Ragnaros and his Orchestra

23 Jan

(This is what happens when I write a post while loopy from flu meds. Bear with me, I’m not entirely sure how this is going to turn out!)

Before I was a gamer geek, and before I was a knitting geek, and ALMOST before I was a book geek, I was a music geek. I’ve played the piano for a lot more years than my ability at a keyboard would suggest, the clarinet for almost as long, and I have a Bachelor’s degree in Musicology (music history and music literature).

What that translates into? Is a stunning ability to get really excited about (old instrumental) music and totally talk past people at parties. It’s great. I’ve learned that “zoned out, mildly interested but hopelessly confused” look by heart now.


I wanted to dig back into my musical roots and talk a little bit about instruments and orchestration, and I promise I’ll tie this into video games before I’m done. Since my primary knowledge is woodwinds, I’m going to start there, and I promise, it’ll be fun. We’ll even talk about opium!


The basic idea behind Orchestration is (at it’s most oversimplified) deciding which instruments best carry the sound-idea that the composer or arranger wants to make.

Bassoons can be lyrical and very much like the human voice, but they also have a great capacity for short, mysterious, and highly punctuated sounds that make them famous in pieces like Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The lullaby in Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite is also quite well known, more representative of the “singing” quality of a bassoon, and gorgeous.

On the other hand, French horns have long been associated with “The Hunt”, since, well, they were originally hunting horns, and the first composers were severely limited in the notes available, so you get the very typical horn calls. Now, thanks to modern movies, they’re also associated with grandiose and heroic music. Probably my favorite hunting horns are in Brukner’s 4th Symphony (which is all about hunting), specifically the 3rd movement (this is just the first half, but you’ll get the idea). But then, I also can’t leave out Hogwarts Forever! from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as John Williams is SO fond of French horn.

Probably my favorite example of using an instrument to paint a picture is Berlioz’ use of the Clarinet in his Symphonie Fantastique, specifically for the idée fixe in the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth movements. Idée fixe simply means “fixed idea” – the woman in the story has the same melody through the whole symphonic work, and every time you hear that melody, it’s her interrupting.

If you’re not familiar with this piece, it’s basically the story of a really bad opium trip. The “artist” falls in love, becomes obsessed with a woman, she turns him down, and he becomes so obsessed with this (unrequited) love that he poisons himself with opium, dreams that he has then killed this love-obsession, and is condemned to die. After he dies, he meets her in hell at a Witches Sabbath. (Dude has some issues with women, but that’s another post.*)

Before we go there, a moment about clarinets.

An E-flat clarinet is pitched in the key of E-flat, meaning that when the player plays the WRITTEN note “C”, the HEARD pitch is an E-flat. Same goes with a B-flat clarinet, or an A clarinet. While this sounds horribly confusing, it stems back to early days when it was really hard to play extra sharps and flats, so instead of not being able to play music written in certain keys, they just made various sizes that would have the same fingering so it would be easy to learn but also make the right sounds.

For the player, this is all pretty simple. Any clarinet that you pick up has the same fingering if the written music has the right transposition. MAGIC!


Making something smaller or bigger? Doesn’t just change the note itself. It actually changes the character of the sound. So a scatterbrained, playful, possibly psychotic E-flat sopranino clarinet does not have the same sound-personality as a rich, warm A clarinet or the reedy B-flat bass clarinet.

Orchestrally, that means that you can write a piece and pick your character, and match the instrument to it. Or in Berlioz’ case, stick with one tune, but use different instruments to play it, changing the character of the situation.

Back to the opium trip.

Movement 4 is the March to the Scaffold, where our gallant “hero” (?) dreams he’s killed his beloved and is condemned to die. He is marched through town by the army, at the end of which you hear drums rattling off the march up the steps, hear the theme of his love, carried by the melancholy, solo A-clarinet as she (presumably) watches him go there to die… and then hear the guillotine drop and his head bounce down the steps.**

The best part, however, is that clarinet voice returning at the beginning of the next movement… only instead it’s been transformed to a truly psychotic banshee voice, in the Dream of a Witches Sabbath, where the love becomes the Lead Witch and dances around cackling (1:50-2:20 is the idée fixe in full witchy glory).

It’s great. One of the most fun E-flat clarinet parts ever. The E-flat clarinet is notoriously and piercingly noisy, and playing it is kind of a careful sort of thing where you have to not overbalance the rest of the ensemble. Except here, where the whole POINT is to be screechy and annoying. So much fun!

But Anna, you ask, what does all this MEAN? Why do I CARE?

Well, if you play video games or watch movies, all of these things have an affect on how you perceive the music you’re hearing – and thus how you respond emotionally to what’s going on.

Let’s take, for example, Ragnaros.

This is Ragnaros:

He’s Big. He’s Bad. He’s On Fire. And back in the day, he was THE Big Bad at the end of the first 40 man raid instance in World of Warcraft.

This is Ragnaros’ music.

I’d argue that part of what makes Ragnaros’ room so successfully epic and intimidating is his soundtrack.

First, it’s in a minor key. Minor keys are (generally) for “sad” and “angry”. It’s also in an unbalanced time signature – count on your fingers to the beat, and you’ll find the music is grouped into 6 beats and then 7 beats, 6, 7, 6, 7, 6, 7. Most “western” music is in even groups of 4 beats. Anything with 7 feels “unsteady”. This music is meant to make you feel off balance and nervous.

