This is a big look at the music of Dragon Age, including tracks from both games, as composed by Inon Zur. Among others, I've transcribed I Am the One (High Fantasy), Rogue Heart and the Ostagar Battle Theme (missing from the released OST). All the sheet music is available for download.
I’ve gotten requests for some of the tracks featured in this post and the others are some of my personal favourites. Moreover, I’m very fond of the music of the Dragon Age franchise as a whole and I’ve been wanting to devote proper time to one big article on it, having lots of things to say and several pieces I want to highlight.
Without further ado, then, let’s give the music of Dragon Age I & II the attention it deserves.
Inon Zur the Composer
I think it’s safe to say at this point that Inon Zur is to Dragon Age what Jeremy Soule is to The Elder Scrolls. Both are very stylistically predictable musicians that are very competent at creating entire musical landscapes far more coherent and interesting than those of many other composers. They’ve established themselves in the industry, and by that I mean that they both have fully developed identities; they can market themselves using their music alone, and many recognise it instantly.
This is particularly true of Inon, and I’d be remiss to leave out that it is sometimes to his detriment. There are only so many times you can open up a track with timpani hits and a low brass flare and the patterns he uses for his secondary melodies could use a touch more variation at times. That aside, he’s a very talented composer and definitely one of the best of the current generation.
Aubrey Ashburn the Vocalist
Dear Aubrey is what one could arguably describe as a fantasy vocalist. She’s worked on several video games titles so far, Dragon Age probably being the most notable. I haven’t listened extensively to any of her other work but depending on how her career develops, I just might.
Given the ranges she sings in on the Dragon Age soundtracks, I’m tempted to say that she’s an alto but her vocal range stretches up quite a bit. In the overdub extravaganza that is Rogue Heart, she seems capable of spanning at least two octaves. Whichever the case, either she or Inon must have a propensity for the 8th-16th-16th appoggiatura that occurs frequently across the tracks. I will say that dear Aubrey is very good at flowing between notes in rapid fiorituras that are a bitch to transcribe. One would think she’s channelling Chopin from time to time.
I wasn’t a fan of the sort of neo-operatic style of the Dragon Age: Origins soundtrack at first but I enjoy the lyrical nature and since there’s no shortage of great instrumental melodies, I approve of dear Aubrey’s contributions and I really hope that she’s still around for the third instalment of the franchise.
Dragon Age: Origins
For Origins, Inon created a strongly melodically focused score, riddled with variations of the iconic main theme (using his favourite tritone chord skip) which is only one of several interesting and enjoyable melodies. Primarily it’s the horn or violin that takes the melody, or dear Aubrey of course. This is very typical of Inon, even though he’s no stranger to writing beautiful melodies for the Shakuhachi flute, a clear favourite of his amongst woodwind instruments.
The orchestration reflects the almost exiguous focus of the score. Either we get the dark Zurian flare, chromatic chord developments and relentless viola ostinatos, such as in the battle themes, half the title theme and during cinematics, or it’s the more subtle oppressed character, underlined with heroism, such as the Dalish Encampment theme that is still layered with staccato strings and timpani strikes. This, I believe, in no small factor contributes to how stylistically condensed the game is. It’s very immersive owing to how it’s crafted with such consistency across the board.
One small downside to the score is that some of the most repeated tracks (primarily the battle themes) are a touch less subtle than they could’ve benefited from being. One strength of Jeremy Soule’s battle music (particularly so in Skyrim) is that parts and melodies are longer. The primary battle melody of Dragon Age: Origins is only a few seconds long and is repeated too frequently. Compare this to the first battle theme from Skyrim. The entire melody is little more than a rhythmic counterpoint to the chord progression but it’s interesting enough to carry the track for a minute and a half. The sixth battle track is also a good example.
Inon is more likely to write melodies with lots of movement in them which to his credit he does very well, even remarkably so at times, but I would’ve liked to see a bit of the subtlety that he later used in Dragon Age II.
This theme is present primarily in the ruins of Ostagar and in the dwarven city of Orzammar, hence the name. It shares plenty of similarities with the title theme, and represents a strong presence of stepwise melodies; two eights moving up or down from chord to chord. An F Minor is also present to reflect the chromatic tendencies of the score as a whole. In this case, the result is a simple “hey, don’t get too comfortable with this nice diatonic harmony,” not letting the player forget the dark of dark fantasy.
