This is a long look at the soundtracks of all Elder Scrolls titles up to and including the fourth, Oblivion. I've transcribed some sheet music and had a closer look at what I consider to be the most interesting compositions.
The Elder Scrolls series by Bethesda is one of the most well-known intellectual properties of today. Arguably the most prominent open world RPG series, it’s the recipient of plenty GOTY awards and general fan recognition.
We start all the way back in the early ’90s, with…
The Elder Scrolls I: Arena
The first instalment of the Elder Scrolls series, Arena, came out the same year as the game that today arguably marks the beginning of the first person shooter genre, Doom II. During this time, several developers were experimenting using the first person perspective in a fantasy setting. My favourite game of this kind from this era is easily Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honour, published by 3DO and developed by New World Computing, both of which are long since defunct, also responsible for the Heroes of Might and Magic series (that is still going on to this day) which is set in the same universe.
Even though I never played Arena, the music is instantly recognisable to me, owing to a day I spent listening to a playthrough of it on YouTube because I found the music to be oddly calming. The soundtrack is the work of Eric R. Heberling, a name that is virtually unknown these days, but he’s responsible for the music of many titles from the early days of computer games.
However, this is so long ago that the music has aged past the point where there’s little point in closer examination. Below is a short (2:36) crossfade of a few select tracks from the score.
Above is a transcription of the theme present in the first track. The use of predominantly major chords is quite typical of the time. More recently, major chords are often resigned to short appearances to heighten drama in between all the moody minor chords.
The Arena score is from the days when MIDI was still a bit hoity-toity and thus composers would sequence mixes of really ambitious arrangement sizes that didn’t blend well, even as the MIDI samples have improved over the years. But let’s not dwell in the past more than is necessary. Most of you are probably skimming right up until Jeremy Soule comes into the picture, and yes, that’s where most of our attention will be focused.
Let’s briefly look beneath our feet as we hop over the sequel to Arena.
The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall
Stuffed full of cartoonish nudity, here is Daggerfall, set in the land of the Bretons and the Redguards, if I’m not mistaken. Boasting a massive world map and over half a million NPCs (admittedly randomly created), it was quite something when it was released back in ’96.
The music is once again composed by Heberling, and it shows, as, amongst others, the theme we just peeked at in Arena is present in Daggerfall. This time the arrangements are more modern, however, and more conservative in terms of size, allowing the melodies to stand without the odd chortling of rapid string lines fighting for space in the mix.
For this reason, the Daggerfall soundtrack has aged better than its predecessor. It’s still not quite near the standards of today but if your blood contains a couple notches of nostalgia for the old days, you should be able to find some enjoyment from the music.
Above is a transcription of the primary theme from the third track. Written in 6/8, F Minor Dorian, this melody is very pleasant and quite lyrical. It’s composed as background music for a city covered in snow, and once the harp comes into the arrangement, I’d say the feel is spot on. One interesting aspect of this theme is the counterpoint (the lower melody line in the sheet music above) which has some measures full of tuplets. Without the waltz-rhythm of the backing percussion and pizzicato strings, these make the song quite unintelligible.
For those of you who are wondering, a tuplet (indicated by the number 2 written below and between the notes) in this case refers to two eighths in the space of three eighths. In other words, they’re played as dotted eighths.
If you’ve previously listened to what I would tentatively call my discography, you might recognise a certain similarity between the first track of the SoundCloud above and one of my own reinterpretations of the Elder Scrolls main theme, written for a now discontinued mod for Oblivion, High Rock, included below for good measure.
Now, then, enough of all this old stuff. Let’s move on to when the series really started getting interesting in terms of music. That is, with the arrival of the man responsible for what is now one of the most well-known main themes in all of gaming.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
The 2002 to sequel to Daggerfall, most commonly referred to simply as Morrowind, is to many people a candidate for the best RPG ever made, if not best game ever made. Set in the eastern part of Tamriel, in a desert land plagued by sandstorms that reduce your movement speed to nothing and flying miscreants called cliff racers that compensate for their complete lack of preservation instinct with an absurdly powerful reproductive drive, the player is thrown right out into the world with little more than a slap on the bum, eventually discovering their fate as the reincarnation of the hero Nerevar and the prophecy that foretold of their coming.
I could spend all day talking about why I think this is the best Elder Scrolls game to date and how all the flaws of the game count for little when compared to the undeniable immersion that it has. Get it for the PC, download any of the thousand graphics-enhancing mods out there and enjoy one of the best stories written for interactive media.
