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Block. Chord. Resolution.

by: Hayden Davenport @HaydenDaven

March 3, 2014


Starseed Pilgrim's soundtrack contains four tracks composed by Ryan Roth (known as Dualryan): "Overworld" (2:10), "Flipworld" (2:04), "Starseed hidden" (4:21), and "Starseeds in her eyes" (1:56).







The two main music tracks (“Overworld” and “Flipworld”) are set in the key of C Major. This means that the chord C Major (composed of the notes C, E, and G; and often labeled with the Roman numeral I in the key of C Major) feels like home in this key. Note that, in music, Major scales are often associated with happiness and lightness.


As seeds grow, a C, E, or G is played as each block becomes completely formed. The game omits the last pitch (to avoid repeated notes) and then randomly plays one of the remaining pitches.















In contrast, as the void spreads, the notes A, C, and E are randomly generated. These notes form A minor (vi). It is important to add that A minor is the relative minor of C Major. This means that A minor and C Major have the same key signature and are therefore both comprised of all white keys on the piano. This relationship allows the void to sound minor without sounding out of key. Bear in mind that minor scales in music are often associated with sadness and darkness. A minor was chosen in relationship to C Major to mirror the darkness and impending doom of the void.








Each seed in the game, as well as the void, has a unique timbre. When a seed grows or the void spreads, a sound file unique to the seed color (or the void) is played. Some seed sounds are modeled after real-world sounds and instruments such as the marimba and a choir, while others are unique sounds produced by synthesizers.


The result is an environment that not only feels vibrant and organic, but gives the player clear feedback. With unique timbres, the player can follow the spread of the void and the growth of different seeds without these game elements being visible on screen.


Click on Blocks #sounds

Audio Feedback


-Audio feedback is an often overlooked, yet important, way of conveying information to players. While the player is busy doing one thing on the screen, audio feedback can give the player information about something else that is happening completely offscreen. It is a useful way of letting the player know everything that is going on.


-It isn’t only practical though, audio feedback can also bring a game to life. Starseed Pilgrim’s growing seeds are an excellent example of how giving special attention to a game’s audio feedback can add an extra layer of interest to a game.


-The audio feedback in Starseed Pilgrim covers all of its mechanics and its game states. This is actually rare for indie games, which often don’t provide audio feedback for basic mechanics. There is a unique sound for each mechanic, such as JUMP and DIG. There is a unique sound for when the void spreads, for detonating red blocks, and for jumping on tan blocks. There is even a unique sound for when the player completes a triple key challenge. The game does an excellent job of keeping players aurally informed about everything that is going on.







When game assets produce tones rather than percussive strikes, careful consideration needs to be made to avoid clashing notes. For example, if a game has music set in the key of C Major and the jump sound in the game produces a C# note, the jump sound would clash with the background music. This is because the notes C and C# have slightly different frequencies that clash together when played simultaneously, producing a “beating” that is usually considered undesirable in Western music.


By looking at each of the tracks individually, we can understand what steps were taken to avoid excessive dissonance and how Ryan Roth maintains player interest with only a minimal soundscape.



“Overworld” (2:10)


-Players naturally become familiar with the main track “Overworld”, which plays in both the overworld and the fleeting world (two of the three main areas of the game).

-The track is set in C and features a C pedal tone and airy drones (with a subtle phaser effect).

-There are also frequent effects in the upper registers. These are helpful for keeping the music interesting without adding a distracting melody.

-This track, like “Flipworld” and “Starseed hidden”, is abstract and structureless. The soundscape evolves without revealing patterns, which allows the music to repeat without any noticeable seams.

-The sound of the seeds on top of this track create further interest and ambiguity, ensuring that each listen is varied.







“Flipworld” (2:04)


-The second most frequently occurring track is “Flipworld”. Unlike the “Overworld” theme, it only occurs in one area of the game (the flipworld).

-“Flipworld” is sparse relative to “Overworld”. This seems to mirror the relationship between the colorful and light fleeting world and the dark and colorless flipworld.

-The track features the same airy drones as the “Overworld” track, but they are emphasized by a higher volume and fewer instruments occupying the soundscape.









“Starseed hidden” (4:21)


-“Starseed hidden” was likely intended for triple key challenges, but was never used in these rooms. Instead, the rooms have no musical track and the seeds do not produce notes upon growing (normal gameplay sounds such as jumping and placing seeds still occur).

-The track is set in a minor, the relative minor of the key C Major. Because of this key relationship, the seed sounds, which outline a C Major Chord, would not have conflicted with this key. C Major is III, or the third diatonic chord, in the key of a minor.


With each of the above tracks, it’s worth mentioning that the seed audio is noticeably louder than the tracks. Presenting the audio in this way ensures that the seeds and their timbres are the focus of the audio design.



“Starseeds in her eyes” (1:56)


-The final track in Starseed Pilgrim can only be heard after all triple key challenges have been completed and the player jumps into the darkness at the credits page.

