Music has a strange power. It can convey emotion tied a specific event, or a whole new set of feelings all on its own. You can hear a song that will take you back to a specific time in your life, or a certain experience. When video games use music it’s often to accentuate the mood, and hearing their tracks on their own can take you back to a story, to a world.
Final Fantasy VII is no exception. The soundtrack to that game was expertly crafted by Nobuo Uematsu and does an insane amount of the games legwork. I can you this in confidence because I’ve never played the original game, and yet when playing the remake I still recognised plenty of the tracks. They still made me excited, battle ready, reflective, and even emotional.
That’s the power Uematsu had over thousands, if not millions of players back in 1997. So today on Culture of Gaming I want to do the man his due recompense. By telling the story of the music of Final Fantasy VII.
This is Nobuo Uematsu. Whom Classic FM affectionately call “the Beethoven of video game music”. Considering he sells out concert halls playing the music of Final Fantasy I’d say Classic FM are on to something. But let’s take a step back.
Uematsu was born in Kōchi, Japan in 1959. Citing Elton John as one of his biggest influences, he played piano from a young age with no formal training. After University, Uematsu was working at a music rental shop, where a Square employee asked him if he wanted to make some soundtracks for their games. At the time Uematsu saw this as a side gig. He was in for a surprise.
Over time he composed many soundtracks for Square, but it was in 1987 when he scored Final Fantasy that his notoriety would begin to change. 10 games later, and multiple tours across the globe, Uematsu was now a video game celebrity.
He had a lot of influences, but the aforementioned Elton John war arguably his biggest. In a Red Bull Music Academy interview he was asked why.
Why did you want to be Elton John in 1972?
“The reason I wanted to be Elton John in 1972 was probably because the first record that I ever bought was Elton John’s album Honky Château. It gave me a great shock as a young man. I thought about how wonderful it would be to do that kind of thing as a job. Honky Château had a big impact on my life.”
Couple this with progressive Rock influences like Led Zeppelin and you’ve got a man with unique tastes. One’s you wouldn’t expect of a massive fantasy music composer.
When asked about why Final Fantasy games have such special music Uematsu says it’s because he’s an omnivore…
By that he means he uses every type of music. Progressive Rock for battles, cute music for cute characters, and grandiose or sombre music depending on the emotion a scene is trying to convey.
To him RPG’s offer so much room in the stories and emotions they try to present. So he wants to match that by ensuring all the music accentuates every scene it can.
In that interview there’s one response that I think really helps define Uematsu’s work and thought process. When he’s asked “What are you most proud of, looking back?” he responds:
What I always think is that there are many kinds of people. People with different personalities, different interests, different religions and languages[…]. If all those people got together, is there any way they could create harmony?
[…] For example, it could’ve happened that I ended up somewhere making a certain kind of music for the sake of money[…]. I want to keep on trying to create harmony with various different kinds of music. If everyone could have that awareness, maybe worldwide harmony on earth could be possible.
It’s this belief that really colours his work on Final Fantasy VII’s music.
4 hours worth of music should take a long time to compose right? Not for Nobuo Uematsu, Final Fantasy VII only took him one year. This year was spent using MIDI soundtracks, something constantly brought up in album reviews. These reviews, on sites like RPGfan.com and SquareEnixMusic.com praise the soundtrack, but lament the use of MIDI instruments.
One thing which is abundantly clear however is that Uematsu did not let this format stop him. I’d say it didn’t even hinder him that much, after listening to a lot of the soundtrack myself whilst writing this. In an ‘Oral History of FF7’ by Polygon, Uematsu states that he tried to make the games soundtrack like a movie. Where it would fit but not try to stand out. I think it’s safe to say he failed on that one.
Despite having truly iconic music, Uematsu made an interesting sacrifice when producing the music itself. He found that on CD-ROMs if you used vocals too much the game would take longer to load. So he sacrificed a lot of ideas and arguable better quality just to allow the game to run smoother.
That to me, is the sign of a true artist. A willingness to sacrifice.
This track is arguably the fan favourite for the entire game. It was one that Uematsu ‘went outside of his comfort zone’ to create. Being the song for the final boss of the game, that seems like a good approach.
Uematsu knew that if he wanted to top the boss tracks he had done for Final Fantasy VI he would need to change his approach. So to compose ‘One-Winged Angel’ he recorded any ‘classical phrases’ he could. Every morning for two weeks he would just record a short musical phrase. When those weeks were over he just tried to put them together and link them in an interesting order.
He told Polygon:
“It was almost like a gamble — it could have turned out great, or it could have turned out horribly…”
Changing your approach is always a risk, but Uematsu took that upon himself just to get the chance to create something classically special. It’s certainly special for Uematsu as well. In a gamesindustry.biz interview, without hesitation, he says it’s his favourite of any song he’s ever made.
