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Sonic Melodies

The ‘Continue Sound’ from Sonic the Hedgehog is a series of arpeggios ascending and decrescendoing.

The arpeggios make up the first five chords of the C Major scale—C major, D minor, E minor, F major, and G major, just like “Doe, a Dear”. It has a pedagogical quality, though it is very musical, like this blog. An extended version of the Continue sound found its way into the Los Doggies song “Major Minor Minor Major”.

Arpeggios were a necessary part of the early Nintendo sound card, limited to just 3 voices for melody and harmony, and a noise channel for rhythm. This shaped the horizontal sound of gaming’s Golden Age, and established the need for arpeggios in order to express complex chords. There was also a strong Prog-Rock and Metal influence on the Japanese composers. Sega soundtracks were even more metal, with its 16-bit Arcade timbres, and overall rebellious teen attitude, ready to dethrone Mario as King of Vidya.

Masato Nakamura, composer of Sonic 1 & 2, faced the same sound card limitations of 3 voices and a noise channel, as well as the inherent groove of the game, what distinguishes the blue hedgehog from the Italian plumber—Speed! That means quick tempos all around, with heavy back-beats, and driving rhythm. “Green Hill Zone” serves as but one example of the hi-paced Pop masterpiece that is Sonic 1. Mario could only approach that speed with time running out on the clock.

Let’s hear what Nakamura-san has to say.

“I wanted ‘Sonic’ to come across as cinematic.

I wanted melodies that the player would hum along with as they were playing, dramatic music for when the scenes were intense, climactic music for when bosses would show up, and then tie it all together with an uplifting theme for the end credits. That was what I knew I wanted it all to be like.

Nowadays, RPG’s use this sort of musical technique a lot, but at the time, action games like ‘Sonic’ didn’t.

And so, from watching movies, I composed melodies that kept the game tempo in mind without sounding unnatural. I also wanted to make sure that the music didn’t loose its groove. After all, one of Sonic’s key elements lies in speed.”

Like Mario, the classic sounds of Sonic and much of his soundtrack are in the key of C Major. But Koji Kondo of Super Mario Bros. is a far more corny kind of dude than our Nakamura-san. He doesn’t mess around with the samba or the waltz. Let’s just say, it’s clear Mr. Masato is in a band. But would you suspect he’s the bassist?!

“The power that music has is really amazing. I keep saying it, but it always feels really wonderful to hear people humming those tunes.

When I walk by arcades, I’ll hear crane game machines playing ‘Sonic’ music, and I’ll just stop there, and listen, and I’ll cry a little bit from all of the memories.”

Super Sonic

Leave your Sonic melody memories below.

Sega Melodies

The famous intro sound of the 16-bit Sega Genesis, which I assume is a choir of Japanese dudes with the most lovely singing voices in the world.

What we have here is an interval of a minor third between two major chords: Eb Major to a C Major sung in parallel harmony. The chords appear in second inversion with the lowest voice singing the fifth. There is a synth bass rounding out the chord by playing the root notes: Eb to C.

The “Se-ga” chant first appeared on TV commercials, and was used in the game Sonic The Hedgehog. According to the lead programmer Yuji Naka, the wav file for the sample took up 1/8 of the 4MB cartridge space, and replaced a scrapped animation sequence of Sonic break-dancing. Back in 1991, when you started up this game, and this hi-fi human sound came on, it was like the arcade had finally come home. Machines weren’t just talking, bleepily-bloopily, for now they could sing.

The original radio-style bumper of “Se-ga” was eventually replaced by another earworm, the “Sega Scream”, performed in a duplet of Concert A’s.

It’s hard to decide which is more mimetic and annoying over time—the scream or the song? They’re not really as inoffensive as the satisfying “By Mennen”, the king of commercial earworms.

In the past, this blog has almost exclusively focused on the Nintendo Entertainment System, as if it were a case of brand loyalty, but all that’s about to change. We know who has the real swagga: the Swagga Genesis. Sega is death metal to the bubblegum pop of Nintendo. Sega is a rebellious teen (like a new Los song), while Nintendo is a Japanese schoolboy is a nintendog is a pokémon. Sega wears a blue mohawk and plays electric guitar, while Nintendo rides a bicycle to work and plays banjo. Sega is black; Nintendo is asian.

Sega is short for “Service Games.” It’s clean. In Japanese, Nintendo means “work really hard but at the end of the day it is in heaven’s hands,” or some such Jingrish jive. Everyone knows Nintendo is run by the yakuza, but Sega is an Air Force intelligence psy-op; in other words: All-American.

Knock Knock Song

Have you heard this song come a-knock on your door? It’s like sonar, baby.

Even without the melody, everybody knows this song from the rhythm alone. How many songs are identifiable as such, that you can play it on a door without pitch or timbre or nothing? Probably just this, William Tell Overture, “Immigrant Song”, Bo Diddley, “Scentless Apprentice,” and “S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y NIGHT!” Ok, maybe there’s a lot of songs you can play on a door.

The knock knock song above, known as “Shave and a Haircut”, originated in the Vaudeville Era, and has since been popularized as a cheeky cliche coda. You can hear it in car horns, used in Morse code, and Looney Tunes cartoons. You can hear it on your door and in many different genres as a musical joke.

Listen to Arnie Grape sing an old folk version of the song, the nursery rhyme “Match In The Gas Tank.”

The 7-note Major variation is the original and can be heard below with the original lyrics.

The Major Six is nice, but it doesn’t quite have the same comedic value as the 8-note Minor variation.

This one can be heard at the end of The Tonight Show Theme. It probably originates somewhere in Jazz. An earlier example can be heard in “Officer Krupke” from West Side Story.

