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Links to Fantasy: The Music of The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy,
and the Construction of the Video Game Experience

Adviser: Noriko Manabe

Julianne M. Grasso


“As long as you’re working, it’s not ‘cheating the system’ when your work feels like—or is—play.”


In the fall of 2009, Princeton gave me $500 to buy video games, play them, and keep them forever. On my end of the deal was the promise to churn out something significant and scholarly in five months. My thesis explores the music of two popular video game series—The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy—and how their soundscapes contribute to the gameplay. It is a synthesis of my music education at Princeton and years of game-playing experience. 

Like many of my generation, I grew up with “a Nintendo” and the other various gaming consoles of the 1990s. Few of the games we played ever had moments of silence, and the programmed sounds of synthesizers burrowed into our brains in 30-second loops. Almost any 20-something can sing the theme of the Super Mario Bros. games, despite its rhythmically complex melody. But few people have written about it. In my preliminary research, I discovered that a few academic publications addressed the topic of video game music, but that no one with scholarly credentials seemed to have actually partaken in something so unscholarly as playing the games they talked about—and openly admitted it.

“This is where I come in,” I reasoned to myself, and wrote as a placeholder in my thesis introduction for something more eloquent. I picked the two series of games to research and justified my choice with many sound reasons—including the series’ development in parallel and relative composer consistency—but most importantly, because I had played them and loved them. One of the biggest challenges in writing my thesis was allowing myself to hinge an entire 165-page essay on the validity of my own experiences. It was finally okay to have a voice!

If it sounds like I had a grand ol’ time researching and writing my thesis—well, much of the work certainly did not feel like work (unless you count navigating the Water Temple in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time). At the same time, I faced many real challenges along the way, from technical (recording gameplay) to trivial (choosing a typeface). For one, the concept of a senior thesis was, quite frankly, frightening. 

My thesis experience began before freshman year, when I first discovered the mandatory senior thesis requirement. Princeton’s Halloween colors always made perfect sense to me, as it is a school so wickedly good at having big, scary things—like a required senior thesis—loom menacingly over its students. Unfortunately, despite majoring in a humanities subject, I didn’t really enjoy writing. I could quickly and easily spin out lab reports for my science classes, but when it came to writing about things best described by metaphors (as music often is), my eyes would glaze over as the creative part of my brain instead preoccupied itself with making clever new Facebook statuses about my lack of productivity. I would usually start and finish standard five- to 10-page papers the night (or morning) before they were due, but I knew I had to find a better strategy for completing extensive independent work. 

I figured that I would write my first short junior paper (JP) on a topic that had a large body of research, so that my paper would be strong and well supported without having to try too hard. I love Baroque and classical music, so I first turned to Bach and Mozart. I was soon overwhelmed, rather than aided, by the number of resources, and I found it hard to choose a specific topic from the myriad of research. Ultimately, and awfully close to my paper’s due date, I realized that it would be difficult to write something fresh about Bach or Mozart, and I didn't want to write a paper devoted to synthesizing the collected thoughts of others. Naturally, I procrastinated over winter break by playing some old video games, and in hearing and responding to familiar musical themes, I found my topic.

My two junior papers analyzed two games of the Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI, both of which I had played as a kid. My JP on Final Fantasy VI explores the themes and musical leitmotivs that structured the soundtrack and the story line, and my JP on Final Fantasy IV begins to explore how different kinds of music are used for different modes of playing. My thesis expanded upon that previous work by bringing in the entire Final Fantasy series under examination, as well as another favorite series of a different genre but similar production time frame, The Legend of Zelda.

In a sense, I already had done the research; I spent hundreds of hours not only playing those games but absorbing their omnipresent music. I first learned piano by playing themes from the games. I’ve even used fan-made remixes of the music for workouts. Judging by YouTube videos, I wasn’t the only one with a nerdy attachment to childhood video game music. With my junior independent work, I had the opportunity to begin exploring the underlying meaning, structure, and purpose of video game music. The more I explored, the more interesting things I found, and soon I was stuck in the infinite loop of scholarly curiosity.

With so little existing research on video game music, I had to do a lot of work myself. I made transcriptions of a number of tracks by listening to the music over and over and writing down every single note in every instrumental line. This was not overly difficult for early games that utilized three to five audio channels, but I did pull a few late- and all-nighters to accurately transcribe some of the lush orchestral tracks from later games. From transcriptions and close listenings, I could analyze the harmonic, melodic, and structural features of the music.

But most importantly, I’d then take my notebook over to my TV and play. I applied what was going on with the game with what was going on in the music, and how it affected how I played, or vice versa. In the later games of the Legend of Zelda series, many of the player’s actions will actually alter the music; for example, letting your character stand around may change the instrumentation and dynamics of the music to be smoother and lighter, while running and fighting introduce more percussive and fanfarish elements. While these musical features are made to be inconspicuous, they represent a uniquely interactive method of music composition. Another important angle I brought to my research was the narrative element of each game, an angle missing in most prior studies of game music. In many games, particularly those like the Final Fantasy series, the unfolding story is the most important element of the gameplay experience. In my thesis, I was able to bring in my knowledge of the games’ characters and plot to augment my analyses. For example, for Final Fantasy VIII, I connected different but thematically identical music together by tracing how their use in the game developed together with the game’s core love story.

