Music Notes: Forest Temple (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time)

This week’s composition selection is “Forest Temple” from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It was composed by Koji Kondo in 1998 and was written for the Nintendo 64’s 16-bit audio hardware using synthesized instruments and synth pads. “Forest Temple” appropriately plays whenever the player is in the game’s Forest Temple location. The Forest Temple is the first dungeon that Link encounters after awakening from a seven year stasis and discovers that the world’s state has quickly deteriorated after inadvertently allowing Ganondorf into the Sacred Realm.

“Main Theme” from last entry’s study showed how patient cultivation of melody, tactical use of mood, and limited repetition of theme can create a fitting and lasting memory in the minds of gamers. This week’s study will take a piece that uses very different methods in an attempt to accomplish a similar goal.

Koji Kondo is well-known for timeless and catchy melodies that have defined entire popular video game franchises, but with “Forest Temple” Kondo shows off more of his subtle skills. At first glance, “Forest Theme” appears close to anti-musical. While scored as a repeating eighth note, the track opens with what sounds like an echoing rattle before giving way to synth pads and a vague wind or stringed instrument repeating rhythmic intervals that fade in and out throughout the piece. It appears to be comically repetitive. However a closer look reveals deft techniques of variation and subversion.

While composed in common time with four beats to every bar, “Forest Temple” takes five bars to state its main idea and while the synth pads do repeat a very simple progression, it is never expressed in quite the same way twice until the track itself loops. Already these two musical tactics convey the unrest and unease that permeate the Forest Temple in the game itself. The area is meant as a way to jar the player into realizing that things are going to be different from that point forward and that once familiar and warm places are now corrupted and malicious. By using familiarity of repetition and subversion of expectation within the same track is a creative and effective way to convey both an idea and a mood.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Forest Temple
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Forest Temple

The final trick that Kondo uses before the track loops at just over the ninety second mark is allowing the piping intervals to take over the entire track more than just alternating its appearances over the synth pad phrases. In this way, Kondo gives unexpected life and focus to a supporting decorative element of the track, further supporting the idea that anything can come to life in the Forest Temple. With only three extremely basic musical elements, “Forest Temple” conveys a sense of foreboding magic and mystery by playing with expectations in what would be subconscious ways for most listeners.

With such a focus on atmosphere, it could be reasonably assumed that “Forest Temple” required its synthetic instruments to accomplish its goals, but a video search combined with this quick study reveals that its musical ideas can persist through sound choice and thus lends itself to the creed of structure being king in successful musical composition, even in the realm of atmospheric slightly experimental music.

Please use the comment thread below to add your own thoughts about “Forest Temple” from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Is this track successful for you, or do you ultimately just find it repetitive? Do you still find it effective when arranged for another instrument? And, what other pieces would you like to see examined? Your suggestions may eventually be featured in an upcoming column!

3 comments

  1. First, an aesthetic comment: that’s a great screenshot choice! And secondly, this is a very intriguing selection–a bit left-field, even!

    I would hesitate to describe it as compositionally minimalist, but certainly it is thematically or structurally minimalistic in a way that results in an ambient piece of music which is not unpleasant to experience outside of its intended context (unlike so many other intentionally ambient compositions).

    Particularly striking is that the wood chimes effect is the perfect choice for the Forest Temple: not only are there the obvious connexions, but there is musical felicity in choosing a percussive effect that is not going to overpower or distract when incorporated into an ambient setting. Koji Kondo is never less than thoughtful in his approach, and this piece demonstrates the consideration that he puts into his compositions.

  2. I’m sad that no one else seems to ‘get’ this track! Ah well. Different strokes and all that.

  3. @Caspius – Thanks! I thought the image was a great reflection of the music and the temple itself and why both have made such an impact on me.

    Thanks for your thoughts. I know that I’m not the only one who still thinks about this temple and this piece of music, so I was also surprised that there was no other interaction, but it’s also not an easy piece to talk about!

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