Now, it was big news when it was announced that Jeremy Soule would be composing the soundtrack for Morrowind. During the early 2000s, he was considered to be gaming’s greatest musician. I’d sooner award that title to Nobuo Uematsu, but I’d imagine there’s a bit of a cultural divide there. In any case, Soule had just worked on scores for famous titles such as Dungeon Siege II and Icewind Dale, earning him well-deserved recognition for some truly great soundtracks and a reputation for using too much reverb.
For the Morrowind soundtrack, Soule composed a number of tracks that all go in the vein of what Igor Stravinsky started almost one hundred years ago, with his pivotal composition The Rite of Spring. Admittedly much more modern in its execution, Soule has written one or two central themes for each of the tracks and has filled the remainder with stray pieces, coming and going, letting the music trail off from the leash of leitmotifs and popular music (verse-chorus-bridge) form composition.
The result is a collection of tracks that aren’t always directly distinguishable if you were to start listening in the middle, as they all have parts that are only played once; parts that share relatively little of their harmonic and melodic quality with the rest of the themes. This freer and arguably more classical structure stands out from Soule’s previous work, even though it’s clearly a natural progression of his use of primary and secondary melodies, as well as non-melodic parts and non-linear harmonic developments.
His talent for catchy and alluring melodies shines through even in the secondary parts, contrary to the very real criticism one often puts forth against this relatively sporadic style of composition, in that a lack of recurring structure consistent through the majority of the piece will cause parts of the music to become stale and uninteresting, owing to the lesser extent of attention that can be given each melody. In other words, having more melodies results in an overall drop of quality.
Soule has managed to avoid this, luckily, and presented melodies that are either great or good, filling in the rest of the spaces with beautiful or highly atmospheric textures. This is an admirable effort, and combined with Soule’s ability to create lifelike performances using sampled instruments, the music is very much alive at all times, admittedly with a very sombre and mellow character to the majority of the music.
These are the songs included in the crossfade above. They are in chronological order, using the remastered titles.
- Nerevar Rising*
- Over the Next Hill
- Peaceful Waters*
- The Road Most Travelled*
- Blessing of Vivec
- Shed Your Travails
- Bright Spears Dark Blood
- Nerevar Rising, Final Chorus
Yes, this is where it all began. The famous song that is now getting its fourth (yes, there was one that didn’t end up being used) iteration, or rather has gotten its fourth iteration with the advent of Skyrim coming out this year. More on that later.
An elegantly simple melody, always starting and ending on the tonic, using mostly second steps and rarely changing direction. Together with the big, airy drums that sound like thunder in the background, it is the embodiment of an RPG main theme. Three repetitions with increasingly complex and dramatic arrangement resulted in one of the best main themes ever written.
I reckon that part of the reason behind its success is this simplicity. From a musical theory standpoint, the melody is almost textbook. Compare the pattern to arguably the most well-known song of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, He’s a Pirate, as well as the main theme to The Time Machine (also by Badelt), Professor Alexander Hartdegen, and you’ll see what I mean.
This snippet from Peaceful Waters is another good example of effective simplicity. Here we also see a bit of Soule’s tendency to utilise large leaps in his melodies — something we’ll see more of in Oblivion — in the fifth measure, jumping up and down in minor sixths before rising up and ending in an upwards three-chord progression in C major. The arrangement is quite heavy, with thick harmony in the strings and the brass, deftly avoiding the mid-range mud that so easily accumulates around that range.
The dramatic build-up owes a lot of its force to the rising and falling that takes place in the first four measures and is then resolved in full in the fifth measure. The first C Major starts off quite strong, and then descends and relaxes on the A in the melody, after which it rises up to the F and then recedes back onto the E, only slightly below. This pattern is picked up again in the fifth measure, which then rises twice in a row, first to the C major and then to the D major, after which it finally relaxes on the E major.
The Road Most Travelled
This one is undoubtedly my favourite of the Morrowind explore tracks. It starts with a set of thick, warm drums beating in the rhythm with some harmony sweeping in to establish the key. Then it goes wild and lets out a catchy melody. It certainly evokes a sensation of travel, however it does not fit all that well when you’re slowly dredging yourself through yet another bloody sandstorm.
And with that, we shall take leave of the desert land of Morrowind and move on to a game that has been modded to death and back a few hundred times. That’s right, we’re going to talk about the game that has a suspiciously suicidal Captain Picard in it, a world where natural selection didn’t produce more than one voice per race and a world that someone thought was perfect for endless videos of a digitised Chuck Norris making like Microsoft Sam while acting out his secret wish of challenging Sean Connery to a fist fight.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Now it’s 2006, the Mayan doomsday is nigh and Bethesda releases the game that would go on to become a huge hit to steal hundreds of hours away from players. One year after its release, Oblivion had already sold over three million copies, and it was the game that brought The Elder Scrolls to a mainstream audience.