The primary instrumentation in this is:

  • Percussion, both rhythmic percussion and accented, harsh metallic sounds that give the impression of being in a blacksmith’s forge.
  • Low, rhythmic piano and low strings, in a repetitive pattern – this isn’t a happy place, big scary looming things are here. This part is both about reinforcing the unsteady beat and about the pounding of the forge and the roaring fire. It’s driving forward, full of action.
  • “Frenzied” upper strings and wind instruments (entrances between 0:10 and 0:20)- is your adrenaline going yet? Are you nervous? The Bad Things Are Coming. (Frenzied strings are ALWAYS a cue for bad things)
  • A horn part floating over all (starts at 0:23) – have you been heroic yet? Are you fighting the big bad things and being EPIC? THIS IS EPIC.

Because of the use of well-known musical conventions (frenzied strings, rhythmic percussion), your mind “gets” what’s going on around you on a level beyond just seeing it. If instead of Epic Boss Fight Music, Ragnaros’ soundtrack sounded like the Temple of the Moon… it just wouldn’t work. It would even be laughable.

Fortunately, it’s not just Ragnaros. Go listen to the music in Dragonblight – that sparse, almost non melodic piano is eerily reminiscent of snowfall. Norse folk instruments are used with great success to give an eerily familiar, but still somewhat strange flavor to the Vrykul areas (and the turtle boats!), and Grizzly Hills is supposed to sound folk-like and “familiar”. The Zandalar Trolls have their own brand of percussive music that’s similar to the music in Zul’Aman… but with a slightly different flavor.

The music of Honor Hold and other places in Hellfire Peninsula takes a big key from Aaron Copland, using sparse brass instruments to convey the openness and emptiness of space. XT-002’s music is sufficiently mechanical, childlike, and frenetic to match the giant calisthenics-doing boss, Yogg Saron’s music is truly epic, and the entire soundtrack to Icecrown Citadel matches perfectly with its inhabitants (right down to using a boy’s choir to show the sweetness and temptations of power).***

Now, I realize that not everyone (or perhaps even most of you) don’t listen to the actual soundtracks that come with the games that you play.

And, of course, some of them might suck, in which case I totally understand busting out a playlist. But you might find, at least for the first few times you see a fight or a zone, that the music of the game actually enhances what’s going on inside.****

Because orchestration really CAN enhance the atmosphere of a place if it’s done properly, both in terms of giving you the “flavor” that the developers are looking for a zone or an area or even a cut-scene to have, and in terms of making boss fights and high-tension moments feel even more epic.

Happy Listening!

*Or just a footnote. From Wikipedia: Berlioz fell in love with an Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, after attending a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with her in the role of Ophelia, on 11 September 1827. He sent her numerous love letters, all of which went unanswered. When she left Paris they had still not met. He then wrote the symphony as a way to express his unrequited love. It premiered in Paris on 5 December 1830; Harriet was not present. She eventually heard the work in 1832 and realized that she was the genesis. The two finally met and were married on 3 October 1833. Their marriage was increasingly bitter, and they separated after several years of unhappiness.

Moral of the story? Drugs are bad, mkay? Also, don’t fall in love with people playing roles on stage. Or, really, with people you’ve never met.

***No really. That’s in there. The guillotine goes SMASH! and his head goes plunk, plunk, plunk, splat.

*** I realize that all of these are from World of Warcraft. I know for a fact that other games have great soundtracks (I own some of them), but WoW is the only game I’m playing right now, for a number of reasons, so I’m going to stick with what I know 🙂

**** You can also totally hack some horror films by listening for the “bad guy theme” – if you’re in a suspense situation, but the “bad guy theme” isn’t there? Things are probably ok, at least for the moment.


3 Responses to “Ragnaros and his Orchestra”

  1. Mishaweha January 24, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    Great post! I listened to all of the music – very good examples! (I too love the horn, as I (used to) play it. It’s been sitting in my closet for 2 years now, wondering where I got to…)

    Ragnaros’ theme has a similar theme to lots of boss fight songs in other games, with similar elements to the ones you listed.

    I also enjoyed the music in Wintergrasp. It had those long held notes too, didn’t it? Hm, maybe I’m thinking of dragonblight. The two zones look similar.

    Overall, I think the blizzard soundtracks have been great. I would listen to the character select screen music for WOTLK a ton – I love the middle section, the one where it feels like one beat a measure.

    • Anna January 24, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

      Yay! I’m glad you liked it. If you’re fond of french horn, the whole of Bruckner 4 is a good choice. It’s mildly programmatic, telling the story of a medieval romance, complete with hunters and feasts and dancing. And, if I remember correctly, it’s written for 8 french horns and 4 euphoniums, plus a full brass section.

      I’ve always enjoyed the WoW soundtracks, especially some of the hat-tips to other composers/music/games; the Sunwell music has a rather clever nod to the Dies Irae that has always made me happy.

      • Mishaweha January 27, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

        I listened to the entirety of Bruckner 4 today. It does have a delightful brass section. Mmm, horns. 🙂

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