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Smooth Bananas: ‘The Music of Pokémon’

Anyone who has played the video games of the Pokémon series already knows that the music is a special part of the overall experience. When you pick up a new game, you always make sure to have the sound on because that is a crucial element of the ambience in the Japanese-made monster-catching RPG. More than just a general aesthetic however, the games’ soundtracks have an incredibly complex rhetorical ability behind them.

The era that the first set of Pokémon games, Pokémon Red Version and Pokémon Blue Version, come from is a relative golden age of innovation in video game design, and the audio aspect of that is no exception. Many of the video games developed in the 90s featured music entirely sequenced by the computers inside the console. This type of music was called “chiptune” as a reference to the computer chips inside the consoles and for the vast majority of these systems, the computer could only manage three independent musical lines at a time. Some video games only utilized two lines so they could save space for other elements of the game. This created some interesting limitations on early video game composers tasked with sequencing complex musical ideas into only three lines, usually realizing a melody, a harmony line, and then a combined rhythm and bass line.

Because of the sheer computing power required to run a Pokémon game, especially in the 90s, early Pokémon games often only employed two lines of material consisting of a melody and a bass line. Rather than explicitly spell out chords with actual music notes, the composer Junichi Masuda opted instead to imply much of the harmony by way of the melody and the motion used. Sometimes the melody, particularly in the Opening Theme to Pokémon Red and Blue, travels along the members of a particular chord and emphasizes notes by placing them on strong beats even if it wouldn’t be the easiest thing to do melodically.

Video game composers aren’t often working with full orchestras of live musicians to record the soundtracks, both from a practicality standpoint and a financial one. Even despite this limitation, Masuda clearly intended for these soundtracks to be just as vibrant and luscious as one provided by a symphony. Masuda eventually got his wish when the Pokémon Company decided to sponsor a tour featuring a live orchestra playing new arrangements of music from throughout the series’ history. The music featured in “Pokémon: Symphonic Evolutions” breathes hidden life into these already fun and adventurous pieces of music.

As the game series goes on, they develop the music into brand new forms, just like the way the game unfolds. This large-scale evolution perfectly mirrors the way the monsters in the game change and grow into new and exciting forms. Pokémon didn’t get an officially included symphonic soundtrack until “Pokémon Sword Version” and “Pokémon Shield Version,” a pair of games centered around a region inspired by England. The music of these versions takes great inspiration from the big sports culture across the pond. I would recommend anyone pull up one of the games’ soundtracks and give it a serious listen. It’s easy to let it fade into the background but when you take a focused listen, you’ll find musical things you never realized before.

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