The chromatic blue notes of the triplet—F#, G, Ab—can be found in the exotic Hungarian Minor scale. The bluesy turnaround and the Minor Sixth make the melody sound a lot sillier, especially when used in a Major tonality. A quaint picardy thrown in for joke.

American POWs during the Vietnam War used this call and answer knock to identify other Americans through prison walls. According to Senator John McCain:

John explained that the “Shave and a haircut” rhythm was the call-up signal for a tap code the prisoners were using. The “two bits” was the go ahead. Since he could use his cup on the wall there was no need to tap, but he would teach me the tap code anyway. A solid thump was a danger signal and meant get away from the wall. Even though we had voice communications I started practicing the tap code.

So there you have it, not only did a simple barbershop call-and-answer become the most popular knock of the 20th century, but also a Shibboleth of Democracy on the Door of Freedom; it literally saved men’s lives. Certainly, no one was ever tortured to “Two Bits” in a CIA black site in Jordan.

But can such a melody ever be taken seriously again?

So Happy

Today is a waltz, baby! A Happy Birthday Waltz. 3/4 for three over the four on the floor. So Happy Birthday to you, and Happy Birthday to me.

There is no greater gift than group-singing a song to a loved one on the day of their birth. It’s too bad the only known Happy Birthday song is a slow waltz written 100 years ago that no one likes to sing. Perhaps this is because it’s too long. Might we simply cut this 8-bar waltz in half?

Ah! That’s better. Almost like the bumper on a radio station. And now back to our regular atonal chit-chat

For the people’s credit, the “8-bar Happy Birthday” is really hard to sing, and it’s not like there’s a grand piano in every household anymore to help you find the key. The first chord of this song is made dissonant by a passing note in the melody; the “birth” (E note). This creates an unstable G major Sixth chord (G, B, D, E).

Trying singing that shit in tune with your flat family.

All the melodic jumps in the B-day song are quite tricky too. Best to stick with the 4-bar version and blow out them candles Prestissimo.

But let’s please keep this cheeky little melody around…

Who can resist the deliciously mocking tone of the G Dominant Seventh?
“Many More” is derived from “Rhapsody in Blue” by Gershwin. You can hear the theme towards the beginning (at 00:55), played on the piano. It’s also the last thing played before the big crash at the end.

Gee, I wish human life were more musical. All I hear is the 2-note songs of birds, and the 1-note drones of machines.

No, that is not my wish. I’m not telling…

But it certainly involves Animal Liberation and Kid’s Rights.

Happy Birthday to me. Happy Birthday to you.

Welcome to your doom.

New Song

“Forescream” is a dance rock song highlighting men’s issues. Go over to bandcamp to download.

Giffy Pop

Gifs like this always excite my auditory cortex; I hear a pulsing rhythm in time with the image switch. I’m not crazy; this is a common enough phenomenon. Do you hear it? The gif below plays at 60 beats per minute like a heartbeat or timeclock.

los live at snugs

Live at Snug’s 2/6/15
Breakfast in Fur CD Release Show
Photo Credit: Kaitlin Gallucci
Gif Compression: Los

Phantasm Beats

Most everyone can find the beat, but can the beat find you? Does the beat sneak up on you and trip you as you’re walking down the stairs? Has the beat ever slide-tackled you off the stage? Or perhaps thrown a cymbal at your head to try and decapitate you?

Everyone can follow the beat to some degree; even deafies and the rhythmically-challenged end up locked in the world’s ubiquitous groove. Just let it penetrate your open ears and entrain your brain, so you can comfortably bop your head along. We are ‘children of the riddim’ after all; our hearts kick like kick-drums at an even pulse of 60 beats per minute.

However, after playing drums for several years, I find it hard to forgo the beat, if I were so inclined. I long for that blissful ignorance of the novice, stranded in a chaotic sea of time and sound with nothing to hold onto.

So, we let the beat find us by letting go and losing the beat. We set it free. What professional musicians call “to be tripped up,” similar to that feeling of a phantom step at the end of a staircase. Author Vladimir Nabokov describes this childlike experience in his autobiography Speak, Mnemosyne.

Another part of the ritual was to ascend with closed eyes. “Step, step, step,” came my mother’s voice as she led me up—and sure enough, the surface of the next tread would receive the blind child’s confident foot; all one had to do was lift it a little higher than usual, so as to avoid stubbing one’s toe against the riser. This slow, somewhat somnambulistic ascension in self-engendered darkness held obvious delights. The keenest of them was not knowing when the last step would come. At the top of the stairs, one’s foot would be automatically lifted to the deceptive call of “Step,” and then, with a momentary sense of exquisite panic, with a wild contraction of muscles, would sink into the phantasm of a step, padded, as it were, with the infinitely elastic stuff of its own nonexistence.

I’ve always loved songs that can evoke this phantasmal feeling, either through an odd-time meter or the lack of rhythmic context. The latter can be heard in the Phish song “It’s Ice”.

“It’s Ice” by Phish

The guitar riff seems to begin on the One, but it actually doesn’t. The drums enter on an off-beat fill, which makes for a brief delicious moment of rhythmic chaos, before the drums settle into a syncopated 4/4 beat. The phantasmal feeling remains for the next bar or two, washing over us like a wave, while we realign ourselves to the correct beat. (Also, notice the Benny Hill bass-line.)

A recent example of an odd-time phantasm can be heard in “Hack or Shack” by the Argentinian band Fernandez 4. The piano and vocals sound like they’re on the beat, but they’re actually playing a polyrhythm of dotted quarter notes, floating atop three measures of 7/8 time, which is the backbeat defined by the entrance of the drummer.

One dotted quaver = 3 semiquavers
One measure of 7/8 = 14 semiquavers
Fourteen dotted quavers = 42 semiquavers = three measures of 7/8

Can you think of any musical phantasms that trip you up or throw you off? Please put them in the comments below.