Syncopation In The Super Mario Bros Theme

[Kotaku proudly presents the following in-depth look - and listen - to the evolving music of Super Mario Bros via gaming blog Cruise Elroy]

You know what? It's been too long since we looked at any music around here.

Here's an excerpt of the Super Mario Bros theme, composed by Koji Kondo:

And here's an excerpt of "Super Mario Bros: Ground Theme," a new arrangement from Kondo that appears on the Super Smash Bros Brawl soundtrack:

As you can hear, there are plenty of noteworthy changes in the Brawl arrangement - reworked harmonies, a new key, a flashier arrangement, et cetera - but the one I want to concentrate on here is the rhythm.

Take a look at this snip from the original theme (and note that I've filled out the note durations in these transcriptions to bring out the rhythm; the actual performances are more staccato):

There are two notes here that conspicuously fall on offbeats: the one that's tied over the bar line, and its immediate successor. (These are the sixth and seventh notes, if you're following along with the audio sample.) This displacement is a form of syncopation, a rhythmic technique which appears in virtually all types of music. Essentially, a syncopated rhythm has accents in unusual or unexpected places.

By contrast, notice how the next-to-last note of the sample falls right on the third beat - you can even hear it match up with the snare-like sound in the percussion part. This note is not syncopated.

Now let's look at the corresponding spot in the Brawl arrangement:

This sample is rhythmically identical to the first except for the last two notes, which have been shifted half a beat later. The upshot is that there are now three consecutive offbeat notes (the sixth, seventh and eighth), strengthening the original theme's syncopated feel. Also notice how that next-to-last note, previously on the third beat, now falls between the third and fourth beats.

Let's look at another sample from the original Super Mario Bros theme, about 31 seconds into the audio clip at the top:

There is a lot of syncopation going on here already; the first measure has three notes in a row that fall on offbeats (the second, third, and fourth), and the second measure has two more (the seventh and eighth). However, the effect is masked because of a new percussion pattern: instead of landing at beats 2 and 4, the snare sound now lands on beat 1, between beats 2 and 3, and on beat 4. This mirrors the accents in the melody - but as ragtime fans know, the full effect of offbeat syncopation requires a simpler, unsyncopated part to provide contrast.

Let's compare that to the Brawl sample for the same section:

There are two big rhythmic changes here. First, every note is now on an offbeat except for the downbeats in measures 1 and 3. Second, the bass and drums are accenting the beats instead of matching the melody, providing the contrast mentioned above. The result, as before, is more syncopation. The Brawl rhythm is literally and figuratively more upbeat than the original.

What I think is particularly interesting is that this new rhythm seems to be the one ingrained in Koji Kondo's head. Check out his impromptu performance at GDC 2007, and we'll listen for those two examples above.

Here's the first:

If you compare it to the two clips above, you'll hear that this matches the Brawl arrangement. In fact, Kondo uses this rhythm every time in this performance.

The second example is less clear. Here are the three places where he plays the riff in question:

In each of those clips, it almost sounds as though Kondo plays it "wrong" the first time - with the extra syncopation from the Brawl arrangement - and then tries to "correct" it to the original version the second time through.

Since he's playing from memory and improvising on the spot, it's impossible to say for sure how much of this is intentional. To my ear, though, it sounds like Kondo prefers the newer rhythm. What do you think?

Cruise Elroy is a blog about video games and video game music. Its most popular features have been analyses of the songs in Ocarina of Time and Mother 3.


    Very interesting article, it is nice to know what the original version may of actually sounded like before rendered into 8-bit synth. Sort of like how Marios full form, mustache and all, is rendered down to a 16x16 sprite.

    I must say that though that I like the SMB version better. It has a more tight and dynamic feel that suits the precise gameplay, while the more syncopated brawl version sounds more "floppy", and laid back.

    You oughtta compare with the Super Mario All Stars (SNES) version of this theme, as the Brawl theme (as well as a few other variations) would seem to borrow from this such as:

    The change of the rhythm of the last two notes in the first passage you've shown, this first appeared in the All Stars version

    The chord progression variation used in the Brawl version of the second passage you show was also taken from the All Stars version

      And in addition to this, the All Stars version is riddled with subtle changes, richer harmonies (and some subtle direct fifths from the strange bell sound), bass line changes, embellishments in the steel drum melody... and many other things you don't see carried on to later versions of the song.

        Haha, I was just about to say the same thing regarding the Super Mario All-Stars rendition. I love that version of this song. The only thing I find a little strange about it is the "bell" harmony in the beginning, which I think is because the harmony is above the main melody, so it ends up sounding kind of odd (at least to me).

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