This is the first variation. It’s a lot more mellow and toned down than the second. Inon often writes more subtle and less dramatic versions of his themes (the prime example of this is the EverQuest II soundtrack) and he’s continued this tradition in Origins. The opening upward skips are very effective at creating anticipation for what’s next to come, and the contrast created by a downwards skip to the tonic goes well to establish the less dramatic nature of the variation.
The rest of the melody is an almost joyous up and down stepwise affair that ends just before heads start swaying back and forth by introducing the aforementioned F Minor, seemingly to add a similar if more stark sudden tonal change than the downwards skip to the tonic in the fourth measure. This kind of development is common throughout the entire score.
This is arguably the fully developed variation of the theme. Right off the bat, we get more movement in the bass line, adding an D Major/F# in the second measure. This almost necessitates that the G Major comes earlier, and the resulting quite weak (Given the inversion of the D Major and lack of tonic in the melody.) authentic cadence (D Major to G Major) helps heighten the contrast when the melody now goes upwards to the B Minor, ending on the third, naturally.
The rest of the second variation is rhythmically similar to the first variation, though the move towards the sullen F Minor has been replaced with an upwards skip to a climactic D Major, similar to the climax of the title theme minus the chromatic chord. The theme then ends back on the tonic in a way that proponents of tonality will find very unsatisfying.
My favourite aspect of this theme is the opening in the second variation. The skipwise rising melody coupled with the stepwise bassline is very open and heroic and couldn’t be more fantasy if it tried. I enjoyed listening to this theme every time I visited Orzammar and while it’s not as texturally individual as other themes, it’s a memorable melody that’s inspired me from time to time, not unlike the skips found in Jeremy Soule’s Wings of Kynareth.
The Circle/Mage Theme
Because once you discover that playing an Arcane Warrior/Blood Mage with the right min-maxing makes you largely unstoppable even on nightmare, what else would you ever want to play?
The Mage theme is very grand and open, written almost like a malign fanfare, full of oppression and dark textures. It might just be the best example of the kind of chromaticism used by Zur throughout the entire score, as the climax that the theme is built around (excerpt below this paragraph) contains not only a chromatic chord but two consecutive minor second steps in the melody which is the shortest most recognisable chromatic movement.
The character of the tracks played in the circle tower is interesting. The climax is very powerful and very dramatic, especially given the rather calm oppressive atmosphere that the environments have. I would even go as far as to say that the climax sounds like what you’d hear as the camera zooms out and away from the circle tower after a dramatic cutscene. Nevertheless, the theme is effective at establishing the dark fantasy feel by being so downright evil and angry, it could well be the theme of an absurdly powerful enemy NPC.
The Battle of Lothering Village
This is definitely one of my favourite songs from the entire soundtrack and I’ve been wanting to talk about it for a long time. There are several things that are both great and interesting about it, not the least of which being that it is definitely the track that sticks out the most because it makes very little sense. To start with, I have two questions.
Why is arguably the best battle theme used in Lothering? It only plays in the glorified backyard that is the patch of grass outside the village. Fighting weak brigands, bears and spiders just seems dramatically insufficient when put against such a great, addictive flowing melody.
What is up with the opening part? It sounds like a bunch of insane people went inside a kitchen and started randomly bashing all the cookware together. The entire track is quite schizophrenic (I’m reminded of what Schumann said about Chopin’s second piano sonata, that “Chopin had simply bound together four of his most unruly children.”) and the tonal shifts are so noticeable, even in-game, it’s like an amalgamation of some really good ideas that didn’t fit anywhere else and so what we get is a very well-written track from the funny dimension that is way too good to be confined to a little garden at the start of the game.
This is arguably the climax of the track, and it arcs back a bit to what I said about Zur using too much movement in his battle themes. Here, we have a very attractive and simple melody with just the right amount of intermediary notes and sustains. The chord progression is classic, using a downwards third and an upwards semitone in the bassline in the first two climaxes.
Given how simple the melody is, I wonder if Zur was surprised by how well it turned out, it being written for such minor usage. Whatever the case, it’s an odd and memorable track.
The Endless Wave of Hurlocks
There’s a clear link between the name, purpose and musical style of this track. It’s full of relentless staccato parts for the violin, repetitions of the main battle motif in the trombone and the entire piece is one long escalation towards a non-conclusive climax. In other words, if you’re fighting an, I don’t know, endless wave of enemies, this might be the music track to have in the background.
