This week’s composition selection is the “Main Theme” from Final Fantasy VII. This selection was composed by Nobuo Uematsu for the 1997 release of Final Fantasy VII on the Sony PlayStation. The soundtrack utilises the PlayStation hardware to drive a sample-based synthesiser, which allowed the soundtrack to feature sampled vocals such as those heard in the famous “One-Winged Angel” track. The “Main Theme” is featured whenever the player is on the world map during the first two-thirds of the game, before meteor is summoned. Since the game’s release, the “Main Theme” has been a fan favourite, featuring in many live performances and recordings, and in numerous official arrangements, such as for solo piano and jazz ensemble.
“Main Theme” is a fine choice to start off this series because of the way it is not only a microcosm of Nobuo Uematsu’s composing style at its most inspired and confident, but because of how it is also a microcosm of a successful navigation of the difficult path video game music must tread. “Main Theme” does the job of presenting Final Fantasy VII‘s moods and themes of hope amidst sadness and loneliness while both remaining grand enough to serve as an overworld theme and unintrusive enough to not distract from the game itself.
Like all strong composition, the instruments for which “Main Theme” was originally composed ultimately become unimportant. One may have either a preference or distaste for the aesthetic quality of the PlayStation’s sound capabilities, but the reasons for Uematsu’s success in this piece of music have everything to do with structure and not sound. Unlike the work of Motoi Sakuraba for the Tales of series in which great effort is put into never developing nor exploring themes and in which the goal appears to be making the music as forgettable and indistinguishable from itself as possible, Uematsu’s work for the Final Fantasy series – at its best – made sure to give music and themes lives of their own.
“Main Theme” confidently declares the first five notes of its triumpant primary theme to open the track and then – just as confidently – backs away from its continuation in order to establish a counterbalance of wary sadness. Therefore when the primary theme returns at approximately the fifty second mark to make its full statement, it does so with a more complex context than it would have if Uematsu had just let it barge through the door outright. This means that the full length of the primary theme can make itself known twice through without overstaying its welcome. Uematsu then previews the introduction of a second theme by switching from solid to arpeggiated bass. This welcomes his more delicate second theme which stays stylistically consistent with itself, but only makes one forty second statement – with entries from the primary theme poking its head out in the margins – to provide relief and contrast before the primary theme returns in its most bombastic entry yet.
Uematsu loses a bit of steam for a moment and opts for two more straight-up statements of his primary theme with nothing but aesthetic decorative changes. But although many other composers might tie a bow on their work at that point, Uematsu instead discovered that this piece had more to say. He skillfully dismounts from the heights of the self-assured primary theme over the course of thirty seconds to enter into a lengthy and sinister section to further highlight the adventurous and complicated nature of the journey for Cloud and his companions. This section is concluded by another skillful transition, this time climbing out of the murk with help from motifs more similar to the work’s second theme. The music isn’t so simple and delicate this time however, as Uematsu does not ignore the emotional journey of the work, ensuring that the music is as changed from the experience as the characters – and hopefully the player – will be after the events of the game have completed. The music fades into a repetition of itself after the introduction at this point, but it is worth noting that Uematsu ends the composition proper by having climbed out of its darkest moments yet in a state of hesitant hopeful complication.
This series will focus less on the technical side of musical theory for its analyses, but it is worth investigating for those interested that Uematsu focused on the use of 7th intervals in the creation of Final Fantasy VII‘s “Main Theme”.
Please use the comment thread below to add your own thoughts about the “Main Theme” from Final Fantasy VII. Have you found Uematsu’s musical choices to be as impactful for you as they have been for so many others? If so, do you have a favourite arrangement or remix? And, what other pieces would you like to see examined? Your suggestions may eventually be featured in an upcoming column!