Albums That Made Me - Sonic The Hedgehog 1 & 2 Soundtrack
In this series of blogs, I will document a selection of albums that were pivotal in shaping my musical journey. I will focus on what made these albums special to me, as opposed to what makes them special in music, cultural or any other terms. Of course, every album I discuss can be considered as recommended listening, however, please keep in mind that whilst these albums are special to me, that doesn't mean they're particularly special and/or unique in their own right (although in most cases, I would argue that they are!).
Artist: Masato Nakamura
Album: Sonic The Hedgehog 1 & 2 Soundtrack
Release: 1991-92 (game) / 2011 (soundtrack)
Label: SEGA / DCT Records
Genre: Video-Game Soundtrack
Masato Nakamura - Composer & Arranger
Miwa Yoshida - Arranger
When I was a kid, our house was a SEGA household. We had a Master System and later upgraded to a Mega Drive (I also had a Game Gear). Therefore Sonic The Hedgehog was my video-gaming mascot of choice. Whilst I loved the game for its speed, visuals and gameplay, I was obsessed with the music. Each zone's theme strongly resonated with me in different ways; the positive vibes of Green Hill Zone, the moody, ominousness of Marble Zone, the sass and funk of Spring Yard Zone, the feel-good, uplifting chorus hook on Labyrinth Zone, and so on.
I used to dial in the ↑↓←→ A+Start cheat code on the title screen, and instead of using the level select feature of the cheat/debug menu, I'd browse through the music and listen to the themes on loop for ages. I was too young to understand why I enjoyed the music or how it made me feel the way I did; all I knew was that I loved it!
In later years, when I started regularly using the Internet (in the early 2000s), I found a website (I forget its name) that listed MP3s for all sorts of video-game music (probably highly illegitimate and I'm sure it no longer exists). I was therefore able to download the music from Sonic The Hedgehog and began on a journey of nostalgia fuelled music (re)discovery; not just Sonic, but all sorts of games from my childhood with interesting music that I'd forgotten about.
SEGA officially released the Sonic The Hedgehog 1 & 2 soundtrack in 2011, which brought me these beloved tunes in high quality (as opposed to crunchy, 128kbps MP3s). Since then, this album gets regular play on my commute and whilst doing chores around the house. It's a staple in the soundtrack of my life and the tunes never grow old (to me, at least).
Considering the Sonic The Hedgehog soundtrack in retrospect, with my understanding of music (and music production) theory, there are many aspects to discuss. One such talking point is that each tune has incredibly strong and distinctive melodies that whilst being easily memorable, more importantly do a fantastic job of being musical representations of the locations they accompany.
For example, Green Hill Zone's A-section utilises a pedalled bass note on the tonic (C-major) and a melody line that centres around the major 7th of the tonic (B natural). The major seventh is a leading note that, depending on context can be either positive or yearning and melancholy (or all of it at once). This duality reflects Green Hill Zone itself, which looks like a blissful paradise and safe haven, but which has sadly been overrun by mechanised animals hellbent on destruction and deadly traps lurking at every turn.
Much like the mechanics of the gameplay on this level, the music creates in me a strong sense of tension, without actually feeling tense (i.e. it's calming and tense). It's incredibly simple, yet incredibly sophisticated. The pay-off for this A-section tension is the B-section release (of tension), which melodically resolves (from the yearning B-natural) to the homeliness of C (the tonic). However, whilst the melody resolves, the harmony moved from the tonic to the sub-dominant F-major chord. I.e. as the melody resolves, the harmony un-resolves. Here we see the duality or paradox of the calming tension as a continued theme, albeit flipped 180º. It's really quite masterful when you think about it, yet this is all achieved within 16 bars of diatonic harmony. Amazing!
This soundtrack is littered with sweet, clever and touching moments of composition like this throughout. Sometimes it produces energy and urgency (Scrap Brain Zone) and other times it can be positively serene (Star Light Zone). Throw in some clever key-change modulations here and there, and things get really interesting, without ever actually getting particularly complicated.
