Mass Effect 3's Musical Secret

I finished Mass Effect 3 last weekend. It was a real rollercoaster ride, especially the back half — stuff sure does get intense in there, doesn't it? Don't worry, I won't post any spoilers here, nor will I talk about the much-discussed ending.

The music of Mass Effect packed more of an emotional wallop than I was expecting. It wasn't so much the new, emotional piano music, though I did appreciate that. It was another, older theme that really got to me. This theme plays during many key moments in the story and, in a very cool touch, is also woven into the background sounds of the game itself.

For me, and I suspect for a lot of other longtime Mass Effect fans, the most emotional musical theme of Mass Effect 3 is this one:

Jack Wall's menu music of the first Mass Effect wound up being the most emotionally resonant music of the entire series. Every time it would kick in in the third game, I'd feel a stirring inside me.

It's such a simple melody… I remember hearing it when I first booted up Mass Effect in 2007, the day after it had come out. The music came as a surprise — it was pensive and wide, a C and a G ringing out, a wide-open perfect fifth. It wasn't the music of outerspace gunfights and starship shootouts — it was the music of space, of vast oceans of possibility.

As the low drone continues, that plaintive synth enters on the E, forming a major tonality. Then it moves to the F, then down to the D, slowly… It's a beautiful introductory melody, remarkable for its consonance as much as its lack of rhythmic urgency.

I believe it only plays once during Mass Effect 2 — when Shepard is reunited with either Kaiden or Ashley on Horizon. But it turns up at a few crucial times in Mass Effect 3, and it becomes clear that someone in charge of making this game realised just how resonant that simple melody was, and what lovely symmetry it provided by bringing it back in the final game.

Here's where it goes from resonant musical theme to secret emotional weapon. The music itself plays whenever Shepard is having an emotional moment with one of her old crew members. But it's also hidden in the fabric of one of the most-trafficked rooms in the game itself. Check out this video:

Here's my Shepard, standing in the War Room. It's where she ends up at the end of most missions, a various dignitaries standing around, waiting to check the status of the fleet and move on to the next mission. Listen closely. Hear those drones in the background? They're more than just machinery.

In fact, the machinery in the Normandy's war room drones at a low "C" with a "G" above it — the same perfect fifth that lies under the menu music from the first game. Now, if you pause it (as I do about 10 seconds in), the background chatter dims, and you'll start to hear… do you hear it…. do you? It's a ghostly hint of that same melody, hidden away behind the din and drone of the war room.

Keep listening, and you'll hear each of those three tones — the E, the F, and the D, ringing out over that low C. It's an ingenious bit of sound design.

In everyday life, our ears learn to filter out the many droning tones around us, but we never truly stop hearing them. Indeed, there are professionals who will come "tune" your workplace or apartment, seeking out dissonant intervals that may be subconsciously causing stress. For example, if your fridge hums at a barely audible low D and your lightbulb at a higher Eb, you've got a super-grindy flat ninth ringing in your ear all day long, which can take a surprising toll.

The chords playing on the Normandy are the opposite of that — they are soothing, and subtly make you think back to your journey, to that first time you booted up Mass Effect and prepared to embark on a new adventure. Of all of the ways that Mass Effect 3 ties back to the first game in the series, this may be my favourite.

Think about your state of mind every time you're in the war room. Another mission is over, another compromise has been made, another heavy loss possibly sustained. As you stand there, contemplating what just happened, the room bustles as usual. But beneath the chatter rings a hidden rendition of the musical theme that played five years ago when you first set this whole damned thing in motion. It's always there, anchoring you to the past while nudging you to keep on going, even when all seems lost.


Comments

    ME3 had some great tracks, and I loved how they added old tracks from the previous games into the mix.

    This is my favorite article on Mass Effect 3 so far. It demonstrates the care and, dare I say it, love the developers have for the Mass Effect Universe- it's this kind of polish and attention to detail that let you overlook the obvious flaws and find that special 'something'

    Damn it, I just remembered, my favourite track from ME2, the Galaxy Map music, wasn't in 3. :(

      I was gonna say, the Galaxy map music is best :(

    The way they used the music to lead the action was also pretty impressive. Thanks to the music, I was certain that a particular krogan would die towards the end of a mission. Good thing I was wrong (because that guy is awesome).

      that music caused my heart to sink deep into my chest. i was grief stricken. they did an amazing job during those emotional scene like on chuchunka(sorry if i spelt it wrong)

        Tuchanka :P

        The whole story behind the Krogan, pre-neutering is really very grimdark. There isn't one good thing that happened.

    Stuck at work so I can't listen but then I don't need to. I know the music so well - I can imagine what the subcoscious affect of having it hidden away in the background noise of the game. Players are likely to drop straight back into old playing habits, they're more likely to enjoy it if the liked the previous games, players are going to feel 'at home'. Great work by their soundscape designer and great work from Kirk to bring this to us.

    I think the sound design of the Mass Effect games is pretty awesome too. It definately went up a notch for the weapons in ME3. The sounds the cruisers make kinda reminds me of similar cruisers in Star Wars.

    But what really impressed me is the ambient sounds of the Citadel. In ME1 I remember when first exploring the Citadel, you could hear distant rumblings or engine sounds in the distance.. I live on the 9th floor of an apartment building in the inner city of Sydney, and whenever I'm on my balcony late at night, it almost sounds the same and reminds me of ME.

    Clint Mansell's first game soundtrack iirc

    DICE worked on the soundscapes too

    my wife never really likes video games. However, she loves Mass Effect. In fact, i was asked to purchase ME3 on day one, just so she can see how the story unravels.

    Her current bedtime music? Leaving Earth by Clint Mansell.

    for a game to be able to get non-gamers involved, Bioware did a really good job. Kudos to them.

    After I finished the game and got my "Post-story-sadness" I listened to the OST for a few days. The emotional depths within the music are quite vast. The way in which it has been tied into the action, story, loss and use is one of few. I've always loved Mansell's work, and in my mind he sits aside Nubuo Uematsu and Hans Zimmer.

    this has been my alarm sound for years (:

    While this plays over the menu in ME1, it is actually Vigil's Theme (listed on the OST just as "Vigil"). It's the track, as the name suggests, that plays when you meet Vigil, the Prothean VI, on Ilos at the end of ME1.

    you can hear it more clearly on the main menu screen in me3 too.

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