VGM Review #3: 'Halo' Main Theme

To be honest, the Halo obsession has always been one that is lost on me. I’ve played it multiplayer before and I’ve done a very tiny bit of the single player campaign in the both the first and second games (I was at a friend’s house), but I’ve never fallen victim to the hype. In fact, as far as FPS’s are concerned, I’m a fan of Unreal Tournament. Therefore, I’ve always seen Halo as just that: hype.

Saying that may enrage you—I understand. I’m not saying it’s bad or anything of the sort. In fact, I feel like I’m a little under-qualified to judge since FPS’s aren’t my thing. Lots of people kill for them and play Halo and Call of Duty as many hours as I spend at work each week. Those people have a great potential to be better judges than I. Though I may have a personal preference, I haven’t spent enough time ingesting these games to know what I really like about them and really don’t. All I know is that my time playing Halo did not seem special and did not leave me wanting to play more.

Regardless of my opinions on the game itself, I knew that I would have to visit its soundtrack. Fans of the game, whether large or small, covet what composers Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori have done. I had never paid much attention to the soundtrack, though, and knew from the beginning that I should listen to and review it because of the high praise it’s received. At the very least I knew that I would have to review the main theme because people barely mention Halo without referring to that iconic track.

Before I get to the main theme, I’m going to start with the “Opening Suite.” I first listened to the OST in order, and that’s the first track I ran into.

This track contained a sort of breakdown of thematic devices used for some of the other songs in the game. That fact is especially evident if one listens to “Halo” right after it because “Halo” contains the two parts of the “Opening Suite” (the chorus and the strings) in both separate and conjoined contexts (that is, it has some parts standing out by themselves and some parts that play at the same time). If the reader listens to 2:10 here, s/he will hear how the two parts are layered atop one another in a sort of harmonic “stacking,” if you will, where voices of the desired chord are put down one by one (one will hear a stacking of sorts oft around the whole soundtrack).

There are three main things I like about this piece. First, I appreciate that O’Donnell and Salvatori created an ethereal track instead of a metal shred-fest, which I might expect for this sort of game considering both its theme and genre. Alternatively, it would have also been all too easy for them to make the theme an “electronic space opera,” but, again, that’s thankfully not the direction that they went in.

Next, I like how the strings move in and out of dissonances. Their movement is very slow and methodical, and harmonic motion is often created via individual voices moving by themselves while other voices are suspended. One can surely think “space” through this method of writing; the held notes can represent a cosmic harmoniousness and the single voice movements are like the parts in the universe that are in motion that are relatively miniscule—but ultimately important—in the mysterious vastness of the final frontier (I could go on talking about space forever).

Finally, I like that the strings repeat rhythmic phrases in different harmonic contexts. One will hear 1:28-1:35 (you know, the part that sounds like the beginning of Nobuo Uematsu’s “Heart of Anxiety” from Final Fantasy VII) transposed in a few varying ways throughout the string section. When placed overtop a bed of long tones that form a certain chord, the pattern played finalizes the definition of the chord and often produces varying dissonances that weren’t already there. Like the movement mentioned in the prior paragraph, the discrete way that the harmony forms successfully adds to the environment that the composers are trying to create.

As for the choral part, I’m just not particularly a fan. I think that there really isn’t anything special about the part itself. Sure, it does well to create immediately an atmosphere for the player, but it really just isn’t very interesting a part; rather, it’s pretty straightforward and one-dimensional. In fact, the most intriguing part to me is the breathing since I find it strange that it is so pronounced.

All in all, I like the composers’ vision, but I will never listen to the track again or pay particular attention to it if I am somehow forced to play the game. 

Now I’ll move onto the Most Beloved, the track aptly titled “Halo”.

Again, “Halo” starts with a choral introduction (this time, it’s worth noting that there are sound effects looming in the background, which give the choral part a bit more of an interest); then, a hand drum groove in 12/8 seeps in at 0:31, followed by a very forceful cello part. Let me be clear: I dislike the cello part. To me it represents how truly uninspiring “action” lines can be in film and games scoring. Here's a supplement that I’ve done up in Finale. I realize that not everyone’s going to be John Williams and write “The Battle of Hoth”, but the heavy octave-based triplet-to-dotted half note line right out front is excruciating to me (I say this and I’m thinking the whole time, ‘I’ll probably have to write something like that in the future just to get something done and out of the way or to please someone’). The good news is that its development (which is more based on the last measure of the example) alleviates my disinterest, and the more interesting high string parts end up overshadowing it.