The soundtrack, once again by Soule, is one of his best achievements to date, if marred by a really rather boring title theme. The flowing, dramatic build-up that was Nerevar Rising had been replaced by an exuberant brass fanfare in such a hurry that it flies past the main melody and then repeats itself a few times without really going anywhere. It’s functional at best.
Nevertheless, I would probably go as far as to say that Oblivion’s music is better on the whole than Morrowind’s, setting aside the fact that the light-hearted tone isn’t as evocative as Morrowind’s sombre quality. Soule treats us to over an hour’s worth of both dramatic and very calming music, with a wealth of memorable melodies that we might one day hear being used again in Skyrim.
Most people are probably unaware that Soule had a near-death experience before composing Oblivion’s score. He lost control of his car while driving and for a few seconds he thought he was going to die. He thought to himself that he’d had a great life and that it was all right. When he emerged from the accident with mere cuts and bruises, he poured the beauty of life into the music for Oblivion, hardly feeling the need to revise any of his first attempts, saying that “what you hear in the game is pretty much what I wrote on the first go.”
I can certainly see (or rather hear) this sentiment (life being beautiful) translated into tones as I listen to the music he wrote for the fourth instalment of the series.
- Glory of Cyrodiil*
- Minstrel’s Lament
- Auriel’s Ascension*
- Wings of Kynareth*
- King and Country
- Harvest Dawn
- Watchman’s Ease
Glory of Cyrodiil
One could argue that this particular piece isn’t very original at all, owing to the very simple melody of the first four measures (starting after the first double bar line), however this assumption is assuaged by the coming parts, which, while still simple, offer a spot of complexity and interest.
The textbook melody shares its nature with that of Nerevar Rising. I like to think that Soule has managed to stake claim to melodies that many composers have written multiple times. I don’t know how many times I’ve encountered someone who has accidentally copied the Nerevar Rising motif.
This piece has one of my all-time favourite recorded pianos. It clings like glass, and I’ve often wondered just how Soule produced the sound (perhaps it’s a creation of his brother Julian, the audio engineer).
Wings of Kynareth
This is Wings of Kynareth, a strangely alluring piece of music that demonstrates Soule’s talent for using large skips in his melodies. Take the chord markings in this one with an extra pinch of salt as there is a lot going on in the background. The bass line moves around a lot and the harmony is incredibly thick owing to a huge airy choir shouting behind the arrangement. A harp also lightly taps the beats and adds an extra sparkling bit of harmony.
The structure of Oblivion’s score is closer in principle to the popular music form and each track contains fewer individual themes and melodies than in Morrowind. This makes for a more even and predictable listening experience, and with songs as pleasing as these, that is certainly a plus. Too bad that the music implementation is rather poor; when it changes type, a new track is played instead of resuming the previous one that was interrupted. This will result in stray wolves coming out of nowhere to rob you of choruses.
Soule surely found himself a style that has an ethereal quality to it, with thick, lush flowing melodies and sweet harmonies that go well with the green forest that covers almost the entire game world. I do, however, think that this kind of music would be better suited to another kind of game, one that would benefit from a light-hearted tone. Oblivion, on the other hand, announces itself as an epic fantasy tale, but it almost comes off as quaint given how often you’ll hear random NPCs tell other random NCPs about the mudcrab they saw the other day.
Now, before we end this article let’s take a quick look at what’s coming our way towards the end of 2011. I swear, once they realised Skyrim was six letters, they picked the eleventh of November just so they could do that thing at the end of the trailer where “Skyrim” turns into “11.11.11”.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Set in the land of people who breathe snow and effectively serve as their own suns, the fifth instalment of the Elder Scrolls series is coming after many years of waiting. We’ve been shown trailers, with gameplay, we’ve seen them show their voice acting and, most importantly, we got to hear the new main theme that Soule has been working on. If you haven’t heard it yet, you can do so here.
The male shouts in the beginning sound a lot like the “epic shouts” patch from Tonehammer’s Epic Tom Ensemble. Clearly, Soule has tried to combine the fat drums from Nerevar Rising with the violent staccato strings from Reign of the Septims. I wonder if the arrhythmic beats of the drums at the start are intentional. Whichever the case, they sound awkward, and the drums are not as rich as they were in Nerevar Rising. The opening is a bit weak.
Just like in Reign of the Septims, the melody has been diluted to give way for more bombastic action, which is more fitting for the setting, if a bit stereotypical.
Do I think Skyrim will be a good game? Well, I don’t doubt for a second that it’ll probably be just a big a hit as Oblivion was, so there’ll be plenty of people playing it and plenty of people creating mods for it. In the end, that’s what matters the most to me.
All the best,