I decided to transcribe this one because whilst it’s perhaps not a great piece of music, it does grant a lot of insight into how Zur writes battle tracks, especially his percussive mindset. You can always tell it’s a Zur track by the percussion instruments used, as well as in the rhythm itself. The man’s drums are often pounding away at an even eighth notes pace, basically keeping the rhythm going while the string and brass parts are syncopated and stretching outside the current time signature.
In Origins in particular, Zur has employed a lot of 3/4 patterns in 4/4 time, and vice versa. He offsets the start of his melodies back and forth, squeezes and extra beat in here and there, but he does it so well that without a closer listen it isn’t particularly noticeable. Amongst this chaos, he does include more predictable parts with a stronger focus on melody, although this particular track isn’t a good example of that.
Download transcribed sheet music for The Endless Wave of Hurlocks from Dragon Age: Origins here:
Dragon Age: Origins – The Endless Wave of Hurlocks (Raw Transcription)
Ostagar Battle Theme
This track is also played in some parts of the deep roads but I remember it firstly from the opening segment, fighting the darkspawn in Ostagar, so that’s what I’m calling it. Anyway, I was hoping that this track would be in the official soundtrack as it contains two really good melodies. Alas, it was not meant to be, but I went through the source files and extracted it myself. I didn’t at first, instead I transcribed it from memory (it’s been a few years since I played it but I still remember the track) and whilst that would’ve been OK for an excerpt, I wanted to give it the video treatment.
Compared to The Endless Wave of Hurlocks, it’s less dramatic. I would say that it’s more ostentatious and relentless, owing partially to the two great melodies that divide the two more subtle parts. I don’t have much more to say about it other than that it’s a great track. I made a video of it because you get a much clearer picture of the structure of a piece if you have the sheet music in front of you while listening to it. Also, since it’s not in the official soundtrack, it’s not on YouTube, so I’d have nothing to link to, and what would be the point of that?
Download transcribed sheet music for Ostagar Battle Theme from Dragon Age: Origins here:
Dragon Age: Origins – Ostagar Battle Theme (Raw Transcription)
I Am the One (High Fantasy)
This song might just be the reason behind the dear Aubrey stuff. The way she sings it is sweet and sugary and the song itself is so luscious and delicate. The lyrics are either nonsense or in some language that I don’t recognise but that doesn’t matter so much. In fact, it would sound weird if it were sung in English. There’s a mixing error at 3:20 in the track when dear Aubrey starts singing. It’s the second most noticeable error in the soundtrack, the most noticeable one being when the horns play out of time in the Orzammar track. Yes, that’s an intentional non-sequitur.
Moving on, I have transcribed this track as a vocal track, not an orchestral one. In other words, it’s the sung melody and chords that I’ve focused on. I did include some counterpoint most of the time but none of it is particularly interesting. There’s a guitar-like instrument playing broken chords on the right more often than not but something like that is quite predictable while still being almost impossible to transcribe, two qualities it shares with strings harmony.
Download transcribed sheet music for I Am the One from Dragon Age: Origins here:
Dragon Age: Origins – I Am the One (Raw Transcription)
As is true of all the lyrics in the sheet music attached to this article, they’re mostly estimates based on the phonetics since it’s a language I don’t know.
Title Theme (DA:O)
This is the track that introduced me to the style that Zur would be using throughout the entire soundtrack. Like I mentioned before, I wasn’t sold on the vocals straight away. Perhaps it was the odd mixture of a rather honey-like silvery voice with a composer known for writing really dark music (a difference that’s assuaged in Dragon Age II). More likely is that it was because I had mixed feelings about the game itself. Even though it’s now firmly amongst my all-time favourites, I almost had to be talked into playing it. Something about the way it looked just sent me to sleep.
But I digress. This transcription is an improved and extended version of the one I made a couple of years back. It’s no longer cut off before the end and I’ve included a few more parts than before.
Note that in the video, the tempo is sometimes off by just a hair. This is because Zur changes the tempo back and forth a lot while conducting. I’ve marked most of these changes. Dear Aubrey also strays a bit, singing a piacere from time to time: nevertheless, it’s only slight and doesn’t make the sheet music unintelligible.