While I did use a lot of my own experiences as the basis for my claims, I needed some external references, or at least another pair of eyes to help me keep on track. In my junior year, Professor Dan Trueman offered great advising and steered me closer to what I would eventually study for my thesis. For my senior year, I was told that it’s preferable that your thesis adviser is different from your JP adviser, so I was tasked to find another professor in the music department who would take on a topic I still thought was a bit criminal, as if I were cheating the system in some way by enjoying the work. What’s more uncommon is that I chose to ask an entirely new, incoming professor in the department to become my partner in crime for the next year. Professor Noriko Manabe has a background in ethnomusicology and popular music, among other fields of music, and I was hoping that our interests could easily intersect. I was thrilled when she agreed to take on my project.

Professor Manabe and I worked through the beginning few months of the year exploring the different avenues my thesis could take, a stressful and important part of the thesis process. I never expected it would take me so long to find an argument, but it was probably November before I decided with certainty which games I would study. My advice for this beginning phase is to start communicating with your adviser as early as possible, to allow enough time to develop your topic with—not in spite of—your adviser’s input. My adviser had a very good idea of my sense of direction with the project, often better than I had, and that made our later sessions much more productive.

Once I got going, Professor Manabe was especially good at guiding me toward finding connections between game music and other historical or world musics, and in analyzing musical patterns. I was the authority on my own experience, but she helped me support my observations through references that could be explained outside the world of video games: Latin American rhythmic motifs, film music scoring clichés, references to classic works, etc. I could not only analyze the music with respect to my own experience, but also bring in research and examples from other musical fields to support my insights.

When fall semester was over, the pressure was on to turn the thesis into a real product—to turn notes into drafts. February and March were the most difficult months. If you have an opportunity to participate in some sort of group writing “boot camp” of sorts (I did one during intersession and another during spring break)—do it. These boot camps got me through the most difficult parts: the first, starting my entirely new first draft; the second, starting my entirely new second draft!

My thesis ultimately shows trends over time: The Final Fantasy series becomes more cinematic, both visually and musically, as newer technologies achieve a more realistic, or at least more immersive, environment for unraveling the games’ stories. On the other hand, the Legend of Zelda series incorporates more dynamic and interactive music in the games’ soundtracks, supporting more action-based gameplay. These conclusions may seem simple, or common knowledge to those who know the games, but stronger theses are built on concise arguments. It is very difficult to tie a great number of topic strands together in a complicated conclusion just because it might sound smarter. Believe me, I tried, and it did not work!

In hindsight, I think that the opportunity to produce original research is one of the best features of Princeton’s junior and senior years. It’s easy to say that now, because I’m months out of “thesis crunch time,” but if you choose a topic marked by your passion and curiosity, you’ll get through just fine. As long as you’re working, it’s not “cheating the system” when your work feels like—or is—play.

Links to Fantasy: The Music of The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy,
and the Construction of the Video Game Experience

Julianne M. Grasso

Noriko Manabe

Assistant Professor of Music

“Don’t pick a topic that does not interest you, just because you think it will help you get a job or admission to graduate school.”

When Julianne Grasso approached me about acting as an adviser for her senior thesis, I was simultaneously excited and apprehensive: excited, as her topic—video games—coincided with my specialty in my previous career as an equity analyst; and apprehensive, as it was my first year at Princeton, and I was not sure what to expect. Would the student be capable of fashioning a thesis that was rigorous and credible as a thesis from the Department of Music at Princeton? What musical knowledge would she be able to display through this unusual topic? One reason for my concern was that while there are a few scholarly articles about music in video gaming environments, we had found no existing publications that discussed the music itself in much detail. 

Fortunately, my fears were quickly allayed, as Julianne had the musical skills to apply analytical rigor to the key question: How does music enhance the experience of playing a video game? In order to identify recurring themes that portray different characters and environments, Julianne transcribed 35 musical extracts from the video games, explaining the interrelationships among themes (e.g., in Final Fantasy VI, the theme for Rachel, Locke’s deceased lover, contains the same melodies as Locke’s theme but in the parallel minor) and the recurrence of some themes across several games in a single series. Once she identified the musical contribution to the narrative of these video games, I helped her to see the relationships between these themes and the topoi of classical music or the motifs of “world” music. 

To address the second key question—how have the technological advances that accompany each console cycle changed the role of music in video games over time?—Julianne used her skills as a gamer to explore the impact of music on the gaming experience. In particular, she explored the increasing degree of interactivity between the game player and the music in progressive games of the Legend of Zelda series. As a result of her combination of musical and gaming skill, her thesis is one of the first documents to discuss game music and its interaction with the gaming experience with descriptions and transcriptions of the music.

The initial, exploratory phase was perhaps the most challenging for the adviser. Julianne was so enthusiastic about game music that I sometimes feared the project would become an uncontrollable monster that she wouldn’t be able to complete in the short time frame of one academic year. My task was to get her to focus on a smaller set of games, on a specific narrative—the evolution of game music over several console generations—so that she would not get sidetracked into exploring additional games or excessive details. 

Despite what she claims, Julianne is an excellent writer. Her writing is fluid, imaginative, and engaging, drawing the reader into her world. Once she began the process of writing, advising her was easy and pleasurable; the gaming world seemed a natural object for her descriptive writing. Her momentum at this stage was commendable; she was obviously enthusiastic about her topic and sustained a high level of internal motivation. 

My advice to students as they contemplate potential topics is: Follow your heart; follow your instincts. At the end of the day, it is your thesis—it is your name on the cover, and it is you who writes it over the course of several months. Don’t pick a topic that does not interest you, just because you think it will help you get a job or admission to graduate school. Seize the opportunity to explore something that truly excites you; the inspiration and insights will follow. That is what happened with Julianne’s thesis.