-“Starseeds in her eyes” is primarily solo piano, but violins are introduced halfway through the piece.

-Because of its less abstract nature, a musical analysis of the piece is feasible.



A. Introduction

The piece is introduced by three piano notes:C, E, and F. While these notes establish the key, by this point the minor modality of the piece has not been established. However, in the game, the void is corrupting blocks and producing loud A pitches which might have established the modality by this point.



B. Phrase A Introduction

This section is where the piece starts moving. A looping progression of A minor (i) to F Major (VI) is established and maintained throughout the piece. The function of this section is to introduce the accompaniment that belongs to the the first phrase (Phrase A). The introduction ends on a fermata(held note) to give extra suspense before the first phrase begins.



C. Phrase A

The first melodic phrase begins here. The phrase begins on a C and ends on an A, and uses mostly notes that are chord tones (notes that are part of the chord outlined in the accompaniment).




D. Phrase B

At this point in the music, everything shifts up an octave to add drama. To add variety and contrast, rather than repeating the first phrase an octave up, a new phrase makes an appearance. This phrase is the most active, has the most nonchord tones, and hits the highest note the melody will reach (though the same pitch is reached in A’). A group of violins also enter here on a unison A that is held until the end of the piece. For these reasons, and because of the octave leap that occurs between sections C and D, I would label this phrase as the climax of the piece.



E. Phrase A’

This is the final melodic phrase of the music. It is a variation of Phrase A, differing only in the displacement of an octave and an additional note in the first measure. The end of this phrase could be perceived as the first note of part F (measure 24 beat 1) rather than the final note in measure 23. In this case, this phrase could be analyzed as an elision, or a note or chord that both ends one phrase and begins another.



F. Outro

Starting in measure 24, the piano suddenly moves to notes outside of A minor. These notes mostly outline tritones (an exceptionally dissonant interval) in various keys. The A continues in the violins, acting as a pedal point while the piano continues to fall into chaos. By this point in the music the void will have corrupted most of the stone, revealing cryptic text beneath where it once existed. The music suddenly goes into dissonance to reflect what is happening in the game. Finally, after the piano exits completely, the violins continue to drone an A while the message from the game sinks into the player’s mind, and then after some time they fade out, ending the piece.


“Starseeds in her eyes” effectively matches what is happening in the scene that Starseed Pilgrim sets up at the end. It provides a fleeting sense of beauty that falls away into dissonance right as the player begins to take in the final message.


At the birth of minimal music, its composers were focused on producing music that slowly evolved over time and gradually explored the possibilities of one rhythmic or melodic idea. In order to most effectively relay that the process was the focus of the music, minimal composers determined that it would be best to remove any aspect of the music that distracted from the process that they were showcasing. This is an important distinction to make because prior to this time, the compositional process of Western music had established rules. In order to break those rules, minimal composers needed to have a reason for doing so. It would be accurate to think of the occurrence of minimal music as an exercise of tasteful elimination (as opposed to inelegant construction).


Tasteful elimination in art is often referred to as simple art. A meaningful idea exists and is explored while anything in the way of the idea is removed. In contrast, inelegant construction often results in what is labeled as simplistic art. It is either the result of exploring an idea that is insubstantial or the result of omitting key aspects of an art form with no valuable purpose for doing so.




In order to successfully analyze minimal music, it is important to first identify the idea behind the work. Looking at the audio for Starseed Pilgrim, we see that all of the music that occurs during normal gameplay is in the key of C Major and stays on a C drone. We also see that the seeds produce notes in unique timbres; these notes exclusively form C Major chords. Furthermore, the seed audio is louder than the music. Therefore the main idea being explored is either the C Major chord, or musical timbres.


In music, chords give a sense of movement, progression, and lift that nothing else can provide. They allow for consonance and dissonance, and can provide a structural foundation for developing other aspects of music, such as rhythm and melody. But it is nearly impossible to develop a single chord in any meaningful way. A single chord can only exist in three different ways (inversions), and applying elements of rhythm is not enough to trick a listener into feeling a sense of progression. Certainly the C Major chord is an insubstantial main idea for exploration.


Musical timbres are a more developable idea and a more likely contender for the main idea behind the music of Starseed Pilgrim. There are an inconceivable number of timbres that either already exist or have the potential to exist. It is a rich topic to examine. And timbre can exist in conjunction with other important musical elements, such as tonality and rhythm, to create interest without distracting the listener.


Further tonal exploration would not have gotten in the way of the various timbres in Starseed Pilgrim, but for the most part, the exploration of chords is almost completely omitted. Upon examining the reason for why this might be, the only likely conclusion I can come up with is that only having to deal with C Major would have made the composing process easy. Since C Major is the tonic (home chord) in the key of C Major, there is little to no need to worry about conflicting notes. If the background music drones a C the entire time and the seeds only play C Major arpeggios, the notes cannot conflict because the C in the drone is part of the C Major Chord.