By the way, I’m not into those “tribal” shouts in the background of the section that starts at 1:03. The good about them (aside from their ability to be an appealing additive) is that they help out the form. The composers do well in adding a few bars between the string stacking before it and the violin melody that comes afterwards, and instead of just having the developed cello line by itself, they use these voices to add a little flavor. However, they seem out of place, seeing that there is a focus on a “classical” kind of choral element in the beginning of the piece. These make the part sound more “wild” to go along with the “wilder” cello, but certainly one can produce energy while utilizing the aesthetic that s/he has already established. Clearly, there are some benefits to having chosen the tribal voices; my nitpicky distaste is strictly one of opinion—there is nothing inherently “wrong” with their inclusion.

Back to something that’s actually important. For the most part, I like the violin melody that comes in at 1:09. It definitely is a melody that is built around creating energy for action—the strings climb higher and higher, there is a focus on rhythmic tension, and the time between sections are short.

The rhythmic tension in the “main” melody is pretty apparent, as the strings shift back and forth from more sustained notes to bursts of quickly moving lines, but there are a couple of spots of tension that I particularly enjoy. The first spot I like is in the beginning of the violin melody (the second line of the supplement). In the second measure there are these tiny bits of space work really well. The first bit is actually a ghosted note, I think (the note with the parenthesis around it), and the second is the bit on beat seven. Those little spots of space serve to really punch out the note in between them, making its accent very cutting in the quick line. Additionally, the space after the note rips that measure of beat one of the naturally imaged group of six. To be clearer, the brain can subdivide the 12/8 measure into two measures of 6/8 or one measure of 4/4. In the 6/8 subdivision, a beat one is robbed, and in the 4/4 subdivision, the note is played on the “and” of three. In that way, the effect is similar to that of the next example.

One can hear two lines that are similar to each other in the countermelody at 1:21 and 1:25. The difference between the two is that in the first line, the first two held notes are, in 4/4 (the easiest time in which to feel this example), right on the beats 1 and 2 while the second line has the first note on 1 and the second note on the “and” of 2. The difference is small—simply a note moved back half a beat—yet largely effective.

Rhythmic tension is what makes the short, interjected section in the middle of the main melody effective as well (1:13 begins the main melody, 1:17 switches to the first interjection, 1:21 marks a return to the melody, and 1:28 brings in the second interjection). Both sections are very off-putting in that they are unexpected drones of sorts that shatter the continuity of the main melodic line. The first one is tiny and barely noticeable if one isn’t paying attention, but the second one is unavoidable.

The second section begins at 1:28. The measure starts with two beats then an accented third beat. The next note that is accented comes after three more unaccented notes are playing. The pattern is such, whereas o is unaccented and X is accented:

| o o X o o o | X o o o X o o | o X o o o X |

After those three displayed measures comes a straightforward line, and then the strings revert back to the same sort of thing shown in the example. There are two combined elements that make the pattern put the listener off-balance. Element one: the accented note is the highest note in the three measures. Each unaccented note creates a motion that has a goal of getting to that high, [naturally] accented note. Element two: the accent is moved forward one beat in each group of three. The first is on 3 of 3, the second is moved into nothing, the third is 1/3, the forth is 2/3, and so forth. As for the note that’s “0/3,” it’s as if the composers were rotating on a volleyball court that had teams of seven facing each other. The effect is greater earlier when the accent pattern isn’t “3/3, 1/3”; plus, the pattern is masked better in this way.

Aside from the rhythmic tension, I like the form of the piece. The interjections between the lines of the “main” melody (it’s really more like “melody line 1”) are especially effective, the cut back to the cello line and the tribal voices at 1:36 has a nice “deforesting” effect, and 1:48’s “alternate melody” is an unexpected and refreshing break from “melody line 1.” The only problem I have with the form is that I think that the whole thing ends quite oddly. At 2:14, the percussion and cellos fade, making way for the choral part to return without any accompaniment from the strings. I understand the motive for wanting to end coming full circle; however, the non-choral melodies only lasted for a third of the work (1:09-2:14). I really would have preferred that the composers continued with the idea of combining the voices and strings, whether to create a grand finale or to just extend the melodic content. There is a lot of powerful potential that is left in that section, and I would have liked to hear how the chorus and the strings played off of each rhythmically to create different forms of the tension that they had already utilized so well.

All in all, I think that “Halo” is a nice, successful work. I had to listen to it a number of times to really catch what I liked about it because I think the choral part so bland that it made me not pay attention to the rest of the piece (the cello line afterwards didn’t help at all), but I’m glad that I got past my prejudice and could come to respect the parts that were done really well. Regardless of my negative feelings towards said parts, I can easily see why people are so captured by O’Donnell and Salvatori’s theme for the highly profitable FPS.