He didn’t even think it would be that popular, Uematsu just went off the image of Sephiroth when finally composing it… and that song came out.
I have to bring this track up, not because I’m a heartless person who wants to remind a whole generation of people a pain they’d wish to forget. But because even without ever playing the original game this song, when used in the Remake, meant something to me as well.
I found that really strange, the short piano melody hit something I’d never known was there, it’s the power of this song that is truly special.
“If I knew that scene would make people cry, I might have made something totally different — something designed to make you cry. But I went with a kind of sad but beautiful tune, and since it’s not the kind of track you typically hear when something tragic happens, maybe that worked out well. When something is missing, people tend to use their imaginations.”
Uematsu knew Aerith’s theme was an important song, but he didn’t quite want to make something to force players to tears. Although I think his idea resonates perfectly with the power music can have, especially in video games. Music on it’s own, usually means one thing, but Aerith’s Theme brings out such emotion because it constantly ties back to her character.
It probably just wouldn’t have worked any other way.
Opening – Bombing Mission
To me, this track exemplifies the entirety of Final Fantasy VII, those initial chimes are, for lack of a better word… iconic.
This wasn’t just the first song in the game either, it was the first track Yoshinori Kitasi asked Uematsu to compose. All he showed Uematsu was the opening cinematic, and when it was finished the company loved it. Uematsu then had “a sense that it was going to be a really good project”.
“As soon as I was done, I felt really, really good about it. I knew that I did a pretty good job considering the time that I was given and for the amount of scenes I had seen. I had a lot of confidence, but then one day [Kitase]-san finally brought Sakaguchi-san to where I was sitting and he was like, ‘Show it to me’. So the three of us looked at it, listened to it, and for some reason — I don’t know why — but in English he just said, ‘Very good’. And then he just left. He knew at that time, and I felt that he was pretty happy with what I had created. So I had a sense that it was going to be a really good project for me moving forward with Final Fantasy VII and all the other components I ended up making.”
The start of this song even punctuated the 2015 Final Fantasy VII tech demo reveal. Helping to show just how important it is to the game, and the fans.
Now I could sit and talk about all of the most iconic and impactful songs from the game, but we’d all be here forever. So I wanted to use those three to act as points. Points to help show just what went into the soundtrack for Final Fantasy VII. The legacy of the music really cannot, and should not, be underestimated.
I think that statement makes it fitting to end on the actual legacy of the games music. Final Fantasy VII has permeated outside of video games into so much culture that it should go without saying. But I’m going to try and say it anyway.
These are the world over. Whilst Uematsu doesn’t tackle a lot of them himself, instead handing the reigns over to Arnie Roth for a lot of the orchestra performances. These aren’t all just Final Fantasy VII, but the series as a whole. Of course a few tracks, especially the ones mentioned above, make appearances though.
One thing that surprised Roth, and a lot of people I’d imagine, wasn’t that the music was excellent. But that a whole new type of musical fan was coming to orchestral performances. It’s strange to think that across the globe people are more than willing to sit down and listen to video game music.
That isn’t to say it’s not worthwhile. In fact, from what people say, it’s quite the opposite.
In an interview with destructiod.com, Roth said this:
I remember when we did the Royal Stockholm concert for the first time. Every one of them could not believe the audience reaction or the quality of the scores. They really appreciate that. There’s a preconception that this is going to be like a pop concert, but it’s not, and they don’t understand that.
I don’t think that was the case at first. At the first, the Los Angeles concert, there were a couple of little comments, little quotes like “we shouldn’t be playing this.” I could never understand that. I worked with them. What went on there? But I’ve never had any issue. All of them are delighted with the scores and the audience response.
The Black Mages
This one might sound a bit strange, and that’s because it is. Nobuo Uematsu was in a Rock band… that covered a handful of Final Fantasy VII tracks. They had 3 full albums, which are host to many remixes of Uematsu’s work.
This is one of those strange things that really you just need to see for yourself… so here you go.
This video has 2.6 Million views. If that doesn’t tell you what Final Fantasy VII is to people I don’t know what will.
What It All Means
Honestly it’s quite difficult to quantify Nobuo Uematsu’s work on Final Fantasy VII. He created music that resonated with so many people and covered so many different genres… all in one game.
The legacy of this games music is one that shouldn’t be forgotten, and has been brought back to like with the release of the Final Fantasy VII Remake. All the songs keep the originals intact, but they’re just re-recorded to sounds though a full orchestra is performing them. Bringing the performances people love so much to life.
Oh… and it doesn’t hurt that Nobuo Uematsu was back to compose, does it?
What do you think of Final Fantasy VII’s music? What’s your favourite track? let us know in the comments or on Twitter @thecognetwork. You can also find all our other FF7 content like guides, a review, and editorials here! As always, thanks for reading COG!