I regularly use similar compositional approaches in my own work, and I've received feedback numerous times from listeners telling me that my music has some Sonic The Hedgehog "vibes" and/or that my music reminds them of Sonic The Hedgehog, which I always take as a compliment.
Another significant factor of the Sonic The Hedgehog soundtrack is that of the tonal palette. The sounds were generated using a Yamaha YM2612 FM synthesis chip (utilised in many 16-bit video-game technologies, from SEGA and Namco arcade machines, to the Mega Drive console, the Capcom CPS1 arcade system, and more). This 4-operator FM synthesiser, whilst cruder than it's 6-operator big brother (found in the DX-7) is nevertheless diverse, powerful and characterful.
I've no doubt that my attachment to the tones of this synth are firmly rooted in nostalgia (as opposed to musicality), nevertheless aspiring to often use similar tonalities in my own music has helped me realise a great many ideas. I even purchased an old Yamaha DX-21 synthesiser (which uses the same YM2612 chip as the Mega Drive) and use it to this day, making sounds that share similar characteristics with those found on Sonic The Hedgehog. My DX-21 features heavily on many of more popular works, including one track that have been streamed over a million times on Spotify (at the time of writing this article). It also features on all of the tracks I produced for a Nintendo Switch™ game.
I.e. in 2023, I'm still flying the flag of the YM2612, getting it exposure in the electronic music scene, placing it in modern-day console soundtracks, and generally channeling my Sonic The Hedgehog influences into my work, as best I can.
It's fair to say that the music of the Sonic The Hedgehog franchise has stuck with me far more strongly than the game itself (although I still love to fire up the game from time to time). It was the first video-game soundtrack to really get under my skin and leave a lasting impact on me. This game alerted me to video-game music at a very young age and I've therefore always paid extra close attention to the music of video-games; improving and enriching my enjoyment of the entertainment format as a whole.
Today, I listen to a great many video-game soundtracks and video-game music makes up about 20% of my entire music library, and for that, I am deeply grateful to Nakamura's work on this soundtrack.
Because of this deep connection I have with this game's soundtrack, it was the first game soundtrack I thought to seek out after discovering that it was possible to find old video-game soundtracks online in the early 2000s. Furthermore, to this day, if you say "video-game music" to me, the first tune that comes to mind is Green Hill Zone.
Beyond switching me onto a great many more video-game soundtracks, this game's soundtrack has lead me down a path of creating many covers, rearrangements and/or remixes of old video-game tunes (including many Sonic The Hedgehog tunes). Through this I've discovered online communities (such as the wonderful people at RadioSEGA and The SEGA Lounge) that I'm now involved with, making lasting and meaningful friendships, working on numerous charity projects as well as aspiring (and eventually realising a dream) to compose video game soundtracks of my own.
To sum up, this game's soundtrack was one of my earliest experiences of connecting with music in a meaningful way and thirty years later, it's indirectly allowed me to connect with other people and career paths in an equally meaningful way. Sonic The Hedgehog and Masato Nakamura will always therefore hold a very, very dear place in my heart 💙.
I have only discussed the music of Sonic The Hedgehog 1 in this article, as primarily, this is the video-game soundtrack that is of most significance to me. However the music of Sonic The Hedgehog 2 is also of great significance, being composed by the same person and created using all of the same YM2612 synthesis techniques (not to mention included in the official soundtrack release). I also have great adoration for the Sonic The Hedgehog 3 (and Knuckles) soundtracks, however in a an attempt to keep this article relatively concise, I will forego further gushy praise. Just know the "Sonic" playlist in my car consists of all music from Sonic 1, 2, 3, "& Knuckles", Sonic CD, and the more recent "Mania", and they get equal adoration (perhaps with a tiny bias towards the original game's themes that kickstarted it all 😉).