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What Makes it Memorable? – Final Fantasy VII – “Aerith’s Theme” (Nobuo Uematsu)

November 16, 2010

One of the questions I’ve been asking over the past year is “what makes a song memorable?” I’ve tried to address this in several places, but not yet in-depth, which is what I would like to do for the next week. In a sense, it requires this because there are many components that make up a memorable song even though there is no formula for creating one.

The first element I choose is emotional attachment. Before moving forward, I go back to the very first song I posted, the Super Mario Bros. theme. With regards to this song, Koji Kondo said that he did not feel the music would have been memorable if the game weren’t any good. On the one hand, the song’s memorability stems from its simple repetition: kids played this game for hours and hours and they had no choice but to memorize the music. However, I also feel there is a stronger tie here, that of emotional attachment, the recollection of fond memories people had from their play experience and those connections with their childhood. This is one of the ways that a song can be memorable – it can recall a point or period of your life or an event associated with that scene (like the music that was playing when you had your first date or got married). Essentially, music and memory become tied into one.

One of the strongest emotional moments from games was the death of Aerith (Aeris is her translated name) in Final Fantasy VII. Though characters had been killed off in Final Fantasy games before (I’m looking at you, Galuf!), the player had never developed a very strong attachment to those characters. With Aeris, players formed an emotional attachment with her early on through the love triangle of Aeris-Cloud-Tifa. Aeris also became an important member of the team who healed the party, providing a sense of compassion the other characters lacked. The fact that the player was in a sense led to fall in love with Aeris through his empathy and identification with Cloud made her death all the more powerful. As a result, it is this memory of Aeris, of all the emotions leading up to the moment of her death, that make it resonate with the heartstrings of fans. I have heard reports of players who have even broken into tears when listening to this song, and perhaps you are one of those listeners who feel sadness upon hearing it. Incidentally, it is for this reason that I enjoy the Distant Worlds presentation of “Aerith’s Theme” – they showed one of Cloud’s happier moments with Aeris in the playground, eliminating the text boxes and letting the listener’s imagination fill in the blanks of their conversation).

In fact, every element of “Aerith’s Theme” is used to support this emotion. The opening piano notes, while at once immediately recognizable, also contain a strong sense of sadness and fragility: the melody feels as if it might break at any moment, and indeed it almost does at the end, a long pause before the final piano key, a resolution that almost does not occur. This is then followed with an explosion of strings, a sweeping release of emotion with mellow chords of the clarinet evoking the warmth of memory – a sad sweetness of one who is not long for this earth but brightens it with every step and smile.

Given this connection of emotion with memory, the question then is will new audiences find the piece memorable? Certainly, “Aerith’s Theme” contains elements of a memorable song, so its staying power is not simply tied to that memory. However, this is the problem that a lot of fans of vgm find when their music is heard by others – the audience simply does not have the experience of playing the game and attaching the song to a particular memory of that experience. As a result, the song must stand on its own merit as a composition. Here, the synthetic instruments seem much harsher, the composition foreign and initially apprehensive (as all music is initially). The music takes time (and perhaps a little polishing in the form of an orchestral or piano arrangement) to help facilitate that emotional connection, essentially to help make the piece more familiar by using repeated play and forms that are more familiar to general listeners (and let’s face it, while synthetic music has its advantages, the connection is not as accepted as real performance).

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