif does not create as strong of an effect, as it merely turns the stable minor chord into a stable major chord –no dissonance or tension is created here, just a brief, pleasing sound.
Ex. 5 demonstrates the first appearance of this motif on the soundtrack. This rustic song, designated by the game itself to depict a sentimental beauty, opens with a casual classical guitar moving between the minor chord and its relative major chord. This period of harmonic stability sets up the song’s function as a beautiful ballad and fits the peaceful scene in which it is set before moving onto the sadder and more active chord progression in the chorus (Ex.3).
Ex. 6 adds a step in between but the gesture is still the same, moving from the minor chord at the end of the song’s chorus to the major chord in the new section. This moment is initially striking,but upon closer examination the now-familiar bass motion creates a sense of unity while still allowing the song to move away from the minor.
The fourth motif speaks more to the general harmonic language of the soundtrack, and is also a little hard to explain without the musical terms. Let’s listen to it first.
This one is also a spine-tingler, temporarily moving out of the key to create a breathtaking sound. This one in particular is almost always reserved for the harmony – the melody rarely makes use of this beautiful note, and a conflict between the melody that stays in the key and the harmony that temporarily moves out of it is part of what makes the effect so powerful. This motif once again establishes brief moments of the major key which contrast the pervasive minor to create the sensation of fleeting happiness. After all, a story with a glimmer of hope that is taken away comes off as much more tragic than a mere onslaught of negative events (for example: Drakengard).
Ex.8 shows a similar gesture. In this case, the ambiguous sound of the first four measures give no indication whether the piece is in major or minor. Because of this ambiguity, the presentation of the crucial (motivic) note could either be leading us to the major key or presenting a colorful note in the minor key. The next measure quickly resolves this conflict, but this moment of uncertainty lends the song its ambiguously haunting sound, fitting for the haunted mansion that it accompanies in the game.
The fifth and final motif appears near the end of the game and presents a totally new sound that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the soundtrack. This chord progression, best recognized as the opening four chords of the jazz standard “Fly Me To The Moon”, move us naturally towards the sound of the major key for a brief moment. However, the briefly established major chord quickly moves back into minor as Okabe creates a brief glimpse of happiness in the form of the major key but immediately takes it away. While this motif is foreshadowed in instrumental pieces earlier in the soundtrack, it does not take full form until the final two songs titled “Shadowlord”and “Ashes of Dreams”. As will be demonstrated later, these pieces represent a culmination of the entire musical world that the soundtrack has created.
At this point, I think I have successfully convinced you that Nier sounds sad. However, there are outliers on the soundtrack that do not fit so neatly into this overarching theme of melancholy. Two tracks in particular, “Emil” and “Kaine”, titled after characters in the story, contain numerous similarities that serve to reflect and subtly enhance the narrative parallels between the two characters.
Before examining the details of these songs, a brief description of the unique traits of the characters they represent is necessary. (MORE SPOILERS AHEAD) Emil and Kaine serve as your primary companions throughout the game, and are both thoroughly tragic figures. The player meets Kaine as she uses the self-destructive powers she has gained (by being possessed by an malicious and parasitic spirit) to hunt an enormous beast that killed her foul-mouthed adoptive grandma, the only parental figure in her life. Later, the player meets the blind and lonely Emil through a series of events that leads to the death of his sister, who has been experimented upon for twisted scientific goals, and the destruction of his original body, forcing him to occupy his sister’s strange and dangerous body without a human face. As mentioned earlier, the narrative of Nier was quite polarizing for its bizarrely depressing nature. (END SPOILERS)
Most importantly, Kaine and Emil are similar characters in the sense that the presence of the protagonist, the titular Nier that the player controls, gives them a reason to continue on living. After Kaine gets her vengeance and Emil loses all hope, they both admit that they have nothing to live for, but Nier offers his friendship and asks for their assistance on his journey, reinvigorating their will to live. Unlike the many static characters in the game, Kaine and Emil are dynamic characters who gradually come to terms with their own tragic existence throughout the course of the narrative.
It makes sense, then, that the music used to represent them would be different than the oppressive melancholy of the rest of the game. Both songs have two distinct sections (to be referred to as A and B sections) but unlike the rest of the soundtrack, the two sections of their songs are radically different from each other. Significantly, the B sections in both of these songs notably feature a motion towards a happy major sound.
“Kaine” features the most striking harmonic motion in the entire soundtrack, shown in Ex. 11, moving from one key to another. In this case the song doesn’t simply move from the minor sound to the major sound using the same set of pitches, but instead transforms into to a new key and a new set of pitches. This effect is much, much stronger than simply navigating the same key. In direct contrast to the other motifs in the soundtrack, which present a fleeting major to be ripped away by the returning minor, the B section of “Kaine” refuses to linger on the minor chords by moving back down to the C major. The end of the B section is a real doozy that defies the key once again to move back into the original key. However, the moment where the major tonality prevailed still lingers in memory.