Adding additional chords would significantly increase the complexity and challenge of composition. Before any chord can be added, all possible relationships between every chord and the backing music must be considered. A solid understanding of theory, and a willingness to apply that theory are necessary for creating a more complex system for this reason.


Using C Major and its relative A minor to make musical excerpts fit together easily is certainly not a new idea. Big budget games like Red Dead Redemption have been recorded entirely in A minor for this reason. But having a soundtrack in A minor doesn’t mean that A minor is the only chord that occurs (in the case of Red Dead Redemption, it isn’t). There are hundreds of chords have the potential to exist in A minor. The same can be said about C Major; though, in Starseed Pilgrim C Major is the only chord that is heard for the majority of the game.


So the question becomes, “Is omitting a key aspect of music because it was easy to do so a valuable purpose?” The answer is certainly subjective and may depend on the size of the project. With Red Dead Redemption’s 75+ minute soundtrack, I can certainly understand why they opted to make things easier to blend together. For such a small soundtrack, though, I can’t help but feel that something is left to be desired in Starseed Pilgrim’s audio design.




To provide variation, to better reflect the different seed types, and to improve the audio feedback, Starseed Pilgrim could have assigned unique chords and, in some cases, melodic contours to the individual seeds. Care, however, would need to be taken to ensure that the new chord types do not clash with the background music or the other chord types.


For example, the tan seed, which decreases the player's JUMP height, might be better served by a diminished chord, which is more dissonant than the C Major chord. In this way, the sound is reflective of the common player response to the seed's effect.


The pink seed is another example. This seed could be better represented with a C Major 7 (I7) chord--which is built like a C Major chord, but with the addition of a B. The C Major 7 chord is often used to express love and emotion, and has a unique yearning quality to it.


As a proof of concept, I have made a video showing how these new chords might work.


Chord Choices Explained


-Pink seeds: Changed to the C Major 7 (I7) chord [comprised of C-E-G-B] due to the romantic yearning that Major 7 Chords are often associated with.

original New



-Orange seeds: Changed to an upward-moving melodic line to represent ascent, which is what the orange seed is commonly used for.

original New



-Green seeds: Changed to an F Major (IV) chord [comprised of F-A-C] because of the chord's bright (i.e. major) quality, its ability to prolong tonic (which means less dissonance with the background music than most other options), and for variety.

original New



-Purple seeds: Changed to a G Dominant 7 (V7) chord [comprised of G-B-D-F], a staple in Classical and Baroque literature. Its application has a certain "old-fashioned" quality that makes it an appropriate aural representation of the seed's castle-shape block formation. V7 is also a good choice because of its gravity towards the tonic and because it has a note in common with the I chord and the IV chord. This means that counting C as a drone, the I and IV chords will have two consonant notes to move to if they need to avoid a specific note due to the V7 chord playing.

original New



-Red seeds: Unchanged from a C Major (I) chord [comprised of C-E-G]. The chord that plays during the explosion, however, could be altered to occur in any inversion of C Major to increase possible musical outcomes.



original New


-Light blue seeds: Changed to a C Major add 9 chord [comprised of C-E-G-D] to give it a sense of "mysticism". I experimented with multiple notes and this one seemed to complement the chord and seed type the best.

original New



-Dark blue seeds: Similar to the orange seed, this seed emphasizes ascension, but this time it uses a quick arpeggio [comprised of C-E-G]. I chose for this chord to remain as a C chord to avoid too many chord options, which could easily lead to chaos.

original New



-Tan seeds: Changed to a C Diminished Chord with added 5th (Iºadd5) chord [comprised of C-E-F#-G] due to the dissonance that the seed tends to cause with players.

original New





Additional Suggestions and Considerations


-Every track in the game is set in C Major, even when the seeds are not present. This further emphasizes the tonal monotony set up by the seeds. It could have been quite interesting to see how key relationships could have affected players, especially in the transition from the fleeting world to the flip world. A jarring key change might have matched the jarring feeling a player gets when they are forced into the flip world.



-Another interesting idea would be to handle the seeds in the same way that the harp in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is handled. This would require a soundtrack with more chord movement (not to imply that the current soundtrack fails for this reason), then, as the music changes chords, so could the seeds. For example, if the music was on a IV chord, the seeds could all play notes from the IV chord, then if the music moved to a vi chord, the seeds could also start generating notes from only the vi chord. This could potentially lead to some interesting melodies.


-There are points in Starseed Pilgrim where a change in pace would have been warmly welcomed. For example, when playing as the orange pilgrim (who speeds up seed growth and void spread), a faster music track would have complemented the change in gameplay nicely.






Critiquing Minimalism





Minimal music began in the 1960’s with composers such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams. It is largely process-oriented music that focuses on consonant harmonies, stasis or gradual transformation, and often contains either a steady pulse or immobile drones.





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