Download transcribed sheet music for Title Theme from Dragon Age: Origins here:
Leliana’s Song (DLC)
This one is very popularly requested, which I can understand given that it’s a good if short piece of music, but it’s also really simple. It has one of those weird abrupt endings, probably because it wasn’t intended to be a full-length song like I Am the One. I think it’s just the title theme of the DLC. The drums in the background sound like the Taiko drums from Stormdrum.
I think this is a piece that I would love to arrange myself, possibly into a duet. So, whilst I try to scrounge up some time and a couple of vocalists, have a look at the sheet music and listen to the track. It’s interesting to note that the elvish language featured in arguably all of the vocal songs of the Dragon Age franchise is based on a lot of Nordic pronunciations.
Download transcribed sheet music for Leliana’s Song from Dragon Age: Origins – Leliana’s Song DLC here:
Dragon Age: Origins – Leliana’s Song DLC (Raw Transcription)
Dragon Age II
Dragon Age II was eagerly anticipated by yours truly and while I enjoyed it, it doesn’t quite hold up to Origins. The music is also substantially less interesting. It has a great title theme but the only other track that I have something other than “it’s good music” to say about is Rogue Heart, that I don’t even recall hearing in-game. I feel a bit like I did when I was listening to Inception’s soundtrack. There’s so much good stuff but not much to say.
So, let’s take a look at what there is. It’s still Zur and dear Aubrey but now the man has gone the way of subtle textures, more like Soule only without the intermittent melodies. The oppression has been turned down a notch and now the atmosphere bears more resemblance to an indifferent place that doesn’t much care for you, in a very passive-aggressive way, which you have to say is quite accurate. The Lyris Quartet brings their very cohesive playing style to the table, supplying the instrumentation for the more intimate, Hawke-central themes. Zur is using some other interesting instruments this time around that I can’t name although they sound quite synthesised.
Title Theme (DAII)
Very dissimilar to Origins, the Dragon Age II title theme opens up with a dark, organic texture with dear Aubrey humming a despondent melody in an almost plangent tone. I love how she sounds distant and almost cold. The hostile tone escalates to an iteration of the deep brass melody from Origins after which it suddenly shifts to the string quartet playing the central motif.
The melody this time around is more rhythmically varied and dynamic, and I love when the horn plays glissando. Overall, the piece is very intimate, quite significantly less dramatic than the Origins title theme, and it’s a good example of achieving a bit more with a bit less. Given the less heroic theme of the game overall, I think it’s more fitting than the grandiose explosiveness of the Origins music. It’s more matured and contemporary, moving further and further away from the heavily melodically focused 80s and 90s.
It’s hard to imagine the amount of ire I would’ve subjected myself to if I had written this article without including Rogue Heart. It’s in all likelihood the most popular track from the game, and quite deservingly so. In a way, it is to Dragon Age II what I Am the One is to Origins. In other words, it’s all about dear Aubrey.
She brings a beautiful performance to the track, even though her voice is layered over itself several times. She’s like her own choir in a way, which is a testament to her ability as a vocalist. In this song, I especially like how atonal vocal sounds are used as part of the rhythm, the “-th”-sound in particular brings another level of interest to her singing.
This track sounds like it’s a collaboration between Zur and the songwriter he had with him on Dragon Age II, Idan Raichel (This link leads to a song of his. It’s quite enchanting.). I’m not sure to what extent Raichel was involved but in Rogue Heart there’s definitely another force of influence in addition to Zur’s own style that certainly sounds like it belongs to Raichel.
Download transcribed sheet music for Rogue Heart from Dragon Age II here:
Dragon Age 2 – Rogue Heart (Raw Transcription)
That’s about all of what I’ve wanted to show & tell of Dragon Age. I don’t doubt that I’ll write about the music in the upcoming instalment (not unlike how I’m almost guaranteed to do a more extensive look at Mass Effect 3). In the spirit of that sentiment, I hope that the next game is more of a step in the right direction and they we get more Leliana this time around.
If you use my transcriptions to make an arrangement, I’d love to hear about it. Or, if you’d like to point out a mistake, you can do that as well. You can also make a request for something completely unrelated to Inon Zur or Dragon Age, all in the comments below, or on any other post. You could be funny and post a sheet music request in the comments of one of my older posts about politics and philosophy.
All the best,