Skip to content
 

Super Mario Melodies

スーパーマリオブラザーズ
You and I, we live in a Netherworld of Noise. That’s why I’m taking you to Happy Tone Town. Everything that used to make noise, now makes a tone. Except blocks―they’re still noisey. But get this: Money sings! You can hear the coins klup into your pockets. And it’s logical too: Jumping makes a bendy tone. Time still exists though. And Death as well. But karma continues…

It’s the 25th Anniversary of Super Mario Bros. and so I’ll dedicate this lucky 71st Blog to Mister Miyamoto and Koji Kondo―my two favorite Nintendos―and the tonal world they created and continue to inspire. SMB 1 has a samba, jazz bass, a waltz, and the most recognizable first measure of any song in the world. Click on the score, paesano.

The famous “Ground Theme” begins with this cadence above, a turn-around, that resolves to the root. In this example, the secondary dominant D Major 9 moves to the dominant G, which ultimately resolves to the root, a C (not played). The Super Mario Trilogy is almost entirely in C Major. The sound effects in the game are also in key and made of quick arpeggios. Take the 1-Up for a roll.

This heavenly little arpeggio is a C Major (add 9) chord. It rises upwards like the 1-Up it accompanies. It twinkles like a newborn baby in your soul.

Another mushroom―the amanita muscaria―makes you larger. It’s a power-up with a powerful arpeggio that plows through three chords in a second.

The “Mushroom Power-up” is like the flag pole song condensed into a second. It’s not exactly the same but follows the same basic chord progression. The three chords Ab, Bb, and C, are also found in the bridge of the “Ground Theme”, (Duh, duh, duh, da, da, da, da, da, doh). The above example is in 4/4 to show how wacky the changes are in the Mushroom’s ascension. Krazy Koji Kondo changes.

And speaking of ascensions, here’s the jumpy sound. It’s got a Concert A attack, that leads into a lower A, that bends up to a much higher A. This kinda bend is known as “portamento”, what the Italians call a carriage.

Jumps are nice, and so are coins jumping into the air. Coins have an appoggiaturra on them. The appoggiaturra is a little note that jumps before another note in a melody. The appoggiatura in the example below helps create the “bling” sound.


The B acts as an ornament to the E. Together, they form an interval of a Perfect Fourth. In relation to C Major, the tonal center of Mario, they are a Major 7th and a Major 3rd respectively. What kind of world has Major Thirds erupting out of reality? Oh yeah, our world has that. Major Thirds are found in car horns, bells, telephones, door bells, convenience stores, pop music, and every other kind of music. And now coins.

Another Perfect Fourth is found in the “Kill” sound. It’s got a certain air of frogginess to it, like frog mario, but this sound, is no mating call; it’s a death rattle. I fear what our world would become, if killing were as tonal as this:

The Perfect 4th in the “Kill Sound” is between the C and the F, a semitone above the “Coin Sound”. While the Coin 4th was intended to harmonize with “Ground Theme” and the C-Major tonalities of other Stages by providing a Major Third (and Maj.7th), the Kill 4th is much more dissonant by asserting it’s own tonic―the F, over the C-Major Ground.

You see, Fourth’s and One’s are always competing with each other, because of their likeness (just 1 tone difference). They each assert themselves as tonics, trying to usurp each others’ scales and make them their own. So much harmonic progression consists of this Battle between the I and IV (See the Blues, see Hymns, see Everything on the Radio Ever). Throw a V in there, and you just about summed up all Music.

So if we return to the game for a second and allow the musical metaphor to play out, it goes like this: The World is in C Major―a happy tonality that even babies like. Your Sprite also loves C Major, for his dear power-ups make harmonious tones when ingested. Other Sprites have their own tonics, that sound dissonances when they die. Analogously, our World hums in B-Flat. The Electric Tonic of the Earth is also a B. Our electric minds also resonate with the Earth at around the same frequency. Though our deaths seem dissonant if we selfishly try to isolate our tonics from the Tonic of the World, they actually adhere to a higher-order Tonality that sounds from all things―clouds to bushes―and knows no dissonances. And oh yeah, Mister Miyamoto is also a God here.

Last, but not least: the humble fireball. The fireball is a quick glissando that burns through three G tones. The staccato G-fireball is dominant and perfect fifth to the C root of the game.

Now back to your Netherworld where the Noise stalks your every step, and the most tonal things around are the bugs and birds―ya know, baddies?

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

12 Comments

  1. Matt says:

    I believe the sample used on the G of the 1-up melody is incorrect. It sounds flat.

  2. bluegoon says:

    Your ability to respond to something awful is flat.

  3. Aaron Godin says:

    @Matt The last G in the 1-up melody sounds flat because whatever is making that percussive tone that goes along with the actual tone is sounding an F#. At least that’s what I hear.

  4. thats pretty cool! what software did you use to figure this out, or did you do it by ear?

  5. Not trying to sound like a showy jerk, but what you’re hearing is probably the aliasing of the digital square wave caused by low quality (i.e. low sample/bit rate) encoding. It causes inharmonic frequencies to appear as the top frequencies “fold over” the nyquist frequency (learn more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nyquist_frequency ). It’s interesting stuff if you like computer audio.

  6. James L says:

    This is all really awesome. Great presentation for the article, too. I especially enjoy giving a music theory approach to seemingly simple sound effects, AND the fact that you made the fireball play button a roll-over. I spent a couple minutes shooting non-existent fireballs. Also, in regards to the G being flat, it does sound a little odd, but if you listen you can hear the digital “undertones” (not sure what the appropriate term for this effect is) changed the way the notes sound. In my experience with digital musics, I’ve noticed that once you get up into a certain range, these tones sort of start to distort the sound. It seems to just be a result of that sort of phenomenon.

  7. James L says:

    Oh, and the slowed-down “jump” was a great idea, too. I was sorta skeptical of that being the notation, you really do hafta slow it down to figure that one out.

  8. Will says:

    I love that you formally dissected the sounds according to musical theory.

  9. Jowy says:

    I was messing around on my ukulele last night and I figured out a couple chords that make up the starman music. Dm7 and Cm7 Try it out!

  10. Bombdiggity says:

    Did anyone else notice the slowed down version of “Mushroom Powerup” sounds extremely similar to the music you hear at the end of a level when you touch the flagpole?

  11. Jim says:

    Yup, in fact it was even mentioned in the article!

  12. asdf says:

    great writeup.