Never seen me interpret video game music? YouTube to the rescue!
If you’ve had a Wii for any amount of time, you’ve probably spent a couple hours in the Mii Channel making caricatures of friends and celebrities alike to fill up your ragtag baseball team. (Dan Lazin, for one, sent me a most excellent Lieutenant Worf.) And if you have, then it’s almost a certainty that the Mii-making music has been stuck in your head at least once. Naturally, I set about figuring it out on the keyboard, only to discover that I couldn’t quite get all the chord progressions right by ear.
So the other night, I turned on my Wii, set it to the Mii Channel, and did a rough transcription of the music as it played, mostly to figure out what was going on harmonically. Like most of the repetitive but catchy incidental music that comes out of Nintendo, there’s a great deal of complexity under those unassuming bleeps and bloops. So I switched up the rhythmic feel from Latin to a medium swing, jotted down some fancy chord substitutions, and decided to see where I could take the tune. Here’s the result:
I’m not all that happy with my solo, but I almost never am, and given that most listeners are absurdly easy to impress, I doubt a lot of people will complain. I gave myself a fairly challenging set of chord changes to play over, so the take I recorded was more about surviving four choruses and staying in time than actually taking risks and coming up with lovely melodic architectures. It’s easy to stretch out and aim for the pretty notes when you’re just jamming, but recording a complete take creates considerably more room for error. Apart from cutting back on the arpeggiation and going for longer melodic lines, there are two other things I’d change should I do this again. First, it swings a bit hard for a two-beat feel, and probably isn’t as laid back as it should be. Second, my left hand is mostly preoccupied with spelling out the bass line here, so the chord voicings are quite sparse; if I were to do a bassless recording, it would free up the left hand to highlight some of the more interesting substitutions I found.
As I said earlier, this is a surprisingly deep tune, compositionally speaking. I’ll go into some specific analysis for the benefit of the musically literate.
The biggest wrench in the whole affair is the oddball 25-bar form. There’s a straightforward 16-bar A-section that modulates to the subdominant (in the original, from A to D major; in my version, from B-flat to E-flat), followed by a 1-bar break and an 8-bar B-section (the only part in the original that really casts a melodic line into the foreground). In the video, I chose to keep the break at bar 17 in the solo choruses just to keep the tune quirky, and encountered all of the expected difficulties. I may do another take at some point that keeps bar 17 when playing through the head, but removes it for a more predictable (and playable) 24-bar solo form.
Harmonically, the most interesting part is probably how the B-section modulates back to the original key (again, A in the original, and B-flat in my version). The tonal centre moves up a major third: there’s a II-V-I in E-flat followed by a II-V-I that resolves to G major, which then drops to a minor and proceeds down the circle of fifths until we’ve returned to the key of B-flat. Jazz musicians will recognize the major-third jump as one of Coltrane’s “giant steps,” which most obviously predates Coltrane in Rodgers and Hart’s “Have You Met Miss Jones?” and becomes commonplace in a lot of post-Coltrane compositions by Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and the like. Here, we don’t take the tonal centres all the way through a circle of thirds (which is more of a triangle), but the modulation from E-flat to G suffices to make the tune particularly susceptible to jazz improvisation with a modern sound, and generally fun to play.
I hope Nintendo lets the cat out of the bag regarding the composer of all the Wii’s onboard music, as I’d really like to give credit where credit is due. I’m sure some people have speculated that it’s the work of Nintendo legend Koji Kondo, but I’m inclined to put my money on Kazumi Totaka, or Totakeke to his legion of Animal Crossing devotees. No sign of Totaka’s Song yet, though.