“Emil”, much like the character, is not as exciting or strikingly different, but its B section, shown in Ex. 10, does stick out in the sense that the harmonic rhythm (how quickly the chords change) doubles and begins using the fifth motif demonstrated earlier to lead to a major chord. While the B section does not move to a new key as it does in“Kaine”, the same effect of growing excitement and escape from stagnation is created, reflecting the narrative development of the characters.
On a deeper level of cross-analysis, additional parallels can be found between the two songs, creating the impression that Okabe made a deliberate effort to pair the characters and their similar stories together. The most striking of these similarities is not initially apparent to the listener, but creates unity on a deeper level. The A section of Emil lingers casually around E minor, floating down to D major and then C major before moving back up. Compare this to the B section of Kaine, which begins on C and ascends through the D major chord up to E minor before falling back down – These chord progressions are the same sequence of chords played in reverse, shown in Ex. 11. Both songs also feature the use of pedal tones, repeated notes that don’t change with the chords, in their A sections, creating a feeling of stagnation that is taken away in the B section.
These two tracks carve out their unique position in the soundtrackas themes for change and growth, the antithesis of the gloom and melancholy found in the remainder of the soundtrack. Unifying devices both subtle and blatant are present throughout both tracks that tie them and their characters together on a deep and meaningful level.
The soundtrack to Nier makes use of many different motifs – so many, in fact, that on paper, the work might sound excessively self-referential. However, the specifics of the motives’ applications holds this notion at bay, and I doubt many (if any) of the soundtrack’s fans have complained about it being too repetitive. At the beginning of the soundtrack, each song usually only contains one or two motifs from the collection of five, and they are generally quite subtle, lending a feeling of unity more so than excessive borrowing. The final two tracks on the soundtrack, however, are not so frugal. These tracks represent a culmination of the entire vocabulary that has been created throughout the previous two hours of music, and serve as a fitting and satisfying ending for the work as a whole.
The first of these tracks, the final boss theme titled “Shadowlord”, uses four of the five motifs found in the soundtrack. The blending of harmonic motifs reaches its peak density at the end of the track’s A section, where three motifs can be found in just ten seconds! Even without analysis, this moment, accented by the introduction of bells and a big upward leap in the melody, creates a satisfying experience for the listener that succeeds because all of its parts are drawn from familiar material.
As “Shadowlord” moves into its fully orchestrated and hugely dramatic second half, its status as the climax of the soundtrack is fully established. The tempo is faster, the volume (objectively, from a digital music production standpoint) is louder, and the accompaniment is busier than anything that came before it. In this section (Ex. 2) Okabe confirms the soundtrack’s most defining feature, the first motif, with the most triumphant moment in the soundtrack emphasized by the temporary removal of the high-register percussion (I believe it’s a tambourine that chills out for this spot) and the aggressive string articulations.
The soundtrack’s finale, “Ashes of Dreams”, plays during the credits after the story has finished. If “Shadowlord” means to serve as a dramatic send off, “Ashes of Dreams” serves as the quiet resolution which neatly wraps up the entire soundtrack, as it contains all five motifs found throughout the work. Three of these motifs are fairly obvious in their use, as shown in Ex. 14, but the other two are much more subtle and are used to move the piece towards its more harmonically complex later sections.
The first four chords of both the C and D sections are identical with one key change: The bass motion. The choice to change the bass note to create interest may at first seem arbitrary, but looking at the songs that came before this reveals that the transition to the C section uses the third motif, while the transition to the D section makes use of the fourth. Again, the third motif creates a stable but beautiful sound while the fourth creates an unstable, spine-tingly sound. Both of these sounds are already familiar to the listener and set the two sections apart in ways that are confirmed beyond the first chord. The C section (Ex. 6) is, simply, more beautiful, with embellished chords and masterfully manipulated dissonance. The D section (Ex. 15) presents truly colorful harmonies that are unlike anything else on the soundtrack. Just by beginning each section with a different color created solely by the bass motion and drawn from the vocabulary that has already been established, Okabe sets up appropriate expectations for the following 14 bars.
This article has examined from a more theoretical standpoint a few ways in which Keiichi Okabe creates and disrupts a characteristic harmonic vocabulary in the soundtrack to Nier. This analysis, however, has only scratched the surface of this work. In the interest of time, this paper has not delved into the rich pool of programmatic and narrative enhancing elements found in the soundtrack, such as the strangely joyous “The Dark Colossus Destroys All” (SPOILERS) or the fact that there are no songs with lyrics in a real language until you finish the game, which coincides with the fact that the gibberish language of the Shades is now able to be understood. (END SPOILERS) I plan on writing more about these in the future. In the mean time, keep on the lookout for these motifs in the soundtrack to Nier: Automata! I have no doubt that Keiichi Okabe will make clever and meaningful use of the musical language he so carefully constructed in the first game.