Samus Aran = Schenkerian Analysis?

Thu, 07/22/2004 — Fasteriskhead

The Metroid item collection music, a brief little fanfare that plays every time Samus picks up something of note, is a surprisingly ambiguous piece considering how short it is. The entire score is as follows:

Save for a few E-naturals and a G-flat/F-sharp (more on these later), the score limits itself more or less within the scale of B-flat major/lydian. However, the chords used initially seem very enigmatic and seemingly non-triadic. Consider the opening sonority, B-flat F C, a series of stacked fifths, which is more or less inert musically (traditional tonal theory requiring the presence of a major or minor third before a chord's function can be determined). The next measure begins A E G, a fifth plus a minor seventh (notice the lack of a third again). The third measure begins E-flat F D (major second and major seventh), which might be reinterpreted as an D minor chord in inversion (though this is somewhat dubious, considering the context). Finally, the last chord, a D-A fifth with a tremolo between an E-natural and an F-sharp (or G-flat), is a parallel to the opening chord (except with the addition of that F-sharp). The chords beginning all the measures heavily utilize fifths, sevenths, and major ninths/seconds (all of which are usually de-emphasized in favor of thirds/sixths within the language of triadic harmony), producing an "alien" sound to the item collection music that parallels the "alienness" of the Metroid game itself. Additionally, the A to E-flat tritone is carefully avoided, which makes some sense given that it too is extremely important in tonal harmony (as part of diminished and dominant chords).

Looking at the sonorities more deeply (i.e. taking account every tone that occurs within the measures), though, we can discover that they are INDEED triadic! The entire collection of tones sounded in the first measure, stacked in thirds, is B-flat D F A C, a B-flat major seventh chord with a major ninth. The next measure presents the collection of A C E G, an A minor seventh chord. Next is E-flat G B-flat D F, an E-flat major seventh chord (plus M9). Finally, that last measure (taken at face value) is D F-sharp A E, a D major chord with a major ninth.

One way of viewing that closing chord is as a half-cadence on a D dominant in the key of G minor; however, there is another, more complex way to consider it, which is why I have written the F-sharp as a G-flat. Now, neither the E-natural nor the G-flat are in the key signature (though the E-natural makes a brief appearance earlier), and by all accounts the note that SHOULD be there in the highest staff is an F-natural, creating the diatonically-occurring triad D minor. However, the composer has decided that, instead of simply sounding this chord, he would "color" the sound by substituting in E-natural and G-flat, which are the chromatic neighbors of the F. This creates a large degree of ambiguity within this last chord, further heightening the "alienness."

So the final progression is B-flat major, A minor, E-flat major, (sort of) D minor. Reduced to this, the form becomes clear: the VERY SAME PROGRESSION, bII to i, a Phrygian cadence by half-step motion downwards, is repeated twice, the second time a perfect fifth lower (which explains the E-natural, without which the A minor chord would be an A half-diminished). This suggests that the key is not B-flat major but is, in fact, A Phrygian resolving a fifth down to D Phrygian.

There are other small items of note (notice the first and second staves running in parallel thirds in mm. 2 and in parallel sixths in mm. 3), but this is essentially how the entire piece works. The style recalls late Debussy in its use of semi-modal idioms and higher chord extensions, though its use of (seemingly) nontriadic sonorities seems to owe more to Hindemith. In any case, this work is a wonderful way of telling people that they have just picked up an item that will help them to Revive Peace In Space.

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