Music Notes: Main Theme (Final Fantasy VII)

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.

Final Fantasy VII Overworld
Final Fantasy VII Overworld

“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!

8 comments

  1. How about Uematsu’s use of leitmotif in the soundtrack? Like the way the grandeur of the Main Theme is previewed almost quaintly and perhaps a bit naïvely in “Holding My Thoughts In My Heart”? Then you’re treated with the more complex and expansive Main Theme to show more of the world you’ve set out to explore and save. Later, in “On That Day, 5 Years Ago” we revisit the melody with more somber tones as we explore psychological depth in the past.

    On a side note then, one of my favorite songs “Interrupted By Fireworks” takes the mood and similar instrumentation of “Holding My Thoughts In My Heart” and applies a unique melody for one tender and pivotal moment. The expansiveness and gravity of Main Theme being forgotten for now, so that moment can exist in its own little bubble.

    Then of course you can hear the Main Theme being quoted again in “Highwind Takes To The Skies” as it becomes its own overworld theme, and the characters are gettong closer to the goal and have built up much more experience and resources.

    I can hear shades and suggestions of the Theme in songs like “Anxious Heart” where it’s not being outright quoted. Often the leitmotif Uematsu’s using isn’t actually melody, but the instrumentation. There are other leitmotifs in the soundtrack as well, particularly Aerith’s Theme which becomes cognate with the spiritual energy of the planet.

  2. ‘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…’

    Great effort indeed, for look how well he succeeds in being forgettable with works that are so obviously overwrought!

    ‘“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.’

    An excellent observation, and one which mirrors the emotional arc of the main character, who begins with all the arrogant supremacy of an expert hired sword, but then so soon after that opening sequence meets his childhood friend and begins to question not only his choices but his own past.

    The use of the Jenova theme in the latter part of the work adds meaning to its sinister tone, and again connects the theme to the character of Cloud, ending with his eventual, though not exalted, triumph over it.

    A great read!

  3. @tanzenmatt – Uematsu’s use of leitmotif is probably was what drew me so close to him in the first place. Playing his stuff on piano as a teenager really helped me appreciate his style that way. Although I might look at composers or full soundtracks in the far future, this feature is meant to zero in on a specific piece. I relate it to its place in the game, but otherwise really try to look at it as a standalone work and not how it fits in the soundtrack.

    That being said, although I know the FFVII soundtrack moderately well, if I knew it better, I would have preferred to note its use of the Jenova theme as Caspius brought up because it is part of the track itself. But that’s the joy of comments!

    Thanks for reading and responding.

  4. The Jenova theme is effectively just an arpeggiated minor 6th chord (Em6 in the “Main Theme”, ||: e3 g3 b4 c4 b4 g3 e3 b3 :||). It’s another one of those leitmotifs that makes itself heard here and there throughout the soundtrack, sometimes in surprisingly subtle ways!

  5. I love the way that Uematsu (and Occasionally Mitsuda + Sakimoto) are able to weave the same theme through multiple pieces of music – as it makes their soundtracks (and by extension their games) a more cohesive work. Sometimes you can play a game and have it feel like a bunch of different pieces stapled together, but a unifying soundtrack is one of the things that can anchor each section of a game back to the work as a whole.

    I also love how the main theme of FFVII is in no great hurry to reach its peak, and is instead confident enough to build its way to the height of the track at a more gradual pace.

  6. @SN: Sometimes you can play a game and have it feel like a bunch of different pieces stapled together

    That’s every Tales Of game, summarised.

  7. I disagree – I would say that the majority of Tales of games are very cohesive and unified in their mediocrity.

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