Hey! Listen is a twice-monthly column unearthing obscure video game music and trivia. This week, we’re looking at the genius of Nobuo Uematsu.
Often referred to by his contemporaries as the Mozart or Beethoven of video game music, Nobuo Uematsu is one of the most celebrated video game composers of all time. His music for the Final Fantasy series has been performed by world-class orchestras at Final Symphony and Distant Worlds concerts, inspired Grammy-winning jazz artists, sampled by famous rappers, and spawned an entire subculture of YouTube musicians that make covers of his music.
It’d be reasonable to assume it’s a God-like grasp of music theory or years of relentless classical music studying that make Uematsu’s so special, but he never studied music, nor did he receive formal music training. Everything he’s learned is self-taught. And while you might think classical music is Uematsu’s biggest influence, it’s actually his love of progressive rock – bands such as Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, Genesis, King Crimson and Deep Purple – that are responsible for shaping the music in Final Fantasy that you know and love.
Of course, there are other influences, too (Elton John and Stevie Wonder being two of the biggest), but there are countless nods to prog-rock throughout the history of Final Fantasy. Take a listen to Dancing Mad from Final Fantasy VI and Tarkus by Emerson, Lake & Palmer and tell me they don’t share the same musical DNA. Uematsu loves shifting time signatures (the man loves a bar of 5/4!) and as a drummer, I love the way he accents his hi-hat heats on the offbeat – a very unusual and pretty groovy thing to do. Final Fantasy’s Decisive Battle music is a great example of this.
Alongside unusual time signatures and instrumentation (both of which Uematsu’s music is known for) one of the most common traits of prog-rock music is its fantasy themes. It’s epic and incredibly grandiose in nature, making it a natural fit for an RPG series like Final Fantasy. One of Final Fantasy’s popular enemies also shares its name with the British prog and folk-rock band, Hedgehog Pie.
As the music in Final Fantasy evolved thanks to advancements in sound chips, Uematsu’s instrument of choice for most of his main melodies — especially those in boss battles – became the organ, and the Hammond organ was often the go-to instrument for epic prog-rock tunes. One of my favourite examples of this has got to be what plays during the final battle with Necron in Final Fantasy IX. Say what you want about that random boss fight, but the music absolutely rips, and if you’ve got a keen ear, you’ll notice his solos share the same key and musical ideas with his Final Fantasy VI battle themes.
But here’s where things get really interesting. The purveyor of prog-rock he is, Uematsu went on to form The Black Mages ensemble in 2002, basically a band of Square composers that played instrumental prog-rock and metal arrangements of Final Fantasy music. They released a couple of albums, which are worth checking out if you’re into heavier music. The band eventually split, but Uematsu was having none of that and formed a new group called Earthbound Papas, basically more of the same but with arrangements of music from other video games such as Lost Odyssey, Blue Dragon and Lord Of Vermillion.
I recently finished another playthrough of Lost Odyssey and reckon it’s one of Uematsu’s best soundtracks, and there’s plenty of prog-rock goodness in there. While I can’t say the same about Blue Dragon, I can imagine Uematsu has a lot of love for the game, given he somehow managed to convince Deep Purple’s vocalist, Ian Gillan, to lend his vocal talents for the track ‘Eternity’.
Final Fantasy’s music has changed direction since Uematsu’s departure as the series’ main composer. Ever since Final Fantasy X, the soundtracks have featured input from numerous composers rather than just Uematsu. Call me a sucker for nostalgia, but nothing will ever top his musical contributions to that period of Final Fantasy games between V and IX.
If you’re a fan of prog-rock music, you’ll be pleased to hear that Uematsu wasn’t the only video game composer influenced by the golden days of prog-rock. Motoi Sakuraba, who you may recognise for the music in the Mario Golf games, Golden Sun, Star Ocean and the Tales series (to name just a few), is another composer obsessed with prog-rock. He even released a prog-rock album arrangement of his music for Shining Force.
So there you have it. Without the ‘70s prog-rock movement, who knows what the music in Final Fantasy would have sounded like. Arguably, nowhere near as good!
If you liked this article, check out our previous ‘Hey! Listen’ column pieces here.